Toxic cultures–at home, school, work, in faith communities–make it incredibly hard to do the right thing.
Choosing to risk your reputation or livelihood when you want to move from being a bystander to standing up for what is right is a bind too many face when they want to say ‘no more’ to abuses of power.
Yes, we need to move beyond being passive bystanders and be better allies. Yet I want to acknowledge that the stakes are high in moving from bystander into the spotlight.
It is challenging to speak up when the safety and livelihood of a bystander are pitted against standing up to abuses of power.
The fear of retaliation or becoming a target of abuse is real. So is lack of trust that speaking up will impact change.
Being a bystander and watching harm being done to someone takes its own toll on your health and your confidence when the culture you are in supports secrecy and silence.
My guest today is deeply committed to changing the impact of the bystander effect.
She is calling on leaders to shift organizational cultures of all kinds so bystanders feel empowered to speak up instead of staying silent and colluding with toxic work environments.
Tiffany Bluhm is the author of Prey Tell: Why We Silence Women Who Tell the Truth and How Everyone Can Speak Up. She is a sought-after speaker, writer, and co-host of the popular podcast Why Tho, a show answering the existential and nonsensical questions we ask ourselves. As a minority, immigrant woman with an interracial family, she is passionate about women’s equality, justice, and dignity.
Content Warning: This episode includes discussion on the impact of sexual assault and rape culture.
Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:
Tiffany Bluhm: We often expect those who’ve been victimized to push toward the line of justice, and, in reality, it’s the bystanders. It’s all of us who we must ask ourselves do you have a moral, ethical obligation as a leader in any capacity, whether it’s the first day on the job or 30 years on the job, what’s my role? Is this not my circus, not my monkeys or do I have something to do here?
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: Leading does not just happen from front and center. We can lead in powerful ways even when the spotlight is not shining on us. We all have a role in cultivating the spaces we live and work, even when behind the scenes. Just because you're not leading from the spotlight does not mean your impact is less important or needed. Many underestimate their power and even their responsibilities when they stay out of the spotlight. It feels safer, more controlled, but when you witness injustices, the stakes are unfortunately high on whether to step into the spotlight and speak up or stay silent on the sidelines. There are often great costs choosing to move from being a bystander in a situation when harm is done to stepping up and speaking out.
Disrupting the status quo is messy, risky, and even dangerous. Toxic cultures make it incredibly hard to do the right thing. They leave many afraid to step up and speak out when the threat of backlash could mean losing their job or turning the focus of abuse on them. Choosing to risk your own reputation or livelihood when you want to move from being a bystander to standing up for what is right is a bind too many face when they want to say no more to abuses of power.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with leaders whose burdens have inspired their life's work. Our goal is to learn how they’ve addressed these burdens, how they rise from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
You can have an incredible impact leading from behind the scenes. You can do meaningful work while keeping your head down and staying in your lane, but when you witness an injustice, it is time to step out from the comfort of the sidelines and move from bystander to disruptor. The Bystander Effect is a well-documented phenomenon where fewer people take action when more people are around. A bystander is defined as someone who is present at an event or incident but does not take part.
In my 18 years as a trauma therapist, one of the most challenging aspects of healing from abuse, bullying, discrimination is working through the pain of betrayal from those who knew what was happening but stayed quiet. In many cases, this wounding was more difficult to reckon with than the actions from the actual perpetrator of the abuse. The systemic impact of trauma, abuse, discrimination is far-reaching and does not leave anyone unscathed. Yes, we need to move beyond being passive bystanders and be better allies. I think it’s important to note that a system that supports the bully is complex and entrenched.
I want to acknowledge the stakes are high to move from bystander into the spotlight. It is especially challenging to speak up when the safety and livelihood of a bystander are pitted against standing up to abuses of power. The fear of retaliation or becoming a target of abuse is real and is not to be minimized. Lack of trust that speaking up will impact change or make a difference is also real. It’s also important to note the toll of witnessing harm being done and feeling unsafe or powerless to do anything about it drains and depletes.
Being a bystander and watching harm being done to someone takes a toll on your health and your confidence when the culture you are in supports secrecy and silence. Shedding down our humanity as a means of survival or protection impacts mental and physical well-being in addition to work performance. Staying silent and choosing to go against our humanity makes us sick. The systems that support complacency and do not support bystanders stepping up also make us sick. Too many cultures from homes to schools to businesses to faith communities have serious work to do to get to a place where bystanders are empowered, valued, and protected when they speak up to injustice.
My guest today is deeply committed to changing the impact of The Bystander Effect. She is calling up leaders to shift organizational cultures of all kinds so bystanders feel empowered to speak up instead of staying silent and colluding with toxic work environments. Tiffany Bluhm is the author of Prey Tell: Why We Silence Women Who Tell the Truth and How Everyone Can Speak Up. She is a sought-after speaker, writer, podcast host of the popular podcast Why Tho, a show that answers the existential questions and nonsensical questions we ask ourselves. As a minority immigrant woman with an interracial family, she is passionate about womens’ equality, justice, and dignity.
Listen for the powerful insights Tiffany shared on the components of a culture that cultivates secrecy and silence, and pay attention as Tiffany takes us on an eye-opening journey through history noting the evolution and intersection of purity culture, rape culture, and white supremacy.
Notice what Tiffany says we need to do in the spaces we live and work so we can be better allies to women. Now, please note, there is a content warning for this episode as there are times in our conversation where we talk about the impact of sexual assault and rape culture. Now, please welcome Tiffany Bluhm to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
I am so, so thrilled to have this conversion today with Tiffany Bluhm and welcome you, Tiffany, to the podcast. Thank you so much for being here today.
Tiffany Bluhm: Ah, thanks for having me!
Rebecca Ching: Well, we were just chatting before we got into this, and I already feel like we could just sit and have coffee for hours and solve all the world’s problems and fix it all, right?
Tiffany Bluhm: Truly. In San Diego because I’m coming for your sunshine.
Rebecca Ching: Bring it. Bring it. They're not lacking here.
Tiffany Bluhm: I’ll leave rainy Seattle for you.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Anytime. Anytime. So you have a new book that just came out, and it’s so interesting because I didn't realize how many people you and I have in common that we know. We’re, like, one degree of separation of several people in these circles that we run in, but I actually saw someone that I knew when I lived in Switzerland, and she posted about your book, and her story resonated deeply with it. I thought, okay, I’m gonna check this out, and I started reading about it. Then, I started seeing colleague after colleague after colleague -- I’m like, “Oh! She knows her? She knows her? Okay.” I’m like, “All right.” I was so thrilled when you accepted my invitation.
I want to kick off -- I could have just done this whole interview where I’m just reading quotes from your book and say, “Tell me more.” [Laughs]
Tiffany Bluhm: [Laughs] Oh, that’s fun, but especially remind me since I wrote it a year ago. [Laughs] I turned it in a year ago.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] You write in your newest book called Prey Tell -- for our listeners it’s P-R-E-Y Tell. SO it’s an important play on the prey. You wrote, quote, “Many of us would rather live with secrets than find out what happens if we tell the truth because we know the consequences are different for everyone.”
