Dec. 2, 2021

112 Together We Rise: How to scale impact and lead change with Dr. Gia Nardini | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

112 Together We Rise: How to scale impact and lead change with Dr. Gia Nardini | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Gia Nardini, an assistant professor in marketing at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business and co-author of the research paper, Together We Rise: How Social Movements Succeed. Gia Nardini talked about the elements that make social movements successful, and the lessons leaders can learn, whether in leading social movements or their teams and organization.

Some highlights:

- Gia Nardini's take on consumer behavior to address food deserts and poverty

- The difference between bystanders and upstanders

- Gia Nardini on why bystanders remain bystanders despite witnessing unethical behaviors

- Gia Nardini on how to become leaderful and encourage bystanders to step up and become upstanders

- The foundation of a successful social movement and organizational change

- The importance of winning hearts and minds in leading successful change

Also mentioned in this episode:

- Greg Satell, author of Cascades (Listen to Greg’s episode on Partnering Leadership Podcast here)

- Rishad Tobaccowala, author of Restoring the Soul of Business (Listen to Rishad’s episode on Partnering Leadership Podcast here)

- Together We Rise: How Social Movements Succeed by Gia Nardini, Tracy Rank-Christman, Melissa G. Bublitz, Samantha N. N. Cross, Laura A. Peracchio

- How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don't by Leslie R. Crutchfield

- Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know by Adam Grant

- The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday 

Connect with Gia Nardini:

Gia Nardini on University of Denver, Daniels College of Business

Gia Nardini on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Gia Nardini. Gia is an assistant professor in marketing at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business. She has co-authored a paper: Together We Rise: How Social Movements Succeed. We talk about elements that make social movements successful, and the lessons that leaders can learn, whether in leading social movements or in leading their teams and organizations.

I am a big believer in purpose driven organizations and the fact that organizations of the future will resemble more effective movements than they do organizations of the 20th century. So there is a lot to be learned in this conversation. Both with respect to social movements and leading organizations and changing organizations.

I really enjoy Gia's insights and I'm sure you will too. I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. There's a microphone icon on partnering You can leave voice messages for me there. 

Don't forget to follow the podcast that way you'll be sure to be notified of new releases. Tuesday's with magnificent Changemakers from the greater Washington DC DMV region and Thursdays with global thought leaders. And those of you that enjoy these episodes on Apple when you get a chance, leave a rating and review that will help more people find the conversations and benefit from them.

Now here's my conversation with professor Gia Nardini.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Gia Nardini welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.

Gia Nardini: 

Thank you for having me. I'm so excited to be here. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I am really excited having read some of your work in some of your research. I can't wait to get to it. Together We Rise: How Social Movements Succeed, which I think is important for us to understand both as leaders in the community how we can make social movements succeed and also as organizational leaders.

But before we get to that, Gia would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of person and leader you have become?

Gia Nardini: 

Sure. So I grew up in South Florida. Born and raised there and went to college in Florida. And I would say that my family was a hardworking family. They didn't go to college. My parents didn't go to college, but they worked really hard. And they always did what they could with what they had.

And I remember being a young kid really young, maybe first or second grade. I remember back in the day that at McDonald's they used to have 39 cents cheeseburgers on Tuesdays and 29 cents hamburgers on Wednesdays. My mom and I would go and we would get 10, 15 burgers and just pass them out to people in the community that looked like they could use a hot meal.

We didn't have a lot of extra money. A lot of times, money was tight, but we knew that when there were 29 cents, we could do it. I'm still young when we did that, but it was an experience that stuck with me in terms of just always doing what you can, where you're at with what you have and not waiting until you've quote unquote made it in life to, try to give back, but we can give back every step of the way.

And I feel like that's a lesson that has stuck with me and carried through my education. And my research focus even still today. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

What a wonderful example of understanding your ability to contribute back, regardless of how much you have. As you said, you were growing up with modest means yourself, but you and your mom were contributing to the community. So I wonder with your parents, neither one of them had gone to college.

What inspired you to not only go to college, but eventually get your PhD and become a professor?

Gia Nardini: 

Yeah. So, it's kind of funny, my parents did not have, and this is not meant negatively whatsoever, but they did not have a lot of great advice about college because they have no experience. You know, it's kind of like “Go do college. That's gotta be a good thing to do. Right?” And having grown up, not always having a lot of money, I was so scared of failure in the sense that this is a big investment.

I worked my way through college, but I also wanted to make sure that my parents didn't have a big burden on them. So I decided to go into business. I thought I should be able to get a job if I get a business degree. I ended up really liking marketing. I thought this was kind of fascinating. And then I took a consumer behavior course, and we learned that our perceptions influence our reality. And I thought that sounds crazy. 

So I had joined a club at the time and I thought, I want to see if this works. And so I was the VP of marketing of the clubs. So I thought my job was to teach them marketing. So here we go. And I had them all taste what they thought was chocolate pudding and there were three different kinds. I asked them which one was the chocolatiest, which one was the smoothest and which one they liked the best. Not a single person in the room said, “This doesn't taste like chocolate pudding.” They were able to decipher the differences between these chocolate puddings. And then I told them all that it wasn't chocolate pudding at all. It was vanilla pudding that I had put flavorless brown food color on. That sold me. I thought I am going to go, consumer behavior is my thing. This is what I want to do for a living. 

And so I stuck around and got a PhD to really understand the experimental process and understanding how to apply this in different contexts. And it was my advisor. I had, I reached out to him and I said, with respect to consumer behavior, we have a very unique perspective on life. We know why people do what they do, and yet we apply it so narrowly to purchasing products or evaluating different price points. And I said, I think we could change the world.

