Tiffany S.W. Hamilton works in the diversity and inclusion industry as a business owner, coach and as chief diversity officer at Pace University.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
Follow KEVRA: The Culture Company on Linkedin to keep up with your favorite behavioral scientist, Dr. Sansberry. At KEVRA: The Culture Company, we partner to effectively evolve your organizational culture by focusing on competency development, best practices, and leading research to deliver systemic and innovative solutions for company success.
Have a question for Dr. Sansberry? Visit askdrkev.com to send your leadership and organizational-related questions.
Listen to the podcast here
Creating Thriving Environments With Tiffany S.W. Hamilton
Our guest is Tiffany Hamilton. She’s the Managing Director of Transformational Solutions Workgroup and inaugural Chief Diversity Officer of Pace University. Most recently, she was the inaugural Chief Diversity Officer of Westchester Community College. While there, Tiffany developed and executed a plan that leveraged data analysis to discern and address equity gaps in student achievement. She also refined the hiring process and implemented cultural competence programming to increase awareness of unconscious bias and provide strategies for more effective communication engagement.
Engaging organizations in leveraging equity and inclusion in the transformative process of change is her passion and purpose. Tiffany challenges and supports institutions in the refining process, re-engineering practices and developing people to support an inclusive workplace. Whether it’s throughout halls of academia, boardrooms of corporations or charitable organizations, Tiffany’s commitment to access and support is grounded in equity and inclusive excellence. Transformational Solutions Workgroup completed an engagement with five cultural nonprofit organizations across Staten Island with annual budgets exceeding $16 million. During this engagement, Tiffany facilitated implicit bias awareness sessions for staff to understand the science behind implicit bias and its impact on the workplace.
Also, she crafted six-year diversity equity and inclusion plans submitted to New York State, outlining expected outcomes. Tiffany is an advocate for equality and social justice evidenced by her service to a variety of corporations and charitable organizations leveraging her skills in strategic planning, professional development and serving as a keynote for organizations such as Sister to Sister International Incorporated and the YMCA of White Plains to name a few. As an active member in the Westchester Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, Tiffany serves on the Executive Board as Chair of Strategic Planning.
In May of 2019, Tiffany was honored as the Social Justice Champion by the YMCA of White Plains and Central Westchester. Tiffany is a graduate of the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Her life’s motto is, “Lead by serving and gain by giving.” This serves as the foundation to her life’s work as she helps others key into their core to unlock their full potential. Let’s get to it.
Welcome to the show. We have Tiffany Hamilton here and I’m excited to have a fellow Kansas City in here and I want to share your story with the audience. How are you?
Thank you for asking. I’m amazing, hanging in and holding on so doing well.
Before we jump into the toxic leadership piece, I want to hear and have you share with the audience your story, who you are, what are you doing now, where you came from and a little bit about yourself.
If I had to wrap up who I am in a 30 seconds wheel, I realized that my purpose is to help people can to the core of who they are so that they can unlock their full potential. That’s my tagline and my mantra. My life motto is, “Lead by serving, gain by giving.” All of that was developed or crystallized once I created a space to look at my life’s journey, to understand the why behind everything that happened. That’s what allowed me to be with you now to talk about this concept of toxic leadership and culture transformation and all of those pieces. My story, originally from Kansas City, Missouri. Missouri, not Kansas, born and raised in. I say that because I did not recognize how important where one town is until I moved away.
I’m a transplant to the East Coast. I’m in Stanford, Connecticut now. That also is a part of the journey of transformation and expansion, your proximity to your roots in your home. My story, can to the core, unlock the full potential that came from being a first-generation college student, going off to the Midwestern University, majoring in Computer Science, being one of few persons of color. One of few women in the field, you get exposed to a lot. In that exposure, you recognize that you got to lean on that African proverb that it takes a village.
I was the first place where I understood the power of connection and the power of a village because for a long period of time I didn’t have that. Going through that process, entering into the workforce. I knew that though I started in Computer Science, that my life’s purpose was to help people identify and connect to the power of education and what education can do to one’s life’s trajectory. Not just for them but for their children’s children, for those who choose that.
I’m not on corners proximal pads and saying, “Come to college and this is the only thing that you can do.” If you choose this space, I want to be responsible for ensuring that this space provides and creates what you need to be successful. That’s not just for the students but that’s also for the employees. Over the years, I’ve been able to allow my personal self and my professional self to connect and reside in the same space.
