Working towards an inclusive workplace culture - Sylvia Lafair, PhD [Interview]

Anushka Rajesh
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Working towards an inclusive workplace culture - Sylvia Lafair, PhD [Interview]
Working towards an inclusive workplace culture - Sylvia Lafair, PhD [Interview] | peopleHum

About Sylvia Lafair, PhD

Sylvia Lafair is the CEO and Co-founder of Creative energy options. With a great experience of over 30 years, she has her unique methods to solve a great range of challenges in the workplace. She is an award-winning author and is a greatly sought after leadership coach. Her work has been referred to as Solid Gold, and excellent by a lot of other leading experts. We are happy to have someone of her stature on our interview series today. 

Aishwarya Jain

Working towards an inclusive workplace culture - Sylvia Lafair Ph.D. [Interview]

We have the pleasure of welcoming Sylvia Lafair today to our interview series. I’m Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick intro of PeopleHum -  peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.

We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.

Aishwarya

Welcome, Sylvia. We’re thrilled to have you.

Sylvia

Thank you. It's delightful to be here. This is truly a world initiative.

Aishwarya

Oh, absolutely. It's so Global, right? 

So Sylvia let me begin by asking you if you could tell us a little bit about your interesting work at the creative energy options. And I know you've had, very long career and so many things that you've done so many initiatives. How has that culminated in creative energy options?

Sylvia

Well, you know, it's interesting. We started Creative Energy Options as a personal growth center and “CEO” are the letters and everybody would call it CEO, and I never thought I would really be working in the business world. So it's a quick, funny story. We were doing a program one night for people whose teenage Children were driving them bonkers.

They were just, so the room was filled and at the end, a man walked up to me, and I thought he would say something about either his son or his daughter and basically, what he said to me was, Will you come to work with my senior leadership team? And I said why? And he said, they're fighting and I said, So what? So he said, But Sylvia, you work with people who have to get along with families, and they're kind of like that.

They're like a family and they have to get along. So I went in, worked with them, and used all the tools that I had from working with families and things got really better. And he told a friend who told a friend, and all of a sudden our work just transformed to be in the workplace because the core of everything is relationships.

“The core of everything is relationships.”

Would you agree? 

Aishwarya

Absolutely agree. 

Sylvia

So we started there, and then we developed programs for leaders. A program called Total Leadership Connections, TLC. We like shortening things. CEO had TLC and we're now getting ready to put it online so it will be available.

It used to be at a retreat center, but now it will be available to everybody worldwide in, I would say about a month, and then we started to work very much with women leaders and out of those two things, working with leaders and it was from around the world. I mean, people would fly in from Europe and actually from India at times, but we were putting them online. 

And so my book, which I put over here, “Don't bring it to work”. I don't know if you can see it. Can you see it? I will hold it up. “Don't bring it to work” Has a lot of good information about what goes on in the relationship around the workplace.

And then my book, “Gutsy” is for women leaders and It's really a good one for women these days who are really finding a next-level place in the workplace and in society in general. So our work is really passionate around how to make workplace relationships really better, whether it's a one on one conversation or in a team or its talking, as we say in these days, truth to power, it's very important to be able to know how and what to do and say.

Aishwarya

Absolutely, and that is just so wonderful. You know, the way you're concentrating on building relationships, which is kind of like, the foundation stone for everything else. So it's really nice that you can connect with people and I love the concept of CEO and TLC just bringing that together. It's very creative and Sylvia, I want to understand? 

What is your take on conflicts in the workplace? What other steps as leaders, you know, How can you mitigate? How can you avoid maximum conflicts in their teams? 

Sylvia

I think they're two really important things. One is, do you know yourself? You really need to know what my words would be. What pushes your buttons or what makes you see purple or red or whatever color you decide is your color for anger or upset. So you need to know what is that about? And I'll give you an example. I've been in meetings, and for argument's sake, John would say, Tomorrow is Thursday and you think to yourself, Yeah, that's true. That's good.

