“We’re meant to be free, to deliver on who we are and how we came into the world to express ourselves. Regardless of what that is. My wish, is that as many people get there in this lifetime, as possible,” said Wendy Horng Brawer, Consultant, Executive Coach, Senior Facilitator, and Artist.
Do you feel free to share your gifts at work? When you bring your talent, energy, and intention into professional settings, they don’t always love you back. And the wrong experience or response from a manager, client or colleague, can unravel our confidence. Or credibility. And overtime, what might have seemed like a great work situation, can feel restrictive or punishing.
Traditional work hasn’t worked for most of us. Pregnancy bias and the Motherhood penalty are real. Women remain underrepresented in leadership. And for women of color, the stats are dismal.
So, how much do we invest in a broken system? When do we run away, instead of trying to use personal power, to change things?
Monitor and Preserve Your Energy
Wendy said, “Only you are going to know what your capacity is. When you know the energy depletion is too great to keep going in that direction, then honor yourself. And your energy.” In the wrong culture, we can mute ourselves, when we have so much truth to share.
Work provides financial, and many times, emotional stability. So, how might we evaluate our ability to transform systems from within? She added, “It’s hard to make change as an individual unless you have some sort of a road map.”
Look Closely at the System
“So, pause and look at the system to understand systems thinking,” Wendy explained. In her work with organizations, she’s focused on values-aligned team communication. Ultimately to help businesses change.
“What is your personal theory of change? You’re actualized. You have all these skills and tools so, how can you connect your personal power to collective change?” The answers depend in part on your strengths and leadership skills. But also, whether you’re likely to be ‘othered’ or subject to bias. Common themes for anyone in a historically overlooked group.
Find Your Allies
“Pause and do some really excavatory work,” Wendy explains that it helps to assess your organization. And how it functions to develop a strategy. “Have conversations with allies. So, you can have really constructive discussions. Because it’s not about sitting down in the lunchroom and complaining about what’s not working. Rather, it’s saying, ‘okay, how do we use our collective power and connect to positive change for the whole?’ Starting that process and being intentional with how you look at it, is great for anyone who wants to go deeper.” And there are resources to help you.
And Discover Your Theory of Change
Wendy said, “That could be from a year to a lifelong body of work!” The need to build alignment within organizations, especially in a way that’s equitable and effective, isn’t new. The entire management consulting industry evolved from this. But industry conditions and people are dynamic.
So, having a toolkit for this type of communication helps. “There is a program called ‘power that serves the whole’ and it’s run by a company called Wayfinding.”
Formal Authority Isn’t Always Required
Your tribe doesn’t have to be your actual department or direct team. Wendy explains, “You know the company and the other players. It’s not about unionizing or anything like that. But it is about how to self-organize, into learning groups, to share the wisdom you’re collecting.”
There aren’t a lot of Moms in leadership. So, many are forced to either suffer toxic environments or move on from roles prematurely. But the rise in Employee Resource groups (ERGs) to help people who have shared identity, creates new options. Especially if you lack the personal or positional power at work.
You Can Self-Organize
There’s a movement for companies to recognize and compensate ERG leaders fairly. They’re often volunteer led although they benefit culture and diversity and inclusion. They harness collective will to make organizational change. Wendy said, “If you orient towards power that serves the whole, and an ERG can have that ethos. Or the individuals who have that ethos can combine forces and work together, then you’ve got something that can really happen.”
Can a group of employees really impact the critical company policies and practices? Yes. It doesn’t happen everywhere but again, group support is often critical to make change to any system. Wendy said, “I’ve seen it happen for a corporate client. Their middle level managers didn’t exist as a formal group. But they self-coalesced to become a group and self-govern. They don’t have authority for decision making but they can cross functionally problem solve much better. And they can up level decisions that the C-Suite needs to pay attention to, that they might not otherwise, have access to. It’s high value.”
