Talking Inclusivity with Stefanie Johnson

INJ 37 | Talking Inclusivity


Stefanie Johnson is an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. She studies the intersection of leadership and diversity. Stefanie has published more than 40 journal articles and book chapters. In 2016, she was invited to the White House to present her work on diversity in corporate America. She has extensive consulting experience and has created and delivered leadership development training with an emphasis on evidence-based practice. She has received multiple million dollars in federal and other grant funding to study leadership and create leadership development programs aimed at increasing safety. Media outlets featuring Stefanie’s work include: The Economist, Newsweek, Time, CNN, ABC, NBC, CNBC, Wall Street Journal.

Listen to Episode #37 here

Talking Inclusivity with Stefanie Johnson

Our guest is Dr. Stefanie Johnson. Stefanie is an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. She studies the intersection of leadership and diversity. She’s published 40 journal articles and book chapters. In 2016, she was invited to the White House to present her work on Diversity in Corporate America. Welcome, Stefanie.

Thank you, Peter.

If you weren’t working as a professor, what would you be doing?

I would be a comedian because I think I’m very funny. I think I would be a graphic designer. I’m not very good at graphic design but it seems something that’s pretty fun to do. I like messing around with the computer. I like making things look good.

Do you do anything design-worthy? You were saying that you were hanging something and you dropped a water bottle on your face?

I did. That was not designing. I was hanging up my kid’s bike on the bike rack in the garage. I didn’t notice there was a water bottle still in the water bottle holder and it fell off and hit me in the face.

Do you scrapbook or do you make invitations?

Yes, I have scrapbooked, I make invitations.

Do you plan parties?

I do. I host baby showers. I have made about 100 pillows. I like making pillows. It’s easy. It’s just so square.

Why do you say you don’t have design skills?

I don’t have computer skills. If I could design on a piece of paper, that would be good. It’s an outdated skill.

My understanding of fashion designers is that they still draw.

I love fashion designing, maybe I’ll be a fashion designer. That’s good.

You get to choose.

If I weren’t a professor, I would be the world’s best fashion designer for the most expensive label.

Have you watched any of these fashion documentaries to know what your life would be like?

I haven’t. I didn’t even know that existed.

I went down the rabbit hole a few years ago. I watched this documentary called The September Issue, which is about the September issue of Vogue magazine, which is their big Fall fashion. It’s incredibly compelling and interesting. What Netflix tends to do if you give it a high rating, it starts throwing more of these at you. There’s a whole bunch of these documentaries about famous designers and so on. It’s like an interesting life and these are interesting characters. This was around the same time the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit was at the Denver Art Museum. I went to that exhibit and had an even greater appreciation for this designer and so on.

[bctt tweet=”To understand people’s fashion choices, you have to understand what people want to accomplish.” via=”no”]

To me, it’s art. It’s fun. I feel like I’m putting on costumes when I get dressed up in different designer’s clothes and that’s beautiful.

It’s interesting you say this because I have a note, I wrote down about. It says, “Fashion and goals.” It’s funny how clothing has come up as a topic in this podcast. Partly because late in life I got interested in clothing and you dress well too generally. When you teach, you dress well. When you give talks, you dress well I know that. Why do you do that?

I could say it makes me feel more confident. The truth is I want an excuse to wear that stuff. I can’t do it, it’s so much effort to do it if I’m just coming here to school doing a podcast. I had to walk my kids to school. I want to go to yoga. I’m like, “Let’s just cut out the middleman, I’m going to wear the yoga outfit all day.”

You like dressing well. The teaching gives you an excuse. You use the excuse that you’re more confident.

That’s the fake excuse but the excuse isn’t just internal, it’s external. When I show up at my kid’s school or anywhere, dressed up anywhere in Colorado people go, “What are you wearing? Why are you wearing shoes? That’s so weird of you.” I can say, “I’m teaching. Don’t judge me, I’m a business professor.” Otherwise people are like, “Why aren’t you wearing the yoga gear? Are you not running a marathon? That’s so lame. How do you bike in those heels?” The culture here is very casual.

The root of that why I jotted that idea down is that a lot of judgment in your words, the fact that people judge you, it comes from a place that people have different goals. They don’t understand each other’s goals and so fashion and clothing can serve different goals. To understand people’s fashion choices or to motivate fashion choices, you have to understand what people want to accomplish. Is it that they want to be comfortable? The athleisure wear seems to be a good solution to get you closer to that goal. If a goal is to have to feel creative, to feel distinct, you might forego comfort.

