Zach sits down to chat with Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin, a psychologist and a partner of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting, LLP, about the psychology of impostor syndrome. Dr. Orbé-Austin breaks down the concept of impostor syndrome itself and talks a bit about how gaslighting can tie into and even exacerbate it. He also shares several practical ways impostor syndrome manifests in the workplace. Listen to the full show to learn a handful of methods to combat it on a personal level.
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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and look, man, you know what it is. And I always start with “Look, man, you know what it is,” and I apologize for being gendered in my introduction, so let me start over. What’s up, y’all? Y’all know what it is. It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and we have real talk with real people in a corporate world, and this real talk is doing what? Centering and amplifying underrepresented voices at work, and man, we have a great guest. We have a great guest, really excited to have Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin. Now, is that right? Is it Orbe?
Dr. Orbé-Austin: Yes. Yes, like sorbet.
Zach: Aye. Haha. “Smooth Like Sorbet” Orbe, what’s up? Bars. Dr. Orbe-Austin is a psychologist–I don’t know why I started off like that. Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin is a psychologist and a partner of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting, a career and executive coaching consultancy in New York City. Dr. Orbé-Austin has worked in the field of career and executive coaching for over 15 years, and was the founding director of NYU’s Graduate Student Career Development Center. In this capacity, he developed the strategic vision and led a team responsible for managing the career needs of over 14,000 graduate students in over 100 different disciplines. Prior to his tenure at NYU, Dr. Orbé-Austin served in a variety of leadership roles, including as the chief diversity officer at Baruch College-City University of New York and as president of the NY Association of Black Psychologists. Okay, so he’s certified. Again, see, people come on this–you know what I’m saying, people, you know, will subversely kind of ask me, like, “Well, who do you even have on your podcast?” Y’all be trying to talk to me–you know, it’s really a function of colonialist white supremacy, but we ain’t gonna talk about it right now, how y’all try to come and challenge the credos of this show, but, you know what I’m saying, we have real ones over here, so don’t test us, okay? Do not test us, mess around and, you know what I’m saying, pull your card. Don’t play. [ow sfx] Dr. Orbé-Austin’s opinions and writings have appeared in a variety of publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Diversity Executive, and ThriveGlobal. He earned his PhD in counseling psychology from Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education and his BA in psychology from NYU. His book, Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life, published by Ulysses Press [and] co-authored by his partner Dr. Lisa Orbe-Austin, will be released in April 2020. The goal of this book is to provide a systematic way to eradicate impostor syndrome and help readers find their power so they can utilize it for their own goals and lead a more balanced life. What a bio. I feel like I gotta drop some air horns just for the fact that that was very, very dense and all very substantive and impressive. What’s up? Come on. Drop ’em right here. [Flex bomb, then air horn sfx] Come on, let’s go. How are you doing, Dr. Austin? Dr. Orbe-Austin, excuse me.
Dr. Orbé-Austin: I am wonderful, Zach. It’s a pleasure to meet with you and your wonderful audience, so I’m thrilled to be chatting with you today.
Zach: Now, look, I don’t want to spill too much tea, but I know your cousin, right, and his name is not Orbe-Austin, it’s just Austin. Can you talk a little bit about the last name?
Dr. Orbé-Austin: So yes, I want to always tell the story about–any time my wife and I go and present anywhere and we introduce ourselves people kind of give a look, and then I have to start by saying, “Look, just to get it out of the way, we’re not brother and sister. We’re actually husband and wife.” So when we got married I actually took my wife’s name. So her name was Lisa Orbe and my name was Richard Austin, and as we joined our families we joined our names. And so I think it’s not traditional, I think, for a lot of people in society to see a man do that, so I think it throws people off, so I’m always kind of thrilled to talk about, you know, equity and equality and really being able to join families in that way.
Zach: You know what? And shout-out to you, you knwo what I mean? Because, you know, you’re rejecting patriarchy one bold move at a time. It’s interesting how we normalize the idea that women’s last names are just erased, you know what I mean? You know, it’s not really cool, you knwo what I’m saying? Now, look, did my wife take my last name? Yes, okay? Would I hyphenate? Probably not because I’m not really that strong. I’m pretty insecure as a man, you know what I’m saying? But look, it takes a real man to, you know, admit that. Because it’s funny, you know, I can come on this podcast and I can talk about rejecting patriarchal systems and all these kinds of things, but then if you ask me, you know, to supplant any privilege that I may have, I’m over here like, [hold on a minute there playa sfx]. You know, wait a second. We ain’t gonna just–you know, I’m not giving up. Nah, but all jokes aside, that’s awesome. I love that, and I was very curious about it from the beginning, and yes, definitely shout-out to Mrs. Orbe-Austin, your partner in crime and business and life, what’s up? Let’s talk about your journey though and why you got into psychology. Like, what was the path there?
Dr. Orbé-Austin: The first reason I got into psychology is a pretty simplistic notion of psychology. So about eighth grade I always remember developing this advice column for my classmates called Ask Dr. Rich. So at the time I thought being a psychologist meant telling people what to do, and so, you know, as an eighth-grader with all the knowledge that I had at that time–
Zach: All the answers.
