• Sarah E. Brown

How Women’s Stories are Changing our Ideas about Power with Annette Simmons


Have you defined power the way men define it? Do you feel like women don’t have the same power that men have in the workplace? Are you ready to find out how some women are now defining their own boss power and overcoming people’s expectations through their own narratives?


Power is never only limited to one definition and can vary from person to person. The world is slowly adapting and welcoming women into higher positions unlike before. To acknowledge one’s power is to use it for the greater and collective good. But what does it mean to have power as a woman and how can we, our own girl boss selves, turn our power into action that can greatly impact the world?


Annette Simmons is a keynote speaker, consultant, and author of four books, including The Story Factor, listed in The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. She got her business degree from Louisiana State University (1983), spent ten years in Australia in international business, got an M.Ed. from North Carolina State University (1994), and founded Group Process Consulting in 1996. Her new book is Drinking from a Different Well: How Women’s Stories Change What Power Means in Action.


In this episode, Annette talks about how the definition of power is evolving and isn’t only being limited to how men define it. She also shares how finding joy in our work is the hidden superpower that will bring out the best in us and our potential.



What you will learn from this episode:

  • Discover the differences in how men and women define power

  • Learn more about why understanding first will help bring out our collective power and drive us to progress

  • Understand how your own narrative can bring out your own unique power that the world needs



Instead of viewing that conflict as an invitation to a battle, we view it as an invitation for curiosity.
- Annette Simmons


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Topics Covered:


02:00 - To know a more diverse definition of power through women’s perspectives: the reason behind Annette’s research


04:20 - Narrative means different things and thus, contributes to how we evaluate our own power and selves


06:12 - Other characteristics of power that differ from men and women: Women manage multiple narratives and stories which makes them see the bigger picture


7:51 - The importance of viewing conflict in a different way– not as an invitation to battle but rather as an invitation to curiosity


10:15 - Moral values in narratives: How the stories that are most important to us probably have the morals that are most important to us


12:46 - How women pay attention to internal cues rather than external cues in terms of avoiding unnecessary conflict


16:10 - The negative consequences women face when ignoring moral distress: Living miserably and being unable to find the fun in their work and potential


17:47- Annette’s message to potential readers of her book: It's a love letter from me to women



Key Takeaways:


“The stories that are most important to us probably have the morals that are most important to us.” - Annette Simmons


“In a competitive narrative, "harm" is simply the price you pay for winning. In a collaborative narrative, there's a difference between being "risk-averse", and being "harm averse".” - Annette Simmons


“We have a different narrative by which we identify what it is that we want to accomplish and how we want to go about it.” - Annette Simmons


“Women manage multiple stories all the time. And so competitive players can criticize us as being too emotional, or unfocused. But the truth is that managing multiple narratives so that more people, other than one little group, feel like their solution was fair. “ - Annette Simmons


“What you do is you take five different points of view, just like the five blind men describing the elephant, and have them share their stories in a way that expands a much bigger picture and completely transforms how we define a problem, and what we define as the problem.” - Annette Simmons



Ways to Connect with Annette Simmons



Ways to Connect with Sarah E. Brown



Full Episode Transcript:


Annette Simmons 0:00

The stories that are most important to us probably have the morals that are most important to us.


Sarah E. Brown 0:14

Hello, everyone. Welcome to the KTS Success Factor Podcast for Women, where we talk about challenges senior female leaders face in being happy and successful at work. I'm your host, Dr. Sarah E. Brown.


My guest today is Annette Simmons. She is a keynote speaker, consultant, and author of four books, including The Story Factor, which is listed in the 100 Best Business Books of All Time! She got her business degree from Louisiana State University in 1983, spent 10 years in Australia in international business, got an M.Ed. from North Carolina State University in 1994, and founded Group Process Consulting in 1996. And we're going to talk today about her new book called, Drinking from a Different Well: How Women's Stories Change What Power Means in Action. Welcome, Annette!


Annette Simmons 1:20

Thank you!