Is this a theory you’re working on for research?


I don’t know. I kick around ideas a lot. Too often, clothing is an afterthought for people. They sometimes fail to realize how it reflects on them or sometimes they care too much how it reflects on them. They don’t end up making their clothing a path to them living a better life in the way that they might with the way they eat or the car they drive or the bike they choose.      

That’s true, people put a lot of thought into their bikes.

No one ever goes, “Bikes are so frivolous.” There has to be some frivolity with some of the bike choices in this town. It seems more like a utilitarian object.

You could rent a bike and drop it off anywhere if it were utilitarian, if you’re using a bike to get from A to B.

Versus, “What does my bike say about me?”

I don’t think that’s the reason people are judging on clothes. People are always questioning themselves. If everyone is dressed up and you’re not, you feel bad. If someone is dressed up, “Why are they more dressed up than me?” They take it as a reflection upon themselves.

Do you think it’s a threat?

It’s threatening.

When you show up at school to drop your kids off.

It’s a threat, “Why aren’t I wearing heels?”

“I could pull that off.”

People look way better than I do. They’re wearing crappy clothes because they want to fit in. I’ve seen people fall in my friendship group. Someone moves here from California and they look very California. Long extensions, maybe they have eyelash extensions, they wear makeup. By the end of the year, they’re full on Boulder crunchy. The extensions have turned into dreadlock extensions.

Are you exaggerating?

They’re not dreads but they cut their hair, no makeup, always at athleisure or whatever you called it. It happens because it’s hard to not fit in or follow the crowd.

These context effects are profound. You study these kinds of things. You’re an expert.

I haven’t studied my fashion choices.

When you give public talks, you like to say that you like white men.

I love them.

[bctt tweet=”It’s clear that you don’t value uniqueness if everyone you hire looks exactly the same.” via=”no”]

Explain why in these talks about diversity and inclusion you say, “I love white men.”

Two reasons, one, I do love white men. As I say in the talk, my dad is a white man. My husband’s a white man. My son is a tiny white man. There are at least three. It’s really because I talk about diversity and the negative effects of being a woman or being a minority. That makes all the white men in the room feel uncomfortable. This is a talk about why they are bad. They tune me out and they basically think the whole time I’m talking about why they suck, which is not true because I love them. It’s addressing the elephant in the room, that people are 100% always thinking that I am a feminist who hates men. I’m a feminist who doesn’t hate men. By bringing it up, people let it go. They realize how absurd it is to think that a woman who’s interested in diversity hates men. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would women hate men?

You do this early in the talk. It gets some laughs.

I heard you laugh in LA at that point. You had the loudest laugh. I was like, “Thank you, Peter McGraw, for laughing.”

This reminds me of a quick story from the Humor Code. Do you remember the show, The Nanny with Fran Drescher? Unfortunately, at one point in time when they were filming that show, she had a stalker.

I remember someone broke in her house.

What they did was they replaced the studio audience with people from Central Casting in Los Angeles. They hired the audience. My co-author, Joel Warner, and I went to Central Casting. We met the woman who cast the audience. We auditioned, we did fake laughs for her and neither of us would have qualified. We would have made the B-team, she said. She was nice.

INJ 37 | Talking Inclusivity
Talking Inclusivity: The irony is people think that companies want diversity, but if you look at the numbers, they’re not changing at all.

Was your laugh too loud?

It was fake. I had to laugh on command versus the real Peter McGraw.

I always wonder if you’re fake laughing because you laugh so often and so loudly. You study humor so I’m like, “Did he just perfected the fake laugh?”

It’s not. It’s real.

That’s your real laugh?

Yes, that’s a real laugh.

What’s your fake laugh?

I’m the one asking the questions here. I don’t know if I could do it well. It’s funny I tried to do some improv on one of these things once and it was a total disaster. Let’s talk a little bit about this idea. You say diversity and inclusion, which besides the fact that you’re funny, this is why you’re on this podcast. I don’t think a lot of people understand the language, the definition. A lot of people know that this stuff is important, they value it and so on but they don’t understand the language and the constructs behind this. Give me the lesson that I’ve heard from you before. What is diversity? What is inclusion? Why do you need both together? Why is one of them in itself not sufficient to make improvements?

