Today’s episode is with Ashu Dalvi. Ashu is a consultant who has expertise in a variety of industries and has worked with private, public, and non-profit organizations for over 15 years. This episode is important because we had a really great time digging into the importance of trust and further, how those in organizations can counteract historical, toxic norms that may exist in the environment.
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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.
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Exploring Why You Should Normalize Transparency And Consistency With Ashu Dalvi
This episode is with Ashu Dalvi. He was a consultant who has expertise in a variety of industries and has worked with public-private and nonprofit organizations for over fifteen years. This episode is important because we had a great time digging into the importance of trust and further how those in organizations can counteract toxic historical norms that may exist in the environment. Let’s get to it.
In this episode, we have Ashu Dalvi. How are you?
I’m doing great. How are you, Kevin?
Great. You being a lawyer, I’m so happy to hear your stories and talk to you about toxic leadership and the manifestation of how you’ve interacted with it and how you’ve seen it. Thank you for being here.
Thank you for having me.
Before we dive into the fun stuff of toxic leadership, I want to dive into the fun stuff about you. Let’s hear a little more about your story, where you come from, your work and what you’ve been working on.
I grew up right outside of Detroit, Michigan. My parents immigrated from India in the 1970s to Detroit and they are physical therapists. I grew up in a town that loves cars and sports. That’s shaped who I am. Those are a couple of things that I still am very heavily involved with. I went to school not knowing what I wanted to do. I loved sports and the other thing that I loved was doing puzzles. At some point, I stopped growing and so my aspirations of being an NBA player went out the door. I focused on finding a career that would help me solve puzzles. That led me into the world of management consulting.
I did that for a couple of years after college. Your standard gets to travel a lot, do a lot of data crunching. This is where I learned how to manipulate Excel and PowerPoint but I had this long-time feeling of wanting to be a lawyer. I took a divergent path, went to law school and then started practicing as an intellectual property lawyer. I did that for about four years. What I quickly realized is that being a lawyer especially an intellectual property lawyer wasn’t like what you see on TV.
It wasn’t like those law shows. I spent most of my time in an office by myself researching and writing. It felt like writing a term paper every day. As a people person, I didn’t think I could do this for the rest of my life. I went back into management consulting and that’s what I’ve been doing since 2011. I focus primarily on strategy and operations. I call it the three Ps, Planning, Productivity and Problem-solving. I work with all kinds of clients. I’ve worked with Fortune 500s and NASDAQ 100s. I’ve also worked with local nonprofits that serve a very targeted community in the city I live in, in San Francisco.
Understand what you can control. It’s important to know when you can influence something and when you can’t.
I started my own firm in 2019. It’s called South Pointe Strategy. We focus primarily on strategy and operations. That also includes leadership development because what I discovered very quickly was, when we were working on building out an organization strategy or improving the operations, the leadership piece was key to making everything else work. In my free time, I spend a lot of time walking my dog and playing with her in the backyard, watching University of Michigan sports and I also like to cook. During the pandemic, it’s been great. I’ve been trying out a lot of new recipes and that’s been a lot of fun.
Thanks for sharing that information about yourself. I can imagine your consulting career with leadership development, as well as your legal career as an IP lawyer. I’m sure you came across behaviors that one might consider to be toxic in the workplace or with leaders.
I’ve seen that talking to other friends who are lawyers. I’ve seen that in my consulting engagements when I’m working with a client. For instance, I had a client come to me and say they wanted to build a strategy, take a different approach to it and include not only the leaders of the organization but the people who are doing the work every day and they wanted to bring these two groups together.
What we quickly found out was that there was a lack of trust between these two parties and there was a difference in philosophy from the leader in what they thought the strategy should be for the organization and then from what the people who are doing the work thought it should be. Very quickly, we realized there’s a deeper issue having here, where it was a toxic environment. The employees felt like leadership never listened to them and so what was the point of participating in this strategy development?
The leaders felt like the employees weren’t listening to them either and they had this attitude of like, “We’re the leaders. We’ve done this before. We’ve seen this before,” but it came off as them not being open to new ideas. Before we could even decide, do we want to enter this market or how do we want to position our services, we had to start building trust between the two groups. Once we were able to do that, the rest of it could pretty easily.
Trust is always the hardest part.
Absolutely. What I like to tell the people that I work with is there seems to be a lack of trust here. It becomes pretty obvious through what people are saying through the way the interactions are. If you start looking at people’s body language, looking at their faces, when these, what I’ll call opposing groups, are talking to each other, it becomes clear that there’s a lack of trust.