Sarah E. Brown 1:21

I am really excited to be talking with you about this book. I have read most of it! And I just find it fascinating. And just to ground our listeners, the methodology that Annette used in the book was to interview a lot of women telling their unique stories. And she asked them two questions, "On a scale of one to 10, how powerful are you?" And then, "Can you tell me a story about a time you were powerful?" So Annette, tell me what was behind this research and this methodology?


Annette Simmons 2:00

It's all my sneakiness. We have so many- we've been taught what power is and trained to think that, you know, what we were taught was the only definition of power. But one of the things I noticed is that when I asked women, and then I asked men this too. Men just answered the question. Women were like, "What do you mean by power?" And I'm like, "I don't know. What do YOU mean by power?" And so, you know, they would pause a bit. And this is the beauty of collecting true stories because the true story is going to reflect this woman's, really, her personal experience with power. What it is that she uses it to achieve and how she conceptualizes what power means. Most of the women I talked to would tell a story that matched the same stories men told. You know, how to put marks on the scoreboard. However, there was a significant number of women who told stories that men just didn't tell. And the characteristics of these stories include that a lot of women considered power is the power to do good or to protect others. And if their job disabled their power to make these decisions, it left them in distress and feeling powerless. So the second thing is that women, these women, tend to describe a different approach to power that we've heard referred to as "power with" rather than "power over". And when you compare the two strategies in real life, which 30 years of consulting, I'm sure you've seen as many times that they've come into conflict as I have, what happens is that the competitive players make us look like we're enemies to their goals. And the truth is, we're just trying to include some collaborative goals at the same time we do the competitive goals.


Sarah E. Brown 3:48

I'm going to come back to this notion of power, and the distinction between the way men look at it, and women look at it in a minute, but you summarize it in the beginning. While traditional narratives portray power in the context of adversity and battles, women's true stories about power recruit narratives that define power as the ability to nurture and protect, as well as, the ability to control or dominate. So tell me what you mean by narrative. How are you using that term?


Annette Simmons 4:20

Narrative means different things. If you're in theater, if you're in, you know, I'm talking about psychology, and we have a narrative by which we evaluate ourselves. There's some sort of ideal story in our brain about how, you know, what's good and what's bad. And so we tend to evaluate ourselves based on this story. And the single story, and that we've been warned against, is this competitive story that there are good guys and bad guys and that there's a clear difference between the two. And that tends to come from these competitive stories. You know, the winner takes all make sense within that narrative. But if you have a collaborative narrative, best exemplified by a lot of the indigenous stories about taking care of resources and the survival of the collective. What you end up as you're evaluating yourself by a different set of criteria. One of those is, "Have I done harm?" In a competitive narrative, "harm" is simply the price you pay for winning. In a collaborative narrative, there's a difference between being "risk-averse", and being "harm averse". And so many women, whether by nature and nurture, are set up to monitor the well being of a much wider circle of moral concern, and that's been shown statistically, then we end up being dissatisfied with wins that actually cost people their lives, or may incur climate change. And so we have a different narrative by which we identify what it is that we want to accomplish and how we want to go about it.


Sarah E. Brown 5:55

And if you were to summarize the difference between the way men and women view power, one of the examples you gave was "power with" vs "power over", are there other characteristics of power that you saw as differences?


Annette Simmons 6:12

Yeah, the thing that really comes through is the idea of a single story, in the end, using, you know, one point of view and the definitions of focus and being on target, implicitly imply that there's one story. Women manage multiple stories all the time. Anyone who's a mother knows that she's managing not only her kids' narrative, her husband's narrative, she's managing her in-laws' narratives, not to mention all the ones at work. And so competitive players can criticize us as being too emotional, or unfocused. But the truth is that managing multiple narratives so that more people, other than one little group, feel like their solution was fair. So you include more, you know, more input instead of pitting one story against each other like there's a winner and a loser. What you do is you take five different points of view, just like the five blind men describing the elephant, and have them share their stories in a way that expands a much bigger picture and completely transforms how we define a problem, and what we define as the problem.