So that was a moment where I just kind of paused reading your book and took that in. I’m curious, for you, what was the turning point for you speaking truth instead of keeping secrets?
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, well, just to give a little context too, the book is all about why we silence women who tell the truth and how everyone can speak up, and so, in my experience, I treated a secret that I had -- an inconvenient truth that I knew about somebody who held a lot of power in my world as an act of self-preservation, Rebecca. I felt like to play this safe for myself, for my family, for my paycheck, for my world, for the system I operated in, it would be wise for me to stay silent. It gave me a sense of control and power, and, in reality, I was chained to this secret. Michael Slepian, at Columbia, he says, “We don't keep secrets; secrets keep us.” And so, when I realized that I can’t live like this any longer, it was after -- and you’ll be very familiar with this -- it was after night terrors, it was after months of stomach aches, it was after sleepless nights, it was after vomiting in the middle of the night because I was so overcome by what I knew and the effects it would have on me if I spoke up but, again, I still felt some semblance of control.
So, for me, the turning point was realizing I can escape this system and, don’t get me wrong, I 100% made my way to the exit door, but, at the same time, realizing other women are gonna be hurt and harmed unless I speak up. So it took an understanding that it wasn't just me who was harmed. I had to speak up on behalf of others. So it was this both-and for myself and for other people.
Rebecca Ching: You talk about the impact of secrets, and going back to my experiences in DC and New York and even in Europe working for an international non-profit where it was implicitly and explicitly suggested and told when I would see things that weren’t right or see behaviors or policies or expectations, and I was told, “Protect your reputation.”
“This isn't worth it.” “They will win.” “They have more power.” “What’s the point?” “It’s not gonna change.” I would get these messages and, obviously, it taps into my own sense of justice and even in my own personal story where I felt like this is so Captain Obvious how wrong this is, and everyone’s just colluding with it, but you just said, “I knew that I had to do this not just for me, but for other women.” So tell me a little bit more about that process.
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, you really hit on something so powerful that I just want to point out. These androcentric spaces that many of us operate in, we have these messages, just as you said so perfectly, “Don't speak up.” “Don’t rock the boat or you’ll get thrown out.” “This is how it’s always been.” “Just get in line.” Like you said, everybody’s complicit. Everybody’s in on it, and this is just the way it is. The status quo isn't to be challenged, and I think when I thought of the harm I went through as not the person who -- although, I was in a place where I was harassed and my loyalty was exploited, when I discovered what happened to a dear friend of mine in this system who had a lot to lose (much more than I did), I thought to myself, “What’s my role here?”
I think that’s what Prey Tell is all about. It’s not about the person who, maybe, has been victimized. We often expect those who’ve been victimized to push toward the line of justice, and, in reality, it’s the bystanders. It’s all of us who we must ask ourselves do you have a moral, ethical obligation as a leader in any capacity, whether it’s the first day on the job or 30 years on the job, what’s my role?
Is this not my circus, not my monkeys or do I have something to do here because too many of us default to one of two things. Number one, it’s the job of the woman. She’s gotta speak up. This happened to her? She needs to handle it, and she is dealing with the emotional ramifications of the situation or it’s the job of the leadership as if we’d expect them to bend and lend their power in favor of somebody else that would not benefit them. So, then, what’s left? It’s the rest of us, and so many of us feel like who am I? Who am I to say anything or rock this boat? I don't want to lose my proximity to power, and in my situation, that was very much the case.
I was the breadwinner for my home, Rebecca. I had a significant amount of power in the system that I operated in, and so, to put that all on the line (my reputation, my professional career, the trajectory for my life), that was a huge cost to count. In fact, I recently discovered that it’s very common when a woman is interviewed, “Why did you leave your last job?” In some way, shape, or form, she will likely say, “There was sexism. There was misogyny. It was a patriarchal space where women were not elevated - perhaps, on paper but not in practice. We weren’t heard or seen or valued or dignified,” and it’s just this reminder that this is everywhere. Like you said, it’s like we’re all colluding into it, and we just decide this is how the world operates. This is Mad Men apparently. It’s in every sector of society - education, politics, entertainment, religion, business, obviously.
We can't see to escape this, and so, my heart and my desire and my hope and vision is that we would all consider our space, our complicity, and what would it take from our point a view, whether you have a significant amount of leadership or you don't, what would it look like for you to leverage it for equitable, balanced spaces?
Rebecca Ching: Okay, bystanders. I think you nailed it in expecting the person who has been hurt or the system or person that’s done the hurt to work it out. You know what’s interesting? In 18 years of clinical work specializing in trauma, the most difficult aspects of whatever the violation, the betrayal has been has not been the perpetrator. It has been those that were the bystanders that knew what was going on and didn't do anything. That has been the biggest hurdle for people to heal from.
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: It’s more difficult from healing from those that witnessed and didn't do anything than the actual violation and the person that violated them.
Tiffany Bluhm: Come on, now. Come on, now. Come on!
Rebecca Ching: Right?
Tiffany Bluhm: And wouldn't you agree that there’s a particular harm if it’s women? Women who do not defend other women but, instead, stay silent.
Rebecca Ching: Been there.
Tiffany Bluhm: Then, when push came to shove, they defended an abuser of power at a woman’s expense. I think that there is nothing worse than a woman bystander refusing to stand up for another woman.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, so I appreciate that nuance, and so often, I would hear, “It’s not my problem.” I don't want to get too messy, and I’ve got my hands up in the air like nope! I was so confused by that because professed values would say they needed to stand up, but the lived values are it’s messy to live your values, even in organizations that profess faith or profess justice or the greater good. I mean, we’re humans, I get it. This journey of being human is deeply flawed, and so, that, to me, I think was a really -- circling back to the perpetrator piece alongside the bystander, to me, I think a lot of this violence -- and we’re seeing this in culture too, and more people recognizing it.
There’s that phrase, “Silence is violence,” and I don’t want to totally hashtag it, but, to me, I do believe it, and there’s nuance there too because my speaking up is gonna invite a lot of difficulty into your life. So just wanted to spend a little time on that.
You said a word that I’m not sure I’m clear on, and I suspect those listening may not be. I’m not gonna repeat it correctly.
Tiffany Bluhm: Androcentric - it just means men-focused where men are at the center, and we’re patriarchy and patriarchal systems. It’s a little bit more formal, right? They're systems rather than just -- think of more circular, where the man is in the middle, and his feelings -- he’s centered, and his ideas and point-of-view is centered versus women.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, you know, it’s just interesting ‘cause this piece of being a bystander. You know, you've probably read and seen the research of various studies of when people -- like, someone was being publicly attacked, and people would see it, and no one did anything to -- the more insidious, subtle things in office spaces or places of faith or justice. Yes, and so, it feels so obvious, but it is protective. It’s us or them. It’s me or them. Well, I have to choose me ‘cause of my family.
