Different Like You

I’m not different from you; I’m different like you.
— Unknown

My first post of 2015 was about the courage it takes to continue to explore and evolve our beliefs as individuals.  So it is perhaps fitting that my final post for the year delves deeper into a topic that requires this courage - our beliefs around diversity.

In many contexts, diversity is embraced with positive emotion because it promotes choice whether it be 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins ice cream or the multitude of make, models, color, and features you can buy on an automobile. In the context of human interaction, diversity often feels somehow limiting because society attempts to draw lines across identity groups.


Why do I raise this heady subject right before the new year? Because the end of this year seems to be marked with strong social tensions, especially around race and religion, and I’d like to encourage everyone to consider in their new year’s resolutions how they might contribute to reducing tensions and promoting trust in 2016.

Why do I think it matters? Because if we are to achieve the variety of perspectives that many studies claim is critical for increased productivity and innovation to occur in our organizations (and ultimately our communities at large), we need to have the will to acknowledge and address individual and societal beliefs that limit diversity.

This year has provided me a rich mosaic of personal and news events which have spurred my own reflection of my experiences of bias and my own assumptions and beliefs. It's made me appreciate how deeply ingrained and hard-to-change some of our underlying beliefs are, and how much personal trust and faith in humanity that assessing and having the hard, headache-inducing, heart-wrenching conversations to work through biases requires.

I've been grappling and continue to grapple with the following questions. I welcome your thoughts and ideas. 

1.) How can we celebrate our cultural* differences openly and yet not perpetuate stereotypes that are hurtful? Should there be a double standard if the person is seen as speaking from the demographic he or she is viewed to represent?

I choose these words carefully, because, not only do I dislike being pigeon-holed into a demographic, I also did not grow up self-identifying with what my external appearance might convey to others.

I grew up as a first-generation American born Asian in a tiny college town with a very small handful of minorities. I endured my share of racial slurs and chants (i.e. round-head/ slanty-eye), but otherwise, had little clue about the generalized stereotypes about my ethnic background because I lived in isolation from others who shared my ethnic culture. Plus, as much as my family turned heads in many a McDonald’s on a small rural U.S. town (people in the restaurant go silent and all heads turn to follow us to the counter), we received similar reactions when we visited China in the early 80s. So it wasn’t until later in life that I became more aware of stereotypes and how some applied to my own life: the Tiger Mom, the focus on STEM, driving styles.

Both my Asian and non-Asian friends and I laugh (and cry) about some of the stereotypes that we grew up with, because they are aspects of celebrating our cultural differences… We rarely take offense to any ribbing from each other, but when does this cross the line from being funny and endearing to being damaging?  Because for every Asian Tiger Mom telling their children “You will have to work harder because you are different,” or every “bad” Asian driver going 45mph on the Interstate highway, there’s someone out there with a different ethnic background doing the same thing.

*I use the word “cultural” here broadly to mean a variety of identity groups - ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, etc. even though my example is limited to ethnicity.

2. ) How can we promote awkward cultural conversation as genuine curiosity with good intent?  And what do we expect of others if we unknowingly offend anyone?

As an ethnic minority in U.S., when I am asked “Where are you from?,” and I respond “New York originally,” my answer is often rebuffed with “NO, where are you FROM?”  As a woman, I am sometimes asked “Why do women do x?,” when I may never have done x in my life.  I can come up with a question for every characteristic of an identity group I represent (marital status, age, job role, etc.).

When asked questions such as these, I can choose to be offended or to educate. I choose the education route, because as someone who is super curious about cultural norms, I ask lots of questions that might appear silly, offensive, or judgmental only because I'm trying to learn and relate them to my own experience.

I hope others respond in kind, but often, people take so much out of context and assume ill intentions around statements or curious questions. I’m a bit baffled as to why: Because it makes for better drama, especially if picked up by the media?  Because we think it brings better attention to our cause of educating others about bias? Perhaps we'd make better progress if we would all chill and assume best intention until proven otherwise.

3.)  How do we judge when someone’s stereotyping results in an offense or exclusion that is intentional? WHAT ARE BEST WAYS TO respond to intentional vs. unintentional transgressions?

Being blatantly discriminated against is rare nowadays; it still exists, but discrimination more often it exists subtly, and oftentimes the underlying belief is unknown to the offender.   

As a woman who golfs, a pet peeve of mine is being overlooked as a player for golf outings by my male counterparts.  Yet I’ve learned over time that most frequent reason for exclusion is because the person holds some generalized societal assumption that that women don’t golf and they don't even recognize it as a bias until it’s pointed out. So I try not to take the exclusion personally, mention the "misunderstanding," and have a squirmy uncomfortable conversation where I try to be empathetic to the chagrin and ruefulness I would probably feel in that person’s shoes. 

