Jennifer Hancock is the author of several best-selling books and the founder of Humanist Learning Systems where she offers online personal and professional development programs for individuals and groups. She specializes in harassment and humanistic leadership. What makes her unique is that she teaches humanistic approaches grounded in dignity and compassion coupled with science-based behavioral modification techniques to create positive workplace cultures that eliminate unwanted behaviors like bullying, harassment, and discrimination while positively reinforcing the behaviors you do want.
Ms. Hancock has a BA in Liberal Studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa (1990). Her field of study combined cognitive linguistics, anthropology, and psychology. While in college, she apprenticed as a dolphin trainer for a dolphin language/cognition laboratory which is where she learned the behavioral science and behavior modification techniques she now teaches.
Ms. Hancock has worked in executive leadership roles her entire career (since graduating college in 1990). She has literally never not worked in leadership/management. In the course of her career, she has provided training to companies all over the world for both executive leadership as well as staff. She started training and coaching staff in her first job out of college as the director of volunteer services for the Los Angeles SPCA., and has provided training, support and mentoring programs at every job she’s held since including her stint at the manager of acquisition group information for a 1/2 billion-dollar company.
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We’re happy that you could join us today! Please introduce yourself to our readers. What’s your story?
Jennifer Hancock: I have a slightly unusual background. Two intellectual parents in a Los Angeles beach town raised me. That means I am a rare native Angelino. I am also culturally half Jewish, half Catholic and, as it turns out, all Humanist. I owe my Humanism to my parents who made the radical decision to respect my freedom of belief as a child, which at the time, just wasn’t done. Not only was I free to believe as I wanted, I was actively encouraged to think for myself and to challenge my assumptions through the extensive use of the Socratic method by my parents. Volunteerism and compassion for others was an active part of our family values. In other words, Humanism is natural to me. It was how I was raised and what I was taught to value. It is not something I learned about as an adult.
My academic career includes a degree in cognitive linguistics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa where I trained dolphins, and some time spent learning mandarin at the East China Normal University in Shanghai. And yes, both Hawaii and China are awesome places to be and for the record dolphins don’t feel like wet rubber. More like wet skin.
Anyway, my first job out college was as the Director of Volunteer Services for the LASPCA. I feel like I did a lot of good there. The feral cat management program I wrote has been adopted, literally, all over the world. My volunteer program was ground breaking and I ended up mentoring volunteer administrators in SPCAs across the country in addition to being a speaker at international conferences on volunteer administration.
When I moved to Florida I sold international franchise licenses for a biotech firm before joining a half billion-dollar company as their manager of acquisition group information. I got to decide how to spend about $25 million dollars every week. It was fun. I was hired because of my data modeling skills. You see I was a very early adopter of GIS technology and I have spoken at a few international GIS conferences. My data management design skills are good enough that I even won an industry award for best project optimization software. I feel pretty good about that too.
I left corporate life in 2001 to go back into the non-profit sector and had the honor to serve as the executive director for the Humanists of Florida Association. During my 6-year term in that position I grew our mailing list from 85 people to over 2,500 and significantly raised the profile of Humanism throughout the state. But it is the people I met and what I learned from them about my philosophy of life, Humanism, which has had the biggest impact on me. To say that Humanists are by and large extraordinary people is an understatement.
Through the course of my work as a Humanist I was privileged to speak to people across the state of Florida, at national conventions and in Europe. I have given countless media interviews providing the Humanist viewpoint on topics of the day and have written numerous articles for publication in everything from Florida newspapers to nationally recognized magazines and journals. I even had Phyllis Schafly of the Eagle Forum personally respond to one of my op-eds on the Equal Rights Amendment. I feel pretty good about that too.
Which brings us to the present. I left the Humanists of Florida Association to become a stay at home mom and to write a book. Through the course of my work as a Humanist I met many people who were Humanists and didn’t know it and others who could have benefited from the Humanist approach to life. But there were two specific conversations I had with young people that made me want to write my book. The first was a very disturbing conversation I had with my neighbor’s daughter and the other was an online question from someone struggling with an existential depression. I realized that both of these young people could benefit from an explicit discussion of the morals and values of Humanism in addition to the importance of thinking before you act which is so central to the Humanist approach to life. So, I wrote my book, became a blogger and a podcaster and once my son was old enough, starting doing public speaking engagements again. Which brings us to the present.