So you brought up night terrors for you. You talked about how you were having a physiological response keeping this secret. So how has this particular secret or other secrets impacted your life and how you lead?
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, I think, for me, it came to a point where I had to decide between my loyalty to my convictions or my loyalty to an institution.
So that physical response, that emotional response, for me, a very spiritual response, obviously, an organizational response, it came to a breaking point. You can only make excuses for so long, and one time, forgive this vulnerability, but my therapist said, “It’s not your full-time job to hide someone else’s secret,” and that gave such freedom to me. I’m like, “Wow. I am such a cog in this wheel that I have made it my prerogative to hide someone’s foul behavior! What?” I would consider myself a strong, independent woman, and here I was slipped between a rock and a hard place and realizing that I can’t live like this any longer. What’s it gonna be? Is it gonna be my convictions or is it gonna be this institution? For me, it was walking away and creating healthy boundaries from the institution while, also, a healthy critique in reporting because this can’t continue. We’d love to think that’s a painful process and that we’d be victorious [Laughs] and seen as heroes. Some people have, you know?
You take Ashley Judd or Gwenyth Paltrow or some of these women who are resourced, white celebrities who spoke up against Harvey Weinstein, and then you take the young girls of color who spoke up against R. Kelly, and they were treated very differently because, as we know, this happens everywhere, but our response to imbalances of power where a woman is taken advantage of and her loyalty, her body, her space or time or reputation is exploited is often different depending on who we’re talking about. We musn’t ignore the intersectionality of class and race and reputation and even physical size when we address this issue.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely physical size too. Absolutely. So in this quote that I read that the consequences are different for everyone, can you talk a little bit about what the stakes are of telling the truth and unpack how they're different for everyone and maybe even share some of the stories that you curated in your book around this difference?
Tiffany Bluhm: Oh, what a fun question. Thank you for asking that. So our different responses, let’s first address that. When I think of how immigrant women who, perhaps, are working in agriculture, they are told, “You must let me grope or touch or assault you or you're not gonna have any money, you're not gonna be able to feed your children,” there’s a complicity that a woman might feel in that moment so she can feed her babies, so she can live another day, so she can stay in this country. When she does speak up and longs to be heard and believed, who will listen, because if she is from a patriarchal culture or an Eastern culture or a Southern culture, perhaps, this is even more acceptable in her family system and structure. So to speak up against an employer would be completely inappropriate, especially to speak up against a man because he has, again, that androcentric space, and he has the right of way, if you will.
But then, you think of a white, resourced woman who is more likely to be believed simply because she’s white, simply because she has parents who might go to bat for her or she might have the means to hire appropriate legal representation, but on the whole, the problem here is we would love to victim-blame all of them. Our first gut reaction is to blame a woman because then we can isolate the experience and pull this just-world hypothesis into play where if she didn't get what was coming to her, then something bad could happen to me, and we love to believe that everything is as it should be, and if you did something or if something happened to you, you did something to deserve that. So it’s, again, that act of self-preservation.
Another reason is we would love to believe that this happens in a vacuum and this woman did something to deserve it whether where she was at night, what she was wearing, who she worked for, she should have known that was a toxic culture because if it’s not her fault, then we have to critique and address the whole system, and that’s expensive, that’s time consuming, and that requires our own evaluation of ourselves and the people we spend time with, and we have to evaluate who we put trust and allegiance in because if this is somebody we respect who took advantage of his place and his platform and the women in his world, did we trust somebody who didn't deserve it?
Is there something in me that gave allegiance to someone who didn't deserve it? Now, I have to look at how I’m operating in the world.
So we’ll do anything to make it not our problem - consciously, subconsciously. So that’s our first line of defense, but then, when we are going to listen, history has shown us we’re more likely to listen to white, resourced women. One of the stories that comes to mind is a former slave girl in the late 1800s, she wanted to sue her slave master who took advantage of her body in front of her younger siblings in a barn. She was a young girl. I think she was 13 or 14 when she was assaulted. The magistrate who was handling the case said to her, “Unless you can prove that you didn't enjoy it, there’s no case here. You have to prove you didn't enjoy it.” So who are the witnesses to this? Her little sister and brother? The perpetrator? To be able to prove that you didn't want it or like it, now, brings in all of the stereotypes. This is a woman of color so this idea that she’s either subservient or hyper-sexual and then also the idea that women want this to happen to them and you also bring in a lot of, both, cultural and even religious stereotypes that women, this is all that they're good for (to be used or pursued or abused), and this is why they exist.
In the faith space (especially in the Christian space) in the first century, there was this belief that women were deformed men, that they were the presence of evil in the world and they were to be taken advantage of.
An early church father, Tertullian, said -- [Laughs] my personal favorite -- that they were the devil’s gateway. So when you bring in, again, that theological aspect as well as the cultural and the modern stereotypes we have today, we see how rape culture is normalized. I know the idea of rape is such a strong word to use here, but rape culture isn't just indicating and pointing toward rape, it’s pointing towards the stereotypes and the systems that we have allowed to permeate every space starting, we’re talking as young as two and three years old, where we believe that girls should be accessible.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, I’ve got a question. I want to go deep into rape culture and the other intersections. Before I move on, though, I want you to talk about how do leaders cultivate cultures of secrecy and silence, and then I’ve got some follow-up questions to what you just shared, but I want to make sure we cover this. How do leaders cultivate cultures of secrecy and silence? I really want listeners to hear this from you.
Tiffany Bluhm: Yes, and I was in a toxic culture for almost a decade, so this is something I’m particularly passionate about. [Laughs] Number one, the way to foster a culture of secrecy and silence is to have poor reporting systems where if you were to go to HR, if you were to go to the person in charge with it, it would then get out to the abuser of power, it would then get out to people it had no business getting to. So having appropriate reporting structures is necessary, and where there is a lack of that you will see that secrecy and silence because people don’t feel safe. When people don't know their rights, they don't feel safe. When people don't believe that they’ll be heard or seen or belong, they will not feel safe.
Another way that we foster secrecy and silence is to have a lack of accountability at the highest levels. This is a predictable pattern, Rebecca. We see androcentric hierarchy, we see lack of accountability, we see poor transparency, and research shows that men who have a sense of power often see themselves as more sexually desireable and will seek out abusive power specifically sexual abuse or sexual misconduct and, of course, not consensual.
