Bernice Feller-Thijm: DEI and overcoming the fear of getting things wrong

Michele Ernsting
Article by: Michele Ernsting
Bernice Feller-Thijm: DEI and overcoming the fear of getting things wrong

The need for greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is challenging leaders around the globe to work in new ways. THNK facilitator Bernice Feller-Thijm shares her experience.

“I think we all realize that we don’t have the same opportunities, power and privileges. Meanwhile we are facing complex challenges that affect us all. I think it’s important that we bring in diversity of thought, perspectives and experiences. But we’ve learned that we cannot just put a group of people together and then expect that everybody will get along, feel welcome and participate. You have to work at it.”

“That’s the impact I’m trying to have; to help leaders to consciously create spaces where people can contribute from their own life experience and their own skills and perspectives.”

Many leaders struggle with DEI out of fear of getting things wrong and not knowing how to make everyone feel safe, including themselves. It can be a very humbling experience.

Inclusion starts with understanding yourself

“I strongly believe that everything starts with yourself. Who are you as a leader? What have you gone through in your life that’s given you the information you’re operating with? For me working on DEI starts with really deep knowledge about who you are and what you bring, but also, what you might miss. If you know what you’re missing, you can seek those perspectives.”

“For me the real magic happens when you can create a space where people feel safe and curious enough to make space for others. That’s a very complex challenge because it requires you to sometimes be deeply uncomfortable. I like to say that if you really want to create inclusion, it’s not about lifting others up. It’s about the willingness to share the discomfort of acknowledging what you don’t know.”

Letting go of perfection and sitting with the discomfort

“As I grew up, I had to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. For me, that comes naturally. But for most people, the discomfort is linked to wanting to be perfect all the time and to not making mistakes. Sharing what you don’t know creates so much space, because it gives other people the freedom to say yes, I feel that too, and BOOM! You have a connection. People need to see the person behind the leader if they are going to follow you.”

“We talk a lot about vulnerability and leadership. This is where you need to show it, because that’s how you connect with others. People need to see the person behind the leader if they are going to follow you.”

What have you learned from your work at THNK?

“A lot! I think THNK created confidence in my own leadership. It has given me the opportunity to sharpen the language and the frameworks I use in relation to my work, because of the incredibly diverse community. Also, the community is filled with such interesting people with so many perspectives. Bouncing ideas off each other really broadens my scope. Every interaction has an impact.”

Being open to unexpected learnings

“The surprise was actually that sometimes you get the validation that ‘oh yes, I’m not crazy!’ That kindred spirit, the feeling that there’s a whole community of people out there thinking the way I’m thinking and seeing the things that I’m seeing. It gives such a feeling of strength. That is a pleasant surprise, I would say.”

You’ve developed a strong practice in DEI, but where are your learning areas?

“To be completely honest, I could summarize that as #HashtagSelf-Care! Taking the time to rest, taking care of my body is a big challenge for me! I love my work so that comes easy. But you also have to build your support system, you have to take care of yourself and your body, otherwise you cannot perform, to be honest that is a challenge for me.”

“I’m trying to create more empty space in my schedule. That alone is a big challenge haha. To be honest there is so much to do! I am a curious person so I easily think “I want to do that, that’s fun and yeah, I have enough time and I can put all of that into one day – and it doesn’t always work out. But, I have managed to create more space in my calendar.”

Now you have the gift of a call to action for other leaders. What will it be?

“I would like people to remember that my reality and your reality is not necessarily THE reality. We sometimes forget that. Of course, we are knowledgeable people who have life experience, but we need to always come from a place of curiosity to learn from others. That’s important, especially now. I think we’re not curious enough about each other. We fall into discussion instead of dialogue; exchanging opinions instead of asking each other questions like “why do you think that and how can we figure things out together?”