Adversity Into Advantage With Laura Huang, Ph.D.

The way we, as people, perceive adversity plays a big part in overcoming it. This perception can spell the ultimate difference in finding ways to power through, or ultimately giving up. Laura Huang, Ph.D. is a Professor at Harvard Business School. Together with Dr. Diane Hamilton, Laura discusses the different ways people perceive adversity in their lives. Laura and Dr. Diane’s conversation is dynamic and necessary, and you definitely should not miss out!

TTL 722 | Perceive Adversity


I’m glad you joined us because we have Dr. Laura Huang. She is a Professor at Harvard Business School. She’s the author of Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. We’re going to talk about all things perception and I’m excited.

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Adversity Into Advantage With Laura Huang, Ph.D.

I am here with Dr. Laura Huang, who is a Professor at Harvard Business School. She teaches entrepreneurship and leadership. Her book is titled Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. It’s nice to have you here, Laura.

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

I was looking forward to this. I’m interested in your work and how we perceive certain things like adversity and anything that deals with perception. You have some great talks out there. I watched some of them. You talk about the advantages and different things that people often don’t think about how much perception ties into all that. I want to talk a little bit about how you got to this level. To be a professor at Harvard is a big deal. Give me a little background on you.

I never thought that I would be a professor. It sounds funny now but I was an engineer by training. I thought that I would be an engineer. I had never known that this was even a career option that you could do research. I had only seen teachers in school. I came to where I am in a circuitous way. I worked in a number of different industries before I got here. I’ve worked in management, banking, consulting, and in more technical fields. I’ve worked in marketing and sales. It was a circular way that I got here and it’s because I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. To some extent, I still don’t know. My journey has been very much where there have been things that have been interesting and I’ve pursued things. One thing has led me to where I am.

A lot of professors say that. I never wanted to teach and I ended up teaching so much in the university. That was never something I ever thought about but I loved it. Sometimes different experiences are great for getting us to the point where we have a lot to share. You obviously have a lot to share. Your book is interesting to me because it ties into a lot of the things that I research. What led you to wanting to write this?

I had been doing research on disadvantage, adversity, and inequality for a long time. A lot of the findings that I was presenting and that I was talking about were depressing. The fact that there are disparities and that there are people that have disadvantages, and lots of people are underestimated in the workplace and in life. I kept getting asked this question, “What can we do about this? These are such powerful findings. Are there ways that we can level the playing field? Are there things that we can do about this?”

What I knew was all of the solutions that were out there were all system-level and structural solutions. What I mean by that was these solutions that were at the organizational level and at the field level where it was things like, “We could have more equitable hiring if we use algorithms. We can try and bring on more mentors that are women or people of color or more diverse and inclusive. We can have more people that are at top management teams, that are more diverse and inclusive, and all of those things.” It was all of these high-level solutions, which as an individual who’s facing disadvantage or feels like there’s this myth of meritocracy, there wasn’t a lot to empower individuals to do.

For leaders, it was also frustrating because leaders saw a lot of their employees that were pulling the same levers over and over again but weren’t engaged and weren’t empowered. They wanted happier and more productive employees. What I discovered was that so much of what we talk about is outside in these system levels, structural level things that are trying to enforce things for individuals rather than from the inside out. I spent years thinking about researching, doing studies and interviewing people around, “How do we think about empowering ourselves?” Are there ways that we can take the perceptions and the stereotypes that others have against us and flip those in our favor? Are there things that we can be empowered to do that we can acknowledge that there’s bias, stereotypes and perceptions, but that we have some power to do something about that and to create our own advantage?

It brings to mind many jobs I’ve had where I felt that there was a perception maybe of women or different groups. It was not what I would hope it would be for a company in this timeframe. You think they’ve grown and you think things have changed. I remember having a conversation with one of my leaders. He looked at me and he talked about one of the managers. He said, “He’s the future of leadership?” This guy had zero skills compared to what I knew I could do. This guy was above me. I’m thinking, “How could he be telling me about this guy who could not tie his shoes in my mind?” He would be looking at me while I thought, “I could do all these things?” As a woman, I don’t know if I felt comfortable going, “What?” Do you think men are more capable of saying, “I’m the one you should be talking to?” I didn’t do that. I could remember thinking, “I’ve got to leave this company. If this guy is the leadership, I don’t fit here.” Why do we look at it that way?