CEOs and leaders usually have different motives and aspirations when getting started. Let’s go straight to the beginning. What was your primary goal for starting your business? Was it wealth, respect, or to offer a service that would help improve lives?
Jennifer Hancock: I know how to stop bullying. It’s unethical not to share that information. I don’t need the money from doing this, I do it because it needs to be done and no one else seems to be doing it. As soon as this information becomes standard, my husband and I are retiring.
The way my company came about is that I was teaching people, being asked to speak and writing books. And I realized that, in order to really get bullying to stop, I need to reach parents directly. The problem? I can’t talk to each and every parent in the country. And I need to get compensated to dedicate the time needed to the project of teaching people how to stop bullying otherwise, I won’t be able to do it. It costs money to promote things, even if those things are – how to stop bullying.
Here was my grand thought. I need to reach parents. Where are parents? In the workplace being subjected to harassment training that tells them it’s illegal, but doesn’t tell them how to make it stop. I thought, if I can hijack the existing harassment training industry and insert the information on how to make harassment stop into the training, I could reach everyone. Or rather, the industry that provides harassment training can reach those people for me.
If successful, I will not only help organizations fix their harassment problem and get paid for it, I will also be arming parents with the information they need to help their children navigate difficult and painful social interactions. That is why I formed my company.
Tell us about 2 things that you like and two things that you dislike about your industry. Share what you’d like to see change and why.
Jennifer Hancock: I like that people in my industry are well intentioned and passionate. I also like that everyone wants to fix the problem.
What I don’t like? People don’t know what they don’t know. As I said, everyone in my industry is well intentioned and passionate. That is the good news. The bad news is that the training industry is largely driven by lawyers. I love lawyers, but they don’t know what they don’t know. They know the law. So the laws governing harassment training are law focused. The assumption is, if we just TELL people it’s against the law, they’ll stop harassing people. The problem is, never in the entire history of humanity as asking a person to stop bullying worked. Never. Not once.
The result is we have a huge industry and requirements to do training and the trainings are required to inform people about the law and their remedies under the law, but the law doesn’t say that they should also include information on how to make unwanted behavior like bullying and harassment stop.
The same thing is true of psychologists. The solution to the problem of unwanted behavior is a well researched operant conditioning technique known as “extinguishing a behavior.” The problem, it comes out of behavioral psychology and not clinical psychology. Further, the only people who really understand how to apply the technique appear to be animals trainers. This again falls into people not knowing what they don’t know. The good news is every psychologist I’ve ever talked to – is excited about the application of this. It’s just that they seem to need to be reminded as their training didn’t focus on behavioral modification.
Companies around the world are rapidly changing their work environment and organizational culture to facilitate diversity. How do you see your organizational culture changing in the next 3 years and how do you see yourself creating that change?
Jennifer Hancock: For me, the question is less about how we create diversity and more about how do we create inclusion. Even in homogenous organizations, there are people who are bullied and excluded.
If we want more diverse yet cohesive work groups, we need to eliminate bullying and other behaviors that sabotage inclusion efforts. There is a reason why most of these efforts fail, and that is because – people sabotage them! We need to be more proactive about addressing and eliminating the sabotaging behavior so that people recruited in – are actively included in the group, so that they CAN create the working relationships and trust required for everyone to be productive.
If all we ever do is try to recruit in diversity, regardless of the metrics we use, we will continue to fail. We must learn how and actively use the techniques we know work to eliminate bullying. Why? Because bullying is all about creating exclusion.
Humans are a tribal species. Our brains tend to see the world as our group and “others.” Bullies bully because it allows them to control who is in and who is out and that gives them a tremendous amount of power over any group. If you want diverse yet cohesive groups, you CANNOT allow bullies to exclude people and other them.
What I hope for the future, is that we start applying the science of how to get unwanted behaviors to stop and we use that to stop bullying behavior so we can final wrestle control away from the office bullies and finally create inclusive support work groups where fear of being ostracized no longer dictates what happens or how problems are solved – or not solved.
According to the Michigan State University “An organization’s culture is responsible for creating the kind of environment in which the business is managed, and has a major impact on its ultimate success or failure.” What kind of culture has your organization adopted and how has it impacted your business?
