The Power of the Narrative and Work (and the power dynamics that shape who is believed)

Jenny Choi
On Work, Identity and Liberation
9 min readOct 5, 2021

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Rashomon (Daiei, 1962)

The movie Roshomon is a film made by one of my favorite directors, Akira Kurosawa. The film masterfully illustrates the storytelling device of how the narrative of one incident drastically changes depending on who is telling the story. It made me think about storyteller and context, and more importantly, which account would be most believable — and how in today’s workplace, it’s become the norm to have the one with the most power push an unquestioned narrative, despite how much the community knew otherwise.

Why managing your narrative is so important as an emerging leader of color

At work, especially in navigating one’s career in the non-profit or philanthropy sector, it’s critical to know how the narrative about your work (which can often define you in a way, and characterize you) affects what opportunities will open up for you or not be available to you, and how best to manage the narrative when others who have anything to lose from your narrative tries to control, or worse, mis-tell it for you.

I remember this formative takeaway from a C-level woman of color executive who once said to me that everything from her outfit to how she presents herself at work (she had a particularly cool, rigid demeanor and a no-nonsense style) is an effort for her to carefully control her own brand, especially in the eyes of White decision-makers, despite her own position as a C-level executive. Her advice to me was to make sure to be intentional about how I showed up at work, and urged me not to be so open in how others might define me, as she’d observed my tendency to continuously solicit feedback in my work and management style. It was an early directorship role for me, and I was still developing my own work identity.

As my own career has matured and as I have gotten closer and closer to senior management levels in high stakes contexts, I’ve noticed this pattern of paying a great amount of attention to “the narrative” — for example, whether it be a person of color leaving an organization due to a toxic work culture (or boss/leader, most commonly) or now, an organization trying to mitigate any industry-wide blowback because of a high profile person of color (or in some cases, several people of color) are quitting in droves.

It was more common in the past for many people of color (and I still see it in my generation — X and beyond) to understand that there was no winning to “cause trouble” in a system that was not designed to work in favor of us illuminating the truth around toxic, White supremacist work culture, because of the fear we all reasonably held that it might undermine our careers down the road. For at least the last fifteen years of my career, I’ve continued to be haunted by a “whisper network” of sorts — where people in powerful positions (usually executives and managers) have bartered information about me to vet my candidacy, using this kind of informal HR intel as social capital, sometimes in horrifying ways. I’ve learned to be savvy about my own intel-seeking too (which is how I know this shit happens), and have had to put in a lot of hard work in building deep, trusting relationships to stay in front of some of these contradictory, classist, sexist and racist narratives — simply because I’ve not yet enjoyed the privilege of immunity. The racist, sexist caricatures drawn of me have at times detrimentally impacted my professional identity, and at times, even my own psychological safety.

The value of asking folks impacted by the person in a position of power when vetting for a new role

To me, it defies logic and has continued to land somewhat insultingly to me — why managers’ narratives dominate a person’s ability to perform a role. The higher the position, the more I would think anyone who has reported up to the person in the past would be more effective intel-gathering, including the communities or constituents impacted by the person and his/her/their work.

Unless we are talking about vetting for specific skills around managing a board, for example, I’ll be honest in saying that I’ve unfortunately known a lot of not so great bosses (not just mine — those of my colleagues, too), and I just don’t find many people situated in positions of power relative to the candidates folks are trying to vet give particularly insightful feedback that would usefully impact any hiring decision. (I see this a lot in philanthropy too — funders tend to mainly heed the advice of their colleagues and peers, over their grantees and practitioners.)

I recall this lightbulb moment when one of my former managers (a high level executive who experienced rapid ascension and growth in a particularly competitive industry) relayed to me that she never really understood the 360-degree review (an evaluation that seeks input from a variety of folks situated diversely in relationship to the person being reviewed) as she knew mostly to achieve glowing reviews from her supervisors, and despite everyone else giving her terrible reviews, it didn’t seem to impact her career trajectory. She continued to advance her career to throw her hat in the ring for the top CEO job, until the employees of the organization in an act of fear and desperation decided to unionize to protect themselves as a preemptive strategy. She didn’t get the top job, but even with the unionization as a strong signal that the employees distrusted her leadership, I don’t know if the board really prioritized its staffs and sought to find an external, “shiny object” candidate instead. They gave her a gift — because I think this was the wake-up call that she needed to be reflective in a way that she seems much happier now, than ever before, and she and I were able to move forward constructively.

My point is that in developing the criteria for a candidate to hire, I’ve found it is good business to shift the weight of the vetting process from valuing previous supervisor reviews to prioritize the feedback from previous employees and direct reports.

