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Telling (y)our stories: Building presence, power and trust

photos of Briggs and Coleman

Briggs and Coleman

Aug 17 2021

Summary: The transition to virtual workspaces in the pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality. Gender may condition on-screen presence and storytelling, but calibrated ownership of both can enhance trust and influence across difference and distance. Strangers before the pandemic, two women educators overcome these constraints and collaborate to support others navigating challenging virtual work environments. 

“I can’t hear you.” Loren said, generously. (Instead of “You’re muted. Again.”) We smiled. Melissa hit unmute. “I look gross, sorry, it’s so hot here…” We laughed and checked our camera angles and backgrounds. “Hey, if PG&E cuts the power I’ll call you directly from my cell.” We both took a slow audible breath on-screen to reset and focus on our roles and objectives. 

In that breath Loren released the pressures of her new academic appointment and new corporate partners. She released the tension of playing wifi-musical-chairs with her spouse, competing for bandwidth with his COVID-response duties, the still-packed moving boxes piled around her, and the noise of the Capitol city’s protest unrest outside.

This awkward, even emotional, start to an internal virtual meeting is probably a familiar scene to you, too. This is just a glimpse into one of our own virtual workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is one story, among many. 

Across the country, Melissa released the tension of the red flag wildfire warnings and road closures. She released the tensions of negotiating internet bandwidth and career priorities with her husband, childcare for their three small daughters, as well as fears about losing power while teaching virtually, getting the emergency go-bag and gas into the car in case the Western wind changed. Then a cry erupted through static as the baby monitor lights flashed green amber and red. 

This awkward, even emotional, start to an internal virtual meeting is probably a familiar scene to you, too. This is just a glimpse into one of our own virtual workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is one story, among many. 

The move to virtual work due to the pandemic placed immense strain on families and women in particular. (Krukowski, 2021)  Part of the struggle related to gendered expectations dictating how women show up onscreen (Flauville, 2021) alongside the pressures and politics of appearance-management and expectations of household roles juggling work and family. Despite the mounting personal and global social, political, and environmental crises, through it all, women have been showing up (on video and in person), performing our many roles for our communities, families, companies and institutions.

Our own story together began during the pandemic amid escalating racial tensions and deep political division in the U.S. We were previously very loosely connected colleagues. A Black woman on the East Coast, a white one on the West Coast, we had separate networks, teaching careers, and institutional affiliations. We eventually connected deeply through story and the intersections of our work. Only through telling our stories were we able to overcome the challenges of virtual collaboration.

Our work as educators highlights the power in collective, community, and communicative acts of storytelling. At Howard University, in the Cathy Hughes School of Communications, Loren studies how marginalized communities shape their identities and build and reclaim communities through storytelling. At Stanford's Graduate School of Business, Melissa co-teaches Acting with Power, where students explore complex power dynamics using tools from the performing arts to bring their full selves to their leadership roles. We used the very strategies we teach to survive and thrive ourselves. 

One on one, or facing groups of executives together, we created space to breathe, be fully present in the moment, and calibrate both our onscreen presence and our disclosures of story. We considered our roles carefully, often explicitly. (Who is front-of-room today? Who is subject matter expert on this lecture topic?)  We clarified and shared individual objectives too. (Are we refining content, building trust, engaging leaders? What is the impact?) We worked to create meaning. (Are we making this material personal and memorable?) And we saw similar strategies illustrated in successful teams within organizations. In short, our experience this year confirmed for us personally, and for our students and clients: we can overcome some of the barriers of communicating across distance and difference through story. 

We are all storytellers. We disclose information about ourselves through stories. We exert power in telling our own stories. Now, in our mostly virtual work environments, it’s often difficult to navigate when and how to tell our own stories. Yet, as human beings, we want to be both social and private simultaneously. In a sense, we want to safely disclose information, or tell our stories, especially at work. 

For us, the content of our personal stories only emerged slowly and strategically over time, when we were ready to disclose them. Communication privacy management theory helps explain when we decide to disclose (tell stories) and when we decide to keep our stories to ourselves. More importantly, it also helps explain how power dynamics and organizational culture can influence who is more likely to disclose and who is more likely to stay quiet.

For us, the content of our personal stories only emerged slowly and strategically over time, when we were ready to disclose them. Communication privacy management theory helps explain when we decide to disclose (tell stories) and when we decide to keep our stories to ourselves  (Petronio, 2013). More importantly, it also helps explain how power dynamics and organizational culture can influence who is more likely to disclose and who is more likely to stay quiet (Smith and Brunner, 2017).

Power and authority often determine which stories are centered and which voices are marginalized (Wanggren, 2016). On the individual level, storytelling helps women and people of color, in particular, become the “heroes” in their own tales, challenging wider stereotypes about gender, race and class (Caverero, 2000). Narrative revelation deepens our understanding of others and ourselves. And by uncovering previously untold stories, we create environments that invite these new stories to shape inclusive and equitable work cultures. 

Of course, there are benefits and costs to both covering and uncovering stories, and skepticism about disclosure may be well placed. There are many good reasons people need to cover personal identities and needs, for example, to avoid discrimination or violence. But there are also costs to covering, including decreased sense of self and opportunities and lower commitment to the group (Smith and Yoshino, 2013). These costs echo the research on the costs of code-switching and other forced assimilation performances. Leaders who create safe spaces to reveal previously untold stories may create cultures where communication across difference can more effectively thrive.