There’s a quote I like from Vernā Myers who’s the VP of Diversity and Inclusion at Netflix. She says, “Diversity is being allowed to go to the dance and inclusion is being asked to dance.” Diversity is numbers. Our business school has eight women professors. That’s diversity or lack of diversity. Inclusion is those people whether they’re represented highly or not, if there are eight or 800, how do they feel? Do they feel part of the team? Do they feel they have the same small talk in the hallways? Do they feel they can be themselves or are they trying to fit in all the time? It’s called masking. You’re acting all the time to fit in. Do they just feel like, “I can bring my whole self to work. I can wear what I want, say what I want. Do what I want?” That’s inclusion.

I like this idea a lot because what businesses do and I’m sure you have the data on this, is they’re eager to deal with their diversity problem. They don’t have enough women. They don’t have enough non-white people. People have different perspectives. I’m stealing all from your talk. You have to answer the question, why is diversity important? One is that those broad perspectives are useful when it comes to business. What happens is there are a lot of ticking boxes. “We’ve upped the number of X to Y this year. Our percentages are up. Look what a great job we’re doing.”

They don’t feel they can share their unique perspectives. They just fit in. You might as well hire the white guy, who I love.

You have an inclusive culture but you’re not hiring diversely.

Some of the best cultures where everyone gets along and feels like they can be themselves are homogenous. That’s why everyone feels they can get along and they can be themselves. If you want the creativity and it improves the bottom line outcomes recognizing new target markets then you need people who look different, to say what they think.

Have people listen and act on those things.

Otherwise, you have a high turnover among these diverse non-white male candidates you brought in and you have to keep doing it. You have to keep hiring more non-white men because they’re going to quit.

The good ones can get jobs everywhere else because people are trying to fix that one problem. Don’t you think many people are trying to fix that problem?

I don’t know.

You have data. What is that data about there’s one female candidate, what is that?

If you interview only one woman and two men or three men, you never hire the one random woman you added because she seems very different and weird. Maybe she seems the diversity candidate. You don’t give her consideration. That’s when you have to holistically believe in diversity. The irony is people think that companies want diversity but if you look at the numbers, they’re not changing at all. At least at the highest ranks, we have fewer women CEOs than we did years ago. We’re getting more diversity at the bottom of organizations because the country is more diverse than it was.

We have very low unemployment.

That alone is a reason to increase your diversity efforts. You can’t hire people. There’s no one left. If you’re in Colorado, there’s no one left to hire.

People see it as good but for business in some ways it’s bad.

You have to pay a lot more for a person.

It’s good for the workforce. It’s not good for well-being.

I had this funny thought about that. Denver is one of the cities being considered for H-2 for Amazon. I thought it was interesting when people thought it might come if you watched the news and stuff they say, “It’s going to bring all these extra people to Colorado.” We don’t want 2,000 more people, heaven forbid but I saw this political ad saying, “If we pass this bill, we’re going to lose 2,000 jobs and heaven forbid.” We don’t want to lose the jobs we have. It was the oil industry, “We’re going to lose a bunch of oil people. We don’t want to add a bunch of engineers.”

This is called a reversal test. Nick Ostrom talks about this. He uses an idea about genetic enhancement and stuff. People don’t like the idea of genetic enhancement. He talks about the status quo bias and he puts the reversal tests to show that, “What if you did the reverse?” This is a nice example of that, which is if you don’t want to add 2,000 jobs then lose 2,000 jobs that should be good.

Add 2,000 and lose 2,000. It stays the same, but it still feels bad. I don’t know why.

It’s so interesting, these topics they are sensitive topics. They also lend themselves to comedy.

It’s slightly inappropriate to laugh about it.

There’s a little bit of tension there and you could say the wrong thing and so on. There are several problems. It seems to me that the diversity problem, while hard to fix is easier to fix than the inclusion problem. You talk about goal setting.

Set goals for diversity.

Measure them, reward them but you want to try to blind processes as much as possible. They become self-fulfilling when white men are making decisions. These non-white men seem so mysterious, weird and so different. What else has to happen at that level?

I start with admitting it, first of all, is the first one.

The ABCs.

We all have biases. I have biases. I admit it, which I’ve got to tell you. In a few instances, I have admitted my bias because people will ask, “What is your bias?” and everyone gets super offended, as soon as I tell them. You asked and I’m admitting it, isn’t that good?

I’m not going to ask you.

Everything is going to be super mad if I say it. I have biases. If I can admit it, then other people need to admit it. If you can’t admit it, if you’re like, “The best person always gets the job. We’re not biased at all.” You’re not going to be able to do any other things, why would you find it then? These are worth admitting, blinding, count it that’s measuring and then support it, which is probably more of the inclusion part.