As a Black woman, that has not always been the case. I literally can sit and reflect on the process when I started assimilating and decided that I was going to teach space and community to learn about the fullness of me versus me shrinking to fit in a simulate. In brief, that’s my story. Could I get into the specifics? Yes. To sum it up, I share with folks all the time. My professional and personal journey is a mix of a Tyler Perry stage play. This is us. It’s full of ups and downs and lots of laughter but it’s full of resilience too. I look forward to talking a little bit about that when we go a little deeper.
Thank you for sharing that. One of the things that resonated with me was the aspect of shrinking ourselves to fit environments that are external, that extrinsic motivation. I do have a question about that before we jumped further. Why do we do that? What is your aspect of the why behind that?
It’s because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe and understand. If we think historically about the evolution of Black presence in a segregated and very White America, White was set as the bar, as the standard of achievement. When you think about the historical implications of every single space in this country, academic, corporate, nonprofit and even our communities, White was the standard. That’s what we taught our children. That’s what we reiterated with each other. I grew up, I remember the conversations that my parents not having gone to school, “If you go to school you got to work twice as hard to get half as much.”
My dad is from North Little Rock, Arkansas so sometimes I channeled, “You’re going into that space. You’re going to have to work twice as hard to get half as much.” What does that mean? Why was that okay for us to own that? Now, we have generations that are coming into the space that’s challenging that very historic in the systemic practice of racism and oppression. We are moving from surviving because that’s a survival tactic, in a space where folks don’t look like you. The people at the board level don’t look like you. At the supervisory level, don’t look like you.
They probably don’t have a vested interest in your experience and what you bring into this space. You’re focused on surviving and now we have folks coming into the workplace with the expectation to thrive. If it doesn’t exist, they don’t have a problem with leaving. Industry, whether academic or corporate or nonprofit, we all are unlearning that folks are coming into this space skilled to do the work but with a different set of expectations.
Part of what you talk about is another form of toxicity. If me not being able to be who I am, I’m having to adopt that facade. I’m having to be somebody I’m not. It’s not something like I’m going to wake up and have my hair falling out one day. It’s death by a thousand cuts. You said something that resonated. You knew what you were doing but you consciously had to make a choice to be centered on what you were not. You had to move from survival to thriving. How did that feel when you went to work every day after that?
After that, you feel a sense of freedom that didn’t necessarily know existed. Prior to centering Whiteness in my approach to the workplace because that’s what we’re talking about. Whiteness as the center and as the baseline. As a Black woman, making the choice to say, “If we want to transform the experience and space, we can’t do what we’ve always done.” I’m not about to kill me, lose sleep and compromise my health because you all will keep moving one day. I want to make sure when I come into these spaces, I’m doing so in the fullness of myself so that I could do my assignment. I’m going to put a pin in that assignment’s teeth because I want to finish answering your question.
I felt a sense of freedom, release and focus. My target is now different. My target is not pleasing you but walking fully in this assignment so that whoever I’m supposed to impact in this season is able to receive the guidance to support the development, the platform, whatever it is that they’re supposed to get from me.
Thank you for that. Related to the topic of toxic leadership and toxic organizational cultures, talk to me about your experience in that facet of the work-life. Tell us more about that.
I’ve been fortunate enough to not have a toxic leader. I’ve worked in an organization with a toxic leader. Yet, my experience has been working with direct reports who were toxic supervisors. Managing their toxicity, like having employees come to me to share behavior that perhaps doesn’t rise to the threshold of a grievance under the discrimination and harassment policy but it’s deeply problematic behavior. That is literally why I do what I do in the work that I’m assigned to do.
I’ll talk a little bit about my exposure. I was about three degrees separated from the CEO of the company or the organization that I worked for who was taxing. I don’t use that word lightly. This person strategically puts employees against each other, use mechanisms of assessment and metrics and performance as the carrot in the stick so that we were essentially racehorses on the track trying to capture that little dog on a stick going around that you will never be able to capture.
That’s perfect. I used to joke and say that it was a circus. This person was the ring leader because they were not unaware of their tactics. That’s what made it even thicker to be in that space and to operate in for function. Being in that space for eighteen months allowed me to see who I didn’t want to be. At that point, I didn’t have any direct reports. I was middle management but with no direct reports. I had a supervisor and they reported to the CEO. I was able to better understand, learn and get behind the scenes conversation with that buffer in between but made the decision that this was a lesson that came at a cost and I wasn’t willing to pay that tax. I had learned enough.
Interestingly enough, the minute when I left that organization, I moved to the university and began to supervise an employee who was very toxic. Because of my exposure, number one, I knew the impact of what toxic behavior did to people. I was now responsible for identifying the strategy to either move this person through or to another experience.
