Jennifer Hancock is the author of several award-winning books and the founder of Humanist Learning Systems. She has served in executive leadership positions her entire working career. Jennifer is considered one of the top speakers and writers in the world of Humanism today. Her professional background is varied including stints in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. She has served as Director of Volunteer Services for the Los Angeles SPCA, sold international franchise licenses for a biotech firm, was the Manager of Acquisition Group Information for a ½ billion-dollar company, and served as the executive director for the Humanists of Florida before founding her own company. She is currently the vice president of the USA Chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association.
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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 am a Humanist and approach leadership from a starting point of treating people with dignity. I have worked as both a volunteer manager and a for-profit manager and have overseen transformational change successfully turning toxic workplace cultures into supportive cultures. I do this using a combination of humanistic philosophy and behavioral science know-how.
I have a varied background, including being the drum major of my high school band starting in sophomore year, training dolphins at a dolphin language research facility in Hawaii, and then becoming the Director of Volunteers for the Los Angeles SPCA, moving on to becoming the manager of acquisitions for a 1/2 billion dollar tower company before becoming the executive director for the Humanists of FL. I now run my own online learning company and serve on two volunteer boards.
My current goal is to eliminate bullying and harassment, which is doable using behavioral techniques. To do this, I need to reach parents to teach them what they need to know to help their kids. What I want to do is to augment that training and teach people what to do if it happens to them to make it stop. When we teach the adults how to stop bullying, we are teaching them how to help their kids stop bullying. Imagine a future where no kid is traumatized by bullying. How would that change society? I think we should find out.
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 is immoral to not share that information. That is why I started my company.
Here was my thinking. I need to reach parents to teach them what they need to know to help their kids stop bullying. Where are parents? They are in the workplace being subjected to harassment training that tells them “It’s illegal, don’t do that.”
What if we taught them not only – “it’s illegal, don’t do that” and added in – “and if it happens to you, here is what you need to do to make it stop.” Not only would we finally start to fix workplace culture, we would also be teaching parents the exact scientifically backed skills they need to teach their kids to help them not only protect themselves from bullying but to make it stop. When we teach the adults how to stop bullying, we are teaching them how to help their kids stop bullying
Imagine a future where no kid is traumatized by bullying. How would that change society? I think we should find out. This is doable IF we use science. Since so many countries have anti-harassment laws and mandate harassment training, Hijacking an existing mandate to get this information into wide use seems like the most efficient way to disseminate the needed information. It has the added benefit of being financially sustainable. Since companies have to pay to conduct harassment training already that is mandated by law. There are existing industry and money streams already in place to fund this. It’s just a matter of getting the additional information added to the training.
This is why I founded my company. To transform harassment training to change the world by eliminating bullying. I’ll know I succeeded when I’m not the only person teaching this material. Once this content becomes standard for harassment training, my work and my company will no longer be needed.
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: What do I like about the education and compliance training industry?
- People really care and all the other educators I’ve met are genuinely nice.
- I love the interdisciplinary nature of education and the collaborative nature of the practitioners.
What I don’t like? It’s specific to the harassment training industry.
- The requirements for what has to be included in the training were written by lawyers with no knowledge of how to make behaviors stop.
Their knowledge is about what the law is and how to sue if your rights are violated. That’s fine and it’s necessary, but the training requirements developed are ineffective and based on a false assumption. That assumption is that if we just tell people it’s illegal, they will stop. Never in the entire history of bullying and harassment has asking the person to stop ever worked!
- Many companies look at the training requirement as a hassle instead of as an opportunity.
It’s something they have to check off on their to-do list. Instead, they could use the training requirement as an opportunity to set the stage for cultural change.
The good news is that there are many organizations trying to do that, but since no one seems to know what works to make behaviors stop, they are still coming at this from a – if we just tell them it hurts people, they’ll stop assumption. I see so many RFPs that want a conversation on discrimination as if that will impact or change anyone’s behavior. It will definitely raise awareness, and that’s good. But if you want to create behavioral change, you need to take a behavioral approach. Otherwise, all you are doing is raising awareness.
The other thing is until we start building systems that take into account retaliation as a predicted behavioral response we will continue to fail to create the change we all want to see.