So this clear evidence that we have, and I can name-drop anybody right now. Governor Andrew Cuomo or even Biden’s been accused of this. Obviously, Trump. You know, there are so many people just in politics that come to mind that we think of -- and the recent representative from Florida. you know, so all of the things that we think of. Ascent to power, you know, this idea that power corrupts is no joke, so if we can have accountability, and here’s the clincher, it has to be men and women who are keeping men accountable, not just other men. So if we want that culture of secrecy and silence, don't have women in places of power.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, then. All of those folks that you listed, in politics even, and any reference to Matt Ghetz right now who, at the time of our interview, has several accusations against him of sex trafficking and a variety of other things, that all of them have been investigated or are in the process of being investigated, and some came out because they had diversity of accountability, but here’s what’s interesting is a lot of them came out and didn't have that or they just continue to deny. We’re seeing the power of just deny and still hold power, and so, I think sometimes there’s this blur of folks who do have those accusations checked out and referenced or checked out and they get investigated and cleared, to those who just deny. I think sometimes, as a culture, we don't know how to tell the difference between them anymore. We kind of have this fatigue of it all which concerns me, right, going back to the bystander piece.
The ultimate way to cultivate a culture of secrecy and silence is to not have women in positions of power. So duly noted.
You also referenced a quote from a man that, basically, had said women are the gateway to hell. I was like okay, so that was the origin of purity culture right there. Hello! So you speak a lot about this and referenced it already about the interaction of rape culture, purity culture, and white supremecy. As I was reading in your book, it was just so spot on. Can you walk us through, on a high level, each of these and then share why you think it’s important for leaders to understand the impact of this trifecta?
Tiffany Bluhm: Yes, absolutely. So, briefly, we’ll start with purity culture. The Greco-Roman influence during the first century, they had a great impact on the early church, and so, rather than the church shaping culture where believing that men and women were equal, they adopted the societal beliefs of the day, and it really took off. So it was the subjugation of women in the most religious terms, and you see that throughout biblical history, but then you also see it really take off at the time of the printing press during the reformation. A woman’s agency and power became even smaller because of the industrial revolution where men had means and resources, so women who were operating in the city and did have places of power in leadership and were seen and heard that respected, that became much smaller because they didn't have the resources. When you add the time of the printing press to this, now, there’s literature that is disseminated to not just men and holy men in power, in churches, and in synagogues and places like that, but also in their home. So, now, their main role, the apex of the Christian life, is to get married and have babies. So their limited power’s now just within the four walls of their home.
Now, you fast forward -- I know, I’m, just again, brief here -- you fast-forward to the ‘70s and the ‘80s during the sexual revolution, the second women’s movement. Those collided at the same time, but then, [Laughs] in the late ‘80s early ‘90s -- forgive my laughter -- you have this pendulum swing. Rather than saying, “Men and women are equal. They are to be dignified. They are to be treated with respect. Their bodies are, both, to be treated with respect,” it is this, “If something bad happens it’s because a woman did something to lure a man. His primal instincts, he cannot control, and it is on a woman.” Now, we’re taking we’re teaching this to 13- and 14-year-old girls. It is on a woman, it is on a young girl, to keep herself modest, to not lead a man on by her tone of voice or the way she walks or what she wears or where she is or how she talks. It is her job, it is her responsibility to ensure nothing bad happens to her. The onus is on women to escape abusive power more than it is on men to behave justly. It is almost a benchmark if you struggle with wanting to take advantage of a woman. It’s to be praised, and this is proof that you’re masculine.
And so, we taught girls this for 20 years. We taught women -- and we taught boys that if you stay pure, if you don't give in, if you don't take advantage of a girl, you’ll be rewarded with a smokin’ hot wife. That was a very common term in Evangelical culture. And so, what message did we give to girls? “Stay modest. Keep your legs together (your salvation depends on it), but when you do get married, you better be fabulous and you better be this sex goddess.” So it was very confusing messaging but, also, it did not dignify or honor a woman’s body because if something bad did happen, it was inherently her fault.
Now, you move to rape culture. It’s the same messaging. It’s just not couched in religious language. It is believed that you should escape abusive power.
“You shouldn't have been drinking that. You shouldn't have been there. You shouldn't have been wearing that skirt.” Even worse, we see this at the highest places of jurisdiction. We see this in court systems. We see this from judges who are asking women, “Well, don't you know how to close your legs,” or, “Why didn't you run?” Just all this condescending questioning. In reality, no woman is looking for harm. Research shows that about 1% of women lie about these abuses of power and, of course, we’re talking about body, space, reputation, time, finances. No woman goes looking for this, and so, the idea that she is and deserves it is so broken and we would, again, love to believe that she deserves it or did something to deserve it rather than believe we live in a broken system.
Rebecca Ching: And then can you talk a little bit about the system of white supremacy within those two?
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, there is an order that we all live in this world, and so, when you take what we’ve just talked about (purity culture and rape culture) and then you add the heirarchy of white supremacy where white men sit at the top, then white women, and then people of color, you can only see how a woman of color’s expreince (becuase, even then, they're after men of color) is compounded. Not only does she have her class against her, she has her gender against her, but now she has her race against her.
I am an immigrant woman. Obviously, people are listening to this, so they might not know by my voice, but I’m Indian, and I’m an immigrant, and so, this idea of being believed and this idea of having value in a system where I thought as long as I played by the rules of white supremacy, as long as I played by the rules in the Evangelical space, I thought surely I would be valued, surely I would be listened to because I wanted -- and so many women of color with echo this -- we contort ourselves to belong and fit in spaces so we will be protected, so we will be valued, so we will be heard. Lo and behold, that’s not the case.
It won't be. Why? Because the people at the top will not share that power willingly. It is always those who have been oppressed who are dragging that line toward the space of justice, moving that moral arch of the universe.
And so, you see how these all compound and intersect, and I think a great example of this is Anita Hill. When she, in the 1990s Senate hearing against Justice Clarence Thomas, the Senate hearing committee did not take into account that she was a Black woman and she’s speaking up against a Black man, but they pinned her, and they tried to take her race out of the picture, and Clarence Thomas tried to shift that narrative that that didn't matter, and so, the implicit white supremacy that came out because she was this helpless woman and not taking into account that she was a strong Black woman, and she even talks about this 20 years later in an interview. I believe it was with Essence Magazine. Ths idea that the general population in the dominant culture has a very difficult time grappling with, not only gender and class, but race - being able to have a nuanced approach of how someone might be affected because of those parts of their lived experience.
Rebecca Ching: So what would you want leaders to know about the impact of this trifecta? What do you think is important for them to understand as they're leading themselves and leading others?
Tiffany Bluhm: I would want them -- before something kicks off, before there’s an issue, before they find themselves feeling like they need to protect themselves and take care of number one, that they would sit and have a posture of humility and learn how these systems work, how a leader (just by even having that title “leader”) implies some semblance of power, and how they can leverage that for the advancement of those who are historically oppressed.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, thank you for that. Humility -- I know from hearing from other folks in positions of power feel like humility is like a death wish if they don't push back right away in this 24/7 news cycle where everything is spun. They get it intellectually, but they’ll say this is a political death sentence. What would you say to folks who say, “Sure, I want to be humble, but are you kidding me? I will get crushed if I show any humanity or any compassion.” Not that people say it that way, but there is this fear of that vulnerability.