Dr. Orbé-Austin: Right, so why not, you know, do that? So I really enjoyed being able–and, you know, at that time it was usually relationship issues that people were writing in about, and I had my little column, and again, not that I had that great of experience in relationships, but I felt like I could provide something enough for people to seek my assistance. And then as I got a better understanding of what it meant to be a psychologist I came to realize that I could make a contribution down that path in terms of really being able to help people be their best selves. And so the background that I typically give is I’m a son of Haitian immigrants, so that automatically means that I was destined to be a medical doctor, right? [laughs] So for a long time I thought I was gonna be a psychiatrist, right, ’cause that fills both the medical doctor side and then my desire to work on behavior. Thankfully enough my sister became a pediatrician, my oldest sister, so I think she gave me some room to navigate and negotiate the reality that “Hm, maybe I’m not actually gonna go down that path of medicine but continue to pursue my dream of going into psychology.” And so through college I was pre-med. I thought I was going down that path. I [?] all the things to really shape the direction of going into medical school, but then I began to know and understand when I took an internship after my junior year at Columbia University and I had the good fortune to work with a black male psychologist, who at the time to me was, like, a unicorn. So I had never actually met a psychologist in person, let alone a black male psychologist, and began to really know and understand that 1. it’s possible to go down that route, 2. that I would have mentorship to really be able to know and understand how to navigate that path and negotiate it. So I had to have that hard conversation one day with my parents that I was not going to pursue medicine, but I was still gonna be a doctor, and it was just going to be a psychologist. So ultimately that’s the path I took. I pursued, you know, my counseling psychology degree and really along the way understood that that was the best fit for me.
Zach: Can we talk a little bit about–so you talked about it, you know, that seeing yourself represented is what then gave you the gumption to then pursue it yourself, but can we talk a little bit more about black representation in mental health and, recognizing that you are a child of immigrants, Haitian immigrants, but I’m curious about what have you seen in your presence as a black man make with your black and brown patients and students in perspective or hopeful psychologists and psychiatrists?
Dr. Orbé-Austin: One of the particular missions that I’ve always had is to really increase the representation of black mental health practitioners, I’ll say, in general in the field. So when we look at the numbers right now they’re abysmal. Less than 4% of psychologists are black, and I’d say less than 2% of psychologists are black males. And it’s typically across the board you see those similar numbers in psychiatry and social work, so the people that tend to engage clinically with our folks are not the people that look like them, right? And so over 86% for instance of psychologists in the U.S. are white. So what I was able to know and recognize as I said before 1. is to be able to see individuals who look like me pursuing the same profession as I wanted to pursue was very inspirational to me, but they also were able to provide me guidance and a home to talk about some of the challenges of being the only one in a lot of these spaces. So when I started my doctorate program I was the only black male there. I often times was primarily the only male in a lot of these rooms, and so, you know, the running joke in my program is that they would have one black male, like, every four, five years, and so I would meet–you know, I met the person who came on before me who was the black male for that time, and subsequently I knew I needed to join organizations and connect with professionals in the field, so I was able to be exposed to the Association of Black Psychologists very early on in my career, so I felt like I had an opportunity to engage with other folks doing this work. And then I saw it full center when I was able to do some of my training. One of the stories that I always talk about when we talk about things coming full circle as a child of Haitian immigrants, I had an opportunity to do an internship at King’s County Hospital out in Brooklyn, New York, and I had the opportunity to actually work with this Haitian psychiatrist who had created a special clinic for Haitian patients, Haitian-American patients, and one of the things that he did as a psychiatrist primarily was to provide medication, but he recognized that a lot of these folks needed some more support, and so he was able to collaborate with me to start, like, a psychology clinic where I would do therapy with some of these folks, and the fact that I could speak their language, the fact that I knew their culture, the fact that, again, I looked like them, I think was so helpful in 1. helping them to not be afraid of the journey that they were taking through the mental health landscape, and then 2. it really enabled them to feel like they were being heard, understood, respected, and seen in ways that they probably may have never felt that they had been seen before, especially as many of them had recently immigrated to the U.S. and were trying to find their way.
Zach: And so, you know, it’s interesting to your earliest point around, like, the representation in the space being abysmal, like, it’s challenging too, like, as someone who has, at various points in their life, like, pursued psychiatry or therapy or, like, just talking to somebody, right, it’s not only, like, finding somebody, but, like, that small pool then limits some of the flexibility that I’ve heard my white counterparts have where it’s like, “Okay, I have this psychiatrist, but we don’t really click, so I’m gonna go and try to find somebody else, right?” Like, they’ll shop around. Like, for me, you know, it’s kind of like, “Well, dang. I mean, he and I don’t really vibe on this level,” or “She and I don’t really agree about this,” or whatever the case may be, but “She looks at me, and she at least empathizes with the bulk reality of my experience. So don’t let me be picky. I’m just gonna stay here.”