We all have those experiences to some extent because from a young age, what’s ingrained in our heads for so long is that it’s about hard work. Success and outcomes are about hard work. You take successful CEOs and successful people who won Olympic gold medals and broken world records. You ask them, “What’s the secret to your success?” Inevitably, one of the things that people will mention is hard work. We have such a love affair these days with hard work, grit, and these characteristics around perseverance and putting in that hard work that will speak for itself. At some point in our lives, we recognize or realize that hard work doesn’t always speak for itself. That is because the world is driven by stereotypes, perceptions, and attributions that people are making about us.

It certainly applies to the normal cast of characters based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, and those sorts of things. Everyone has something. Meaning everyone has some way in which they’re being perceived or judged. We need to take ownership of that and know how others perceive us so that we can then flip that and give people an indication of who we authentically are. Rather than letting other people write that narrative in their head about who we are, we can position and redirect and guide them to who we authentically are. That’s something that’s important for individuals and employees to do. Also, for leaders to understand that in order to have more successful and more productive organizations, they need to be enabling that within their employees and their people as well.

That’s important. I agree with what you’re saying. There’s a lot of self-awareness involved, which ties into emotional intelligence. I talked to Daniel Goleman on the show about this in the past. Knowing how we’re perceived is sometimes challenging. That ties into that self-awareness aspect. When I was looking at perception, I saw it as a combination of IQ, EQ, CQ of cultural quotient, and CQ of curiosity quotient, wanting to explore. How do we determine how we’re perceived?

What a lot of my research looks at is how do we hone our ability to do that because it can be honed. It’s a muscle. It’s a skill that we need to be able to practice and to hone so that we understand that we get a sense of how others perceive us. How is it that we’re being perceived? Is there a match or is there a mismatch between how others perceive us and what our actual strengths or alleged weaknesses may be? What I talk about a lot in the book is around how we try and hone that skill. The book is about how you gain an edge. EDGE stands for the framework that I’ve developed through my research. The EDGE stands for the components. E stands for enrich, D stands for delight, G stands for guide, and the final E stands for effort and hard work.

That first E, enrich, is around how do we enrich and provide value in any circumstance or any place that we’re going to be in. This is around like, “What are your superpowers? What are your strengths? What are the things that maybe are underestimated strengths? What are the things that you’re good at the core? Also, what are those things that you’re good at that are going to shift and change based on the context?” The thing is you change one variable. You change the industry you’re operating in. You change the mix of people that you’re interacting with. Those perceptions are going to change. I talk a lot about that first piece, enrich.

[bctt tweet=”There’s a myth of meritocracy that robs people of the feeling of empowerment.” via=”no”]

The second piece is delight. The thing about enriching and providing value is oftentimes we don’t have the opportunity to show others how we enrich and provide value. That’s because we either don’t belong to the right networks or the right groups. We don’t know the right people. We look a certain way. When you’re able to delight your counterpart, that’s the equivalent of being able to crack that door open a little bit so that you have the opportunity to then show how you enrich and provide value. Even when you enrich and delight, you still have to continue to guide. The G is for guide, which is around continuously redirecting people’s perceptions of who you are so that you’re guiding your own path and trajectory.

That final E is for effort and hard work. We often think that hard work and effort come first. If you put in the hard work, it will speak for itself. In fact, hard work comes last. When you know how you enrich, delight and guide, that’s when your hard work works harder for you. There are lots of practical strategies and tips for how you start to hone these different things. I’ll give you one example. Maybe this will help to make it a little bit more concrete. There’s this exercise that I talk about. I have lots of different how-tos, strategies, and exercises along these lines in the book. This one is called the ten noes exercise. I have my students even do this.