What I’d like to see change? I’d like people in this field to learn the ins and outs of behavioral science as it applied to bullying and harassment behavior and to use that knowledge, to take a systems approach to eliminate bullying and harassment behavior so that we can proactively creative inclusive work cultures instead of allowing individuals to sabotage our efforts.
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: In order to facilitate diversity we have to act positively to reinforce inclusion behavior. At the moment, in most companies, diversity efforts are hampered by the active sabotage of diversity hires. Until we stop that from happening, we will not be able to create truly diverse yet cohesive workgroups. To translate, we need to stop bullying because bullying is done to exclude people – and that kills diversity efforts.
My company is small. It’s just me. What I do is work with companies to help them succeed in their organizational transformation efforts. And I do that by helping them eliminate their organizational bullies so that the saboteurs can no longer sabotage their efforts.
Bullies bully because it gives them power. If they can exclude people, they win. Bullies within your organization will create toxic and exclusive work environments. If someone is actively working to exclude their colleagues socially within an organization, you will not be able to create a diverse yet cohesive workgroup. In order to counteract this managers need to know how to use behavioral reinforcements to both reward inclusion and to stop and neutralize exclusion behavior.
How do I see myself creating that change? I know and understand the science of how to stop unwanted behaviors and how to positively reinforce the behaviors you do want. And I’ve done this for every organization I’ve worked for – and I’ve done it successfully. Most people don’t believe this is possible because they’ve never worked for an organization without a bully or without exclusion before. But it’s doable and it’s amazing how much productivity increases when you don’t have people actively sabotaging the efforts of a team. Or sabotaging an individual on a team. It’s doable. My role is to help teach people the science so that they can take control of the behavioral dynamics within their organizations that are holding them back so they can unleash their staff and free them from the oppression of the office bully/saboteur.
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: Inclusion culture. Making sure everyone is included and valued and is psychologically safe by eliminating bullying. All businesses are in the business of solving problems. To do that well requires teamwork and support and a collaborative problem-solving atmosphere. By rewarding inclusion and eliminating exclusion, you create a naturally supporting culture within the organization where people are free to collaborate without the worry of retaliation.
While my current company is a solopreneur, in the past, I have done this for the organizations I’ve worked for and I can speak to how that impacted them. At the Los Angeles SPCA, when I was first hired, we had 10 volunteers and a volunteer administrator. The volunteer’s job was to spy on staff and report them for – bad behavior. Needless to say, the environment was toxic. Very very very toxic. No one trusted anyone else.
The first thing I did was to talk to the staff and figure out what would actually help them and then write job descriptions for our volunteers. I talked to each about the new roles we wanted them to fill. Most were thrilled with the change. We then trained them and paired them with a willing staff member. It took only a few months for trust to be established between staff and volunteers. Only one volunteer objected to the new role. She had been the volunteer administrator and did not like losing her power. We fired her since she refused to do the work we had asked her to do. What followed next was an all-out assault on my character as this woman tried to use every available method to get me fired. I had to withstand attacks on my clothing choices. I had to withstand attacks on my sexual morals. You name it, she attacked it. Fortunately, I had the support of upper management and all the volunteers and staff that were now enjoying positive working relationships. Eventually, she gave up.
From that point on, the volunteer program grew and grew and grew. We created volunteer partnerships with the boys and girls clubs and with groups with people with dual diagnoses. One by one, departments came to me and asked me if they could have volunteers to help them with their work. Eventually, all departments had volunteers.
How much obstruction and damage did that one toxic volunteer cause? Well, we went from 10 volunteers and toxic staff volunteer relationships to over 500 volunteers donating over 20,000 hours a year. That is the equivalent of 10 full-time employees in lost productivity that one toxic person was causing us. Imagine how much damage a full-time toxic paid staff member could be costing you?
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: Treat people with dignity and treat them like they matter because they do. The job of a manager is not an oversite function, it’s a support role. What do the employees need to get their work done? If they aren’t getting work done, what do they need to fix the problem so they can get the work done? I think half the battle is just philosophy. Not everyone is cut out to be a manager and new managers need to be enculturated and mentored so that when they encounter problems, they are given advice on how to deal with the problem that is consistent with the cultural values of the company.