Dr. Orbé-Austin: Yeah, and it becomes a challenge, especially when folks reach out to me and say that they’re looking for some level of support and they say, “Hey, I want an African-American therapist.” And typically, you know, I do say to shop around to find a fit, right? And so I want to give them as many options as possible. I end up being able to give, hopefully on the better end, three to four options, and then if they go to the first one and they feel like, “Okay, there’s not a connection there,” they may or may not actually then move forward on it, right? So I know that by the time someone gets to a point of really wanting to go to therapy, it’s a major step for them to make that call, right? And so I always want to honor that and honor that, you know, effort to really make sure that they link with someone as soon as possible, and someone that they can vibe with, right? ‘Cause yes, someone can look like you, but if you don’t feel comfortable enough to be open and vulnerable to them, then it’s just not gonna work, right? So that’s the thing that I talk about, ’cause, you know, we can all feel like, “Hey, you know, they look like us,” but if we don’t connect, whether it’s a co-worker or, you know, other person, we’re like, “Yeah, they’re black, but, you know, I’m not really feeling ’em in that way.”
Zach: All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.
Dr. Orbé-Austin: Right? So it is a dilemma in helping people to feel like they have options and, you know, it’s all right to kind of go to one or two to get the best fit.
Zach: So you’re a black man. You are in a highly–like, a very white academic space, and I’m really curious about what–like, what do micro-aggressions and just straight on aggressions look like for you, right? And I’m looking at your profile picture. I would imagine, you know, you’re not catfishing anybody. You probably look a lot like your profile picture. So you look–like, you present… you don’t present, like, a child, but you don’t, like, present a very old man. Like, you present moderately young, right? And so I’m really curious as to, like, what does it look like just being you in these spaces, and, like, what do micro-aggressions look like, what do actual aggressions look like, how do you navigate that? What are some maybe patterns of behavior that you see operating as who you are in these spaces?
Dr. Orbé-Austin: Sure. So I’m glad that you raised my picture, right, and how young I look. I appreciate the compliment. [both laugh] But that was one of the big ones, right, when I started out in either doing clinical work or in teaching – for a while I used to teach at the collegiate level, and I would get always, “Well, you look really young to be a professor,” or “You look really young to be a therapist,” right? And sure, on one hand it could be about age, but I think after a while if you still keep getting that same thing–and my white colleagues who were just as young as me were not getting that–then it made me begin to think about, “Well, what does that necessarily mean in terms of credibility, being authentic? How do I then recognize how to be seen for who I am?” So that was one, and then the other piece of it, you know, often times that would come up is the typical “Wow, you’re very articulate,” right? Whether it’s, you know, giving a speech to a group of faculty members, whether it’s, you know, being able to do a case presentation at a [?] conference. So often times there would be these underlying micro-aggressions that were really racially and, you know, gender-based. So if, for instance, you know, sometimes people would say, “Oh, you know, don’t dress in a particular manner because, you know, it might be intimidating to the students. Just dress down,” right? So for me it’s like–you know, I wear a suit to work, right? That’s my style. But to be told–I’ll never forget this–to be told by a supervisor, “Well, you know, like, you may not want to do that. It might just be intimidating,” and again, in that moment I didn’t necessarily feel like, “Oh, okay. Well, this is clearly a micro-aggression,” and that’s the nature of micro-aggressions, right? That in the moment it kind of catches you a little off-guard. It’s not so direct, but then when you sit and think about it for a little bit, then you recognize that, “Okay, my white male colleague wears a suit and a tie every day and is a little older than me, and I’m not imagining, you know, he was told the same thing,” right? So it’s managing and navigating that path. And then on the other path, you know, some of the work that I do as a consultant going into these different spaces, corporate spaces or, you know, academic institutions and people being surprised, right, they may not necessarily see my picture. They may have a conversation with me, but then when I show up in the room, you know, you get that sense of “Oh.” You know, my name sounds a little bit generic, you know, especially when it was Richard Austin, right? So sometimes they’re not expecting me to show up as the person that I am, and so they do a little double-take, right, and then they catch themselves, right? And so I get that, right? But now I’ve always said, to be quite honest, that my PhD has provided me access to many spaces that I otherwise wouldn’t have had because of who I am, right? That those three little letters enable me to step into rooms that otherwise I’d be shut out of, and when I’m in those rooms I can then [?] my power, even though there is some level of pushback against it.
Zach: And so, you know, it’s interesting, ’cause I’ve spoken with folks–we have some mutual connections, and some of them also have, like, some really prestigious degrees, and so the conversation that I’ll have with some of those folks is something like, you know, “My education and my profile can, like, preemptively trigger fragility and insecurity with my peers because they see the additional letters after my name,” but I’m curious, like, have you ever experienced that yourself, or do you think that that’s a bit more masked because of the fact that you’re in, like, more formal academic spaces?
Dr. Orbé-Austin: Well, not always am I in these spaces, right? So for instance, one of the types of consulting I do is diversity, equity and inclusion work, and in those spaces, particularly when I’m in corporate rooms where, yes, they can get that, you know, I have those three letters, but there is pushback, you know, against some of the things that I may have to offer, I think, because of, you know, who I am and what I may represent, right? And so we, you know, go into some of these spaces knowing that people might talk about wanting to do the work, but when it’s time to do the work and when the work that’s being guided by a black male is not what you want, then there can be a particular level of backlash or, you know, aggressive pushback that needs to be navigated and negotiated.
Zach: And so then, you know, I think that leads us well into–you know what? No, I’ma pause on this actually, because, like, we have not formally talked about this on the podcast, but I think it leads well into, like, the main topic that we’re gonna get into today, which is impostor syndrome. Can we talk a little bit about, like, gaslighting, and, like, what that is? And then perhaps how gaslighting can tie into impostor syndrome or exacerbating impostor syndrome.