And then two minutes later, somebody else would say, Tomorrow is Thursday and you think to yourself, What do they know now? What's the difference? So it's inside of us. We see different people in different ways, and we have to understand what really gets us to be upset with John and not Jane or whoever.

We need to understand that. The other is to help people on the other side begin to see where they get so upset so we can help them diminish the level of upset. And then we can have a conversation that has worth. So it's very important to be able to know yourself and to then help the other people that you work with, know themselves.

“So it's very important to be able to know yourself and to then help the other people that you work with, know themselves.”

Aishwarya

It makes a lot of sense. And, you know, I think when we're in that moment, we just send out angry emails or we just say something that we really regret later on. And I think like you said, you know, it's very important to understand perspectives on and you just calm yourself down at that moment to just make sense of it all and then rationalize and process it and then speak out. And that would be a great way to avoid conflicts in the team. 

Sylvia

But let me just throw this in. Just this is such a little thing, but it's simple. It's if you're in a meeting, usually, people have a cup of coffee or water or something near them and when you can feel that you really are annoyed, my suggestion is, take a second, take a sip and put it down and then think this thought “What do I want as an outcome of what I'm going to say?”

If you do, it will start to switch the way you talk, What do I want as an outcome? You know, I maybe took two seconds because I was drinking slowly but one or two seconds on you think what do I want as an outcome before you speak and things will come out differently then that's what we've been teaching.

Aishwarya

Wow, that is a brilliant idea. And I think that will really help a lot of people out there will have a lot of anger management issues and just dealing with so much on a daily basis that they just forget to pause. So I think this is a very good matter of just pausing and collecting thoughts and thinking that what is it that I want? What's the result that I want out of this? It's an excellent method and thank you for that too. 

Sylvia, what do you think are like the key areas to focus when you're undergoing transformational personal organizational change, especially in these trying times? 

Sylvia

“When we talk about transformation, we're really talking about, you know, the caterpillar becoming a butterfly.”

I mean, transformation means really big change. You guys start with yourself. There's no place else to go, but you go into yourself. And here's where the book 'Don't bring it to work' has so much merit. And that is that what we learned in our original organization, which is the family, shows up in our present organization, which is the workplace, and you say, Well, how can that be? 

But I want you to think about this for a minute. It's set up very similarly. We have bosses that are like parents, you know, they can tell us what to do. We have colleagues that are like siblings, co-workers that are like siblings, right? We get salaries, and if you grew up in a place where you were given an allowance, it's the same thing. You know, it's an exchange of energy for something. And then we even have time outs in the workplace called performance improvement plans. 

So it's very similar and why I'm saying that is because what happens is when we get to that place we're back to what we talked about with conflict, when the conflict starts at work and it's going to start cause we're human beings and we don't always agree on everything right. So when it comes, we tend, when it's really upsetting, to go back to the behavior we learned as kids, and how we learn to handle conflict at home is often how we handle conflict in the workplace.

"So when it comes, we tend, when it's really upsetting, to go back to the behavior we learned as kids, and how we learn to handle conflict at home is often how we handle conflict in the workplace."

We either punch it through or we run away from it and the way we were trained, so knowing that about ourselves, we can transform that, that's where it starts on. Then we can begin to transform what's happening in a team because we're understanding what's going on. That's what real leadership is about. 

Aishwarya

Wow, I love your analogy, Sylvia. The caterpillar to the butterfly, the entire Metamorphosis, and then the team as really a family. You know, it really makes the entire equal system of family because of such beautiful analogies and they make a lot of sense when you have to.

You really try to avoid conflict and you want to just punch it in the face, you said those are options that are available to you. And it's really a change of mindset that would lead you to one way or another right? 

Sylvia

Well, why would I want to say it, if we go back? You know, a lot of people say, Oh, this isn't therapy. This isn't coaching, you know, we're in work, we have to work, but its relationship to the core of it. And if we don't understand it, the conflict gets worse. And then you know what happens. In some companies, they have lawsuits. There's a lot of absenteeism that shows upon. 