INJ 37 | Talking Inclusivity
Talking Inclusivity: It’s not about letting minorities be minorities. It’s about letting everyone be themselves.


Whenever I talk about CEOs and I believe this has to happen in the C-Suite, it has to be the CEO. To me, the CEOs do two things. They decide on a strategy and they create culture. There might a better way to say it but I go back to what do good CEOs do? That’s what they do. You can’t have one without the other. You can have a fantastic culture to get things done. If you have a crap strategy you’re finished. You can have a great idea, but you don’t have a good culture to get things done. You’re finished. To support how to create an inclusion, if I’m a CEO, what do you tell me? You get to meet with the president and be, “This is how it’s done.”

Our president?

A president.

I go back to these two basics.

A CEO, the politics are harder to fix.

Two basic human needs and they are uniqueness and belonging. If you want to create inclusion you have to create an environment where people can be unique, so you can encourage people to be unique. I’m trying to think of some examples. If you go into Zappos and walk around, people’s offices are decorated Star Wars or a jungle because they want people to bring a little bit of themselves versus sterile cubicles.

I’ve done that tour. What you’re describing, it’s not like there are some posters on the wall. These cubicles and stuff are blinged-out with tons of stuff.

You have to crawl under trees, you get into the jungle. There’s a live tiger, which is extremely dangerous but it’s okay.

I didn’t know, I’ve missed the tiger part of this.

There’s no real-life tiger. That’s culture that’s like, “Do you feel encouraged here to be your unique self? Do you feel you’re getting a strong message?” “We want you to be your unique Pete self.” Did you bling-out your office?

I did. My office when I moved here many years ago, I don’t want to move. I don’t want to have to pack everything up.

You can’t go, there’s too much stuff on the walls.

No one ever told me I could do this. No one was like, “Pete, make yourself at home. I know you spend twelve hours a day here sometimes. You might as well make it feel good.” I just did it. That’s a privilege of being a professor.

[bctt tweet=”If you want to create inclusion, you have to create an environment where people can be unique.” via=”no”]

You do it because that’s just you. If you look around, you’re the only person. We haven’t developed a culture. You could say that you started a domino effect and my office has cute red chairs. Phil has a treadmill and then maybe over time we have Star Wars offices and stuff like that.

There are some nerdy enough professors here.

That’s part of what you’re saying the CEO does. It’s setting the culture. You do that by encouraging people, rewarding it or making it happen for them if you want. We buy all of our office furniture from the state prisons.

I don’t know who. Is that true?

I think so.

Near slave labor built this furniture.

There’s no variety. There are all exactly the same.

I bought these three things right here.

Obviously you can’t get the stuff around, it’s not in the prison. That’s the unique part. If you let people be themselves and it doesn’t just mean let women be womanly or girly. It’s not about letting minorities be minorities. It’s about letting everyone be themselves and then that trickles down. If you can decorate your office maybe I can play Spanish music in my office. If that’s rewarded, then everyone feels they can be whatever it is about themselves that’s unique. As I say, I love white men. White men have unique characteristics too, you love fashion.

It’s strange to lump white men.

One group, isn’t that insane?

It’s so crazy to think. It happens because the same effects that allow someone to lump black people, Puerto Ricans or lesbians into a group, they’re the same psychological processes that lead to that.

That’s the uniqueness and then the second is belonging. Even though you are your unique self, you’re accepted, and you belong as part of the team. You fit in, you’re welcomed, there are celebrations that could even celebrate your uniqueness but let everyone feel they’re important to the organization’s mission. Their unique contribution makes the place better.

The bigger the company, the harder it is to do that, especially if you have to rely on HR to do it.

That’s why it’s the CEOs.

It’s the way they talk. It’s what they reward.

Who do they hire? What does their top leadership team look like? If they all look the same like, “We value uniqueness.” It doesn’t, and actions speak louder than words it’s clear that you don’t value uniqueness if everyone you hire looks exactly the same.

The work that you do checks a lot of the boxes that I have, for the work that I want to do. It’s important, it’s big, it’s challenging, it’s provocative. It makes you have to use your mind. It’s a difficult thing. I run a lot of micro-type experiments. When you’re a management professor and you’re dealing with these big things, how are you doing that?