What I try to tell everyone is that the lack of trust isn’t going to come overnight. I can’t come in as someone from the outside, snap my fingers or wave a magic wand and all of a sudden everyone is happy and working together in a harmonious way. It is being transparent with one another and doing the things that you’re going to say you do. For instance, one of the issues that I see come up a lot with the teams and clients that I work with is underperformers, which aren’t dealt with.
You have people who feel they are everything that they’re asked to do. They’re being tapped more often than other people because they’re reliable people but those folks who are the under-performers don’t have anything happen to them. I have seen situations where leadership says, “We see what you’re saying,” but then they don’t do anything about it.
They got the first part right, the transparency part and they commit doing something but when the rubber met the road, they didn’t do anything and so the trust broke down. No accountability for performance. When leadership said, “We’re going to commit to doing something about it.” They themselves weren’t accountable. He didn’t hold themselves accountable to take those steps and all the trust that they were trying to build fell apart.
People we’re probably looking to them to say, “Person A is not carrying their whole load. I’m looking for you to do something about that.”
There are a lot of solutions to doing it and that’s one example of being transparent, holding people accountable and doing the things you say but being transparent and acting on your words are the two biggest components in buildings trust. That can’t be built overnight. It has to be a repeated thing that you build. It’s like building a house, you lay one brick on top of another brick and then you can say, “I trust this person to do what he or she is going to say. I trust leadership to take my concerns and address them.” Conversely, leadership can say to the employees, “We think this is where we need help from you. This is what we need you,” and employees can say, “I can do that for you,” and then they can demonstrate those behaviors as well.
I have a question related. Let’s say I’m in a service environment, I work a lot of hours and the work environment is toxic. I’m a waiter or something like that. I’m in that environment. The workplace is toxic. What would be some strategies or techniques that you would employ or recommend as we look at it and trying to improve the working relationship in the environment?
That’s a good question and it’s a tough thing to do especially from the employee side. I’m a firm believer in being honest and having honest conversations with people. That has what has led to the breakthrough and most of the engagements that I’ve worked on. What I would recommend to a person in that case is, is there someone you can trust within the organization to have that candid conversation? Sometimes, you might not be able to go to the CEO, manager or whoever is the captain of the ship and say, “This is what I think.” Can you find another ally or can you find a group of people that will be your allies? Then it’s approaching leadership and saying, “Can we talk about this?”
What I have noticed is when these conversations happened, you’re already at this boiling point. You’re almost at the point of no return. Quickly, that conversation turns into an adversarial conversation where people want to air their grievances. I can understand that because if you’ve been experiencing this for an extended period of time and you’re at the end of the rope, it all comes tumbling out.
One thing to remember when having those conversations is how we can pouch this in a positive way. How is it a win-win? How is it a win for me to change this toxic environment and for leadership or management to change this environment to make it better for everyone? To that point of when these conversations typically happen and you’re already at that boiling point, I would say try to get there earlier before you get there. If you address things earlier, everyone is a little bit calmer about addressing these.
I’ve seen situations where I’ve had a group of people come together and it could even be between of who are all at the same level in the company or it could be between levels in a company. You sit down and you have an honest conversation and all of a sudden, there are a lot of pointing fingers be happening. There’s a lot of blame being said. It’s human nature to get defensive in those situations especially when you’re caught off guard or you may disagree.
Sometimes we get defensive in situations and we aren’t aware that it’s already a toxic environment.
You may say, “I don’t think this is a toxic environment or I wasn’t aware of it.” That’s not the right way to start the conversation. It’s not the most effective way to start the conversation. If you can address those things earlier and you can sit in a way that poses addressing the toxic environment as a win-win for everyone, you will have more success.
I’m going to lift something up for readers. Denial is not the right answer. You had stated, “Don’t start the conversation with, ‘Why I don’t think it’s a toxic work environment,'” because it is important to understand people’s perspectives as they enter the spaces and as they work in these spaces. It’s because depending on where you are in the organization, you might not be experiencing the same thing someone else’s.
I thank you for lifting that up. That’s important. It also goes to the empathy that a lot of leadership people we talk about. One of the things that’ll help is, as we think about toxic work environments, what behaviors could you share with readers that you’ve seen or experienced to relate it to that you’re like, “That’s toxic, no doubt about it. No confusion.” What could you lift up in that area?
There are a couple of those that are very obvious. Given what we’re seeing in our society, I don’t think any of your readers would be surprised by bullying. That is one that has gotten a lot of press. Bullying is one toxic behavior. I am more interested in the behaviors that seem innocuous or they don’t look like their toxic behaviors but they are.
Let’s say I’m a manager or I’m a senior team member working with a junior team member and I bring this example up because as a consultant, we work in teams. Usually, there’s a more senior person who’s driving the overall project and then you have a few junior people who are helping with the data analysis, building recommendations and things like that. Example of something that may not seem toxic but it is, is if the senior person is repeatedly taking credit for everyone else’s work and not letting the people who are doing the great work that they’re doing shine.