And of course, there are times when I have not taken the time to point out the transgression and I've grown to regret that - should I?  When is it OK to avoid conflict in favor of peaceful ignorance? 

Then there are those situations when the offense was intentional...well, I’ve not come up a graceful solution for resolving those situations...so, Readers, please share any best practices!  Unfortunately, irreconcilable differences prevail that only time and more experience seem to resolve (if ever at all)...

4.) What can we do to foster respectful dialogue on controversial issues and encourage ourselves and others to express and listen to differing points of view about what is creating inequalities without also fostering more hate and communications breakdowns?

I feel privileged to live in an era and country where we have smart people looking closely at issues like diversity, coming up with a variety of opinions; and that I can voice my own thoughts, hear the perspectives of others and engage in healthy debate. I love the way healthy debate helps me foster new ways of thinking, but I despite when debate devolves into name-calling and slurs.  Why is it better to do this than demonstrate thought?  Why is it that some people aren’t willing to accommodate a thoughtful yet uncomfortable discourse? What’s “easier” about that?

So I couldn’t agree more with what President Obama said recently in his NPR interview about being free to disagree on issues, particularly around the “how” of creating a just society (his example: that not agreeing with affirmative actions does not mean someone is racist; they just may not believe it's the best approach to achieve equality).

Those of us who don’t enjoy mud-slinging are reluctant to jump into the fray to avoid being a victim or accidental perpetrator of those tactics. So our voices get drowned in the theater. But if we don’t are we just letting the mud-slingers win? I was listening to George Takei quoting his father in his TedTalk: “our [American] democracy is a people's democracy, and it can be as great as the people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are. He told me that American democracy is vitally dependent on good people who cherish the ideals of our system and actively engage in the process of making our democracy work.”

So my call to action is merely - if you care about this issue - to ask yourself, regardless of how you take part in this today, what part you want to (and will) play in the future?  

Grounding Yourself Betters Everyone’s Performance

Cultivating strong roots has been a recurring theme with me and my clients over the past several weeks. Hence my personal quote for the week is: "The more grounded you are in yourself the more you can guide others.” 

The word “grounded" is most often associated with yoga nowadays - being present in the here and now. But here I refer to “grounding” as being true to your values, strengths, and imperfections, and understanding how these influence what you expect of yourself and others. 

We are all called to duty to perform roles for which we do not feel fully prepared or a “natural fit.” It is in these moments and roles during which it is most important for us to stay grounded, else we risk performing from a base of fear and reactivity instead of strength and foresight. And yet, it is also in these moments and roles, that standing our ground is the most difficult because we are influenced by expectations set by others. 

We often cast ourselves under a shadow of believing we need to perform like Person X (whether a predecessor or an icon or a mentor).  Sometimes the shadow is cast over us by others. However, this cookie cutter expectation sets everyone up for failure.  

As leaders, one of our most important duties is to create the environment for our organizations to succeed, and how you do this will be (not just might be) very different from how someone else would do this. We need to embrace the fact that that our approaches are undeniably guided by our values, strengths, and imperfections, and the more we respect our diversity, the better we can perform and help others perform.  

I have found myself over the past several weeks asking variants of the following questions of my clients as they ground themselves for new roles or new changes:  

  1. What do you value, and why?
  2. What values are not important to you? Why? 
  3. What does the organization/family/community need to be successful? 
  4. What strengths do you bring to the table that will contribute to this need?
  5. What are you not bringing to the table that is needed?   
  6. How does this shape your expectations of others?
  7. How does this shape what you can provide to your organization vs. what you will need to find others to support you in providing?

My hope is to share these questions as food for thought because I believe that we will all mutually benefit as a community of peers, managers, subordinates, family, etc. if each of us can become more “grounded” and help others do so as well. 

About the author: Janet Andrews is a leadership coach and consultant who is fascinated by the ecosystem of organizations. She specializes in helping companies and teams improve their effectiveness by cultivating how people associate with one another to create a multiplier performance effect.  

The Power of One Small Action

If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent a night with a mosquito.
— African Proverb

[To my dear friends of Cohort 17 of SeattleCoach - it is to each of you and our courageous sensei Patty Burgin, that I dedicate this post. Congratulations on this phase of our Working Identity - and thank you for your enduring presence and wisdom.]