Dr. Orbé-Austin: Mm-hmm, yeah. I mean, I think that that’s a great segue, because when we talk about gaslighting, in essence it’s trying to convince you that what you’re experiencing, seeing, listening to, is not your experience, right? That if someone makes a clearly racist, sexist, homophobic comment, clearly has done something offensive and they say to you, “Well, you know, you’re reading too much into that,” right? Or, you know, “I don’t really understand how you came to that conclusion,” right? And in the workspace, again, it’s very difficult, especially one if there’s a power disparity, right? Like, if the person doing the gaslighting is a supervisor or a senior peer, it’s difficult to feel confident and comfortable enough to push back. And then two it’s ultimately hard to then feel like you can win, right? Because if someone is in their particular stance, it’s very difficult to argue with unless you have, you know, video recordings and you play it back and you’re like, “Yeah,” because they can say, “Well, I don’t remember saying that,” or “No, that’s not what I said,” right, and then you’re left to kind of say, “No, this is my experience. This is what I heard,” and if you don’t have the “data,” so to speak, they may just dismiss it, right? Say that you’re just being sensitive or you’re playing the race card or you’re doing this, and then you’re left totally powerless to really be able to make your argument stick.
Zach: Or situations where they say, “Well, you know,” to the point around race cards, like, “Maybe it’s the fact that you’re just not good enough, and so now you’re leaning back on this as an excuse.”
Dr. Orbé-Austin: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Zach: Well, let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about the concept of impostor syndrome. Like, in Season 1, it was, like, one of our first episodes actually, we were talking about impostor syndrome, but we really didn’t get into, like, the science of it. We more so talked about, like, believing in yourself and, you know, knowing who you are and not trying to be fake, right, being authentic, but we didn’t get into the neuroscience and, like, the genuine psychology of impostor syndrome and how it relates specifically to black and brown people. Can we talk a little bit just about what impostor syndrome is as a concept and how you would define it medically?
Dr. Orbé-Austin: Sure. So first off I will say that impostor syndrome is not a diagnosable disorder, right? So it was first coined by two psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, in actually 1978, and at the time they were studying very successful female students and faculty members at an academic institution, and what they noticed was that these women, who seemingly were high achievers, did not feel as such, right? They felt that they were frauds. They felt that they were going to be exposed as not smart enough, not good enough. They, again, thought that they were impostors, so they coined that term to really speak about this phenomenon when people have difficulty internalizing their accomplishments, their skills and their experiences. They’re constantly in fear of being exposed as a fraud, and as a result of that they tend to overwork to compensate for their perceived lack of ability. So when we talk about impostor syndrome, it’s really that experience that someone may have that isn’t necessarily a medical or mental health, you know, disorder, but it tends to be something that impacts people who, again, 70% of the population have talked about experiencing impostor feelings, and so it often though impacts people who are high achievers, because that level of success they do not attribute to their own smarts or intelligence. They attribute it to luck. They attribute it to, you know, key relationships, and so they’re constantly haunted by this feeling of being a fraud.
Zach: And so then, you know, what are some practical ways that impostor syndrome shows up at work?
Dr. Orbé-Austin: So when we talk about impostor syndrome in general, we can talk about the fact that a lot of what we call impostor-triggering workplaces exist nowadays where in people are always feeling like they need to prove themselves over and over again, that they’re never good enough, and when we talk about black and brown folks especially, they have a double burden to bear. So on the external end they’re actually dealing with lies and discrimination and people and systems that are telling them that they’re not good enough, that they don’t belong, that somehow or another they did not earn their spot, and then they’re dealing with their own internal voices that also tell them that and make them feel like, “All right, well, maybe I shouldn’t be here. Maybe they are right. Maybe I was lucky. Maybe they made a mistake,” and it leaves you then feeling like you don’t necessarily deserve more. So at work it means you might not ask for a raise. You might not take on a key project because you fear that you’ll finally be exposed if you take up that key project, which could actually give you more visibility and access, but you’re concerned that it will be a house of cards and you’ll finally be found out. It makes you feel often times stuck in trying to really look for a better position, either within or outside the organization, because again of this notion of “Well, I’m just lucky to be here. I shouldn’t ask for too much.” And it comes up when your boss or peers will say to you, “Oh, well, you made a mistake on that one thing,” or “Oh, that didn’t go that well,” or you beat yourself up as well, because one of the key elements that goes hand in hand with impostor syndrome is perfectionism, right? Because if you feel that the only way you deserve to be anywhere is to be perfect and to overwork to strive for that perfection, then you can work yourself to the levels of burnout, and if you make any simple mistake you will beat yourself up over it and not allow yourself to really grow, learn from it and move forward.
Zach: And so then what are ways that you think that organizations–’cause you talked about organizations that exacerbate impostor syndrome, right? What do you think are some ways that organizations exacerbate impostor syndrome for everybody, and then what are ways that you believe that organizations exacerbate impostor syndrome particularly for black and brown folks?