Sarah E. Brown 7:31

And somewhere in the book, I read that, from your perspective, what your research is showing us, is that it's not so much that women are only approaching their "power with" or at to the exclusion of "power over" that they seem to be combining those points. Is that related to what you were explaining?


Annette Simmons 7:51

That's exactly what I'm trying to talk about, is that when we- because there's going to be conflict inherent in different points of view. Everybody's looking at it from a different place. But instead of viewing that conflict as an invitation to a battle, we view it as an invitation for curiosity. And so what could look like at a meeting of making sure that everybody had their point of view, to a competitive player, you know, looking at his watch, it would have been much faster, just tell him what's going to happen. And then that phrase that makes my skin crawl, "We'll just have to understand". Ain't nobody has to understand nothing! And so this blind spot, there's a lot of blind spots in competitive reasoning that don't accommodate for the fact that people have feelings, and that human nature is pre-programmed to evaluate fairness and justice. Infants before, you know, they can crawl, can actually demonstrate a proclivity for looking much longer at helping individuals, of course, they're not individuals, they are little puppets when you're working with infants, but you have a puppet that helps and a puppet that hinders. And just by eye contact, you can see that there's a preference. And so when we design systems that are gamified, very often we don't realize implicitly in there, there's only one winner. And at least with sports, we can, you know, start the season over next year but there's no season in business. And so this "winner takes all" thing has escalated to the point where there's a lot of people who feel unheard and untended. Yuval, I can't remember his last name, talks about the growing useless class. Don't know if you've heard that term, but an economic theory that's based purely on competitive reasoning that can't account for people who are valuable and yet, you know, unneeded in the workplace. And so as we automate things, we're gonna have to figure out better solutions.


Sarah E. Brown 9:49

I get it. Okay, before we jump to the outcome, and, you know, how this plays out in terms of effects in the workplace, I do have one other thing around the underlying promising methodology. Because you make a comment here that the original source of morals is storytelling.


Annette Simmons 10:07

Yeah.


Sarah E. Brown 10:08

Tell us more about that, and how that relates to women being focused on morals.


Annette Simmons 10:15

Thank you! Because morality has gotten a bad name because it's become oppressive and judgmental. And if you look at human history, the behavioral guidelines actually came from the cave paintings and the stories that were told around the campfire, when these behavioral guidelines were simply stories of what didn't work, and what did. And the stories survived because they were applicable. And so, then, you know, over time, we've codified these stories, we put them in writing, and then we came up with the idea of the moral of the story. Well, my whole point is to say the story existed because it had a moral message, and no more, you know, elevated or high-minded than anybody else. It simply was something that work to bind us together in a collective so we could survive. And so I look at moral emotions, guilt, shame, altruism, you know, instead of looking at them as a bad thing, this is the evolution's guidance system for how not to destroy each other. And so I tried to bring us back to the idea that the stories that are most important to us probably have the morals that are most important to us. And instead of, you know, farming out your morals to somebody else, I really want to see women pay more attention to their instinct because, I think, instinctively, we are designed to take care of that part of an unresolvable conflict. The unresolvable conflicts that we experience as human beings are many, but one of it is, "Do I protect myself? Or do I protect my tribe?" And so choosing one over the other is what happens with competitive narratives because they think that there has to be one story. But in collaborative narratives, it's really clear that what we're supposed to do is toggle back and forth between these two very different ways of looking at the world, between these two rather different strategies about how to create a collective survival, as well as, individual wins. And when we balance the two, we protect our chances of survival.


Sarah E. Brown 12:37

And, you make a point that women tend to pay more attention to internal cues than to external cues. Is that related to all of that?


