A #SHRM18 Interview with Joe Gerstandt


Whether he is prowling the Smart Stage with all the intensity of a panther or piercing the crowd with his affectionate stare from the Mega-Session floor, Mr. Joe Gerstandt’s presentations are always unavoidably HUMAN. Joe is a freedom fighter, a freak flag flyer and a lover of all things Human Resources. You have, not one, but two opportunities to see Joe present at #SHRM18. You don’t want to miss out on this opportunity for genuine human engagement over today’s most relevant topics.

I caught Joe between speaking engagements and parenting time…. Fasten your seat belts HR Pros, this is no ordinary interview.


As a person who is consistently bringing social conscious into the workplace, how do you feel about the #MeToo movement and what will the impact be on the corporate world?

Not sure that I bring a lot of social consciousness into the workplace, I think I tackle these issues from a different place, but I am thankful for the #MeToo movement. I believe it is going to have a significant and positive impact on the workplace. It is really easy (and appropriate) to be outraged by the Harvey Weinstein story, because it is truly outrageous and it is also a long, long way away.

One of the ways in which #MeToo is valuable is that it has illuminated for many of us, that this stuff is much closer to home than we might have realized or wanted to realize. I have spoken to a lot of women in HR about these issues over the past year and every single one of them has stories. Some of them have dozens of stories. I continue to be shocked hearing about things that happen at HR conferences. Crazy things. Horrible things. At HR conferences. And I am someone that should have known. I have spent enough time studying these issues, working around these issues, and listening to peoples stories that I should have known - but I thought that as HR we were maybe a little further down the road than other professions, and more importantly I have not seen it myself.

I tend to avoid the exhibit hall like the plague, and as an introverted type I am usually safely camped out in my hotel room as the social and networking events are cranking up in the evening and these are the places where a lot of this stuff happens. Not seeing something easily grows into a belief or an assumption that it is, in fact, not happening. I think the term for this is ontological arrogance. Be outraged at Harvey Weinstein, but do not be lulled into believing that it is only that guy or that it is only Hollywood. Use the influence that you have to make sure that the spaces and places you occupy are intentional about preventing and punishing harassment.

I think that #MeToo is helping many of us recalibrate our understanding of the world and our role in it. There will, of course, also come some backlash and I hear stories now of male leaders hiding behind the “Pence rule,” which is basically avoiding lunch or any 1:1 situation with a woman. Discriminatory and cowardly, but even this will be valuable I think in the long run as it serves as another data point that our ideas, beliefs, models, archetypes regarding the idea of leadership are incredibly problematic. It is good for us to know who these folks are because they are deeply confused about what leadership means and should not have the rich opportunity to serve in that type of role

As a Behavioral Economist, I am divinely interested in the cognitive rivalry between Bias & Heuristics. Why is it so difficult for people to change their initial thought programming?

Gosh, that is some question, and one that I am clearly not qualified to answer. I think that at a very minimum, the fields of philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology would need to be represented and they may each provide us different answers. I think that a part of the answer is simply efficiency. The human brain has an unrealistically massive job to do, it does much of it outside of our conscious involvement and with limited resources…big chunks of the brain prioritize speed and efficiency over “rightness,” “accuracy,” or “goodness.” Big chunks of our brain do not care about our good intentions, our values, the law, or policies…they serve a completely different master. Being intentional and deliberate with our thoughts and actions is an incredibly high bandwidth affair, it burns a lot of gas, it is hard work. It is a much easier thing to not do, as our brains try to do as much as they can without involving us directly.

When you couple this with evidence that we are not very good at changing our own behavior, even when faced with a truly life threatening illness, and also couple it with the fact that there are few places in the world that really teach us or encourage us to consider and explore our own thinking, then it starts to make a little more sense that we struggle to even be aware of (let alone change) our thinking patterns and judgments toward others. We see our automatic interpretations of the world around us as facts, and so rather than having biases, our biases have us…we live inside them.

Employee incentives continually focus on top performance, rewarding those who accelerate their core job function. Any thoughts on recognizing soft skills?