Dr. Orbé-Austin: Sure. So I talk about some of the triggers in today’s work culture. One of them is this notion of performance, right? When I talk to [?] organizations and ask them what their performance is and some of them will give me blank looks or they’ll report back that “Oh, you know, it changes, and, you know, it’s constantly shifting.” If people don’t have an understanding of what good performance is, right, like, what they’re striving to do, then they’ll feel like they’re not hitting their targets and they feel, again, that they have to keep proving themselves. And so on the organization’s end they may feel like “Well, that’s great ’cause it’s gonna drive productivity,” right? But ultimately it may drive people out of the organization. It may drive people to burnout, as seen through absenteeism, as seen through, you know, different ways of not necessarily being at the level of production that people want. So the first thing I tell organizations to do is to really make sure that you have a legitimate performance process, typically not just once a year, because again, if someone doesn’t know either that she’s doing well or that there’s room for improvement, she’s just gonna keep working working working until burnout, right? So that’s the first way that organizations can really address and reduce impostor syndrome. The other thing is the manager is one of the key people to deliver the message for the organization. So, you know, management needs to be trained to know and understand how to provide appropriate feedback. So you have some managers who feel like “Well, I don’t give praise at all. I don’t give positive feedback because people don’t really deserve it. They’d have to do something great, and no one really does anything great. You know, by me giving negative feedback, it helps them to keep moving forward and get better,” and that has not proven to be the case. Research does not support that notion, that the more negative feedback that you give without any positive feedback the better people will perform. So it’s helping people to really understand what constructive feedback is. Again, often times people who rise to the level of manager were great individual contributors, so they don’t know and haven’t mastered the skill sets needed to be a good manager. To be a good manager is to really develop people, to help people grow and learn, and if you don’t have that lens you will continue to make some of the same mistakes that drive impostor syndrome and sustain it, especially when we talk about black and brown folk. It’s helping them to feel that they actually belong, that they’re not given the projects that nobody else wants, that if they’re on the team they’re given some the lower level types of projects, that you actually help them to know and understand that “You deserve to be here, we respect and value your skill sets, your expertise and your experience, and we’re invested in keeping you and helping you to grow,” right? So often times, you know, these notions of belonging and psychological safety that I talk about tend to be overlooked by organizations because, again, for them it’s just about their bottom line. They want to make sure that people are producing at the levels that they need them to, but they don’t necessarily think about the cost to those individuals, and so they end up marginalizing certain people, and when those people leave, then it’s this self-fulfilling prophecy of “Oh. Well, yeah, they didn’t belong here anyway,” and they don’t really learn and understand that, well, maybe it was the organization that didn’t create a welcoming enough space for them to actually excel.
Zach: You know, and it’s interesting when you talk about, like, performance and, like, being really clear with, like, you know, what does good look like, I think it’s challenging as work continues to become less transactional, and, like, high-paying jobs become more quote-unquote “strategic” and “qualitative” and “subjective.” I think, like, with that comes a danger, or at least more opportunity, to have ambiguity in terms of what good performance looks like, and it gives managers space, unconsciously, consciously, maliciously or otherwise, to create hierarchies in their mind, like, outside of whatever system you want to use to grade something. Because if work is super subjective–like, one thing about consulting, right, like, so much of consulting has to do with relationships and, like, the work itself, because you’re not making X amount of widgets a day. You’re putting together a PowerPoint or you’re writing a paragraph, and so much of those things are again, like, just inherently subjective. Like, PowerPoint design, I mean–and I know there’s plenty of folks who hate PowerPoint, but, you know, there’s some PowerPoints that look great to some folks and look terrible to others. There’s some people who love the way that you run a meeting and there’s people who think it’s the worst thing in the world, right? So it’s like–I guess my question to you, as we continue to think about the future of work and we think about the more [soft?] skills are gonna be needed to do the type of work that’s gonna be left when you think about what automation is gonna pick up and kind of, like, what we’re going to pick up after automation digs through the rubble of work. What are ways do you think that we can still create some norms, some performance standard or expectation norms, that don’t exacerbate or create, like, impostor organizations?
Dr. Orbé-Austin: I think that’s a great question. One of the things that immediately comes to mind is 1. being able to acknowledge just the level of inherent bias in the process as a whole, right, that we as humans, and we as machines, tend to have bias, right? So a lot of organizations are really all about technology and AI, and AI ultimately will reduce bias and discrimination, and then when we look at, you know, some of these apps that, you know, when you take a picture they can’t recognize black faces or they recognize them as monkeys. We know that people make these particular programs and artificial intelligences, so being able to constantly understand, be on the lookout, for the level of bias that exists in performance reviews. So one of the things that my wife and I talk about, we do some work around gender bias, and one of the presentations we talk about is that women tend to get more vague feedback, feedback that does not allow them to, again, think about ways to improve. So, you know, you said this term “strategic” before, and that’s something I will say to you that comes up a lot, that women will be like, “Well, you need to be more strategic,” and I always say to my female clients, “Ask them what that means,” right? What does that look like, right? Men tend to get much more tangible, concrete feedback about how to improve, so it enables them to clearly know and understand what they’re striving for, right? And, you know, I think it’s some of the same type of challenges with professionals of color where if they get any feedback it may not necessarily be substantial or substantive enough to help them understand how to grow. It may just be punitive. You know, I was reading this article the other day about a hiring process where different black candidates were coming in to the process, and one of the, you know, committee members kept asking and talking about, you know, dress and timeliness to the black candidates, but to the white candidates that never came up. And thankfully there was someone else on the committee who noticed that and said, “You know, I have a question for you. Like, why is it that you’re asking questions about timeliness and dress to, you know, certain candidates and not others, and why is it that the candidates that you’re asking it about are the black candidates?” And the woman, you know, was able to [?] enough say, “Well, you know, I used to supervise this black woman, and she used to come in late all the time, and, you know, I wasn’t really happy about that, so I really wanted to kind of, you know, make sure that that was talked about,” right? And so you see that she was able to even pinpoint it, right, that this was not even unconscious bias. It was a conscious bias of saying, “Hey, this is something that is not acceptable,” and then we have the issues related to, like, hair discrimination now, which is a big thing that, you know, in 2020 we’re still talking about how people wear their hair as a means of, you know, determining whether or not they belong is just unfathomable to me. So organizations have to be honest with the bias in their processes and in the leadership norms and culture and continue to attack it, that it’s a life-long learning process, that it’s not this “Okay, we’re good now. We did some diversity, equity and inclusion work, and we got our certificate, so we’re good to go for the next fifty years,” right? It’s really institutionalizing that process. It’s really saying “How are we enabling all of the different people who come into our organization to feel that they belong, that they’re psychologically safe, that there is room for them here?”