Tiffany Bluhm: Oh, 100%. Even in my own situation, I had so much to lose, and I think we all count the cost. It goes back to this understanding of, “I could be crushed. This could be the death of my career. This could be the death of my reputation. This could be the death of my fill-in-the-blank, but, at the same time, I hope we would understand what will history say of us in this moment and who will I also harm if I do not allow for introspection, for education, for reconciliation, who will also lose out?”
I want to give the example of Google. Andy Rubin, creator of The Android, harassed and took advantage of a woman in the workplace. He got a 90-million-dollar payout to walk away silently, and Google employees were not informed of why he was leaving. It was handled very hush-hush, and then when it was finally leaked of what happened, it led to a worldwide walk-out, and it led to the lowest-level employees demanding transparency, demanding accountability, and demanding reform and saying, “We are not gonna work for you.
We are not gonna be a part of this. We are not gonna work 80 hours a week for you to give 90-million-dollar payouts to men who don't deserve it.” So there’s the first punch of someone who’s taking advantage of a woman who’s abused by a man perpetrating his power. Then, it’s the second punch when the complicit systems and those who should be handling it, don’t, and instead, they point the finger, and instead, they push away and they deflect and they believe that she is guilty until proven innocent, and they hold the man’s accolades over her accusations. That’s the second punch.
So, if we are in that space of the second punch, if we’re a leader in that space, I would hope we would sit and understand and count the costs because if we don't handle this right, don't assume this is just gonna be over and done with. This is likely gonna be an issue in the future. This is likely gonna come back to you especially in our modern day. I mean, after 2017, since the beginning of the Me Too Movement, it has been very much a grassroots effort because, as you probably well know, there isn’t any policy up for debate to enact safer spaces for women in the workplace. So we really, really, really need to understand that as we gain agency and as women and men (partners, allies) work toward safer spaces, we’ll hold people accountable. So if you're not willing to do the work, I’m sure someone else will take you to task. I know that’s a little harsh, but it’s honesty.
Rebecca Ching: Well, and I think that work -- I mean, that’s, obviously, something I’m personally and professionally passionate about is helping leaders do that work so they can sit in that space of humility and vulnerability and step up and grow. Often, that means doing some inner-work to heal, to strengthen so they can sit with that discomfort because we really just don't like discomfort in our modern cultures. We like ease. We like tidy. I don't think a lot of people are naive listening to this and saying that things are hard, but it is intense. It is intense, and it is an incredible responsibility.
I even see some here when I watch some shows. I’ll go, “Oh, yeah, everyone’s speaking up now.” “Oh, yeah, everyone’s got something --,” just the cynicism still versus there’s still just the lingering of this system that’s just fighting to the death, literally, in some cases (and we’re seeing this on the news) too often to maintain status quo.
So thank you for unpacking all of that and for those incredible illustrations and, again, for listeners, if you read the book you're gonna have so much more nuance and context to what we’re talking about. One of the other things you talked about which, again, I really would have benefitted from 20 years ago is a term Corporate Stockholm Syndrome. You talk about this in your book. So can you tell listeners what it is and how can we identify cultures that support this kind of leadership and maybe even how can we identify that we’re suffering from it?
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, and I just want to say the majority of the feedback I’ve received from those who’ve read Prey Tell is it gave them language to describe their past expericines, just as you kind of mentioned --
Rebecca Ching: Ah.
Tiffany Bluhm: -- but, also, a vision and framework for the future because I think so many of us, we’re in toxic cultures, and that feels so heavy of a word, I understand, but anywhere there are imbalances and we’re being taken advantage of in the workplace or wherever we work or worship or occupy, it can be really jarring to discover it’s not as healthy as we think, especially if you're a glass half full - nope, I’m believing the best about everyone. I, myself, lean that way, and I got myself in trouble because I kept thinking, “Surely, this person has my best interest at heart. Surely, they're not taking advantage of their platform and position,” and, lo and behold, they were in the worst way.
So Corporate Stockholm Syndrome describes this position and posture and way of thinking where, oh, I may be underpaid or I may be talked down to or may be publicly slandered and demeaned, but sometimes he’s really kind.
Rebecca Ching: “But.”
Tiffany Bluhm: I really know him, and he means well. It goes back to The Stockholm Syndrome - the bank heist in Stockholm where the captors started to show a little bit of humanity to those that they had taken hostage, and so, by the end of it, these hostages felt endeared to their captors, and we in organizations do the exact same thing. I remember when I was in a situation, I was speaking up, and then I said, “But I just don't want him to get hurt,” or, “But he’s been so great,” or, “He’s been so kind.” I think for many of us, we walk this line of nobody’s given me more opportunity and nobody’s exploited my loyalty more, you know? We walk this fine line where we do feel indebted, we do feel endeared, especially if they’re signing the paychecks or they made a way for us or they promoted us in a way no one else has seen us or seen our skills and our aptitude in a way this person has. So we become endeared, and they know it. Those in power know it and they can exploit that and they can use that to advance their agenda because we feel some sort of way about them, and, I mean, at the end of it, we’re wrapped around their finger, if you will.
Rebecca Ching: That’s disorienting. As you talk, I’m having flashes of various conversations with people over the years and even in my own experiences of those saying, “Okay, they're not so great here, and they’ve done these things wrong, but, hey, they’ve done this, and I wouldn't be here without them.”
Tiffany Bluhm: Right? Exactly.
Rebecca Ching: “If they hadn’t done this…” and I see even people rumbling today in this culture going, “Gosh, I know all I have to do is speak up and speak this truth and it will help affect change, but it will devastate them.
Okay, so this brings -- it’s so important because one of the things -- and this is big in my parenting, this is so big in my clinical and leadership work is not to dehumanize anybody because when we dehumanize, we hurt our own souls.
We darken our -- I tell my kids, “You darken your heart.” So, obviously, we had a lot of politics on the news over the year, and there were certain very obvious characters (we’ll leave it at that) that were on the screen that my kids would laugh at or make jokes at, and I would just be like, “No. We can disagree with their policies. We can disagree with their choices and disagree with their beliefs, but we will not mock or bully or tease. That’s not how we will.”
Part of the nuance of the conversation when folks are rumbling with this is this is gonna destroy them. I even think of a conversation as -- I keep on having so many memories of different things come up in our conversation now that a couple summers ago, there was a conversation we were having. We were doing some sort of social justice conversation at my church, and there was this leader, this gentleman who was a leader within this denomination, and he is revered, and he shared this story of another person (another man) who made some really bad choices and his life, as he knew it, was gone. He lost his family, lost his job, was working a sales job that was out of his comfort zone, and the way that he was explaining it was, “You know, I’m really trying to help him get his life back,” and really, basically, saying, “This is a little too harsh. I think we’re coming down too harsh on these folks.”