For students, for example, they have to get ten people to say no to them over the course of a week. The assignment is that they have to get ten noes and they have to write a short paragraph about each of these noes and then come ready a week later to present one of these to the class. In doing this, it’s astonishing what people recognize. The thing is, we’re used to getting people to say yes. We’re used to trying to get people to say yes, trying to get people to like us, trying to get people to agree with us. We’re rarely in this position where we are trying to get someone to say no to us. What happens when we are trying to do so is that we recognize all of these different things. We start interacting in different ways. We start positioning things in different ways. We start using different language, tone, and talking to different people for different things. It’s all counter to what we’re used to doing.

We notice things around how certain people are reacting towards us when they used to never react towards us in a certain way. We notice patterns that we never noticed before. All of these different things that build up and hone our ability to see how others perceive us and how they perceive us with different layers and in different ways. We also learned that people are much more willing to say yes than we think. I’ve had students come back with tickets to the Super Bowl. I’ve had students come back with one week free using someone’s vacation home in Bali. It’s all these things. These exercises allow us to experiment and see different things that we might not have seen around how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves.

We are talking about noticing. In the research I did, I was looking at the process of what you do and this perception. You’re evaluating the self-awareness part that we talk about. You’re also predicting what others will do or say or their viewpoints and their acceptance. You take that and you interpret it and analyze that. You then come up with this correlation conclusion to all this. As I was looking at that process, I was thinking of all the things you’re saying. I’m wondering if you shared any case studies where people or companies were able to overcome negative perceptions or recognized perceptions and make a difference.

There are lots and lots of case studies that I have in the book, both at the organizational level, organizations that have had to flip things in their favor or had some obstacle or adversity as well as individuals. There are a handful of well-known individuals or well-known organizations, the Steve Jobs and the Elon Musks of the world. I would say 80% of the examples that I included in the book are everyday people and everyday organizations. What I wanted to do was present the type of adversity, stereotypes, and obstacles that we’re facing every day. Not to say that these well-known successful people have not faced adversity. I wanted to meet us at this level of, what are the normal things that we’d have to encounter?

A student of mine who was trying to get this coveted internship in private equity that everyone applies to and they only give 1 or 2 each year. He applied and all of his efforts went into getting it. When he finally got the internship, the hiring manager said, “Congratulations. You know that this is unpaid.” He was like, “No. I didn’t know that this is unpaid.” He’s a student who works and study. He has student loans and couldn’t take an internship that was unpaid. I talk about how he flipped that and got a paid internship out of this when the hiring manager was like, “I’m sorry, we don’t pay. We never have paid. There are many people who would want this internship instead of you and would gladly take it unpaid.” Long story short, he said something along the lines, “People who don’t get paid do crap work. I don’t do crap work. I should get paid.” He positioned this in such a way that it worked for him.

Everything from those mundane to the story of this woman who was from Spain and didn’t speak a lick of German but ended up getting a job at Goldman Sachs in Germany, speaking in German with no German language capabilities at all, to the founder who had been trying to get funding for three months but kept getting turned down and then was able to get funding from this coveted investor, to the organization that started out as a small struggling gas station and ended up turning it into this massive brand that has been voted the country’s best gas station chain. All of these different examples of how this works and how you can think about how you enrich, delight, and guide so that you gain that advantage and find your own edge.

You bring up great stories and I love that. In your book, you argue that success is rarely about the quality of our ideas, credentials, and skills or effort. It’s hinging on how well we shape other’s perceptions, not just our strengths but our flaws and everything. This is important to improve or recognize perception. How do you convince a CEO that there’s a financial impact of doing that? How do you tie this into the cost of engagement or communications?