The behavior you described is something I talk about, it’s called puppeting. You have that puppet master. A lot of times, the leader who was that puppet master is “knowledgeable” about what they’re doing. I was going to use the word intelligent but who knows? They know it. They know exactly what they’re doing and it’s hard to defend it at times because they will have an articulated policy or they’ll have something that they can protect themselves behind or how they’re holding you accountable and stuff like that. It’s hard to get out of sometimes. I can see how that’s a good lesson learned or what not to be and what not to do. Jumping down a little bit of the perspective of managing a toxic person, if you’re charged with addressing that toxicity in the workplace that they report to you, talk to me about what your steps were. What did you do?
That would be re-missed to continue in this conversation if I didn’t acknowledge the obvious variable, my race and my ethnicity. As a Black woman responsible for now supervising a White-identified female in this space who also and I’m going to share they identified with the LGBTQ community. I share that because I want the variables to be set for the time being. Being in this space and needing to provide supervision, number one, there’s the conversation that I have to have with myself every single day. I have to remind myself that I’m on assignment. I cannot allow my feelings to impact how I function as a leader.
Number one, we’re talking emotional intelligence. Who am I bringing into this space? Do I have an awareness of how this person’s toxicity impacts me? That’s the first thing that I needed to do. The second thing, conversations in the mirror every morning. The second thing that I’m talking about with myself is that, “If this was you, you would’ve been gone a long time ago.” That was a reality in my mind that I needed to talk through, control and manage before I stepped foot on that campus to supervise this person.
I’m going to work backward. A few things that allowed me to be successful with that, I had a supervisor that created a space for me not to have that conversation by myself in the morning in the mirror but I could have that conversation with them. I did that strategically because although they trusted me to handle the situation and supported my recommendations, I also needed them to be activated on the impact that it was having not only on this person’s direct reports but what it was doing to me as their employee. Being charged and responsible so that they could take the conversations higher up and work with their partners to make sure that this plan that we came up with would be able to be executed as necessary.
How did I do it? The first thing, we got to have a transparent conversation about what the challenges are. In that, you’ve got to acknowledge the recipient. There are a couple of variables that may impact whether or not they received the messaging. The fragility of the individual, their emotional intelligence themselves. I, as a supervisor, got to go back to their performance appraisals and read like, “Has this ever come up before? Have we talked about this? What has been this person’s experience with accountability and response to accountability?” You’ve got to take it through the plan of, “Grandmother said, if you knew better, you do better.” I’ve got to make them aware, give them the opportunity to become better so that the expectation is clear. In the event that you don’t meet those expectations, which we create together, I’m going to give you time to come up with how do you think we can get through this?
At that moment, if they’re not able to execute the things that they come up with themselves then we’ve got to find a different mode of transportation on this route. Those were things that were helpful for me. Having a space for myself and with my supervisor to be able to talk through it and then walking this person. Bringing to their attention that, “What you think you bring to this space is not necessarily a reality. There’s a gap in what you think you bring and what you’re bringing into this space.”
Thank you for that. For the audience, I want to highlight something very important that you did that I don’t think a lot of people caught or at least I don’t see a lot of people doing. You had to go back and look at your mindset before you address the situation. You have to start. I’m going to center what I’m feeling because I know I’m feeling stuff, and be honest.
That’s why I don’t like doing implicit bias training a lot because people think they do the training and they are all done. I’m like, “No, your bias is still there after you do the training.” The key is to recognize them and don’t let them impact your actions and that’s what you did. I loved that. I also liked that you focused on, “I’m not going to let anything I think about this person or a situation impact how I treat them because, at the end of the day, I still want to treat them with respect and dignity and let them design the solution.” It’s co-designed and co-developed.
It’s that piece about two things that can be true that I can have these feelings and emotions or I can even have a bias. Bias is only a problem when it gets in the driver’s seat and it’s influencing how I engage or disengage with Redbull. The second piece is if I go back to that assignment, I can say that I desire to be an answer but I run from problems. I had to know that perhaps this is a part of my assignment to do this work. When we talk about access, equity, belonging and creating spaces of inclusion, that means sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and get in that valley and do the work of having that difficult conversation.
When we think about performance appraisals and how we work with our employees, we want to say, “You do this well.” You’ve told them 87 things that they do well but the two things that have the most impact on the people that they’re responsible for supervising or leading are a little blip. When I think about this work being a part of my assignment, it makes me a better leader then I remind myself that this may be the season or the lesson that’s going to change this person’s life. Who am I to rob them of their opportunity of becoming better? Regardless of how difficult or scary it may be, that will do it.