Jennifer Hancock: Supportive culture, where we support one another as humans first and colleagues 2nd is what I strive for in all my interactions. I find that trust is the single most important factor in how effectively I work with others and how well we collaborate to solve problems. When trust is absent, effective problem solving is absent too. Instead of solving our collective problems, we end up viewing our colleagues as the problem that needs to be solved. This takes our focus away from the problems our business is trying to solve and puts our energy into things that don’t move us forward.
I find I can get more done in less time and with less energy expended, in a trusting environment. It’s also WAY more pleasant to work in an environment where social trust is present. I don’t have anxiety about my colleagues. I know we will support one another and I know that because trust has been established.
Richard Branson once famously stated “There’s no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.” and Stephen R. Covey admonishes to “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers. What’s your take on creating a great organizational culture?
Jennifer Hancock: I agree with those. It’s basically a version of the golden rule. How I teach it is a little different though.
Your life is made easier when the people around you are ethical, compassionate and responsible. Your life is made harder when the people around you are missing even one of these attributes. For instance, if someone is ethical, and responsible, but not compassionate, it will make your life more difficult. If someone is compassionate and responsible but not ethical, it will make your life more difficult. If they are ethical and compassionate but not responsible, it will make your life more difficult.
If you want your life to be easier, you need to surround yourself with ethical, compassionate and responsible people. The ONLY way to get ethical, compassionate and responsible people to want to work with you, is to be ethical, compassionate and responsible yourself. Because if you are not ethical, compassionate and responsible, the good ethical, compassionate and responsible people of the world will want nothing to do with you.
I consider this the true holy trinity of how we should strive to behave. Be the best person you can be in all your interactions with all the people you meet and you will find that the good people of the world will seek you out and want to work with you and it will not only make your life easier, it will improve your corporate culture and your ability to get things done effectively, ethically and responsibly.
The overwhelming majority of more than 9,000 workers included in a recent Accenture survey on the future of work said they felt a hybrid work model would be optimal going forward, a major reason for that being the improved work-life balance that it offers. How do you promote work-life balance at your company?
Jennifer Hancock: I work from home already and I would never go into an office only situation. The reality is, unless you need to be physically present to say, answer the phones, you don’t need to be in the office all the time. If you are, you will end up doing busy work for the sake of doing busy work.
I do thought work. To be effective, I do need time to think. That means, I need to not work so that my brain has time to rest. Knowing that I have the ability to care for a sick child, means that when I am at work, work has my full attention. My attention is not divided. That is the big benefit for work life balance.
How would you describe your company’s overall culture? Give us examples.
Jennifer Hancock: Happy and productive.
I was talking to some colleagues today on a board meeting I participated in. And I talked about how happy participating in the group makes me. And the work I do for them, doesn’t feel like work because it’s so fun. One of my colleagues remarked that where she is, if you appear to be having fun, they don’t think you are working hard enough. I felt so bad for her.
Work should be fun and can be fun. People who cultivate a harried, put upon sense of self, that they are so busy they just can’t, are hurting themselves and others. Happiness is hard to come by.
One of my favorite quotes is by Robert Louis Stevenson. He said, “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy, we sow anonymous benefits upon the world, which remain unknown even to ourselves, or when they are disclosed, surprise nobody so much as the benefactor.”
Think about the people you interact with throughout the day. If a barista is happy, it helps make you happy. You share in the joy, it helps you feel connected to another human, no matter how briefly. We should be encouraging happiness as a norm. Not as an oppressive performative norm, but just – it’s ok to be happy. Being happy is precious.
The way to create such a culture is, paradoxically, to allow for unhappiness. To share in people’s struggles as well. No one is happy all the time. Life can be hard. This is why the sharing of happiness and the sharing of struggles is so important to creating a good work community. Making space for people to be fully messily human, allows people to share their emotions (good or bad) and to experience the connections that help us feel safe. And that, helps create happiness.
It is believed that a company’s culture is rooted in a company’s values. What are your values and how do they affect daily life at the workplace?
Jennifer Hancock: Love, Compassion, Professionalism
It may seem odd to talk about love in the context of work but here is how I think about it. Love is the reason I do the work I do. The world has problems, my company helps solve them. The work of the company is born out of love and is done because of love.
Compassion is harnessing that love into passion – which is action. It’s about remembering to actively treat people with love and care as I interact with them, no matter how tiny that interaction may be. I strive to recognize them as fully human.
Finally, professionalism. This is about not only getting things done, but getting them done in a way I can feel proud of. The work gets done. It’s done in a timely manner. It’s done well. And my interactions with people are prompt and informed by dignity, mine and theirs.