There's a lot of running to HR with complaints that wastes a lot of time. So we have been teaching this for a long time now, and the companies we have worked with where we've done this have had limited problems compared to before they understood the idea of a workplace is similar to family.

Aishwarya

Absolutely, and that there is such an important concept. You know, absenteeism. And how do you avoid legal hassles? How do you really help individuals? And you stress a lot on communication patterns that create conflicts and they deal with real relationships right?. 

Can you expand on that concept? What are these communication patterns and why are they invisible?

Sylvia

Well, as kids, we learned what to do to survive and to be safe. So a lot of this is about safety. So often then we learned not to speak out because it wasn't safe. So here we are, at work, many and especially women, become pleasers. You know, it's very much a thing that we have been trained to please other people, and we're in the process of changing that now. But a pleaser will say yes to everything, and then they'll stuff it. And then it often comes out as a physical illness, aside from the tiredness you have. 

So what we worked with is we're talking about transformation is we transform the patterns. If I just knew about the patterns, I'd say, Okay, so I'm stuck. Sylvia is a drama queen. I AM !! used to be. That's my 13 patterns. That's one of them. But when you learn about this, you begin to transform them.

I have transformed my Sylvia drama queen into a good storyteller, so it's the same adrenaline that you get from pounding and making hissy fits. But it has direction, it has purpose and the pleaser who learned how to stuff it becomes a truth-teller, and they learn how to say no.

And it's interesting how many women especially meant to, but women, especially the word “no” chokes in their throat. It's very hard to get the word no out. When you're asked to do something, can you take on one more project and you're thinking I can't! But you say sure, what I teach you'll love this one is..Please remember “NO” is a complete sentence. You don't have to defend, explain or justify. If you have to say no, just say it.

“Please remember “NO” is a complete sentence. You don't have to defend, explain or justify. If you have to say no, just say it.”

Aishwarya

Well, that is just so interesting, and that is such interesting research. I mean, I did not know that women tend to say, you know, tend to hiccup when they are asked for extra work and they hiccup just to say no. And I think personally, I agree.

A lot of people struggled with saying no and they are the people pleaser personalities, and then it just they're just burdened with so much work, which they're not able to deliver, and that just brings down their self morale and they are demotivated.

So it would be very important to channel that energy to something much more positive and the ability to stay more confident and speak out and say that “No, I'm not going to do this”. That is just so important. 

Sylvia

Yeah like “No, it's too much for me”. I mean, you can add short sentences, but you don't do paragraphs to explain it, because then everybody loses and you lose. You lose your place, you know, it's like, Oh, there she goes again or he again there he is a pleaser. So in “Don't bring it to work” I have 13 of the most common behavior patterns that we learned as kids that we bring into the workplace. I'll tell you one more. 

“The avoider” and the avoider is somebody who, when there’s conflict, I call them 'the gotta go guy or gal', and they could be in a meeting with anybody and look down at their watches and say “I'm sorry. I have another meeting.” They may or they may not, but they're out of thereon. They don't want anything to do with the conflict. Often they grew up in families where there was a lot of conflicts that never got resolved. Every family has a conflict. The conflict is there, It's the resolution of it that makes the difference.

“The conflict is there, It's the resolution of it that makes the difference.”

So they were then in a place where they think it's not gonna work and they're gone. You have to drag them back. Now the transformation, since that's what we were talking about. They become what I call An initiator, and once they learn this and they begin to change it and it's in our nervous system. It's in our brain, you know.

We've been trained over and over. They become the initiator, and what they'll say is, I know we have an issue here, and we're going to sit here and work it through, and I am not going to get up from this chair till we have it resolved. While they're trying to leave, they learn how to stay and work it through, and it feels better. So that's the transformation. They're always very positive and very helpful. 