Story can help communication across distance thrive, too. For all the constraints of virtual work, only some evident in the scene between us on our early Zoom call, the two of us should not have successfully collaborated. Working remotely can impair connections, trust and cooperation (Levin, 2020). It can result in reduced inclusion in high power networks, further loosening of weak ties, changing work hours, more multitasking, reduced work-family boundaries, increased work-family conflict, stalled career progression, increased stress, and lower well-being and life satisfaction (Leslie, 2012). 

For us, and for most new colleagues, the initial question was not “Can we work together?” It was “Can we trust each other?” And while our story is specific to us, this question applies to everyone. We were, like most people, careful about our disclosures, negotiating co-ownership as we built trust, especially in the context of the pandemic.

Part of the apprehension to disclose our stories emerges because once we tell our stories, we no longer fully own them. They are co-owned by both the storyteller and those they tell the story to. And, in co-ownership, rules that govern when and where that story is shared, and who re-tells that story, may shift. This often causes some discomfort and can lead to privacy violations and then distrust. 

So, how do we negotiate co-ownership to build trust? Much like with the calibration of on-screen presence: Responsibly and intentionally, mindful of your roles, and aligned with your objectives.

In a workshop for a world-class technology company, a woman executive in a male-dominated business unit shared a story of the hardest professional year of her life. Through tears, she disclosed a personal relationship experience that impacted her work. Almost immediately, a colleague used her own voice and presence on-screen to validate her colleague’s emotions and reflected back the meaning of that story: personal and professional growth through hardship. Their working relationship deepened. And others witnessing the exchange, now co-owners of the story too, reported being inspired and feeling more engaged with the team. 

For us, and for most new colleagues, the initial question was not “Can we work together?” It was “Can we trust each other?” And while our story is specific to us, this question applies to everyone.

As colleagues observing this exchange, we could relate. We too were intentional and mindful disclosing our own stories, cautious to seek alignment and ultimately courageously vulnerable. Our work and relationship seriously benefited. Our early meetings were productive and professional, but we were hiding the personal toll of the pandemic from each other. In addition to our work, we were balancing two marriages, three moves, three children, one pregnancy, and two sick dogs between us. We initially hid these personal stories. 

Melissa didn’t disclose about a dire childcare crisis or contracting the virus, unsure if Loren would judge her. Loren didn’t share about her husband’s military status or her pregnancy, unsure if Melissa would care. Neither of us shared stories of our activism work. We were laser focused on work-work. 

For us, eventually disclosing those very stories unlocked a trust and partnership that exponentially improved our productivity. Authentically and with intention, we uncovered our identities, mindful of our roles and our responsibilities to others and to each other. And when we both experienced hardships during the pandemic, we were able to be there personally for each other too. 

Policy makers and global political and business leaders have massive work ahead to significantly improve gender equality over the next decade to undo the damage done by the pandemic and regain lost ground. Structural, systemic change through policy is required. Policy, though, is built on stories. Stories, in turn, are driven by data and by people. Every day we all have the power and responsibility to shape those stories.

We can do this by owning our presence and sharing our stories intentionally and mindfully to enhance trust and influence across difference and distance. Our colleagues, organizations, and the world all need women’s stories represented individually and at scale. Amplify your presence and unmute your story, and elevate other voices to grow the empathy and action required for structural change. 


Dr. Loren Saxton Coleman is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies in the Cathy Hughes School of Communications at Howard University. Melissa Jones Briggs works as a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, where she co-teaches Acting with Power

 

REFERENCES

Alfieri, Anthony V. (2008). (Un)Covering Identity in civil rights and poverty law. Harvard law review V01. 121:805.

Cavarero, Adriana. (2000 [1997].) Relating narratives: Storytelling and selfhood. Translated by Paul A. Kottman. London: Routledge.

Fauville, G., Luo, M., Queiroz, A. C, Bailenson, J. N., Hancock, J. (2021.) Nonverbal Mechanisms Predict Zoom Fatigue and Explain Why Women Experience Higher Levels than Men.

Gruenfeld, D. (2020) Acting with Power: Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe. Penguin Random House.

Krukowski, R.A., Jagsi, R., Cardel, M. I., (March 2021.)Academic Productivity Differences by Gender and Child Age in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine Faculty During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Women's Health.341-347.

Levin, D. Z. and Kurtzberg, T. R. (2020). ‘ Sustaining employee networks in the virtual workplace’. MIT Sloan Management Review, 61, 13– 15.

Milliken F. J., Kneeland, M. K., Flynn, E. (2020) Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic for Gender Equity Issues at Work, Volume 57, Issue 8, 1767-1772.

Petronio, S. (2013). Brief status report on communication privacy management theory. Journal of Family Communication, 13, 6-14.

Smith, S. A. and Brunner, S. R. (2017). To reveal or conceal: Using communication privacy management theory to understand disclosures in the workplace. Management Communication Quarterly, 31(3), 429-446.

Smith, C. Yoshino, K. (2013), Uncovering talent: A new model of inclusion. Deloitte whitepaper. p. 11. 

Wanggren, L. (2013). Our stories matter: Storytelling and social justice in the Hollaback! Movement. Gender and Education, 28(3), 401-415. 

Whenham, C. (2020.) Covid-19 is an opportunity for gender equality within the workplace and at home. BMJ; 369.

A gender lens
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identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.