Zach: So you said a phrase and I’m gonna follow up on that, but before I get there, you know, you talk about–and again, I’m excited because I have someone in the space, so I want to–and I’ve continued to say when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion work, I wish that–if there was a way I could’ve still got the bag, Richard, if I could have still gotten the bag and gotten into psychology, but I just couldn’t see myself, like, getting the bag, not getting into that whatever, but I really am intrigued by the why behind the things that people do, right? So when you talk about giving feedback to black and brown employees, to people of color, do you think there’s any role that, like, self-preservation or fragility plays into not giving into the type of feedback that black and brown folks receive? Like, in the ambiguity of the feedback as well as, like, the subjectivity of the feedback, and maybe even, like, the lack of substance in the feedback itself. Like, do you think that fragility or self-preservation plays into that?
Dr. Orbe-Austin: Yes, definitely, because giving feedback is a very difficult, uncomfortable thing to do, and you can be called out when you’re giving the feedback as to the things you’re lacking and doing, right? So if you are a manager who doesn’t feel secure in managing, right, 1. you tend to not give any kind of feedback until you have to in that year-end review, that one-time process, and there’s some level of fear and anxiety, especially if you find black and brown folks more threatening, that if you give them feedback that may be upsetting that it may either come back to you in the form of them saying, “Hey, well, I also want to be able to give you some constructive feedback,” and 2. if you believe that “Oh, well, they’re just gonna be angry,” then you will refrain from doing anything until, you know, again, you have to, and then ultimately if you don’t feel that they actually belong in the organization consciously or unconsciously, it is a way for you to facilitate an exit, right? So I had another opportunity with an organization to talk about some of their challenges within their retention process, and one of the things that they raised was the reality that when they looked at the individuals who were on tips, they were consistently black employees, and the HR person, you know, thankfully said to the managers, well, “Why is that? I noticed this, and what does this mean?” Right? And it’s the same way I used to talk about in schools that black males and suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white counterparts even though they may have the same levels and types of infractions, right, that some of the danger, you know, due to the fragility is “Okay, black and brown bodies are threatening to me, so therefore I have to find ways to protect myself and to punish them, either in the professional space or the academic space.” So there was a case the other day where a young black male had the police called on him in his collegiate classroom because he refused to move his seat, and his white male professor decided that the way he was going to negotiate it was through punishment and to call the police to remove the young man rather than 1. recognizing that, you know, the reason he didn’t want to move his seat is he had already come in, he had sat down, but the professor was trying to tell him he needed to come to the front, right? And again, like, would he have done that with a white student? Probably not.
Zach: Well, you know, it’s interesting too. I think that also speaks to, like, just the bizarre ways that, like, punishment for black and brown bodies, like, escalates so fast. It’s like, “Wait, I went from not talking to anybody, there not being any issue, to now I’m talking to, like, someone with a huge difference in power than I have. Where did this come from? Like, how did we get here so fast?”
Dr. Orbe-Austin: Yeah, it escalates. And I will say to you, you know, we talk about this issue of micro-aggressions and straight up aggressions. I remember one of the first jobs that I had, you know, while I was in graduate school was working in this college office, and again, only black male, primarily white women working in the space. It was a job to actually help, you know, primarily black and Latino students who had gotten kicked out of a four-year college–this was a community college–helping them to get back academically to a space to be able to return. So it was an advising position. I was focused on doing the work relative to helping these students. So I come in, go to my office, close my door, see my students and go, and that was not acceptable to my white female supervisor. So she decided that she needed to watch me or kind of know and understand what it was that I was doing, and chance would have it, you know, that this is where I actually met my wife, the other Dr. Orbe-Austin. She came on board, and when she came on board this woman said to her, “Well, can you watch him?” Like, you know, “‘Cause you’re another person of color. Can you watch him and see, like, what he’s up to?” Now, mind you, this woman and her other colleagues, all her other direct reports, were white women, would go out to these long lunches, go to Lohman’s, go shopping and do all these other things. I was in, you know, my office seeing these students, but I was the one who was suspect, and it got to a turning point where, you know, again I was able to connect with my wife [?], and she told me, “Yeah, I was sent to kind of surveil you,” right? And it’s unbelievable, right? At that stage of my life and my career that, you know, that level of micro-aggression is like, “Okay, he’s doing his work, but I can’t see him ’cause his door’s closed.” Well, my door’s closed ’cause I’m talking to students and I’m dealing with them in that way, right? So that’s some of the hidden ways, ’cause had my wife and I not connected and she then was like, “Oh, yeah. I’m gonna watch him and report back,” then it would just be “Oh, he’s lazy. He’s not doing his job.”
