Chapter 01: Applying Psychology to the Workplace
In this chapter, Dr. Holladay talks about her background in applying organizational psychology to the workplace, the importance of embracing and fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion, and how diversity and leadership are inextricably connected.
All right. I think we’re going. So, I have a few things to just read off before we get into the questions for the sake of having some of this data stored. So, I’m Nina Nevill, interviewing Dr. Courtney Holladay for an oral history project run by the Historical Resources Center at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Dr. Holladay was first recruited to MD Anderson as an Organizational Development Specialist in 2004 and now works as an Executive Director in the Leadership Institute. This session is being held for actually over Zoom and it is the first and only interview session, however a second one can be scheduled if need. And today is June 29th, 2021, and the time is about 1:07 p.m. Thank you, again, so much for your time and devoting this time and space for our project. So, I suppose my first question, I would love if you could tell me just a little bit about your educational path and how you got to where you are now.
Courtney Holladay, PhD
Sure. Well, thank you for having me today and talking with me. I’m looking forward to our conversation. So, I started my journey knowing that I wanted to help people and thought that would be in the healthcare space and was in an engineering program specifically focused on bioengineering, and as part of my degree program, had to take some psychology courses and by happenstance into a course on Industrial Organizational Psychology. And when I took it, I knew that was what I wanted to do, which is applying psychology into the workplace and understanding what makes employees happy at work, what allows them to be as productive, what leaders need to do to help support the employees. And so, as part of my undergraduate work at Texas A&M, I began working with graduate students there on research and getting more involved to understand what are the different types of studies that you can do when it involves employees and organizations. And then from there applied to graduate school and came to Rice University in Houston, did both my master’s and dissertation work at Rice. My work was primarily focused on training and understanding the design of training interventions that could lead to more successful application back into the workplace. And specifically, within my dissertation, my focus was on diversity training and understanding the parameters that would allow the diversity training to be more effective for those who are participating in it, and ultimately, the organizations that were supporting it.
And throughout my master’s in education, or master’s and doctoral work, I was involved in research along the way looking at different components of organizational psychology, some in the leadership realm, some in the selection realm, survey research as well, so while my master’s and dissertation were focused on training, my educational background was much more diverse through the research that I was also engaged in.
That’s so neat. I was looking through your CV a little bit and it just seems so cool. What inspired your commitment to diversity in particular, leading towards that?
Courtney Holladay, PhD
So, at the time, when I was trying to decide what I would want to focus on within my dissertation, I was very much interested in something that was going to have a heavy application focus. The theory is definitely very interesting, but I wanted to make sure whatever I did, I could see real implications into organizations in the workplace. And as I was—like I said, my master’s was focused on training so I’d gotten pretty familiar with the literature in the training space, and what I was seeing was really an absence of much research on diversity training, specifically. And at the time, I was also doing an internship with a technology organization and they were implementing some diversity training. And observing that process that they were going through to implement the training just rose for me the point that there wasn’t a lot of grounded evidence for how to do it successfully, how to do it with evidence behind while you’re making certain decisions. I think there are some assumptions that go into what could make it successful and looking at the literature there wasn’t really anything that had tested it and had shown that these are the kind of design elements that are going to lead to more successful outcomes. And there’s a lot of evidence in the literature that talks about diverse teams have more successful outcomes. And that’s true, but left just to their own devices, that may not be true.
There are some conditions that need to be in place for those teams to truly thrive and make the ultimate use of the diversity that is represented within the teams. And so, piggybacking on the literature that talked about how teams can be successful because of their diversity, well, the assumption would be if we do diversity training, we should have some success that comes out as a result. But we need to do it in the right way because again, just doing it training may or may not work. And so, what are the parameters that would allow it to be successful? And that was, I think, the culmination of what I was seeing in my internship with what I was reading in the literature and the absence that existed at the time was what took me down that road of, this could be a very interesting project to take on as my dissertation. And what I even tell people to this day, you have to love what you’re going to spend your time on with your dissertation because you will spend a lot of time with it. So, it was really a wonderful opportunity and I enjoyed working on it through its entirety.
Yeah, that sounds very relevant still, with a lot of what’s been going on in the past year. But I won’t jump ahead too much because I guess I’m still interested a little bit in how, now working in leadership and with the Leadership Institute, how did you make that connection or how does diversity connect to leadership, I suppose?
Courtney Holladay, PhD
Leadership and diversity are intertwined. They go hand-in-hand. You are a leader of people. You can’t lead if you don’t have anyone that you are leading. And those individuals come with just a myriad of differences that make up the unique individuals that they are. And to be a successful leader you have to be skilled in cultural humility, cultural intelligence, cultural awareness. These are things that as a leader in today’s environment, if you do not have the skills, you are not going to be able to bring people together and to communicate in a way that’s inclusive, to help bring about change that’s needed. There are many practices that are unintentionally biased that over time we have to take intentional action, and leaders have to be at the forefront of that. And so, I don’t think one exists without the other. I think, like I said, they go hand-in-hand. And today’s leader has to be inclusive and focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Yeah, thank you. That’s helpful to see how those operate, it seems like, in a very connected—in a way that you can’t separate one from the other.
Courtney Holladay, PhD
Yeah. And we have defined at MD Anderson eight characteristics that make up a successful leader. Some are at the leading self level of, what do I need to be focused on for myself to be successful? And then some are focused outward on others. One of the fundamental characteristics that we say is part of leading self is inclusion. And then, each of the characteristics has competencies that are associated with how are you behaviorally going to show them? So, inclusion, some of the components I just mentioned, there’s cultural awareness, humility, and intelligence. But we also have this component at a leadership level focus on others about capacity building. And one of those competencies is inclusive leadership, how am I recruiting a diverse pipeline? How am I mentoring, making sure I’m just not mentoring people like me, but people who may be different from me in some way, shape, or form? How am I sponsoring people and making sure they’re diverse and again, not similar to me, but canvassing and making sure the talent that I support and advocate for are having equitable opportunities across communities?