There is such a clear ROI here. As leaders of organizations, sometimes there’s this tricky piece of, how do we capture value? How do we see values in these initiatives that we’re doing? All leaders know deep down that the people, the talent, the human capital are so core to what they do. You can even take a company that their entire business model is positioned around technology, but you still need people for support. You need the developers. You need all these things. What we’re finding is we’re in this massive cultural shift where the human capital is suffering in terms of purpose, productivity, and satisfaction. We’re also seeing how this trickles down not only into their own lives but also into future roles and succession and the way that we train and think about our workforce. This is about empowering their employees to feel like they are contributing and they are in fact contributing in distinct ways.

There are two pieces to this. There’s the piece that as an individual I feel like I am contributing. The second piece of it is that other people believe that as well. There are some people who only fulfill that second piece. Other people think they’re contributing but they are not contributing in ways that somehow they’ve been able to manage impressions or that they are able to gain the system. Those people don’t last in organizations. The first type, the people who fulfill the first, where they feel like they provide value but others don’t necessarily see that. They don’t last in organizations either.

For CEOs, this empowerment, this ability for each individual to feel like they have their own distinct advantage within this entire organization, that’s how additively organizations also have an advantage. There’s a clear ROI in terms of empowering your employees because not only are they going to be more productive, but they’re also going to stay longer. Those employees become A-employees who then bring along more A-level employees. You start to shift the entire circumstances in your favor when you have an organization and a culture that is built on employees who feel empowered and feel like they have individual as well as collective edge.

You bring up many great points. I dealt with a lot of those issues when I talk to CEOs about curiosity. I remember talking to Francesca Gino about it on the show. She did that HBR article where she did have some studies that she talked about the value of curiosity. Have you considered or are you doing a peer-review type of research or any research that you might publish, an HBR article that ties into the financial aspects? Maybe how we’re losing $500 billion a year from engagement and how this ties in. Do you think that there’s enough research done in that area?

Almost all of my research is peer-reviewed in research journals. The main context that I started studying this in, which most of my work has originated from is in the investment world. I’ve looked at Angel investors and venture capitalists. The reason I started doing research in that area in the first place is because it’s a context in which there is so much uncertainty. Angel investors and venture capitalists are trying to make bets on individuals. They’re trying to get huge ROIs. They’re trying to make bets on things that they hope will turn into 30x homeruns for them, but yet there’s little actual data that they can go off of. What they have to rely on oftentimes is perceptions.

TTL 722 | Perceive Adversity
Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage

That’s where I started studying it and started finding, for example, some of my research that shows that based on who you are, based on what you look like and how you communicate, you’re likely to get asked different questions. For example, I find that women and people of color are more likely to get asked what are called prevention-focused questions, questions around the risks, drawbacks and competitors. Whereas other people are more likely to get asked what are called promotion-focused questions, questions around the opportunity and how big you could take something. 

What happens then is that when you’re asked a prevention-focused question, you respond in turn. You respond with a prevention orientation. You start also talking about competitors and the risks and the drawbacks. Whereas if you’re asked a promotion-focused question, you then also go in that direction and you start talking about how big this opportunity could be and how great something could be. Investors, when they have to make a decision about who they’re going to invest in, they inevitably invest in the bigger opportunity, the one that has more potential and that has a bigger vision. Some of my research looks at those aspects of it. What I find is that when you reposition and you stop and re-guide the course of that conversation, investors not only will be more likely to invest in a broader array of companies but they make a lot more money. Their overall return is much higher.

I’ve also done a lot of research on gut feel and how investors use their gut feel vis-à-vis the analytical data that’s out there, the numbers, the financials, things that are in the business plan. I’ve found differences in terms of who those investors are, the types of companies, and the ones that make the most money. The ones that are most likely to identify those homerun hitters are the ones that use their gut feel, but under certain constraints and under certain circumstances. I also talk a lot about how that works and all of the nuances around that. This is something that is absolutely hitting the bottom line of not just venture capitalists and investors, but also CEOs and C-level organizational leaders. There is something to be said for their ability to judge, to lead, to understand these perceptions, and the ways that they influence our decision-making and our interactions with others.