Aishwarya

This is just so relatable, Sylvia, And it's amazing that we can talk about it so openly because it takes a lot for some people, who is a people pleaser and who try to avoid conflicts, come out of their comfort zone, and then be really try and be comfortable with this.

So as I see it, you know, it's like Stage one or the lowest stage is that you run away from conflicts. And then you move up progressively to at least be comfortable with conflicts. And then finally to use conflict for the betterment of themselves, for getting out a good outcome. And that resonates with what you're saying so beautifully. It's just amazing. 

Sylvia

Well, you're getting it very quickly. Perfect, good student. [laughing]

Aishwarya

Thank you. Thank you so much.

Currently, in this situation, there is just so much conflict. That's probably going on between a lot of organizations and they are in conflict with business. And they're in conflict with their people, and people are remote working. It's even stressing our relationships. How would you advise the leaders of today to manage and engage their teams efficiently for this current time?

Sylvia

Well, I think we really do need to communicate. We do need to talk. I mean, this time is unique. Nobody has experienced this before. I mean, we've had difficulties, and we've had wars. We've had crises. But this is so long.

And when I look out, on the news cause I don't know about you, but we're still home-based here in California. And you see streets in Manhattan, you see streets I'm sure in Delhi or Mumbai empty that are usually so crowded. You go. Is this really happening? So now we're talking about again, It's not conflict. It’s stress. People are feeling so much stress. 

I have a private women leaders, inner circle, Facebook group, and one of the questions I asked there is. Would you like to be discussing more around stress or more around work issues and everybody who responds to stress, stress, stress, stress, stress. Two people said work issues out of about 100 you know, it's all stress.So if you're a leader, you need to really understand that when people are under that kind of stress, the first thing people can do is begin to talk about it.

“So if you're a leader, you need to really understand that when people are under that kind of stress, the first thing people can do is begin to talk about it.”

It kind of relieves when you can say the truth. I'm feeling really stressed. I'm upset. I'm concerned, you know, I'm afraid whatever words would work there and be able to sit in a group and listen to each other.

I really suggest now, Zoom seems to be the norm right now for how we're communicating around the world. But, you know, you look up there and you can see whoever is in the group, and what happens is you can get the reactions and the first thing to do when we do groups. We start our programs with something called getting current, and we taught this to all the company's we've worked with. “Getting current” doesn't have to take a long time. People would resent it at first, but it means just where are you right now? What's happening with you? 

So once you go around a room and people can say, you are on zoom. You know, my kids are driving me nuts or I don't have enough time for this or I'm worried about my parents or, you know my husband doesn't feel well, and I'm afraid he may get sick.

Whatever it is you don't have, people go into detail, but they just in saying where they are, it usually takes, in this day and age, it probably takes a little longer, but it usually takes when we're not in unusual times, 10 minutes max in a group of 20. To be able to say that, and then you can get into the work that needs to be done. But people have to be able to have a route to express themselves emotionally before they can really listen Intellectually

“But people have to be able to have a route to express themselves emotionally before they can really listen Intellectually”

Aishwarya

It absolutely does. It's very important to express what you're feeling and share what you're feeling at this one in time because a lot of people are feeling the sense of isolation right And that's one of the practices that's stressing them out because they are socially distant.

And, you know, they're just not used to it and especially if they are extroverts. It's very difficult for them. And so it becomes so, you know, very, very important to express yourself and your feelings so completely agree with you on that. 

Sylvia

If somebody in the group, after they said something is really in a difficult place, I would say 'Let's take that offline and we can talk about it later' or make a note to call them later. But that's the real responsibility of a leader on this day, right now.

Aishwarya

Right, by just empathizing with them, you know teammates on. And a lot of people that I talked to, they talk a lot about empathy now which is the new norm for leaders, Just to empathize and understand the feelings of their fellow employees and to try and help them out just making better. 