I, without even thinking, was like, “Well, what about the people that he betrayed? How are they doing, and are we thinking about them?” He just did not like that. [Laughs] Let’s leave it there. Then, what’s interesting is I had these parts of me going, “Shut this down, Rebecca. This man is a powerful person. He knows a lot of people (your friends and colleagues). This is getting messy and complicated. Then, after that conversation, for days after, I just felt icky. I was mad at myself, and I felt like I got slimed, and I’m like this is how people talk about this individual, and then we’re gonna protect -- I’m like, but no! This is the gig.
There is accountability, and accountability is horrible, and we don't talk about the years of trauma work or the economic challenges that, for the most part, (very clearly) women and women of color are having to navigate because they just said, “No. Not anymore.”
And so, just kinda thinking through those situations and how it is so challenging, but when we go back to our values -- I loved what you said. What do you stand for? Not the organization. What do I stand for? It was that moment for me. I felt that, and this wasn't even work-related. It was my communities and network, people I care about. It was this, “Oh, there you go, Rebecca, rocking the boat. You're gonna be that one again.”
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, oh, I know.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah? Again, it was subtle, and he was just sharing something about a dear friend of his who is going through hard times, but we were sympathizing him more so than -- when I started asking about the women that he hurt and betrayed and violated, it was like, “No, we can’t put them in the same -- we can't look at it altogether. We have to just separate that.” It just felt yucky, and it stays with me to this day.
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: So it’s not easy.
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: It is protective to protect the people in power, and that force is something mighty.
Tiffany Bluhm: Yep.
Rebecca Ching: It’s just to acknowledge that.
Tiffany Bluhm: Yep. A few things, if you don't mind me adding to that.
Rebecca Ching: Please.
Tiffany Bluhm: When a man has betrayed a woman, and it’s something in the past, we are not watching her sorrow play out in public, but we are watching his.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Tiffany Bluhm: So, then, our well of empathy comes up, and we want to offer that because we are human beings, and we are humanizing of one another, and that’s beautiful, and that’s good, but when we are willing to offer (scholars call it) himpathy to somebody who maybe doesn't deserve it to the degree we’re offering it, and we withhold it from the women -- you know, the Executive Director of Time’s Up, the legal aid foundation created for women in the workplace says men are forgiven and women are unemployable after they speak up.
So we are so quick to forgive someone who’s abused their power, but for the woman who’s been abused, this is who she is now. We also have to let her move on. I love how you said, “Well, what about the women?” Are they getting the help they need? Are they getting opportunities to heal if job retraining is needed or recompense for their past losses, what are they offered in all of this? We’re sometimes asking the wrong questions of who gets the aid, who gets the help, and who gets the justice.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, ‘cause I remember this leader was like, “Well, he didn't do this a lot. He just made a couple mistakes.”
Tiffany Bluhm: Oh, gosh.
Rebecca Ching: And, again, not even in my clinical work but, I mean, I worked in DC and New York, so this isn't my first time.
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, you've seen some things, girl. You've seen some things. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and so, it just was complicated 'cause it was so entrenched, but then I felt in me -- ‘cause I didn't have a relationship. I had just met this person, and so, for me, I think if I have a relationship --
Tiffany Bluhm: That’s right.
Rebecca Ching: -- depending, I feel like I can push harder, and there were just a lot of layers with this particular dynamic knowing he knew people, and I felt out of alignment. I felt convicted. I felt like I didn't stick with it. I felt like I silenced myself because of fear of rocking the boat with people I care about or I respect, and so, just hearing you talk today is bringing up that conversation and that feeling of I think I let myself down there, and I remember thinking, “I need to circle back with him. I don't know him, but I need to circle back,” and I just never did.
I remember talking about it, and a couple people were like, “Oh, you know, it is what it is, and I don't know if he’ll listen to you,” but I know I needed to do that for my sake to say, “Hey, we don't know each other, and you were pretty stern with me just by even asking about who he betrayed -- who your friend betrayed.”
And so, I know that that is not an experience that is original at all, that these nuances -- and not to say that I’m not gonna stand up to someone if I don't have a relationship with them, but I know that’s something I push harder with when I do have some context, but it was his power and connections to people whose opinion mattered that also led to parts of me just going, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s going on?” And so, I just wanted to acknowledge that.
Tiffany Bluhm: We’re always evaluating who has power and who doesn't.
Rebecca Ching: Yes!
Tiffany Bluhm: We operate in a world where we constantly assess who has power, how much power do I have in this situation. This issue that we’re even talking about today isn't about sexual abuse or anything like that, it’s about power. It’s about imbalance of power.
Rebecca Ching: It is about power. I mean, I’m gonna have someone who is a state representative come on my show to talk about more, but we’ve got over 300 pieces of legislation in various states to help restrict the power of the vote because that is the last straw, so there’s a lot at stake because, you know, other things weren’t working so now we’re gonna literally restrict power. What’s going on in the Supreme Court with laws and a former congressman, Katie Hill, who’s been on this show, her case to have intimate photos that were shared without consent -- she was taking the Daily Mail, assuming them. That got thrown out, and they're appealing it. She’s gonna stay with it. She was like, “I have to stay with this,” because now so many people are gonna be afraid to run for office or step up to positions of leadership for fear that if they have an ex who is abusive or anyone that wants to use those images for revenge -- there’s a lot at stake with power, so thank you so much for naming that.
So, on this note, walk us through -- this is a big thesis and theme in your book. Walk us through how those in leadership can serve as an ally to women who have been silenced.
Tiffany Bluhm: Those in leadership can serve as an ally to women when they first walk through just a few steps. Forgive the alliteration, but this is a very theological word that I’m gonna use, but it can happen in any space. It’s this idea of lamenting, recognizing that this happens, because denial is a card we can no longer play. So, as a leader, you have to recognize how this happens, how you, perhaps, have been complicit in cultures and in systems where women have been taken advantage of and have been silenced and truly grieve that you've been a part of it, that it happens, that you’ve benefited when it has happened. Then, you move to a space of listening. We have to listen to women’s stories, I think, especially in the workplace. If women felt heard and known and seen, and with that data and with that intel we were able to architect spaces and they could be a part of that road and that objective, we could see some great change, significantly. In 12 months, think of what the world could look like, truly. I mean this.
So really listening 'cause we’d love to think we know what women need or what women who’ve been silenced need, but if we were to listen and say, “You know what, it’s because of this and this and the system that led to me being silenced,” well, then we need to work backwards and listen and find out how those systems work or if there’s somebody in the that system who is perpetuating that, then there needs to be conversation, and making sure that everyone knows there’s a no-tolerance policy for treating women in a way that would cause them to either self-silence or we silence them or they are culturally silenced or we financially silence eventually, you know, all of those things. So listen. We’ve got to listen and be willing to receive that feedback without judgment because we hold how we would respond to something over how someone actually responded to something in a moment of a microaggression, of a macroaggression.
We’d love to think we would be in our right mind and hear with my knowledge and understanding and formative upbringing, “Here’s how I would have responded, and everything would have been perfect,” but we can't do that. We have to listen.