I’m thinking that we do get pigeonholed and we start becoming defensive in certain situations. I’m thinking if you’re talking to a CEO about the importance of this, how do you help them to help their people to reposition the conversation? Do you have any suggested ways?

There’s everything from the tactical, the small little steps that they can take to the much more strategic. For example, if we take the tactical to start with, the example that I mentioned where some people are more likely to get asked prevention-focused questions and some people are more likely to get asked promotion-focused questions. What I find is that both male and female leaders are equally likely to be doing that to other women. This is not a matter of having more women in executive positions. For example, if you’re interviewing someone and you realize that a lot of their answers are focused on smaller tasks and they’re not talking about their broader vision, you can stop and redirect them. Ask them more around like, “Where do you see your career going? What opportunities do you foresee for yourself?”

Alternatively, if we see someone talking high level or broad, we can redirect and start asking questions around like, “What constraints do you see? What do you think are the opportunity costs of doing it that way? What contingencies might there be?” When we do that, we get a broader vision of who that person is and what their potential and trajectory are. In doing so, we then make better hires. That’s a tactical thing, recognizing the patterns that we use.

On a more strategic level, there are lots of things that I talk about in terms of how organizations also can get to what their basics are. I often see companies and the companies that I work with, one of the big struggles that large companies have is, how do they stay nimble even as they continue to grow and scale? Because I studied lots of smaller startup companies who are disruptive and innovative, these large companies are often asking me this question, “How do we do that? How do we remain nimble, disruptive, and innovative even as we need to maintain our bread and butter and all these things?” Things like this mentality around getting bigger, scaling, and progressing is all-around growth and getting bigger.

In fact, to grow, you need to prune. A lot of organizations don’t understand that. It’s like a tree, in order to grow taller, you need to prune away certain things so that you enable yourself to grow and scale. I work with companies to identify, how did they prune? Pruning is such a critical piece of focusing and growth. When they’re able to do that, they’re much more able to recognize what their basic goods are and how they enrich and provide value and what it means for them as an organization to delight others, whether it’s their employees, customers, counterparts, investors, their partners or whoever it may be. When you’re able to do that and continue to guide, that’s when you see the impact of this.

You’re bringing up many things that bring other ideas up in my mind. I’m thinking about the changes of what we’re trying to see with women in the workplace. You’re a woman in engineering. We talk about women in tech and how hard it is to get women into certain positions and the perceptions of what women and men can do and that type of thing. I know in California, they had a law where they had a certain number of women that they expected on boards. I’ve talked to primarily older white men who didn’t like that. Even women have told me, “The talent pools of people who are qualified to do that job have been white men. If I want the best, I’m going to go from the top.” How do we get that perception to change?

When we try and apply these unilateral rules like that, there is going to be some backlash. Rightly so that there’s a backlash. Research shows, especially with that law, that there have to be two board members that are women. In a lot of organizations, what we saw was that they would have exactly two. It wasn’t that they would have 3 or 4. We’re doing the bare minimum of what we need to do. It becomes meeting the minimum rather than, what is the thought behind this? Why is this role being instituted? Why are these things there? It causes resentment from all aspects, both men and women resenting these things.

This goes back to that outside in and inside out concept that I was talking about before. These are unilateral rules that were applied from the outside in. They’re regulatory things that feel like we need to adhere to them. There wasn’t that other piece of it. There wasn’t this inside out piece that spoke to why we need to adhere to this and why those rules are in there. A lot of times, we have this view that it’s about being a woman or that it’s about being a person of color. There are underlying perceptions that are driving those things all the time.

I’ll give you a quick example of what this is without using gender or race. One of the things that I’ve researched extensively is accent, for example. Time and time again, we see that people who have accents are less likely to get promoted, less likely to have jobs that could get hired into top management teams, to get raises, to get funding for their ventures, all workplace outcomes. There’s this large disparity between those who have accents and those who don’t. Oftentimes the lay perception is that it’s because of communication, that you’re not able to communicate as effectively because you have an accent.