Zach: Yeah. “I don’t know what he’s really doing. He says he’s doing this, but I don’t see that.”
Dr. Orbe-Austin: Right, and so when we talk about this issue of privilege, you know, I often talk about the fact that white privilege means that you’re given the benefit of the doubt relative to competence, relative to innocence, and you just have a higher trust point, right, that people will tend to believe you and give you the benefit of the doubt even if you’re not doing anything right. So that’s the heavier burder that we carry, and it’s not–you know, it’s not playing the race card. It’s not an excuse. It’s the reality. It’s what the data shows. It’s what time and again the numbers show from a wide variety of vantage points.
Zach: It’s interesting, like, your point around being at work and you’re a credentialed professional, right? You’re doing your job, and yet there are these informal hierarchies, right, that are forming around you. You know, I’ve experienced that myself. Like, I’ve been in situations where, you know, I have people who are supposed to be junior to me or at peer level to me, but again, people are typically not as slick as they think they are, right? Like, the reality is black and brown people have to be extraordinarily vigilant in just paying attention, which we’re gonna get into psychological safety in a minute, but it’s just interesting because I’ve been in those situations more than a few times where I’ll be, you know, on paper supposed to be this title, but then there’s folks around and, like, I’m noticing they’re kind of checking on me or they’re asking a bunch of questions or they’re–they feel empowered to try to coach me or tell me what I’m not doing or ask me what I’m doing or, you know, say, “Well, I talked to So-and-so, and we think you should be doing–” And it’s like, “Well, who is we? You’re not my boss.” Okay, so again, what we’re talking about and what I’m hearing, frankly I’m getting stressed just, like, re-thinking about those things and hearing you describe your experience. What are ways that leaders can create higher degrees of psychological safety so that employees, particularly black and brown ones, can work more effectively?
Dr. Orbe-Austin: So one of the things I talk about, and this comes up a good deal when I do some DEI work, is psychological safety, at the end of the day, is telling someone or someone having the feeling that they can show up at work and be their true selves without fear of negative consequence, right, that they can really talk about their experiences, kind of share their beliefs and not be silenced, and a culture has to be developed in order for someone to feel that, right? And what that means on the leadership end is being able to really allow room for differing viewpoints one, not punishing people if they don’t necessarily agree with what the leaders with, two really actually listening to people instead of just waiting to talk next after someone else is talking and being able to understand and have a certain level of empathy for someone else’s experience. Being able to be vulnerable yourself as a leader and sharing some of the things that you may be experiencing to let people know that you’re not just superhuman or perfect, that you do make mistakes. Take accountability when you do make mistakes as well to again demonstrate that it’s all right for you to not have everything in order, but that, you know, it’s really adopting a growth mindset of saying that, you know, we’re here to do good work.” At the same time, we still are striving to learn and grow in those ways, right? So creating these spaces to be able to have people have a voice is one of the easiest ways for honestly organizations to develop psychological safety, right? So it’s having access to the leadership. When I meet with people and I talk about “Well, how often do you talk to even your manager?” And they’re like, “Oh, you know, we meet maybe once every two or three months,” and my mouth is like totally, like, open… like, yeah, that’s not good, right? Like, you have to be able to build relationships with your manager. Your manager has to be able to know who you are, not just, again, as someone filling a space and making widgets, but what are your aspirations? What are your hopes and dreams? What are your plans for being in this organization? And because so much management training is lacking or is not as in-depth as it needs to be, a good deal of managers feel ill-equipped to have some of these conversations, and so they just have very much transactional types of engagements with their direct reports where in they’re just wanting to know “Okay, did you do X project? Let’s do a check-off,” rather than really taking the role as coach/mentor/growth agent.
Zach: What can individuals do to combat impostor syndrome, right? So we talked about it at the organizational level, but what can individuals do?