Sylvia

And also share their own, because if you're there, sort of like a cardboard person and you don't have any problems, you know who's going to tell you the truth and again, The other thing that we teach which is interesting is Telling the truth is not spilling your guts.

“Telling the truth is not spilling your guts.”

It's a very, very disciplined art form. So if you're the leader, you can say, I'm having some concerns with whatever, and then you add, and I'm in the process of handling it, you know. So as a leader, there is a sense that you're not falling apart and they're all gonna have to take care of you too. 

And if you're a leader, you should have a coach or a friend or partner or spouse, whatever that you can talk about some of your own difficulties and upsets with and distress. We need to get it out. I think empathy is a two-way street. It's we as leaders out there and those who are working with leaders, understanding the pressure leaders are under too. That's the grown-up way. 

Aishwarya

Absolutely. That's the mature way and you're right, showing a sense of, exposing yourself just a little, showing your vulnerabilities to your fellow employees just to make them feel relatable. You know, that would be really important. And I just kind of projecting out into the future.

There is an increase in the millennial and GenZ workforce, there are gig workers. You know, all kinds of contract workers and consultants and all of those. We see a rise in that, right? So do you think that organizations should adapt to this change now? And will this continue in the future? 

Sylvia

Well, it's interesting. It must be at least 10 years ago that the gig economy, we were told through research that The gig economy was going to be more the norm than the exception

“The gig economy was going to be more the norm than the exception”

...and the way I kind of put my mind around it was like it’s making movies, you know, you gather a group of people together, you get the technicians, you get the actors, you get the artist, you get the clothes designers and they all come together. And they have this incredible project that they work on. And then when it's over, it's over, and then they go on. 

But they get known in their fields. And then there's another movie that comes along and the same thing happens and I think that you know, you can just stay with the same company if you like, but it's a different mindset. It's much freer. And I think that I don't think we're going to go back to the old way. I'll tell you a very funny story. I was in a large corporation. I was sitting next to the CEO.

We were at the back of the room. It must have been 300 people at this meeting and somebody on stage was getting an award. And he was saying how proud he was to have been at the company for over 30 years and in the row right in front of us were two millennials and one turned to the other and said, Why would he do that?

So I poked the CEO of this company and he just shrugged his shoulders. He said 'The world is changing', so it is interesting, but we are headed to a much more flexible economy and way that we're working and I don't know what's gonna happen after this time, but changes will be deep and definite. That's what I say.

Aishwarya

Absolutely. And I, you know, I just want to point out I love the analogy again of, you know, movies and the gig economy. It's just so relatable. So Thank you so much for that one. And I agree with you. The gig economy is here to stay, and we just have to define ways to work with them and make an inclusive workplace to just make a better movie. You know, a successful movie, a blockbuster.

I had a beautiful conversation with you Sylvia, and I just want to wrap it up by asking you if you have any other important soundbites that you'd like to leave our viewers with?

Sylvia

Well, I think it is that we need to really understand that on the other side, whoever the person is, they have a history, and they may be cool or calm or nasty or whatever, but we do need to have some empathy, the other word is compassion, and My biggest thing with the workplace is we need to ask better questions to get the answers rather than tell. We're past the time of telling we're in the time of asking, and in that dialogue will come the new way.

“My biggest thing with the workplace is we need to ask better questions to get the answers rather than tell. We're past the time of telling we're in the time of asking, and in that dialogue will come the new way.”

So I do a lot of work around communication and finding the right words and the other thing is timing and that’s something we learn over time. 

So thank you for doing such a great job and for being there in India to make the whole world a better place. And I do appreciate your having invited me today. 

Aishwarya

Oh, it's really a pleasure, Sylvia. I mean, I've learned so much from this conversation, and I just love how it's just a free-flowing dialogue and there's no stress about it. And we can do this where there's so much external stress and make something beautiful out of this. That's just phenomenal and thank you so much. I've had a pleasure talking to you. 

Sylvia

Same here. Thank you.

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