I ran a series of studies where I would randomly assign four people with accents and four people without accents to pitch to a panel of investors. I randomize the order in which they pitched. I would ask investors whether or not they would invest in them, “Give me three bullet points of what you learned from this person. Give me three bullet points of what you recall about their company.” What I found replicated multiple times is that there is no difference in terms of what investors will remember or learn or have gained from listening to someone with an accent versus someone without an accent. Sometimes they learn more from the person with the accent. It’s not about communication. Instead, it’s about the underlying perception.

It wasn’t communication that was driving accented individuals to not getting hired or not getting raises or not getting funding. It was perceptions around things that they’re not as interpersonally effective or that they’re not as good of a team player or that they don’t think outside the box. When we understand that those are the underlying perceptions, we’re able to then flip that in our favor. What I mean by that is that I would then tell these accented individuals before going into an interview that the one perception they have about you is that you’re not as interpersonally influential. The perception that they have about you is that you’re not a team player. Miraculously, when they would get asked all these questions we get asked during interviews, I heard them saying things like, “Let me tell you about a time when I fought for resources for my team. Let me tell you about a time when I didn’t stop until I closed the deal.” They were giving examples of times when they were interpersonally effective or were team players, which were real examples.

[bctt tweet=”Pruning is such an important piece of focus and growth.” via=”no”]

What I found in research, which is all peer-reviewed published research, is that not only were they rated higher in terms of things like interpersonal influence and thinking outside the box, they’re also rated higher in terms of communication. They were as likely as those without an accent to get the job if not more likely. They were able to turn things in their favor by dealing with these underlying perceptions. In organizations and with things like the board, women need a certain number of board members, we’re not getting what those underlying perceptions are. It’s not about being a woman and having diverse viewpoints. It’s not about these lay perceptions. There’s something underlying that. Until we can have conversations about that and bring that to the forefront, we’re going to continue to have this backlash because we’re still talking from the outside in.

The accent thing is interesting to me because I’ve worked in higher ed where there are a lot of people who have accents. I had a woman report to me for a short time. I could not understand her accent at all. It was heavy. I’m curious if it’s somehow different based on the area of the world or how strong the accent is. Are they annoyed by it or they can’t stand it?

There are absolutely different variations. This is a continuum of how strong someone’s accent is. We also looked at eighteen different accents, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish, all of these things. There’s a lot of nuance to it. There are also nuances between where you’re based. Are you in the United States? Are you in a different country? Are you in Europe? Are you in Asia? There are all these different pieces to it. The most simplistic and the base thing is that with those eighteen accents, there was only one accent that we found a difference with where there was a boost. It wasn’t even a disadvantage.

Which one?

People who have British accents are seen as more educated and more intelligent, even controlling for all other factors. That was the one accent that we saw a difference in. There were lots of differences in terms of all of the things that you’re mentioning. Controlling for all other factors, these were the base results that we saw.

I’m curious, which ones were the most problematic of the accents?

It wasn’t about being problematic or not problematic. We had to look at everything from intonation to tone, to emotion, to all of the things that are within accents. What I mean by controlling for it is that a strong accent in any of the eighteen accents that we looked at is going to have a similar effect than a weak accent in any of those eighteen. What I alluded to before, I also talk about examples of even when you have a strong accent where communication does in fact play a role. There are ways to counter this. That’s the example I mentioned before where there is a woman who moved from Spain to Germany. She didn’t speak German at all, but yet was still able to cultivate an edge for herself and rose up through the ranks at Goldman Sachs. It’s such an interesting story about this woman named Beatrice. She decided she wanted to leave Goldman Sachs. She didn’t want a career in financial services. She became one of the executives at Louis Vuitton.

That is a great story. It’s got to be challenging to go to another country, especially if you don’t even know the language. When I’m in Europe and I go to different places, there’s a perception of Americans in certain areas that may not be as positive sometimes. Did you look at how Americans were perceived in their accents somewhere else? Was it just here in the US?