That particular example can show up in a lot of different ways. It could be, “I’m not going to let you come into this meeting with a client even though you did the work.” It could be, “I’m letting you in the meeting but I don’t want you to present anything. I’m going to present it on my own.” I think that there are other behaviors that, on the first, don’t seem toxic that is. I would also say like favoritism. In some cases, it’s obvious. In other cases, it’s not. I have seen places where it almost seems like the same five people are being called in to do everything and there’s like a circle of trust that other folks are trying to build into. Where it becomes toxic is those people get all the great opportunities over and over again and the people who are not in that circle of trust don’t understand why.
Is it because those people have more experience? Is it because they’re high performers? Is there something that I’m not doing? Like how do I get in there? That’s a tricky one because the person who may be leading that group of five people may not even know that other people feel that way or they may have worked with that team of four other people and so they feel comfortable with them. That’s another example of something that doesn’t seem toxic on its face but it is. The thing that I’ve been thinking about the most is where toxic behaviors are intertwined with the organization you work for or the industry that you worked in and able to pull those apart and see that those behaviors are toxic.
I’m going to jump into that with a question but before I do, listening to what you stated, some behaviors on their face may not seem toxic but they may have toxic ramifications if done either too long or what have you. Taking credit for others’ work could lead to employees not feeling they have value. That favoritism piece is good that you brought up because some of that could lead to some implicit bias and how you delegate work and who gets the promotion because they got all the work done but you didn’t ask me.
I’m glad you lifted that up. People need to be aware of these behaviors because a person may not be doing them to harm but they may have a harmful impact. We think about the intertwining between an organizational culture or what people are expecting in a certain work environment based on whatever. Talk to me about what you think about how toxicity could be normalized in these environments.
We touched on this and I took a detour from consulting and went to law school and was a practicing attorney. The path for a lot of people is they go to law school and big law firms. As a junior lawyer, you’re doing a lot of hard work and you’re working long hours. I’ve heard of stories where a junior lawyer went to a warehouse to go look through boxes of documents and there were cockroaches and rats. It was a filthy thing and was there in hours looking through these documents for a case that they were working on but those are the things that you do and sometimes you have to do that.
If you have a client that you’re trying to serve, sometimes you’re going to have to suck it up and do those things. The question to me becomes, “When is it as a toxic work environment?” The expectation for a lot of people who are in law school that is going to a big firm is, “My life is going to be miserable. I’m going to be working until 2:00 in the morning every night, I’m going to cry and sometimes I’m going to get yelled at.”
I know this for a fact. I have friends who have gone through this and the examples that I have given you about crying at their desks at 2:00 in the morning. That’s true. I’ve had friends tell me they used to keep a sleeping bag at work so they didn’t have to go home because it didn’t make sense to go home late and then have to be back in the office at 7:00 AM.
I talk and ask them, “Do you think that was a messed-up environment?” They all say no. This is surprising to me because if you were an outsider to that community or to that profession, you would say, “That does not seem right,” but because that has been repeated generation over generation, it’s become normalized.
I read an article about the junior investment bankers at Goldman Sachs going to management and presenting a deck that said, “Here are some of the challenges and struggles that we’re having. I expected I would be working until 11:00 at night every night. I didn’t expect that I would be working until 4:00 or 5:00 every morning, every day.”
I think there was one anecdote of a person saying that they didn’t even have time to shower on certain days because they were being inundated with so much work. Then when you read the comments to that article, there are a lot of people chiming in or saying, “That’s the industry. You knew what you were signing up for. I went through that myself. It made me a stronger person and who I am now.” It makes you wonder, does it have to be this way or are the people who say, “I got a lot of good experience out of that.” Are they the ones who are in the right?
The way you describe it seems like the trauma or the experience that people go through becomes a rite of passage in a way. It makes me wonder what the line is. You’ve normalized trauma, basically and it gets perpetuated. The old guard of what have you or whoever been in the system the longest since they had to go through it cognitively. It’s probably like, “Since I went through it, you got to go through it too. Suck it up.” What do you think are the steps or solutions for untangling the generational industry norms that may be traumatic and toxic and what are people experiencing? What do you think some solutions are?
Let’s assume that the people who have experienced these words are meant, finally make it up into leadership positions. I think it’s on them to recognize like, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” To me, the question as a strategy and operations person is like, “How do we get the best outcome for whatever we’re doing?” If you want to sell a product, how can we sell the most of this product? If you’re a service organization or a restaurant, how do we put out the best menu that we can put out? The question is like parsing through these behaviors and saying what adds to making us get the outcomes we want and what are the things that detract from it.