Then, we learn how these dynamics happen, and then we pursue justice in the spaces where we have power, and that can be leveraging our position, platform, resources, and opportunities for other women. That can be ensuring that women have safe spaces to share and to report. I recently discovered an organization that acquired an outside HR team. Not just their internal HR where people could report and it could be handled by a third party who had nothing to gain or lose, and it worked.
I think another thing is women have to have vernacular to describe their experiences. You know, you look at the ‘60s and ‘70s where the terms misogyny, sexism, harassment, assault, they were now in the common language. They got added to the dictionary. They were terms voted on. You know, RBG was a big part of that. These terms are now in our common, everyday language, but before that it wasn't, so women didn't have the words to describe their experiences so when they would try to describe it, it would be, “Oh, we don't see that here.” “Are you just emotional?” “Are you just insecure?” “Are you just feeling out of your depth being here?” You know, all these responses when a woman would clearly share about imbalances of power, and she was silenced by judgemental feedback and responses, and so, you see about a 14% reporting rate in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and in the ‘80s, and especially in the early ‘90s, it shoots up to about 40% (from 14% to 40%) because of, again, that common language that we now all have to describe our experiences.
Now, we’re seeing it around, like, 75-90% of women, millennial and younger, who say, “I know what this is. I know it’s wrong, and I’m gonna speak up.” So we are moving. We are getting there, and, again, language is a big part of that. So being able to introduce language into your organization or language from your place of leadership where women can have vernacular and say, “Oh, I am silenced here. I don't feel like I can share honestly how so-and-so made me feel uncomfortable or where there was an imbalance here and here and here,” but if we give room and space to do so, then we can architect our justice in equal spaces.
Rebecca Ching: This feels so at the heart of trauma-informed leadership which I talk a lot about ‘cause it’s not dealing with everyone’s traumas, it’s cultivating spaces --
Tiffany Bluhm: Yes!
Rebecca Ching: -- inside ourselves and with where we work, where we live, where we connect in our community that can hold space for this nuance that you're talking about. So I’m thinking even just using an example of mental health and talking about mental health -- how do people get the word out about those -- how do they tangibly cultivate a space of here’s how you report, and here’s what’s okay and not okay. Here’s what’s not tolerated, and what are the systems to work through when there is conflict ‘cause I know with people with mental health struggles I’m working with leaders on how do you regularly communicate various resources that are available and hotlines and insurance and the EAP and when there are certain themes and awareness months. How do you start to bring into the culture that, no, this isn't the place where we’re gonna fix it all, but we’re gonna normalize struggle and asking for help --
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: -- and utilizing resources. So how would that look like in practice with what you're talking about around these issues?
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, I think, first, is education. So whether it’s Prey Tell, whether it’s other resources, we have to know why this happens, how this happens, how we’ve been complicit before we can ever bring a healthy structure.
Then, I think secondly, you've got to seek outside help and resources to bring in and educate yourself. That can be online. That can be in person. Again, I’m speaking more specifically to systems, not individual leaders. Then, I think we need to also move to a place where we’re willing to have that roundtable discussion with the women in our world and ask them, “How do you feel when you notice a power imbalance between physical size, class, race, platform, reputation, power. How do you feel? How do you process that?” I think having that intel is so valuable because everybody’s system is different. So being able to actually sit with women and let them have a minute to speak and to talk and be willing to hear an inconvenient truth about, perhaps, your leadership personally or about this culture’s leadership and be willing to sit with that and not penalize them for doing so. If you need a mediator in that room (an outside person who can help walk through that) that’s really valuable as well. I don't want to give too much away, but I do outline, extensively, of what a system could look like to build and architect safer spaces.
Rebecca Ching: Nice.
Tiffany Bluhm: But it really does require we have to first remember that removing someone who’s abused their power isn't the answer. That’s just one part of the answer because, at the end of the day, someone doesn't abuse their power on their own. There are complicit systems that enable them to do that.
Rebecca Ching: You got it.
Tiffany Bluhm: So until we’re willing to admit that the complicity could be at every level and everyone and how we operate in policies and systems, then we’re never gonna fix this because if we just move the perpetrator of power, we’d love to think, “We’ve done it! We’ve done right. Our hands are clean.” In reality, that’s 99% not the case. There are usually beliefs or practices at play that need evaluation.
Rebecca Ching: Exactly. I mean, there’s an element of accountability that’s usually involved, but that’s far from the solution is what I’m hearing from you.
Tiffany Bluhm: One hundred percent.
Rebecca Ching: I 100% agree.
Okay, this is so good. If y’all haven't figured this out yet, you've got to -- it’s important for you to have this book for you to follow.
Tiffany, I have one more question before we talk about how we can find you. This other quote -- this hit me in the gut, too, when I read, “Helping as a sacrifice is beautiful, but if helping bolsters an imbalance of power, it’s no longer helping, it’s injustice.” I’m still like, oh, my gosh. I’m just, again, thinking about so much of what we talked about today. What is at stake if we do not do the work to unpack helping in relation to power? What is at stake?
Tiffany Bluhm: Ah, I mean, forgive me, but our own soul. We make excuses of why we will help someone who doesn't deserve it, you know? “This is where I get paid.” I don't know. Going back to Corporate Stockholm Syndrome, “Well, this is just how it is, and he really does have my best interest at heart.” “Um, well, you know, this is how it operated in my family of origin, therefore, this is acceptable in the workplace.” I’m guilty of that. Dysfunction - I learned how to just be in my own little lane within dysfunction. I’m like, “Oh, I can operate in this. I can find the silver lining,” and I took that same belief into the workplace. “I can help someone who doesn't deserve it. I can uphold someone else’s ideas and agendas who maybe doesn't have the benefit of everyone in mind.”
We are willing to help to move and advance our piece of the puzzle, our piece of the pie (whatever you want to fill in there) because we think, eventually, this would be okay. It will bend for my good, and, in reality, it’s like we’re in that water that’s slowly getting heated up to boil. We’re like, “Wait a second. It’s getting hot in here. [Laughs] I can't do this,” and, before you know it, we’re the ones bleeding out, believing that we’re helping somebody for the good, and I think when you bring this in a faith space, especially, it’s very dangerous because we couch it in spiritual language, you know?
Rebecca Ching: Oh.
Tiffany Bluhm: “Unto The Lord. I’m doing this unto The Lord. I’m not doing this for him. I’m not doing this for man. I’m doing this unto God,” and that is manipulation, and we’re being gaslit into believing that helping someone who doesn't deserve it is holy. And so, wherever we bring to the table believing that, “I’m helping this person. You know what, this is just my part to play, and this is my cog in the wheel. This is my role. This is my lane. This is my season,” however we like to describe it, and we have to evaluate is this good for me? Is this good for my family? Is this good for my community? Am I willing to shrivel up in such a way that I’m the one harmed, yet I’m also the one serving and helping this person? Questions to ask, and there might be some hard answers to grapple with.