The reason I started doing this research in the first place was because both my parents are immigrants from Taiwan. I grew up spending time both in Taiwan and in the US. I have dual citizenship and spent time in both countries. It was interesting for me to see how I am evaluated when I’m in the US and when I’m evaluated when I’m in Taiwan from both standpoints. I do have an accent in all of the languages that I speak. In English, there are certain words where it’s clear that I’m not completely a native speaker.

I did not notice that at all.

Thank you. When I’m speaking Mandarin or when I’m speaking Taiwanese, the same thing applies even though I am fluent in multiple languages. The reason why I wanted to study it was also because of that, also seeing my parents. The experience that you talked about early on where you were seeing someone else who got this position that you can quite understand because based on credentials, he or she wasn’t qualified. I saw that all growing up where my parents we’re turned down for promotion after promotion. At one point during one of those promotions, my father, the person who became his boss, the person who had gotten promoted over him, my father was doing that job because his boss wasn’t qualified to do it. Everyone knew it.

I asked my father, “Why is it that you think that you didn’t get the promotion?” He said, “It’s probably because of my accent or how I communicate or something like that.” I became fascinated with this and the ways in which we perceive people based on accent in the United States, as well as outside of the United States and how we’re seen in different ways. I do look at all of those things. From there, it was not just accents. I was taken with the fact that something like accent could dictate many different workplace outcomes. I wanted to see if there are other perceptions that I could manipulate to get the same things. Time and time again based on gender class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, I could manipulate circumstances where I could place people at either a disadvantage or an advantage based on how they guided those perceptions. Everyone has something.

Even Ronan Farrow was telling me, “I’m the epitome of white cis male privilege. My mother is Mia Farrow. I grew up in this privileged environment. Even when I walk into a room, oftentimes depending on what the room is, people are making perceptions about me. People are thinking things like, ‘You’re not even a good writer. You don’t deserve your Pulitzer Prize. The only reason you got the Pulitzer or got access is because of your mother, because of who you are, because you’re a male, because you’re a man, and because you’re Caucasian.’” All of these things. Everyone has these perceptions that they are grappling with and that they need to manage and guide.

We did give accents quite a bit of coverage. How do we recognize what are perceived as shortcomings?

TTL 722 | Perceive Adversity
Perceive Adversity: You must empower your employees to feel like they are in fact contributing in distinct ways.


I have a chapter of my book where I insult everyone on the planet. I talk about the perceptions and the stereotypes that we have about women, about people who are black, about people who are bankers, about people who are black, women, and bankers. I insult everyone. I talk about a lot of these stereotypes. The 70% to 80% of what these perceptions are based on is the stereotypes of our ascribed and attributed traits. It’s only 70% to 80%. There’s still 20% to 30% that is based on situational, individual and contextual factors. I outline how we think about all of these stereotypes that are out there and those generalized factors as well as those individual and contextualized factors, and how we make sense of that based on who we are and where we are in life and what we’re doing.

This is a personal thing. I’d love to say, “Here’s the formula for doing that, step 1, step 2, and step 3.” I provide a perspective for thinking about that because everyone is going to have different perceptions of who they are. Everyone is going to be making different perceptions. I do some hand-holding through this perspective of how you make this authentically you and understand those perceptions for you. When you do make it authentic and singularly you, that’s when you have the greatest chance of developing your unique edge. Your edge comes from your unique experiences and your unique traits.

It reminded me of a class I took at ASU here in Arizona where I had a professor who came into class and insulted everybody who walked in the door. If you were Italian, he’d make some Italian slang comment. I’m thinking, “You can never get away with that now.” You’re playfully saying, “I insulted everyone in one chapter,” which I know your intentions are good. I’m wondering, could a white old man write that same chapter and be perceived differently than a young Asian woman?