How often have you thought or felt that what you say or do is inconsequential? Or how often have you believed a nagging issue that looms persistently in your horizon might sound trivial to others and is not worthy of attention?

Over the past few months, I've had the distinct honor of being one of nine people, each of whom has pushed our growing edge, not only as coaches, but within every role that each of us plays in life, be it parent, spouse/significant other, child, grandparent, executive, employee, community leader, or entrepreneur. The intent of our journey has been to imagine and develop all that is possible within ourselves to help others just like us - everyday people who have big dreams, small dreams, challenges, and fears - everyday people who play multiple roles within their complex everyday lives. Through my journey with my coaching cohort, I’ve laughed and cried in joy, sadness, and anger; and come to more fully appreciate two life theories:

  1. What each of us does - what I do - what you do - MATTERS - A LOT  
  2. The small stuff we tend to overlook often has broader significance

Part 1: How you show up through what you think, say, and do matters

You don’t have to be the president of a nation to have great impact. Our sense of community starts with the power of one - YOU - particularly to those living and working closest to you.

As a leadership and organizational coach, part of my job is to listen, sense, and be curious in order to help my coachees stay open to their own possibilities. Another part of my job is to observe and learn from how others do this effectively. I have been in awe of the ripple of impacts that each individual I’ve worked with, as coach or as coaching client, can create. I’ve seen a client start to shift the culture of her group by trying on new ways of interacting with others. I’ve experienced leaps in new thinking as the result of a single question posed supportively by a peer coach. I’ve observed the level of learning that can happen when a group is led with care and self-manages with mutual respect. This is impact, perhaps not as a big bang, but one step, one person, and one community at a time.

It only takes a quick experiment interacting with people in an elevator to discover that how we choose to carry ourselves in our day-to-day world matters a great deal. How does it feel to be acknowledged as opposed to be ignored or to be scowled at when you get onto an elevator? As one person, through one action or one word, I can make you smile. Laugh...Cry....Ponder...Be wonderfully amazed...Be horribly flabbergasted. You can then choose to pass this sentiment onto the person you interact with next. What will you share? Will you share at all? How do you choose to show up today, and how do you think it will impact those around you?

Part 2: The small stuff counts for more than we think

The sooner you recognize that the “small” things on your mind are the snowflakes that snowball into something greater, the less susceptible you will be to an avalanche.  

In business, we are taught to aspire to big, hairy and audacious goals, which often results in a focus that is one-directional. And even as a “strategist” who believes in approaching goals from the top-down and bottom-up, it has taken me some time to recognize my own tendency to undervalue the small stuff in my own life. In my role as coaching client, I have been prone to only wanting to discuss topics of systemic importance and major change. The challenges of the every day, such as feeling stuck, fuzzy of thought, or just tired seemed too “silly” and insignificant to bring to my coach.

However, I now better appreciate that, like an actor preparing to create depth of character, I can make larger strides towards my goals and personal growth when I’m well attuned to the emotions that are evoked within me as I play out each small act of daily life. Coach training teaches you to accept your life where you are (at least it did for me). While I don’t believe I lead a boring life, I just don’t seem to have a plethora of dramatic, soap-opera style events in my life to bring forth major topics to work on with my coach each week. And so I am being forced to work on issues that make my daily world tick. AMAZINGLY, working on these small patterns is making my big hairy audacious goals more within reach.

I like to think of it as the Princess and the Pea effect. We try to cover up small issues with layers and layers of defenses and ego, and in the end they create more pain than we were willing to recognize and address, ultimately inhibiting us from accomplishing what is in our true potential. If you were to dig deep to recognize one small thing that has been bothering you, what would that be and what would you like to do about it?

Life is fast-paced and we often move through it quickly, bypassing the small acts and emotions that make our lives rich instead of being fully in the present to recognize the significance of the moment. If you find resonance in this and seek a sounding board, I'd love to hear from you.  I welcome comments below - and you are always welcome to reach out to me (or one of my wise cohorts within the SeattleCoach Network)!


Paddling Through Sea - Change

The best way out is always through.
— Robert Frost

While sea kayaking the other day, as I struggled to paddle through the surf zone, my guide reminded me: “Face the waves head on - perpendicularly; if you allow your kayak to become parallel to the waves, you’re very likely to capsize. And if for some reason, you do capsize, it will be more helpful to your rescue for you stay calm.” Ah - and hence a great lesson began to emerge while I was trying to escape work on a sunny summer day to clear my head.