Dr. Orbe-Austin: So we talk about in our book this model that we created called the 3 C’s model, which stands for Clarify, Choose, Create, and it starts with really clarifying your impostor origin story. So we all have origin stories, and some of us are better at really being honest with it than others, but it’s being able to know and recognize “Well, what may have triggered or started this impostor journey?” Often times it might be because you were labeled in your family early on as, you know, either the super smart one who makes no mistakes and so you just feel like you have to be perfect and if you make a mistake, then that means you’re an impostor, or on the other hand you were labeled as the social one and another sibling or family member was labeled as the smart one, right, so then you didn’t feel like, “Oh, there’s room for me to be smart and social.” So recognizing that the origin. Not to again blame anyone, but to know and understand where that comes from. And then the other part of Clarify is to know what your triggers are. So for a lot of people with impostor syndrome, new experiences are a trigger point. So a new job, new project, meeting new people, may help them begin to feel increasingly anxious about being found out, that “Oh, this is gonna be the job I fall apart. This is gonna be the project where I’m exposed as a fraud. This person is gonna see right through me.” So knowing and understanding that and then really being able to get support for that. So the last part of clarify is to change your narrative, right? Like, we all have a particular story that we tell ourselves, and people with impostor syndrome typically have a very negative narrative about who they are and what they’ve accomplished and how they’ve accomplished it. So being able to honestly look at and own your accomplishments, really being able to say, “I really earned that because of my effort and some of the actual skill that I have.” And then we go to Choose, where it’s speaking your truth. So the reason often times impostor syndrome tends to be sustained is because people suffer in silence, right? Like, they feel that they’re ashamed to even raise it, right? Like, if you’re a senior VP, you know, everyone around you looks like–you know, all of your family members feel like “Oh, you made it,” then you might be afraid to say, “Well, I’m actually not happy, and I actually feel like I’m an impostor.” So there’s this fear that people will ridicule you for doing that. So being able to say it out loud can be freeing to begin the process of healing that. And a part of healing it is changing not only the narrative but some of these automatic negative thoughts you may have about what people think about you, how you label yourself and how you unfairly compare yourself to others. So being able to create what we call a positive [?] instead of these immediate when something goes wrong the automatic negative thought is “Oh, I’m a failure,” or “Here we go again, I’m an impostor.” And then in the midst of all this it’s really taking care of yourself, really being able to make self-care a key priority for yourself in choosing, and then finally, you know, the last piece of the puzzle is trying on and creating. When we talk about Create, it’s experimenting with new roles. So a lot of people with impostor syndrome tend to be the helpers, the go-to person in their friend/family network, so they don’t have the room to ask for support or assistance or feel ashamed to do it, to actually taking on the role of asking for help and feeling like it doesn’t expose you to being weak or not being able to do things, making sure you build your dream team of support, getting a coach, getting a mentor, you know, getting people who will support you in your impostor syndrome-defeating journey, and then finally understanding that impostor syndrome can be triggered at any point in your life. So when we talk about defeating impostor syndrome, we don’t talk about it as an end-all and be-all cure. We talk about it as decreasing the frequency and intensity of those feelings and that when they do occur again understanding and identifying the conditions for your optimal performance, right, which is the self-care, which is the dream team, which is changing your narrative.
Zach: Man, Dr. Orbe-Austin, this is incredible. I want to make sure I give you space to plug your book, to talk about where people can learn more about you, where they can find you, all of that.
Dr. Orbe-Austin: Sure. So again, I appreciate this opportunity. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you. If people want to know more about the work that I do, they can go to my website, DynamicTransitionsLLP.com. So my wife and I, our consultancy is called Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting, LLP, so you can go online, and it will have information about the work that we do. It will have information about the book, which will come out in April. So we’re really excited about that. Again, the name of the book is Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life, and, you know, one of the things we felt was important when we wrote the book was to have it be something dynamic and alive, so a part of it talks about, you know, the experience of impostor syndrome, but it also then has activities for you to do to really help in overcoming impostor syndrome. So it’s not necessarily solely just an academic guide to things. It’s actually some practical tips and applied types of activities that will enable you to move forward in living your best life.
Zach: I love it, I love it. Man, it’s just been great. I’m just so excited, because I do believe–and my goal, our collective goal at Living Corporate, is to get more psychologists and psychiatrists on our platform, because when it comes to really making sure that we are centering and amplifying black and brown voices and, like, effectively empathizing with them, I think it’s important to have people on who have some of the academic background and knowledge and, like, formal understanding, not only for our own sake because a lot of us can’t afford or for a variety of reasons, you know, don’t have those resources, but maybe this will encourage us to go seek help that we desperately need just as an output of being a part of an oppressive capitalistic patriarchal system. But I also think it’s important that we have folks like you on for the folks who are not black and brown who listen to our platform, because so often times education is used as a barrier to not listen to black people, black and brown people, or hear our stories. This, like, Euro-centric, like, demand for quantitative data and research that in itself is inherently biased, but whatever. So I’m just thankful that you’re here, that’s what I’m trying to say, okay? I appreciate you.
Dr. Orbe-Austin: Well, I appreciate you creating this platform, because when I heard about it I was so excited to kind of engage with you, because as I’ve talked about many times, a lot of our folks, particularly in these corporate spaces, are suffering in silence and may feel like they’re the only ones having some of these struggles, and I think you present a space for them to not feel that they need to go through it alone, and you provide a certain level of hope and strategies for them to really be able to free themselves from some of the things that may be more corrosive to their quality of life and really being able to help them believe they can live their best lives.
Zach: Man, I mean… [applause sfx] You know, that’s claps for both of us, you know what I mean? We’re both celebrating right now. All right, y’all, look. This has been Living Corporate, okay? Really glad that y’all were able to stop by. You heard Dr. Orbe-Austin and all of the information. Make sure you check it out in the show notes. Make sure you check us out at living-corporate–please say the dash–dot com. If you want to check us on the social media, we all over the place. Just Google Living Corporate and we’ll pop up. Until next time, y’all. Peace.