One of the main questions I get on my regularly hosted humanistic management professionals lunch and learn is – how do we make sure culture makes it to the bottom of the employee pyramid. And the answer to that lies in how the lower managers are taught to manage – if they are taught at all, usually, they aren’t. Managers need to be taught the values of management and mentored through the rough spots. And like all employees, new managers will focus on what it is their managers focus on. If the managers of the managers focus on output, then the lower manager won’t be focused on culture and on how well employees are treated.
This is again, about what we choose to reward and what we choose to ignore. Someone once said the culture of an organization is based on the last person promoted. Everyone sees what sort of behavior gets rewarded. If you want a particular type of culture, be very specific about what behaviors you reward.
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 promote work-life balance by taking it seriously for myself. I value being efficient and being effective over being busy. The job is to solve problems. Not to create problems. Not to pretend to be too busy to solve problems, but to actually solve problems.
One company I worked for, we had an entire department that was positively rewarded socially for being too busy to get work done. Seriously, that was what was rewarded. The people who had so much on their plate that they couldn’t possibly get it all done, bragged about it – because – it gave them social status in the department. The result was an incredibly overworked and totally inefficient department that didn’t get much work done.
My department was asked to step in and help, and we started to clear their backlog of work quickly because the work wasn’t that hard. Our customers thanked us and said they had been trying for months to renew their lease and we were the first people to call them back. The head of that department and their staff were furious because we made them look bad, but the problem was, they had developed a culture that wasn’t good. It rewarded the wrong things.
Work-life balance is critical to effective employees because to get the work done requires you to be effective and not waste time doing things just for the sake of doing things. More time at work doesn’t mean more work is getting done. Reward and reinforce work-life balance. You will have happier employees, and a smaller payroll, and happier customers.
How would you describe your company’s overall culture? Give us examples.
Jennifer Hancock: Humanistic.
Making it ok for people to be human is critical. I do this with my customers. I get people who are court-ordered to take my harassment classes. And they end up loving it. Why? Because I don’t treat them as bad people. I don’t assume they are a problem. I treat them with dignity despite their flaws and help them learn to be better. When I get hired by companies to do training, I will often be told they have a problem person that they are hoping my training will fix. And it usually does. But what I always find is that the “problem” person isn’t a problem person at all, they are just being treated as if they are a problem and they are responding accordingly by defending themselves, thus creating a vicious rather than virtuous cycle.
What I do is help reset that cycle and teach everyone how to reward the good behavior and reset the bad behavior. While everyone uses my techniques for selfish reasons, the net effect is that it creates a virtuous self-reinforcing cycle and the problem gets solved. The other thing that happens is this: If someone is actively sabotaging a colleague, they will be found out as their attempts at sabotage stop working. And it’s often NOT the person I was told was the problem but someone else entirely who was flying under the radar using passive-aggressive techniques to mess with a person who was responding to the stress, badly.
Fix the sabotage, fix the problem. I always tell my clients, don’t assume you know who is doing what. Treat everyone with dignity and teach them how to stop unwanted behavior in a dignified, compassionate, and professional way and good people will thrive. People with bad intentions, will not. And you will not necessarily know who that is until you implement the process.
I wish I could be more specific, but there are confidentiality issues at stake. Suffice it to say, retaliation is predicted to occur when someone loses their ability to exclude others. The person who keeps behaving badly will go from passive to overt when their ability to control social dynamics is eliminated. And, this is VERY predictable.
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: My core values are – ethical, compassionate, and responsible. All three. Think about it. If someone is compassionate and responsible but not ethical, do you want to be around them? No? What if they are ethical and compassionate but not responsible? What if they are ethical and responsible but not compassionate? We need all three to be considered “good” people by the people around us.
This is the golden rule, except, reversed. It’s not – treat others as you would like to be treated. It’s understanding that your life is made easier if the people around you are ethical compassionate and responsible. Your life is made harder if the people around you are lacking in any of these qualities. The way to ensure that most of the people around you are ethical, compassionate, and responsible is to be ethical, compassionate, and responsible yourself. Why? Because the good ethical, compassionate responsible people of the world, don’t waste their time on people who aren’t.