The answer is yes and no. There are a lot of things from the perspective of an Asian woman writing this. There were also things that I would get, which was like, “What kind of adversity have you faced? You seem to have had a privileged life.” There is a continuum of adversity that people have faced. I grew up without having any money, having student loans, and having to work twenty hours a week all through college. My mother was a single mother for much of our childhood. All of these things, that’s adversity in some instances. It’s also less adverse than what some other people have had to experience.

It’s not about my adversity, even though I have faced adversity. Some people would consider adversity that other people would not consider adversity at all. It’s not about my individual adversity or any one person’s individual adversity. It’s about this perspective around understanding yourself and the obstacles that you yourself face, the stereotypes, the biases. I certainly faced stereotypes and bias and obstacles in many different forms. This is not a biased Olympics or competition around who has faced more or less. It’s around this perspective of understanding your own journey and where you’re at.

I tell this story about Brian Scudamore and this lesson around growing where you’re planted and understanding where it is that you’re planted. Grow as big as you can and flourish as much as you can because that’s when you’re able to then uproot yourself to different soil and continue to grow. Understanding where you are and where you’ve been planted is such a huge piece of it as well. It’s not about looking at other people’s soil or looking at where other people are in life or the deck that they’ve been dealt with. It’s about looking at the hand you’ve been dealt and not letting anyone else tell you that the hand you’ve been dealt isn’t a good one or is a good one or that should be played in a certain way or shouldn’t be played in a certain way.

It’s all important. I love the tree metaphors.

I’ve gone overboard with the pruning as you’re growing and growing your plants. I swear those are the only two tree metaphors in the entire book.

It’s great because you’re advocating for inclusion. I know you’re trying to reveal unconscious bias and those are the things that are important. A lot of people can gain so much from reading your book because it’s exactly what we need to work on right now. Your book is called Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. How can people find out more? You’ve done an amazing amount of work and research in this area. It’s wonderful what you shared.

My book is available. It’s out in the world. It’s in airport bookstores everywhere. My website is On my website, there are lots of different resources and videos. You can take an Edge Quiz that tells you how positioned you are to find and gain your edge. You can sign up for a monthly newsletter where I send out additional tips and stories around people who have gained an edge and how they’ve done it. I’m also in social media, @LauraHuangLA is my Twitter and Instagram and lots of different handles as well as LinkedIn, YouTube and Facebook. I’m pretty much in any arena that you would think to find more information.

This has been great, Laura. Thank you so much for being on the show. I enjoyed this. I wish you the best of luck with your book. I’m sure a lot of people will gain so much from it.

Thank you.

[bctt tweet=”Perception impacts the bottom line.” via=”no”]

You’re welcome.

I thank Laura for being my guest. I get many great guests on this show. I’ve had a lot of Harvard professors. Many great names from Amy Edmondson to Francesca Gino, you name it and everybody who was on the show that I learned so much from. Laura is definitely one of the top one I was interested in talking to because of her work that ties into my work with Dr. Maja Zelihić in our work with perception. It’s interesting if you look at what Laura has researched and what we’ve researched. There’s so much importance to how perception impacts the bottom line and ROI of companies. We don’t realize how we’re perceived at times or how that perception can impact many different things.

We touched on many gray areas. I hope you can take some time to check out Laura’s book because companies need more insight in this area. It’s not a common topic. We hear a lot about cultural quotients. We hear a lot about emotional intelligence quotients and different types of things. Perception has a lot to do with IQ, EQ, cultural quotient CQ, and curiosity quotient CQ. Speaking of curiosity, if you’re looking for more information about Cracking The Curiosity Code or the Curiosity Code Index, you can go to You can take the assessment there. You can get certified to give the assessment if you’re interested in that, if you’re a consultant or HR professional. A lot of great information on curiosity and perception will be available on the site. I hope you take some time to explore the site and look for any past episodes. Tweet some of those tweetable moments. That would be great. Thank you for joining us for this episode. I hope you join us for the next episode.

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About Laura Huang, Ph.D.

TTL 722 | Perceive AdversityLaura Huang is a Professor at Harvard Business School. She teaches entrepreneurship and leadership. Her latest book is Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage.




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