If you can address things earlier and sit in a way that poses addressing the toxic environment as a win-win for everyone, you will have more success.
It’s lazy to say, “I went through it so you’re going to have to go through it.” All of these people for years have said, “This is the best way of doing it.” It means that it’s still the best way of doing it. Let’s look at it this way. As a strategy person, people come to me and say, “I need help with this problem.” I have had clients say to me, “We’ve always done it this way.”
I was working on a project once where it was a manufacturing client where they were buying little screws, nuts and bolts and they used the same method of reaching out to suppliers, sending out an RFP, having the supplier respond and then picking the best cost or the screw that made that met the requirements they needed.
We went in there and we decided, “This particular part is a commodity. There are a lot of people who can build it. Why don’t we do a reverse auction and make those people bid for your business because you are such a big organization?” That was a hard thing for them to grasp onto or accept because they had done something the same way but once we did it, they said, “There’s a new way of doing this.” Going back to these rites of passage, if you want to call them, if you’re going to look at any other part of your business and question, “Why have we done it this way? Is there a better way of doing it? Why wouldn’t you do it to this part of your business?”
To me, your people are probably your most important asset. Why wouldn’t you want to treat your people or have them operate in a way that is the most effective for them? I firmly believe that when your people are your best, your organization is going to be at its best. That is a very long-winded way of answering your question. It’s when you get into a position where you can make that change and you can influence how your people are treated and what they need to do, do that. I have experienced it myself. I was at big and small consulting firms. The leaders that I have enjoyed working with are the leaders who are transparent with me and said, “I’m not going to make you do the same things that you think that you have to do.”
For instance, I had a boss who said, “I have a small child. When I go home in the evenings, I want to spend time with my son or daughter. I’m going to get back on at 9:00 at night. I’m going to hand out some emails. I don’t expect you to respond to these in the morning.” That was a big mind shift for me because I was in this habit of, I get an email. I need to have my, at the time, BlackBerry or iPhone in my pocket. I get an email and I got to respond right away. I got to be next to my computer and this person completely changed that for me.
Going back to earlier in the conversation of what are some toxic behaviors that become institutionalized. It’s that you need to be responsive right away. It starts encroaching on your personal life and relationships and you’d feel like you can never get away from work. You’re in a position of leadership. Think about the things that you went through and ask, “Does this help us get to the outcome that we want?” Get rid of the behaviors that you don’t need and keep the behaviors that you do need. I think that is going to help solve a lot of these issues.
To your point, examine the impact and the behaviors you do keep or have on your most important resource is your people. Examine the impact. I appreciate your time. Thank you for sharing all of these great tips and your experiences. If we were looking at some words of wisdom, what would you leave our readers with?
Understand what you can control. I say that because it is important to know when you can influence something and when you can’t influence something. I worked with a client where we had to go to the leadership team and present something that we wanted to do. It would have been a big fundamental shift for this organization. The fear was the leadership team was going to say, “No.” They’re going to say, “This is great but we still want to do it this other way.”
What I said to the team that I was working with was, “That’s great.” If they come back and they say, “No,” then you know what you’re dealing with. There isn’t this push and pull or you’re not getting strung along by them nodding their head and saying, “This sounds great.” I think all of us have been in a situation of you do great and other people tell you, “Let’s keep doing it,” and then they slow play it and then it dies on the vine.
My word of wisdom is to know what you can control and don’t be afraid of noes and being shut down because then you have the information to decide how do you want to make your next move, is it, “I’m going to try to approach this in a different way?” Is it, “This culture is like too much of an uphill battle for me to fight and it’s time for me to move on and find a place that I fit in better.” Don’t be afraid of no.
Thank you. How can readers reach you and know more about your consulting and the work you do?
You can reach me at my website. It is SouthPointeStrategy.com. You can also find me on LinkedIn. Those are the best ways to get ahold of me. I’m happy to talk to anyone. I love networking with people and meeting new people, having these types of conversations. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if I can be helpful to you in any way.
I appreciate your insights. Thank you very much.
Thank you for having me.
Thank you for reading the show. Until next time.
About Ashutosh (Ashu) Dalvi
Ashu has spent over 15 years as a consultant with various firms, including Kearney and Booz Allen Hamilton. He is the Managing Director of South Pointe Strategy, a consultancy that helps private, public, and non-profit organizations solve problems, plan for the future, and become more productive. Ashu lives in San Francisco with his wife, Margia, and their dog, Maizie. In his free time, you can find him intensely watching University of Michigan basketball and football or trying out a new recipe. You can learn more about Ashu and South Pointe Strategy at southpointestrategy.com.