Give the feedback. It’s a gift. One of the hardest parts relates to cultural transformation or decreasing toxicity in the workplace especially in the situation you described. Let’s say the root cause is mitigated or gone. We figured something out. We did make some progress. How do we not go back?
That’s something that I work with units and departments now. We’ve begun to change the temperature and transform the climate. How do we not go back? It’s a deep dive into the organizational structure. It starts with hiring. Are we asking the right questions in the interview? Are we writing the appropriate skillsets to attract the people that we need to attract into these spaces? When we go through that process and they choose us, what’s the onboarding experience? It is working with every layer of the organization once they get to the entity, the institution and supporting them through that because they’ll choose us. They’ll say, yes. We’ll onboard them. We’ll share with them what will help make them successful then what does mentoring look like for first-year leaders in spaces?
What type of development is already prescribed for their first 365 days as an employee at said entity? The assessment measures. We should be talking to our employees all the time but we know it doesn’t happen. Once you build in the infrastructure appropriately, you can manage that and create that space for feedback. One of the things that I’m working on now is that we provide a lot of feedback to our direct reports but what assessment mechanisms are in place for administration? How do we hear from the people we’re responsible for meeting and supporting? How do we hear from them whether or not we are doing a good job or areas of improvement for us?
Whether that’s the 360 evaluation or whatever the case may be, there needs to be a mechanism where upper leadership and administration also receive that feedback as well. In doing all of that, you may still find yourself back in that space because we’re working with people. We’re working with humans who bring different perspectives and anything can happen. At least we now have a process that should minimize that experience creeping up. If it does, we have a system to address it.
One of my favorite mantras is, in order to radically change behavior, we got to radically change the environment. It’s something that sticks to me as a behavioral scientist as it relates to, how do we change behavior? Will you change the policies and create the structure? The behavior you want is what’s called reinforced. To be honest, if we leave people to their own devices a lot of times, you do see that regression because people go to comfort first no matter what. It’s always comfort first. I may to not have the tough conversation because I get to go home and not have to sleep at night as comfortable and not think about the long-term impact of that leader’s direct reports if you ignore that conversation. One of the things I’m thinking about before we log off is what do you want to leave us with? If you had some words of wisdom for our audiences, what are some keys you want to leave us with?
Sitting in the C-Suite, you have those opportunities to have conversations. I appreciate the access that I have because a couple of things I’m reminding those who are running organizations is we need to begin to personalize our process. Gone are the days where you can have the standard rigid algorithm of how we approach this work because people are now aware that there are people in the workplace. “Yes, Tiffany, there’s always been people in the workplace.” We didn’t talk about people in the workplace or we didn’t act like it. Hello somebody. We need to begin to personalizing our process and understand that the more we invest in the people and take the time to transform those people then spaces transformed.
Think about it. An empty room is just an empty room. It doesn’t become a culture or a system until people are inside of it. The work starts with the people. When we think about that piece, I’m also reminding people that if you are what you do then when you are not, you’re not. Who you are is not indicative to the role that you have. It’s who you bring into this space. We’ve got to make the investment in the people to spend time transforming themselves because then that’s when we see environments, departments and organizations change. It starts with the people and makes room for that.
Thank you very much for those words of wisdom. I appreciated that. Before we go, I wanted to give you the opportunity to share any initiatives you’re working on. Further, how can people reach you?
You can follow my handle on Instagram @TSWorkGroup. That is where I post speaking engagements and other opportunities to engage in connecting with me. A couple of projects I’m working on. I’m like everyone else managing life through this pandemic trying to figure out when and where while still preserving my wellbeing. Trying to leverage social media in those places to help folks key into the core of who they are so that they can unlock their full potential.
I want to thank you for talking with me. I appreciate your insight and wisdom.
Thank you for having me. This was awesome. I’m looking forward to future episodes.
Folks, thanks for reading. Until next time.
About Tiffany S.W. Hamilton
Dedicated to providing innovative and practical leadership to support the constructive development of students, faculty and staff while cultivating a vibrant campus environment that nurtures, empowers, and supports culturally competent and responsive leaders.
Visionary Higher Education Leader with proven success facilitating culturally diverse and equitable operations in university settings. Expertly coordinate programs that support university mission and strategic plan, leveraging analytical strengths to develop and implement innovative solutions to challenges. Lead the development and implementation of strategies that support success of all students.
Loyal and trusted team builder and collaborator who provides thought leadership to unify and build relationships with students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and community partners. Strategic planner committed to student development and community service while promoting respect for the individual dignity of others, enhancing the overall student experience and campus culture.