Open Meaningful Dialog
Trust at work is critical to feeling connected enough to contribute your best ideas. But it’s not abundant in most workplaces. Wendy said, “We have four questions we teach leadership teams and colleagues to ask each other. The first one is, ‘what’s the biggest thing on your mind?’ The second one is, ‘what’s something that you’re celebrating or proud of right now?’ So, these meetings happen quickly, with everyone going around, and sharing one sentence. They don’t have to explain.” Brilliant!
She adds, “The third one, ‘is that something that you need support with or accountability with?’ And the last one is, ‘what’s something that you all see that you want me to know?’ Teaching people how to ask for and receive feedback. And with those questions, you can open up a lot of trust, connection and real time information that the company and team might not access otherwise. It puts leaders more in touch with their people.”
If You Have the Psychological Safety
Most people in our studies don’t feel psychologically safe at work. So, they lack space to navigate change. Which typically means, having a series of uncomfortable conversations, with people you barely know. Many upgraded their jobs in the great resignation and have new colleagues. How do you correct course when people can’t come to together on a decision? Or worse when the conversation becomes heated? Wendy said, “Well, when you feel that inflection coming, whether you’re the leader or sitting on the team, one skill that we teach is a time out. Just pop the bubble of attention.”
Just Pop the Bubble
Wendy said, “Just pop it. And say, ‘hey, this feels bad right now.’ Or, ‘I feel like tensions are running high. And we’re not getting anywhere.’ Use whatever the right words are for you and call a timeout. ‘Let’s just take a 5-minute break right now to shake it off or go get a bio break.’ Then come back with a deep breath and start. Another tool is listening.” So good. How often do you feel heard at work?
And Really Listen
Deep listening and demonstrating understanding rarely happens with consistency. People are busy. And most businesses aren’t set up to measure it or honor the practice. Wendy said, “We also teach the Presencing Institute’s four levels of listening. Because often, we listen for what we already know. Or for what we want to understand.”
It may feel impossible to take even more time for work communications. But sometimes, it’s deeper communication that’s needed to advance a project. Instead of the endless stream of emails. Wendy added, “If we can drop into the deeper levels, like listening with empathy. And, listening to be generative. Or regenerative. For example ‘is there a solution here that we’re not naming that can actually help the whole situation?’ Can I listen at that level rather than from my ego, department, or my level of authority?” Yes!
Embrace Learning These Critical New Skills
Wendy said, “These are basic human skills that we weren’t taught how to do. And these days, kids are getting them packaged as social emotional skills, at school. So, for adults who are currently in the workplace, we are the transition team. We are the guinea pigs who have to figure it out with each other. And keep workplaces as healthy as possible to make room for the next generation.”
As you become more senior in your career, navigating, and building relationships, is what helps you succeed. More than your core brilliance or accumulated knowledge. So, experiment with these powerful tools to transform your organization, influence and impact.
Many thanks to the talented Wendy Horng Brawer!
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Wendy Horng Brawer is a senior experience designer, graphic narrative facilitator, strategic consultant, and somatics-based executive and team coach. She is co-founder and Head of Innovation and Learning at Intune Collective, a business strategy and human development consulting firm, and a facilitator with Late Nite Art, Scaling Intimacy, and Murmur, where she helps participants cultivate connection and belonging, tap into and build creativity, transform culture, and promote social justice. She’s also on the faculty for Equipt Women, an inclusive professional community built to help women combat workplace inequities, accelerate their careers early and reap the transformational benefits sooner. Monthly, Wendy hosts a Womxn of Color Empower Hour for BIPOC female-identifying people and is also the host of the podcast, The Business of Being Human. She works 1:1 with clients through her JourneyMapping process to uncover alignment and bring clarity to times of transition or uncertainty.
As a parent, educator, and someone who believes in the potential of each person, Wendy is passionate about helping people think and work outside the box as well as connecting to their aliveness, vitality, and self-awareness. When not holding space across the globe for teams and large groups, Wendy can be found out in nature with her Bernadoodle Mazlow, or playing drums with her band Virgo Libre, in local dive bars in the San Francisco Bay Area.