Rebecca Ching: Now, it has me going back to a question that a colleague of mine, Tara Newman, asks is, “What am I tolerating?”
Tiffany Bluhm: Oh, exactly.
Rebecca Ching: There’s a lot of data there. So can you share a couple more examples? I really want folks to walk away with some, if possible, tangible examples of helping that bolsters an imbalance of power that you've seen or heard about.
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, I think of an executive, a COO or a CFO who makes excuses for the senior leader believing that he’s thinking of the whole organization or he’s doing his part, and they are harming those that they are also changed with while putting themselves in a place of abuse as well. So they’re helping and they're also part of the injustice. I think of women who work for a man who will comment on their appearance and give them opportunity, but then overwork them and make them be available 24/7 because they believe that that’s what it takes to get ahead in the workplace, and in the modern working landscape.
I think of -- it’s so insidious, and it’s when we aren’t taking the financial, professional, communal, relational ramifications - we’re not considering all of those, and that’s where that helping becomes harmful and it becomes an act of injustice when we’re willing to enable someone -- when we’re willing to protect someone else’s secrets and we think that that’s, again, self-preservation and we’re protecting the whole or the organization or the business or the church or fill-in-the-blank. We’re willing to do that because we’re protecting something greater. So we’ll keep this person’s secret because there’s more at stake. So many people would be hurt if they knew how this person abused his power.
Rebecca Ching: At the truth, I don't want to be the one that brings this down. What I remind people I work with --
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, no one wants to be the one to pull the plug. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, it’s like you're not doing it. They did it.
Tiffany Bluhm: Yes, come on, girl!
Rebecca Ching: They’ve already made these actions.
Tiffany Bluhm: They done did it. Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Again, the onus isn't on you, but it’s hard. It’s a little bit of a mind-F for folks to get their brain around. So I’m thinking how can leaders identify if their helping is supporting an imbalance of power? I often talk about minimize, justify, rationalize, deny, and when I’m doing those -- when I’m doing those especially in the context of our conversation -- where did I minimize something - “Oh, they didn't mean it that bad.” Where did I justify - “Well, you know, I mean, it was a tough situation, and there are jobs at stake and the profits are at stake, you know?” Rationalize, I mean, my gosh, we saw this play out in the last four years, particularly, and we see this in politics. Deny, the power of denial right now…
Tiffany Bluhm: Ignore.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Tiffany Bluhm: You know, it’s both passive and active. It’s those who think, “I don't want to be a part of all that. I don't need to know what’s happening behind closed doors.”
Rebecca Ching: Ignorance is bliss.
Tiffany Bluhm: Right?
Rebecca Ching: Oh, gosh.
Tiffany Bluhm: So you described such active enabling by everything you mentioned, but there’s that passivity as well.
That passivity blame says, “No, I believe the shareholders know what’s up.” “I’m gonna trust the board.” “I’m gonna trust who’s in charge.” “I don't need to know all that.” “I don't wanna know what happens, because then I would have to do something about it.” Because silence demands nothing of you, and speaking up could demand everything.
Rebecca Ching: Silence demands nothing of you. Speaking up could demand everything. Oh, and I’m thinking, though, like you said, the stake is our soul, our dignity, our own respect of ourselves. So minimize, justify, rationalize, deny, ignore. When I think of ignore, my brain goes back to so much of what we’ve seen in athletics and sports --
Tiffany Bluhm: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.
Rebecca Ching: -- and just so many different conversations I’ve had personally and professionally that I see this play out in school academia, particularly, too.
Tiffany Bluhm: I was gonna say educational institutions is what comes to my mind of deans just ignoring the abuse of power of teenage boys against teenage girls, and they don't want their reputation marred, so they just don't report it, just ignore it, maybe it’ll go away.
Rebecca Ching: You know, and I do want to acknowledge, too, we’ve been talking about men and women, but recognizing that, really, there is a spectrum of gender here, particularly those who identify as transgender, too - the violence. Obviously, our conversation has had some privilege in that, and so, I want to acknowledge that and make sure that’s not just an aside but an important recognition that, really, this is a straight, white, male power dynamic that we’re talking about, and if you're not in that archetype -- and this is not anti-straight, white, and male.
Tiffany Bluhm: Not at all.
Rebecca Ching: All right. We could talk forever. I suspect I’ll be having you back on the show if that’s okay because I think this conversation is essential for leaders today.
Tiffany Bluhm: Absolutely.
Rebecca Ching: How can people find you if they want to connect with you, if they want to learn more about you and your work?
Tiffany Bluhm: Yeah, all at tiffanybluhm.com. You can download a discussion guide on Prey Tell. You can watch or listen -- excuse me. You can listen to or read the first chapter for free. There are links to all your favorite retailers and watch the trailer, all kinds of good stuff. tiffanybluhm.com.
Rebecca Ching: Ah, wonderful. Social media if they wanted to check in on you on social media?
Tiffany Bluhm: I’m mostly on Instagram @tiffanybluhm.
Rebecca Ching: Wonderful. Tiffany, this has been an honor. I know we only scratched the surface on so much of your wisdom. Thank you for showing up and writing this book, and thank you so much for your leadership. I appreciate you.
Tiffany Bluhm: Thank you.
Rebecca Ching: We can have an incredible impact from leading behind the scenes, and just because you're not leading from the spotlight does not mean your impact is any less important, nor does it mean you're off the hook of responsibility when you see harm being done. When you witness abuses of any kind and stay silent, the harm done is not just to the person being victimized, it takes a toll on you and everyone else around you. So stepping up and speaking up starts with noticing and learning, then, making the decision to move from bystander to ally, taking your insights and education to action.
Now, this is hard work to do and so, so layered. Caution against shaming or blaming yourself or others for what they do or don't do. Many of the systems we work and live in are sick and make it verboten to even question authority. So with compassion and empathy, we need to do the work to move from bystander to becoming an Unburdened Leader.
So I’m curious. When and where do you struggle to speak up and step up when there is harm being done, and have you ever witnessed injustices at work or in your community, and what are the stakes if you choose to step up and speak out, and what are the stakes if you don't?
Tiffany shared with us how she rumbled with the complicated role of being a bystander to abuses and also what it was like to be on the receiving end of violations. These experiences inspired her and her body of work. This conversation, along with her book Prey Tell, leaves us with the challenge and the blueprint on how to become better allies to ourselves and those around us. Responsibility of leadership isn't something we’re trained for nor is it something that should be done alone because leading is hard.
Leading is also, often, controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm. You do not mind making the hard decisions, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action.
Unburdened Leaders know leading is more than just a title, a platform, or a list of certain qualities. They know they need to do the deep work to be clear on their values and increase their capacity for vulnerability. We need more leaders these days who are able to step out from the sidelines to speak up and lead with both heart and action.
Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business, the challenges of stepping up and speaking out, and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small. Leading today is not a fancy title or bragging rights, it is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up.
Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is actionable and aligned. When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things different than the status quo.
To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me, at www.rebeccaching.com.