I realize I may seem biased, since I’ve not gotten along with many bosses throughout my career, but I’ve put a lot of money in the bank to develop a strong track record in developing my leadership throughout various organizations without any sort of formal authority ever handed to me — and also developed a strong acumen for seeding successful emerging talent and projects that no one else wanted to take seriously before I did. A lot of this hard work took much more time and effort in the face of trauma than perhaps simply always getting along with all of my bosses, but in the end the hard work I put in to develop my credibility this way, helped me to be able to actualize my own power to counteract hostile and toxic narratives from people who had more power than I did.

How accountability around “the narrative” has changed

This is a hard post for me to write because I really appreciated and learned from so many of my managers. In fact, there is one particularly fraught relationship I had with a boss that ten years later, now looking back, have adopted a lot of their really useful and strong management techniques.

But after long having served as a translator both for people of color navigating their careers and mostly White executive teams in both large and small organizations of all kinds, I’m seeing that there are so many insidious rules in the career playbook I would never have learned as a person of color, until I saw the same people in power (I would say, thriving in White supremacy work culture) over and over again, take a huge amount of interest in shaping the narrative and characterization of people, mostly people of color in the same industries.

The #MeToo movement has, in many ways, elevated the traumatic and horrific impact of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.The biggest takeaway for me that I was grateful for in the #MeToo movement was that it finally on a wider-scale highlighted: a) many perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual violence are serial perpetrators; b) those held accountable always think their lives/careers are going to be over but the stats show this is very rarely the case (consider the scale of what it took from communities of survivors to hold a Larry Nassar or R. Kelly or Harvey Weinstein accountable and on a much smaller scale, consider the many others who have been able to move on— compared to the lives of survivors who continuously grapple with the impact of their trauma); and c) in many cases, the behavior of these perpetrators were well-known secrets among many.

In a new pandemic reality and post-George Floyd, there has been a new discourse around a racial reckoning that touched so many organizations industry-wide, and the power dynamic of how a person of color’s trauma is disclosed at work, has also shifted collectively.

But similarly, I’m seeing the same patterns: a) White folks in power who have enjoyed a certain untouchable brand are pushing towards an irrational narrative of victimhood, pointing to the fear of “cancel culture”; b) the worst offenders in perpetuating White supremacist, toxic and abusive management practices are well-known throughout many communities (it never took me very long for me to start sending out feelers about a problematic person to hear tons of feedback validating my red flags); and c) all in all, the worst perps continue to be fine and the reality is their careers are never really “over” — but people for good reason, continue to be afraid to stand-up to these bullies because the system still supports these folks, although we are finally starting to see a shift… thanks to the organizing of young people and on social media.

A reflection of my own measured next steps

I recently learned of a colleague who I did not know well, but greatly admired through her work, who had spoken up against a handful of organizations that through one of my grant-making jobs, we had considerably supported.

She is a woman of color and all of the organizations she has spoken up against (with regard to White supremacist work culture) have been also ardently and heavily supported by many of my funder colleagues, including the fund I managed.

It pained me to see how far she must have been pushed in her trauma to lay everything out publicly the way she had, especially given that in many ways her work was dwarfed and invisibilized by her much higher profile supervisors. What horrified me, however, was the counter-narrative I witnessed after that — specifically targeting funders and decision-makers by the person of power who sent the predictable, defensive e-mail discrediting this person’s experience and narrative.

The sad reality of this is that many of these toxic leaders will continue to thrive and receive all the funding or career opportunities they ask for, simply because the system favors them. However, what we are underestimating is that this one person who bravely came forward helped others in the ecosystem, who also suffered under the hands of a very toxic, White supremacist and extractive niche sector, realize they are not alone.

As more and more are emboldened to speak up publicly about truly how racist their bosses and workplaces are, especially when so many folks are becoming more and more clever in their performative allyship, it’s important for folks in power to understand that there exists another community-driven whisper network of people who are quietly building their own credibility and power to counter the narrative of those who have long enjoyed the privilege of being believed without question. We know that this road can be painstakingly long and arduous, but given the moment, there might be ways to galvanize for long-term and sustained change.

In my future posts I’ll try to lay this more clearly out both for managers who really want to be better about this — and in support of folks of color who are trying to mobilize and hold power into account. Until then, if somehow the person who I’m thinking of is reading this, I want her to know that I see and believe her, and I’m sorry that I failed to be more supportive in the moment when I could have. But I’m not forgetting her bravery and story, and I’m still figuring out ways to further her narrative in the face of these powerful voices that continue to get in the way of true change around issues that are so important to the health of our society.

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Jenny Choi
On Work, Identity and Liberation

OG on diversity/equity/inclusion, philanthropy and journalism. Adept at seeing the magic in the tragically ignored. Retired punk rock musician.