If you’ve ever gone kayaking (or surfing), you may know that the surf zone is a region near the shoreline where waves are somewhat unstable because the effect of the wave hitting shore and refracting into the shallow water. This is not unlike the starting point in a change event or challenging situation where our commitment to or experience in addressing the situation is more shallow.  

To be fair, I could have avoided the challenge I found myself in by choosing not to kayak at all that day, but it was too late for that. Now that I was sitting in the kayak 25 yards offshore, there really wasn’t any way for me to ignore the situation I was in. Not addressing my situation simply meant I would get pushed back closer to shore instead of progressing to my destination three miles away. And even if I decided that returning to shore should be my fate, not steering properly as I returned could result in capsizing or slamming against the shoreline (damaging the boat, and possibly me and my row partner).  

Sound familiar as a day-to-day business or life occurrence? Often we don’t even get to choose the challenge; we are just thrust into it and are now sitting in a wobbly kayak out at sea, watching the waves come towards us and feeling them rock us around. How many times as we try to deal with the waves, instead of tackling them head on, have we either tried to ignore them, slide around them (not possible because more waves keep coming) or move away from it (which means you get nowhere)? I’d like to say for myself and my clients, “Never!,” but I have as many stories for both of us of failure through ignoring/tiptoeing around issues as I have stories of successfully tackling issues with vigor.

My take-aways that day:

  1. Changes and challenges are like the wind and the water - constant and always shifting, sometimes unpredictably.  
  2. You can help yourself manage risk with a small degree of preparation. Anticipate and monitor the prevailing wind directions and take time to understand what you will do in response to a shift.
  3. Addressing a challenge head on will reduce your risk of capsizing (yes, it might still happen).  Allowing yourself to get side-swiped pretty much guarantees you will capsize.
  4. You simply have to paddle hard enough to push through the waves. There’s no substitute for strong effort.  
  5. Learning to leverage the strength of all of your resources, especially your team, is critically important to progress. People countering each other’s effort creates A LOT more work; synchronization and collaboration propel you forward faster. However, developing a finely tuned rowing team takes time, investment, and good communications.
  6. As you get closer to your destination, become aware of your momentum and how to gracefully ride the waves to move fast enough but not tip your kayak forward.
  7. If you decide to return back to shore, do so deliberately and come in for a gentle landing.
  8. At all times, be attuned to your senses and use your core of strength. And even in the face of a capsize – remember staying calm and confident makes it easier to recover than flailing around in the water.

Next time…my advice for playing dead when you meet a grizzly bear of a challenge – just kidding.

How have you dealt with challenges recently? Post your tips as a comment below!

Problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit.
— M. Scott Peck
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Life, Liberty and the Never-Ending Pursuit of Authenticity

One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.
— Henry Ford

We live in an amazing country. After spending several days in our nation’s capital, visiting historic sites throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, and then celebrating the 4th of July watching fireworks in Seattle, I am reminded of the many brave actions both leaders and everyday citizens took throughout the course of our nation’s history to earn us the liberties we have today.

4th of July

The true stories of the lives of our founding fathers and mothers, and other national leaders that followed are so rich - filled with both acts of heroism and mind boggling dichotomies. Their stories highlight the nuances of life and decision-making, revealing shades of gray that bear scant resemblance to the oversimplified stories painted in good and evil or black and white that dominate our news media today. Thomas Jefferson, who penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” was also a slave owner. Stonewall Jackson, a revered general in the Confederate army, risked imprisonment for violating the Virginia Code of 1819 in establishing and teaching for a bible school for African Americans. Woodrow Wilson led the United States into WWI after a presidential campaign based upon the platform of peace - and passed the Nineteenth Amendment to our Constitution for women's suffrage after years of denying it.  

These polarities give prominence to the fact that our own impact can be enhanced by small acts of courage, especially when we accept that, as humans, we will make mistakes but can also choose to be open to new evidence, to try to understand and forgive, and to re-shift our course. As Herminia Ibarra, an expert in leadership and professor at INSEAD more bluntly stated, "We have many selves, many roles, and many possibilities and some people’s different selves are more loosely tied together than others…”

As a result, we all have had and will have mixed records of fullness and folly. Our fears of failing, of being imperfect, of seeming inconsistent, etc. may prevent us from trying new things that we are developing conviction around that will make positive impacts. What would have happened if our founding fathers and mothers and those who followed succumbed to these fears and didn't have the courage to step out in front? 

In celebration of our independence, I’d like to encourage all of us to take the opportunity to think about how you will show up with courage this week - even if it seems contrary to your prior actions. What new path might you take? What new challenge will you confront?  

Would love to hear your thoughts and stories! Share them as a comment below!