I get a lot of company data. Companies will give me data and then I analyze it to test my theories because they’re harder to test in the lab.

INJ 37 | Talking Inclusivity
Talking Inclusivity: At some point, you’re too successful that you become a victim of your success.


It’s hard to do controlled experiments with companies.

Company A, I would like to increase diversity to everyone. Company B, you’re all fired. All women of minorities, you’re out here. We should do a project together on the effects of dress. We’re doing the study right now on sexual harassment, which is super funny that looks at, “Do people put effort into their appearance?” We find that if you try to be attractive, people think you deserve to be sexually harassed. Isn’t that horrible?

It’s terrible.

What are you trying to achieve with that outfit?

It’s about goals. People misunderstand what a person’s goals are.

Why are you wearing high heels and a short skirt?

The assumption is because you want people to flirt with you.

They flirt with you and you’re super mad about it.

Versus, “I wear this because it’s fashionable, it makes me feel good.”

No one believes that.

That’s unfortunate.

There is one study on the style of dress and women leaders. People had less respect for women leaders who wore sexy clothes.

I know there’s almost no work on this stuff. You would think though that encouraging people to dress the way they want to dress would help with that idea of uniqueness. I could see how that would be the case. What are you saying no to these days?


Tell me more.

I try to say no to everything.

Can you give me some examples?

Journal reviews, we review this article. People ask me to give talks every single day. I get requests to give a talk and no one ever thinks that if I say, “I can’t do it.” Why can’t you do it?

I want to roleplay here. You’re getting 300 talk invites a year.

I’ll say not on the weekends. I’ll say 200.

You get 200 talk invites. What is the category of talk?


You get University talk invites. Do you say no to those?

I would go if it’s a business school because I’m supposed to do that. We’re supposed to give talks as part of our job.

Professors get graded or evaluated on a variety of dimensions. One category of those dimensions is your scholarly influence. That’s the papers you publish, the citations of those papers. There are also these other things. Are you getting invites at other elite schools to present your work? You say yes to those.

I’ll go. I’m going to Purdue, it’s a business school. If it’s the Physics Department and they’re all women’s studies, I love women as much as I love white men, but I can’t go every week. There are all these different departments on campus that also need.

This is a huge problem and there’s not nearly enough.

Very few people are funny. I want to be funny.

You are funny.

I want to be funny. I try to be funny but it’s funny how often when I give these talks people are like, “I’m so glad you had a light tone. Usually, it’s someone yelling at us that we’re all bad people and we’re not doing a good job,” in which case you’re like, “Forget it, I don’t want to listen to you because you’re berating me.” I get invited to give funny talks about diversity.

I understand that space. It’s funny because someone who does stuff on humor people expect it to be incredibly fun. This is getting in the way of the message. I’m not as funny as people expect it to be. I have the opposite.

You’re very funny.

It’s hard to live up to that. For our audience, Stefanie is so funny I asked her to be on my comedy game show as a contestant. I had to talk her into it.

I lost.

Barely, you had a magical comeback.

Thank you.

You were the crowd favorite by far, she was darling of the crowd. You’ve got these lots of talks but then you also get some corporate stuff. I assume that’s for pay.

Sometimes. Historically I donate all my pay to the university. I don’t have a side job. If they give me money, I put it into a research account and do more research.

You are truly committed to your research.

I’m committed to my research.

I want to talk to you about how you say no.

It’s horrible, I don’t respond. I delete emails because they’re almost always emails. No one has my phone number.

No one calls anymore.

It’s weird. Since I’m a little conflict diverse I just delete them, and I hope they’ll go away.

People will follow-up.

They do, I delete it again and eventually they take it up a notch, “I’ve emailed you twice, you haven’t replied. I’m going to assume you’re trying to say no.”

I want to try out an idea that I’ve been fussing around with. First of all, it’s important to say no to things, especially when you first started studying this. You’re going to say yes to these things because it’s an opportunity to try out ideas, it’s practice and so on. At some point you’re too successful you become a victim of your success.

If you consider being asked to talk to different groups a metric of success.

You’re publishing in the lead journals, you’re getting called to the White House. The schools are showcasing your work and so on. You’re at the leading edge of this type of stuff. The problem is that if you say yes to 200 talks a year, then you don’t have enough time to do the work.

I’ll be irrelevant.

You’re saying no a lot, which makes good sense. It’s so hard to say no because when you’re starting out you want those calls. It feels weird to change your behavior. The other one is you feel bad. You’re disappointing someone in some way. I can’t bring myself to delete requests.