Want good people around you? Be a good person yourself.
How does this affect my daily life? It’s a reminder to myself to behave ethically, compassionately, and responsibly especially when it’s hard to do. We all encounter difficult people in our lives. It’s very easy to get frustrated. But I find when I remind myself to behave in accordance with my values, I am better able to muster up the compassion needed to treat people with dignity, despite my initial annoyance. And this practice has changed everything. It is really a transformative practice.
When I teach compassion as part of the process to people, it’s the part they resist the most. They just don’t believe it will work. But then they try it and come back and say, it’s changed everything. There is a reason why every major philosopher and religious leader throughout history has preached and taught compassion. It is the single most powerful tool in your interpersonal toolkit and it will transform you in a way you can’t even imagine.
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: Humanistic Leadership is my style. I combine compassionate ethics, dignity for individuals with reality-based strategy development and this has always worked so far.
I’ve succeeded in pretty much everything I’ve taken on, precisely because I use science to help me succeed. And the great thing is, the science pretty much validates taking a compassion-based, dignified approach to everything.
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: Given that it’s just me, I solve internal conflicts by reasoning through the problem and actively and explicitly invoking my ethical values to help me decide what to do. And when that isn’t enough, I talk with a confidant who shares my values to get their input. Once I’ve made a decision, the next step is to devise a strategy on how to accomplish the best and the least harm in a less-than-ideal situation. And to me, that is the key. We often can’t create ideal outcomes. To paraphrase from the Hindi movie “Fanaa” Morality isn’t choosing between good and bad. It’s about choosing between the lesser of two evils or the greater of two goods.
Being realistic that I may not have good options and the best I can do is to do the best and the least harm, frees me up to act as best I can at the time. And that has to be enough.
“The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” Henry David Thoreau.
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: Actively including women in the decision-making process. The non-profit I volunteer with, our board is now 100% women. Because of behavioral conditioning that occurs, it is sometimes hard for women to be heard in collaborative decision making processes. It’s also not uncommon for people to bully and cajole their way to dominance. In order to ensure inclusion and to ensure that all feedback and input is received, leaders have to hold space for people and positively reward input from people instead of just allowing the loudest people to dominate.
One way to do this is for women to amplify each other. To take their turn to raise up one of their colleagues. Using power to amplify another person is a great way to positively reinforce inclusion behavior through behavioral modeling, repetition, and recognition.
What role do your company’s culture and values play in the recruitment process and how do you ensure that it is free from bias?
Jennifer Hancock: I haven’t had to do this yet, but… I have done this in the past. The first step is to recognize that our initial response is probably biased and to intentionally choose to test that bias by overriding our instincts and deepening the interview process. Another way to do this is open hiring. Taking on everyone that applies in the order they applied and putting them through an onboarding process to weed out those that will end up doing a good job and those that don’t.
There is a bakery in NY that does this and it’s in line with how volunteer management recruits volunteers. In a volunteer management situation, you take all volunteers. You provide them with an orientation and training and then – put them into their roles with a mentor to support them. People who will succeed stay on, those that don’t, go away. For entry-level positions, this works amazingly well.
One of the reasons why is because our biases look for reasons. So if we don’t have a good reason to reject someone, we will come up with a bad reason. If everything is equal between candidates, choose the one to hire randomly. Don’t convince yourself you are smart enough to know which one is better. Just – make a random selection. And yes, there is research that says this works.
The other part of this is – advancement. Because bias impacts who gets mentored and who develops the relationships needed for advancement, it means that good people may not be advanced because of that bias. to counteract that, you need to affirmatively take action to counteract those biases and make an effort to develop relationships with all employees and not just those that you “like” so that everyone is given an opportunity to practice leadership within the groups and be recognized as possibly worthy of advancement.
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: It’s hard to say, most of the problems I’m having have to do with motivation due to all that is happening externally. To be honest, more customers would help.
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. Easy to answer. Why? Because I love the feeling of being on a rollercoaster and those drop rides. I think being able to fly would make life really fun. I could go to the beach, without getting in a car for instance! Being invisible would do nothing for me. Flying would be awesome.
Larry Yatch, 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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