So, during your time then with MD Anderson, have you seen—I guess I’m unfamiliar with when the eight-step model was brought forth, but have you seen change in the way that diversity, equity, and inclusion are practiced or are taught in your time here?
Courtney Holladay, PhD
Yeah, so the eight characteristics, we introduced seven of them in—it was about two years ago. And we just introduced inclusion as the eighth characteristic this past fiscal year. And now, it’s part of the performance evaluation that people are evaluated on their inclusive demonstration, which is a huge cultural shift. We are actually in the process of a project right now to evaluate one, people’s awareness of the introduction of the inclusion characteristic, and also, the impact that they now see as it being part of the performance evaluation. So, we’re looking at some of those outcomes but don’t have the data just yet. But I will say in terms of changes I’ve seen over the last several years, we’ve had diversity training for a number of years. It’s not new. What is new is I think the openness and direct conversations that are occurring as a result of some of the societal events that have happened over the last couple years. Having our executive leadership acknowledge these events, talking about the social injustice, how this isn’t the kind of environment we are going to be okay with at MD Anderson, how we want to support all populations, and even to the extent of our president of the institution having a virtual background as similar to mine that has Pride Month 2021. That’s a representation of inclusion and wanting to make sure we’re putting our actions where our words are. And you’ll see our president in a meeting have the virtual background. And that’s just one simple example. But what’s not simple is the talking about it and having the forums for people to feel safe to raise these issues. I think over the last year-and-a-half, we’ve had much greater conversation at a much deeper level within the organization than what’s been present over the years prior. And actually, to the extent even using words like “racism,” or “sexism,” I don’t feel that we were as comfortable to acknowledge that some of those things existed. But you have to acknowledge it before you can really address it and move forward from it.
Absolutely. That’s so fascinating that it seems like things have changed rapidly in the past few years. Are there anything specific in the past, I would say, year-and-a-half in terms of events around racial violence or around the pandemic that have led to any changes in the way that you guys are training or, like you said, are addressing each other within the community of MD Anderson?
Courtney Holladay, PhD
The one that I would highlight that I think really—what’s sad is it’s not the only one for sure but it is one that received great attention, and I think really forced the hand of organizations to start having the conversation, was the murder of George Floyd. And I think with that, to actually have executive leaders comment on it, hold a meeting at town hall where it was openly discussed, I had sent a message to my own team to acknowledge that I know that it’s not an experience that I obviously have any firsthand knowledge, but I know some of my team do and I wanted to acknowledge that experience and how I want to be now, and I want to know better, what I can do. And one of the things that I can say within my team, things that I heard in other parts of the organization were that this was the first time that they had heard leaders speak to such an event, actually calling it out, saying “This is not the thing that we will stand by,” and bringing it into the workplace. Because the components that make up who we are, whether it’s race, whether it’s gender, or whether it’s our sexuality, we don’t leave them at the door when we come to work. They’re part of who we are. And so, trying to separate that from the workplace. I think while it’s maybe previously felt safer, I don’t think it’s allowed for as inclusive as an environment as I think our employees would want because we spend so much time in the workplace and to separate who I am from how I show up every day is, I think, an unfair ask. And we want people to feel comfortable to be who they are, obviously, so long as it’s constructive.
Because there may be some values that don’t align with the values that we do hold. But assuming the value system lines up, that sexuality preference, the racial background, gender, any of those things, should not make a difference. It should be part of who you are and we’re celebrating who everyone is and celebrating the communities that haven’t been celebrated in the past. And I think being able to talk about Black Lives Matter, and Stop Asian Hate, those aren’t things that I think previously you were able to openly discuss.
Well, I’m sure that it’s felt for everyone that these changes are moving in a direction of progress. It seems like most people are open to wanting that change and to wanting to be part of these conversations that are happening. Now, in terms of the more open dialogue and the conversations that it seems like have taken place in the last year or so, if you could ideally shift the goals or the culture at MD Anderson moving forward a little bit is there anything that you would recommend or like to see put in place that isn’t quite there yet?
Courtney Holladay, PhD
So, I will highlight that we just conducted our employee opinion survey in February of 2021 and the results were released a couple months later. And one of the things I think we saw for the first time was asking for one word that would describe the culture of MD Anderson, and things that you might expect, like safety and caring, popped up. But what was in the top five, diversity and inclusion for the first time that I think I can recall seeing that prominence of that aspect of the culture that we want at MD Anderson. Now, to the point of where we want to go and what we need to do to make that the reality is, I think a lot of the foundation has been set. I think we’re doing the right things. I think leadership is showing up in the way that it needs to, to talk about the importance. I think it’s getting integrated into a lot of our systems and practices and policies where it needs to be part of the fabric. And going back to the survey, what would know is there are different experiences for different communities. And so, what we need to do now is understand what’s going on that’s different in the environment for some populations versus others. And that requires some time, talking with individuals, understanding what their experience might be like, and trying to take some, what I would say, specific actions that will lead to system actions. But we still need to understand what is it that’s different, why are the experiences different? We don’t just yet have a good handle on that. We have some data; we’re trying to dig into it. But this is where conversations are going to be part of that, to understand and dive deeper into it.
The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
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On the Nature of Institutions; Personal Background; On Leadership; Diversity at MD Anderson; Leadership
Holladay, Courtney PhD and Nevill, Nina, "Chapter 01: Applying Psychology to the Workplace" (2021). MD Anderson 2020 Interview Project. 11.
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