That’s good.

I get a lot of even weirder stuff. I get people saying, “I want to be in your studies, someone to volunteer in your lab.” The only ones that I occasionally will delete is if someone is tone deaf. “I’m driving through Boulder, I’ll be there on Tuesday. I like to meet for coffee.”

Delete it, there’s no point.

I don’t know how to respond to that. Here’s the reason, I’m being a little bit ambiguous here. The reason this is hard is that I used to always apologize when I said no to things even though I wasn’t contrite. That’s a problem. What it does is it suggests that I am some way blameworthy for something that I don’t think I should feel. When I am wrong about something, I want to be able to apologize and say I’m sorry. When I’m not able to do this, I don’t say I’m sorry anymore.

You shouldn’t be sorry, you should be glad.

I’m so happy, I could say no to this.

You have way too much free time. If you were able to do every request, then you should be sorry.

“I’m sorry, I’ve nothing else to do.”

“I’m sorry I have nothing else to do, I will come.”

INJ 37 | Talking Inclusivity
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My point with this, there’s an art to saying no then both people can feel okay about. It goes something like this, “Jane, thank you so much for thinking of me. I’m flattered. I agree that this is an important topic. However or unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to give a talk to your group. I wish you the best,” and so on. That’s the first level which is to acknowledge that this is a nice thing. Be very clear that it’s not going to happen, acknowledge that is disappointing. Then the third level depends on the situation, which is can you give them a lead or help in some other way? For instance, you should just send them all to Dave Heckmann. Dave’s a colleague who does work in the area. For me, I created a website about The Benign Violation Theory. I say, “There might be some useful resource.” If it’s a question type of thing, I might say, “There are some useful resources here or there are people that you might want to reach out who will do a competent job.”

That sounds way better than being deleted.

I’m amazed you delete.

It’s horrible, I always delete them. Sometimes I don’t respond.

It’s worse, it’s still in your inbox.

It haunts me. What if you do that and someone comes back and says, “Why not?

No one does.

What about next year?

You’d be surprised that people rarely do, when you say, “I am not able to.”

I’ll try that, “I’m not able to do it.”

The next level, I can’t bring myself to. I read someone who says, “I do not.” That slams the door. That to me feels a little harsh when they say, “I do not give talks except C-Suite level.”

I would prefer that because otherwise, it feels more a rejection, if you’re, “I cannot do yours.”

You say, “I don’t do non-business school talks.”

I don’t do non-business school talks.

You’re funny, we talked about that thing, but you seem to resist this label.

I want to be funny, I’m shy.

Is this false modesty?

No, it’s not modesty. I was voted the funniest kid in my class in high school. I believe I’m funny but I also am super awkward and so I feel uncomfortable doing things like podcasts. I’ve never podcasted.

This is your first. This is good. This is the low stakes.

It’s the same thing with the Funny or Die. I was afraid I would die.

Funny or True. Isn’t it good to stretch yourself? I’m sure they teach leadership classes and say, “You should be stretching yourself.”

I will on occasion stretch myself. I told you something when I did the Funny or True, it takes fifteen more seconds off my life. Every time I have to speak publicly, “I’m going to die a little sooner.” It makes me nervous.

I get it, I understand.

It’s the number one fear, greater than death.

I don’t believe that’s specific.

Have you ever seen someone in your classes presenting and they’re shaking?

I get that but if I pointed a gun at them, they would be more scared.

I’m sure, maybe it’s the idea of death versus the idea of public speaking. Actual death does seem worse than public speaking.

If you give someone a choice, you’re going to choose public speaking. I asked you what you said no to, what about the opposite? Something that you said yes to, sometime where you are like, “I need to take a bigger stage. I need to do something bigger and look for a bigger opportunity in life personally and professionally.” Do you have a story about that?

Coming here to see you was a big step because I had tenure at my last university. If I came here, I’d have to give up tenure and do the whole tenure process again, which for people who don’t know it’s when you apply for promotion and when you don’t get it, you’re fired. That’s the worse promotion you’ve ever applied for.

Most academics aren’t terribly risk-seeking. It’s unusual for someone to do that. Why did you do it?

I love CU, it’s a great school, great students, great PhD program.

You could dress like a hobo.

Which is always my goal, to dress like a hobo. I don’t know. People are great here. I have great colleagues like you. People writing compelling books like Phil and you. I think Phil has written his book.