Yes, my thoughts would be, we should definitely do that. Immediately. I think that this is one of the great challenges / opportunities / failures for HR (and some adjacent fields). How we create value has changed drastically since we created the practice of management and started building organizations, yet we cling to so much of the same beliefs and practices. We do more and more of our work together, as part of a team, a network, a community and to have a real team or a real community requires a whole bunch of soft skills. Not only that, but too often, individual performers make marginal or even negative contributions to the team or the larger culture they are a part of. We still over-romanticize “the great individual,” and my hope is that we are starting to realize this idea invites far too much pathology into the world.

Soft skills are where it’s at today. I see so many organizations apply hard skill approaches to things like inclusion, innovation, adaptability and then wonder they do not have the results that they want. I will use trust as an example. Trust is always important. Working with, for, and on behalf of people is a little easier and more efficient when there is a certain amount of trust involved. But in times of great complexity, disruption, and volatility (sound familiar?)…trust becomes so much more important. Everywhere I go I find employees that are not comfortable telling the truth to each other. Margaret Heffernan in her TED Talk or one of her books references a study indicating that 85% of executives in North American and Europe have at least one business issue they are not comfortable bringing up with their peers. Executives! So, if you have not invested the time in developing trust, if you have not prioritized that as a skill set and an outcome, you put yourself as an organization, in the long-run, in a very dangerous position.

If you cannot tell the truth to each other, it becomes that much harder (and less likely) for you to solve problems, for you to make the best decision, for you to learn and respond to what is going on around you as you are always operating on partial information. I think (hope) it has changed somewhat, but I looked at some MBA curriculums about a decade ago and soft skills were nowhere to be found. We continue to put people in management and HR positions (both of which should be first and foremost about human beings working together it seems) without teaching them anything about human beings working together.

You will be on the Smart Stage talking about the developmental power of conflict? Can you elaborate on this concept?

Conflict has become a bigger focus of mine in recent years as I have come to appreciate that it is really important, really difficult, and largely avoided in most workplaces. In my thinking about inclusion, on a very fundamental level, at least part of what we are trying to create is a space where people who are naturally different from each other can tell the truth to each other. That will naturally involve some disagreement. You and I are different people, we have had different experiences, we carry different lenses and different data…if we sit down across from each other we are going to see some things differently. That is natural, and it is valuable.

The intersection of different perspectives, different identities, different experiences is the engine that powers robust social processes…specifically things like decision-making and problem-solving. Disagreeing with each other is also (for most of us) hard work, especially at work where there are a lot of real and/or perceived risks.

Having healthy conflict or respectful disagreement or aggressive collegiality is really important, but taxing and risky and we probably can’t take all of the effort and fear away, but we can certainly take some of it away. By being more intentional and explicit in our approach to decision-making and disagreement we can make it a bit safer, a bit easier, towards better group outcomes and a better employee experience.

Your concurrent session at #SHRM18 will focus on “Designing the Inclusive Employee Experience.” Can you give us a preview?

Certainly! My experience tells me that if you walk into an organization that says it is committed to inclusion, and you ask ten leaders at random what inclusion is, why it is valuable, and how they capture that value, you will get ten different answers, and 7 or 8 of which will not even make any sense. That organization may sincerely be committed to the idea of inclusion, those leaders may sincerely be committed to the idea of inclusion, but they are only going to actually deliver on it by accident because they do not know in a real, actionable way what it is.

It is nearly impossible to deliver a product without defining it, without naming its specifications, characteristics, etc. Inclusion has become an incredibly popular idea over the past decade but it remains a vague, abstract idea inside most organizations and vague, abstract targets are hard to hit. I hear from a lot of organizations that they really want to be more inclusive, but they are not sure what to do and they are not sure what to measure along the way. A big part of why this is the case is that they have not gotten clear on what they want to deliver.

So this is a session about the importance, the value, and the process (or at least a process) for doing better. I introduce people to a design process for bringing some real clarity to what it means to be included in their organization and show them some other definitions and models to inform their own thinking. The real work still lies ahead, but being intentional about this part of the process makes it so much easier to figure out what we need to do as an organization and what to measure on the way there. We make inclusion a more tangible thing, we can then figure out what behaviors, practices, and policies it requires, we can then make it real. It is time to make it real.


Catch Joe Gerstandt’s sessions at #SHRM18:

Conflict: Fight. More. Better on the Smart Stage, Monday (6.18) at 3:20 p.m.

Designing the Inclusive Employee Experience, Tuesday (6.19) at 10:45 a.m.   



The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

Add new comment

Please enter the text you see in the image below: