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Interview with Connson Locke

Written by: Matthew Reisz
Published on: 21 Apr 2021

Connson Locke, LSE professorial lecturer in management and author of ‘Making Your Voice Heard: How to Own Your Space, Access Your Inner Power and Become Influential’

Source: Karen Hatch

Connson Locke studied sociology at Harvard University and was for many years a coach and management consultant, largely in the Asia-Pacific region. She returned to the academy for an MSc and then a PhD in organisational psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has worked at the London School of Economics since 2008, latterly as professorial lecturer in management, and teaches courses for female managers at the United Nations. Her book, Making Your Voice Heard: How to Own Your Space, Access Your Inner Power and Become Influential, draws on her own background to explore “how culture, gender and non-verbal behaviour determine whose voice is heard and whose isn’t”.

Where did you grow up and how did that shape you?
I grew up in a town in Connecticut that had very little diversity. Whenever my parents expressed their Chinese culture – for example, serving Chinese dishes at dinner parties, dressing us up in traditional outfits to celebrate the new year – it was seen as strange and exotic. And it made me feel even more of an outsider, so I was less likely to speak up.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I didn’t have to choose my major until my second year, but I found myself interested in so many different topics that I had trouble choosing. In the end, I went through the entire course catalogue and circled every course I found interesting. Most of them were in the psychology and sociology departments. To break the tie between the two majors, I did “eeny, meeny, miny, mo” and ended up with sociology. But my interest in psychology never went away.

How did taking part in a drag king workshop clarify your understanding of gender?
It was eye-opening because I had never thought of gender as an act before – I had thought of it as biological. Passing myself off as a man was liberating, making me realise that I could move my body in a completely different way – wider gait, solid and confident movements. It changed the way I walked down the street and helped me convey confidence many years later when I was teaching presentation skills.

What led you to research the topic of upward influence in your PhD?
As a training manager, I had been asked to teach “upward management” to the junior consultants to help them speak up when they disagreed with their managers. This was important for reaching the best decisions for the client. It made me realise that I wasn’t the only person who hesitated to speak up – and that speaking up can be beneficial.

Why do you say in your book that it took you ‘a few years’ to get to grips with the culture of academia?
The difference in pace was the biggest shock. I had come from management consulting where emails were answered within a few hours and changes implemented in a matter of days. In academia, it is common to wait one or two weeks for an email reply.

How far can leadership be taught in university classrooms?
Leadership is a practical skill – what I teach in the classroom are the basic principles and concepts which will help students in the workplace. In class, students apply the theories and concepts to short case studies depicting a fictional leader based on my past work experience so that they understand the practical application of everything I teach. But the value of the course does not become evident until a few years after graduation when the student is in a leadership position and starts to use the concepts at work.

Is it difficult to teach cross-cultural management without falling back on stereotypes?
It is very difficult! That’s why I insist on describing culture as a lens, not a box. We cannot put people in boxes according to their culture – there is a great deal of variation within each culture. Instead, if we think of culture as a lens, then one person can have multiple lenses – for example, the culture they grew up in, the culture of their school, the culture of their work – and those lenses can be different shades, with some people being representative of those cultures and others being very different. We cannot use culture to predict an individual’s behaviour or attitudes. But we can use it to explain or prevent misunderstanding.

What should universities do to promote cultural intelligence? 
Every town has people with different socioeconomic backgrounds, different races and ethnicities, even different political perspectives. Universities can offer communication courses where students learn to have productive conversations with people they perceive as different. [That] would make university a much more positive experience for many.

What aspects of university work tend to hold back women?
As with many highly demanding professional jobs, it can be a challenge to be a research academic while being a parent. With research work, I found I needed at least four hours of uninterrupted time to make progress and, as a parent, my time was constantly interrupted.

How should these issues be addressed?
We need to value “caring” as much as “competition”. If raising a healthy and productive human being were seen to be as valuable as publishing a journal article or winning a research grant, then imagine how different our world would look.

What do you do for fun?
I love learning new things. Several years ago, I learned how to crochet, then I became interested in making jewellery, briefly tried rollerblading, and now I’m learning Japanese. The only problem is, I soon lose interest and move on to something else.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
After turning 50 a few years ago, I wanted to adopt a motto for the second half of my life. I chose a quote attributed to [American author] Stephen Covey: “Be a light, not a judge.”

What one thing would improve your working week?
I’m not a morning person, so I would love it if working hours were changed to 11am to 7pm. Then I might actually have time to eat breakfast and get through my emails before my first meeting or lecture!