It turned out well. You got tenure, congratulations. Your partner, did that take some convincing?

He’s a professor here too. That makes it easier.

That pushed it along. Did he have to do the same thing?

No, he was already here.

Did you meet him here?

We met when I was in college. I was at UC Denver and he was here at C Boulder. We live in between in Broomfield and so both being at the same school makes life easier.

Dating in this area, sometimes I’ll meet someone from Denver and occasionally they’ll say, “We can meet somewhere in between.” I go, “I don’t want to do that. I just come to you.” She’s like, “Why not?” First of all, thank you so much for your willingness to do that. I say, “There’s nowhere I want to go in between.” Isn’t that terrible?

I thought you only dated people in Los Angeles?

That’s not true.

You meet somewhere in between Las Vegas.

It’s nicer for your guys to commute?

Yes, for sure.

You’re incredibly successful. You’re happy. That’s one of the things that’s striking about you. You seemed to be enjoying your life. Being a professor is a solitary work, a lot of the time. You spend a lot of time alone working on things and so on. Yet, other people have to be critical for success in this business. Who were some of those people for you and how did they cultivate that? Some people succeed despite their mentor or supervisor and some because of.

I lucked out on the mentors. I’m still in contact with my first mentor when I was in college. When I was a college student, I started doing research as a freshman. I went to this professor’s class and I couldn’t get in because the class is full. I said, “Will you let me in?” He said, “No.” It was an Industrial-Organizational Psychology class. The next semester I try to get in again. I went to a small college. The average class size was fourteen students.

Where was this?

Claremont McKenna College. It’s easy for the class to fill up when you’re fourteen. Adding one is a big shift. It’s not like we have classes of fifteen, adding one is like, “Who cares?” He said no again. He said, “Why do you keep asking me to get in this class?” I was like, “I want to be a professor. I want to go get a PhD.” This was when AOL was invented. I use AOL to search for different professions. The internet was just invented. I dialed up. I used my two fingers to type and eventually, I got to this website that talked about Industrial-Organizational Psychology and I was like, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do. I’ve never heard of this before and I’m not even an industrial organization psychologist.” I told this professor that and he was like, “That is definitely the weirdest thing any freshman has ever said to me because how would you possibly know that? Do you like doing research?” I said, “I don’t know what that is. It was mentioned on the website that you do research.” He was like, “Start doing research and then you can see if you like it. You don’t want to keep telling people you’re going to be a professor for the next four years if you don’t even know what research is.” I did, and I love doing research obviously. I did it all through college and then went to a PhD program right out of college. Ron was the adviser’s name.

[bctt tweet=”People judge because they don’t understand other people’s goals.” via=”no”]

I was the Graduate Alumnus of the Year at Claremont. Ron introduced me to get my award or whatever. He told the same story that I just told you. It was totally different about me asking to get into this class and telling him, “I need to do research in your lab because I want to be a professor.” I was like, “That’s not how it happened.” My whole speech was about this story of him asking me to do research but then it seemed idiotic because he gave the same story with a totally different punchline. Anyway, it’s him. I had another professor, Susan Murphy, who is amazing as an undergrad. Then when I went to grad school, the same thing. I worked with the most amazing faculty. They’re all out for me and for their other students. They’re a great model of what mentors should be.

I myself have great mentors. Do you ever have this experience where you do something or say something and you’re like, “I am my graduate advisor?”

No, I don’t think I have.

I’m sitting in my office and I have this pile of scrap papers. Our printers have these cover sheets. I feel bad recycling because it’s plain on the other side. I have this whole huge pile. When I’m sitting with a student and we’re talking about something, I’ll pull out some of the sheets, I put them down and I take a pen and I start drawing pictures like figures and things like that. That is Barbara Mellers, my adviser. My pile of papers is neater than her pile of papers. That’s a major difference.

I told a PhD student, “Slow down. This stuff takes time. If you think you’re going to finish this fast, you’re not going to do a good job. That’s not how it works. This is a painfully slow process. When you think it’s good enough, it’s not. You have to go and do it a hundred times over and then maybe it will be good enough.” I remember my advisor telling me that because I was always thinking fast like, “I’m going to be out of here in four years. I have stuff to do. I have to go live a life.”

Also, the windows of time when you’re a student and an assistant professor are very tight. It’s a luxury that you have later in your career. I find that when reviewing papers, the single biggest critique that I can come up with is, “They should have worked on this for another year. It has enough potential, but they sent in too early.” Oftentimes that creates another set of problems. What are you reading, watching or listening to that stands out to you? It’s not run of the mill good but it’s really good.