Annette Simmons 12:46

You know, that was a surprise to me, and while I was writing it. So basically, these stories, men would say, "You know, well, I've made $500 million in, you know, 10 years", or they always had some sort of numerical proof, evidence of power. But women, for instance, Robin told a story about somebody- the power company being sent to cut her trees down and climbing into the tree, and trying to convince them that the wires wouldn't be in her trees if the power company straightened their poles. And so it's an ability to see both points of view, and then to expand those into a larger picture. And she persevered. And the strategy that women use, instead of fighting over who's right and wrong, we tend to narrate a story. We actually tend to that's why there are so many of us that are whistleblowers. We actually say, "Well, okay. You look for yourself." And so Robin would take these guys out who came from the power company and say, "Do you think those poles look straight?" And it's a different strategy than trying to shout them down or win an argument. What we tend to do, and women do more often, apparently, is that we take people on a little field trip, so that they can feel for themselves, "Is this the right thing we want to do?"


Sarah E. Brown 14:20

That's a good description of the little field trip. So let's segue a little bit to what difference does coming to terms with women's stories vs men’s stories make in our world or in the workplace, or however, you want to define that?


Annette Simmons 14:36

Well, through 30 years of consulting, I tried to bring more feminine strategies like storytelling and dialogue into business without mentioning gender. But I'm 60 now, and I'm fine with mentioning gender. And so this is a book that I've been kind of working on for, you know, 30 years. And so, the goal is to, for me, help women realize how smart they really are. And to validate that, you know, all the time that you've been accused of being unfocused or too emotional, or, you know, ambivalent, that's your superpower. And so it is what we bring to the table. And if we don't respect it first, we can't get other people to respect it. So I realized if I was going to get men to listen to women, I first had to convince women to listen to themselves. And I've betrayed myself many times thinking, "You know, I'm going to just man up here and play the game like they like to play it." But no more! No, there's too much harm being done in denying the female perspective. And so I want women, after reading this, to go, "Damn, I knew I was smart!" and then hopefully have a lot more confidence when they go into a room and somebody tries to criticize them as being unfocused and say, "No, I'm multi-focus!"


Sarah E. Brown 15:57

Well, I don't want to end this on a negative note, so we'll come back after this. But one of the negative consequences of ignoring this is the moral distress you were talking about, right? So say a little bit about the cost of not paying attention to this?


Annette Simmons 16:10

Well, a lot of women in high power positions are miserable. And there's a lot of women who've left because it's no fun. It's miserable. And so what we have a chance to do is realize that you know, the difference between men and women is not what we can achieve, it's what we find joy in. And so if women tend to specialize in the joy of collaboration, the metaphors of potluck dinners, you know, everybody is involved, everybody's appreciated, then we find that joy for a reason. And I think evolution made us this way, whether, by nature or nurture, it really doesn't matter. It's what, you know, a lot of the conversations about nature vs nurture create this argument that women are that way because we've been trained to be that way like it's a bad thing. But it's a perfect survival pairing. And I approached the term called "sexual dimorphism", whereby there are non-genital related gender differences. And so the goal is to create more opportunities for collaboration. And sometimes that's gonna look like it undermines dominance. So it's gonna freak out, you know, those who want to protect their privilege, but I'm willing to do that.


Sarah E. Brown 16:46

There you go! Well, as we wrap up, do you have one message for the potential readers of your book?


Annette Simmons 17:47

It's a love letter from me to women. And I did all of the work because I want you to know that the way that you reason is vitally important to our collective survival, and that our kids and grandkids are counting on us to do something different. And to do it quickly. And so whatever I can do to help support that I want to.


Sarah E. Brown 18:14

Annette, thank you so much. And to our listeners, I highly recommend this book, Drinking from a Different Well: How Women's Stories Change What Power Means in Action. It is an awesome read, and you will feel good about yourself and feel good about women all at the same time. Annette, thank you so much!


Annette Simmons 18:33

Oh, you're very welcome! Thank you.


Sarah E. Brown 18:36

Thanks for listening to the KTS Success Factor Podcast for Women. If you like what you're hearing, please go to iTunes to subscribe, rate us, and leave a review. And if you would like more information on how we can help women in your organization to thrive, then go to www.sarahebrown.com. You can sign up for our newsletter, read show notes and learn more about our podcast guests, read my blog, browse to the books or contact us for a chat. Goodbye for now.

 

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