An organization’s management has a deep impact on its culture. What is your management style and how well has it worked so far?
Jennifer Hancock: I think my style is open, supportive and driven.
I like what I do and I like the people I do it with. I feel that this is part of the reason I’m able to do what I do. I don’t pretend I’m someone I’m not. I don’t pretend I don’t have challenges. I recently showed up to a zoom call with a VERY big corporation about a possible partnership and I realized afterwards, I was wearing a t-shirt. I hadn’t gotten gussied up to be professional. They extended a teaming agreement to me anyway. Why? Because I was open and honest about what I want to accomplish, why I want to accomplish it, what I am not good at, what I need help with and more. I was open about the good and bad of myself and my company and I am convinced it was my open, honest supportive and driven nature that is the reason they extended me a teaming agreement.
Every organization suffers from internal conflicts, whether functional or dysfunctional. Our readers would love to know, how do you solve an internal conflict?
Jennifer Hancock: First thing I do is acknowledge there is a conflict. And that I am frustrated or insecure about the conflict. I then address the person I am in conflict with by taking ownership of my side of it.
Often, they don’t know that they just did something that upset me. It’s rarely the case they did it intentionally. So – I take ownership of my emotions. My emotional response is my responsibility.
When I approach them, I approach them with humility. This is on my side and it’s a communication problem that I’m hoping they can help work through. I rarely encounter someone who isn’t willing to engage and fix it. And then, we talk about our different sides and impressions of it and work towards a resolution.
I find that when I work from a place of dignity, meaning, I start with trusting that they are well intentioned, that this works to set the tone of collaboration and support and trust. And it’s the trust, that helps us fix the problem.
According to Culture AMP, Only 40% of women feel satisfied with the decision-making process at their organization (versus 70% of men), which leads to job dissatisfaction and poor employee retention. What is your organization doing to facilitate an inclusive and supportive environment for women?
Jennifer Hancock: Because this isn’t an issue in my company – because – I’m it. I’m a sole proprietor, I’m going to answer this question by referring to the work one of the boards I serve on.
The International Humanistic Management Association USA Chapter executive leadership now, is all female. But even before the current board, we’ve always have a mixed board. And I’ve been happy with how decisions are made. I feel like my voice is heard. A big part of the reason why is because of trust. I truly like and trust my colleagues. I know that i can speak freely and add in my two cents and be taken seriously, which is incredible. Especially since I have a bachelors and everyone else is PhD level education. They still treat me as a valued member of the team and elected me to be vp of the board this past June.
This doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements or that interpersonal trust issues don’t arise. But we are all committed to living our values. When a problem arises, we start by assuming goodwill for everyone involved. The result is a truly collaborative culture. It’s great.
We’re grateful for all that you have shared so far! We would also love to know if there was one thing that you could improve about your company’s culture, what would it be?
Jennifer Hancock: Allowing people to help.
I have realized that to accomplish the things i want to accomplish, I need to not only allow people to help me, I need to relinquish control so that people CAN collaborate.
Business is all about overcoming obstacles and creating opportunities for growth. What do you see as the real challenge right now?
Jennifer Hancock: My biggest challenge, is acknowledging to myself that I am failing in the areas that I am not succeeding it. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
If I am going to have the impact I want, I need to acknowledge what isn’t’ working and change it. And this is extraordinarily difficult to do. Our societal culture is now one where we need to market ourselves. Put some lipstick on that pig and get it out there. I don’t think this is healthy for anyone. I am a big advocate of honesty. If something isn’t ok. We need to make space for and acknowledge it isn’t ok. It’s only when we acknowledge it isn’t ok, that we can start fixing it. Putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t change the pig. If we want change, the first step is acknowledging that change is needed.
In a business environment, it’s hard. But it’s necessary.
This has been truly insightful and we thank you for your time. Our final question, however, might be a bit of a curveball. If you had a choice to either fly or be invisible, which would you choose and why?
Jennifer Hancock: Fly. easily.
I love the sensation of soaring you get when you are on a rollercoaster. I love the sensation of rising and falling and life. If I could fly- it would be amazing. Instead of getting in a car and fighting traffic, I could just – fly to the beach. It would be amazing.
I see no benefits to becoming invisible. If I want to hide, I can just close a door.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Jennifer Hancock for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Jennifer Hancock or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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