This is not at all a pretentious answer. This is the truth. I just watched an entire series on TV called Younger. It’s about this 40-year-old woman who works in publishing but she has a kid, she gets married young. Her kids are gone to college. Her husband leaves her. Then she’s 40, her kids are gone and she’s like, “What do I need to do? I need to get a job. I have to pay the bills.” She tries to get a job but she’s too old to get a job because she’s 40. I’m 40. It resonated with me like, “Can I get a job now or am I too old?” She basically pretends to be 26. She scratches out and changes all the dates on her résumé. She’s an impostor trying to be 26. It cracked me up.

Is it a comedy?

Yes. It cracks me up because the concept of people is harsh on women as they get older.

This was completely unanticipated to me. I have friends who are in their 40s. I hear the stories, especially in the tech world, which skews male and skews young. These are Harvard Law and incredibly accomplished people, and then there’s this automatic assessment that you’re out of date. You must be living your work while you watch this.

I like it. It seems funny. I want to go pretend to be 26. Also, some of the things that she has to learn to crack me up because she’s trying to be young and I’m like, “That’s what those young people mean.” I teach a lot of nineteen, twenty-year-olds. Sometimes I’m trying to hold onto my youth because you have to learn what they’re talking about.

I do believe it keeps you younger. I sometimes will go ask and be like, “What’s going on in the world? What’s happening? What’s the new thing?”

“What’s up with Twitter or Myspace?”

I regularly will ask them like, “What are you listening to right now?” Those kinds of things just to make sure that I’m not missing too much.

That’s why I like it. It’s never going to win an Emmy or an Oscar. No one thinks it’s profound. It’s super entertaining. She has a love triangle. She has a 26-year-old boyfriend, which is amazing. Then she has the older boyfriend. She has to choose, “I want the older boyfriend because he’s my age.” Then you have a 26-year-old boyfriend who looks amazing. He’s a tattoo artist. How can you go wrong?

Anything else you’re listening to or reading?

I don’t listen to music. I only listen to the radio. I’ve been to one concert in my whole life. I’m music illiterate and I’m happy to stay that way.

You’re an open book. Most people would recognize that not listening to music is deviant. You’d probably get lots of pushback. I’m not going to judge you. Concerts are overrated. I’m acknowledging that what you’ve said is unusual but clearly, not everybody can love music.

I love music. I love dancing. I don’t have an ‘80s band that I still hold on to. Music is changing and I appreciate the change.

You don’t listen to podcasts?

I’ve never listened to a podcast.

Will you listen to this one?


Will you tell people about it?

Yes, I’ll tell people about it.

You don’t mind if other people listen?

I do mind.

How will you feel if the dean listened to this podcast?

I hope she listens to this podcast. She probably knows I hate music and watch terrible TV. I did say that I watched the whole entire series.


I do not read fiction.

I don’t either. I rarely do. I watch movies, but I don’t read nonfiction.

Do you think that makes you deviant?

It’s unusual, I agree. I feel like there’s so much interesting stuff that’s happening in the world that I don’t have to read about stuff that is made up. I read a lot. I read stuff that’s real.

That’s I guess more my speed of reading. Probably the most recent science book I read, thinking fast and slow, I read Gut, which is a book about how your human biome affects everything you do. It’s such a good book.

Those pop science books, a lot of them are shallow. You’ve got to be a smart consumer of them. The good ones are a great way to get introduced to an idea without having to dive too deeply. I don’t want to read a lot of those biome papers.

They’re hard to read.

That seems like a good one.

No music, no reading and I watch bad TV.

Stefanie, this is a lot of fun.

Thanks, Peter.

I appreciate you doing it.

Thank you.


Resources mentioned:

 About Stefanie Johnson

INJ 36 | Engaging SpeakingStefanie Johnson is an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. She studies the intersection of leadership and diversity. Stefanie has published more than 40 journal articles and book chapters. In 2016, she was invited to the White House to present her work on diversity in corporate America. She has extensive consulting experience and has created and delivered leadership development training with an emphasis on evidence-based practice. She has received multiple million dollars in federal and other grant funding to study leadership and create leadership development programs aimed at increasing safety. Media outlets featuring Stefanie’s work include: The Economist, Newsweek, Time, CNN, ABC, NBC, CNBC, Wall Street Journal.

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