I think we could bring this logic to a broader domain and really understand why some of the biggest societal challenges that we have are occurring. And that's kind of how I ended up where I am now.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Oh, I love that, Gia. You color outside the lines. You decided to use consumer behavior, not the way consumer behavior has always been looked at and done, which is beautiful. You applied it to studying food deserts and addressing poverty. So what brought you to that conclusion that this is an area that needs consumer behavior to apply to it?

Gia Nardini: 

Yeah, great question. And I have to give credit to some incredible people who forged that path before me. There's an entire domain in our field called transformative consumer research and they're all on the forefront and on the cusp of trying to use our knowledge for good. And I met Laura Peracchio and Melissa Bublitz who are working in that space and had a similar mentality as I did and what really drew me to them was their focus on bright spots.

Let's not just feel hopeless and look at where things are going wrong, but let's try to understand where people are effectively addressing food deserts and inadequate access to food. And I thought this sounds so optimistic and so vibrant. I want to be a part of this cause I thought I could really uplift people to understand what's actually working.

And now how do we scale that in some ways or how do we understand it so it can be applied elsewhere. So it was really through them that I found my footing in that domain.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Having studied undergrad and done a little graduate work in human nutrition. I think that is one of the areas that we need to pay more attention to, most especially in the food deserts you looked at. What were some of the initial thoughts and perspectives on how we can address the food deserts, the problems we have in many of our cities and addressing some of the hunger and poverty that we face all across the country and across the world?

Gia Nardini: 

One thing that was interesting is that, and some people might know this, if you're deeply connected to it, but it's not like we have a lack of food. It's quite interesting to see these two parallel problems that look like they could solve each other. 

We have a huge food waste problem, and we have a huge hunger problem. And so that was one of our first insights is that we have to figure out how to get the excess food to the people who have an inadequate amount of food. And when talking to two different organizations that were effectively addressing food challenges, we realized that it is a complex, hairy problem.

It's not like there's one solution that's gonna work in even neighboring communities. These organizations were spending time deeply connecting with their community members to understand what their personal challenges were in order to craft a solution and co-create a solution with them. And I think that was eye opening for us too, to just see that there isn't one size fits all.

For example, somebody might have trouble navigating the paperwork process to apply for WIC or somebody else might not be able to physically go to one of the required meetings because they have to work. 

And so understanding that we could provide resources for different people who are facing different challenges collectively, this is addressing the food challenge within that one community was quite surprising. And so it was more of a matter of understanding the process of getting to know your community, getting to understand the challenge so that you can co-create the solution versus saying, hey, here's the solution. Now let's do it all across the world.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is so interesting you mentioned this Gia because again, while I was going through my undergrad in nutrition, I worked at a WIC clinic, which was close to University of Maryland. And many of the people that came to that clinic had very different needs in college park, Maryland than if you had gone to downtown DC.

So, what you're saying is that in many respects, the needs are specific to the target group and the community. There are no solutions that can be applied all across the world. 

So, Gia, what brought you to studying social movements?

Gia Nardini: 

It's kind of related to a different paper on scaling. So the food desert paper made us realize that, Hey, some of these organizations are successful because they're small, not despite the fact that they're small. And that led us to think, well, how do these organizations proliferate their ideas and grow in a different way? Whether, beyond the normal ceiling mechanisms. And then we began to think, well, the same process of growing interest or growing an effective solution map onto social movements. Because there were a lot of processes that seemed the same, and we wanted to understand how these social movements grow based on what we were learning about deeply embedded within a community and gaining the respect and the trust of community members.

And if that would map onto social movements. So that's how we ended up there. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

With respect to social movements, you have a couple of different frameworks. You talk initially about bystanders becoming upstanders. What are bystanders? What are upstanders and how do bystanders become upstanders?

Gia Nardini: 

Great question. Yes. So bystanders, there's a lot of literature on the bystander effect and it's quite surprising. But a lot of times, we, as human beings, don't want to get involved. And it's not from a malicious perspective. It's not that we don't want to get involved because we don't want to help, but sometimes situations are ambiguous and it can be difficult to know if we're perceiving things accurately.

And so we're afraid that if we step in, we might be wrong or we might make things worse. And so it's better for us to stay by the side and not act. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of guts to be an upstander or to stand up. And so when we're talking bystanders we're talking about people who are on the sidelines, observing something happening, but not acting. 

And upstanders being those few individuals who see something happening and decide to take a stand, whether that is, directly addressing the injustice, saying that's not right or finding a way to engage with others, to create a more discussion around what's happening. And so that would be an upstander. 

Now, I think, we still have yet to understand what truly flips the switch to turn people from bystanders into upstanders. And we are hoping to actually investigate that more with more research, to really understand the mechanisms and to maybe write another paper on how to become an upstander.

But we do see that it's when those upstanders take action that the beginning of a social movement seems to take place where now these people have a wealth of power because they were the ones who were willing to take a stand.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And I would love to find out a little bit more about a couple of movements where bystanders were able to become upstanders, but one also toggled back and forth to some organizational lessons. 

There've been many organizations well-known over the past few years from Boeing to Wells Fargo to VW where there were hundreds, if not, in some cases, thousands of people that knew of unethical behavior and they remained bystanders watching the unethical behavior and after the airplanes crashed or after the fraudulent accounts were uncovered, then they said, “Oh yes, we have known of this for the past two, three years.” 

So why do we remain as bystanders even when we see unethical behavior around us, including in organizations?

Gia Nardini: 

Yeah. Great question. So I think a major part of that is the presence of an authority figure. And in these corporations, especially, you've got a very hierarchical structure where you have people in a position of power who are directing those that are below them, that rank below them. And so when we are the ones who are in that lower position, It becomes incredibly difficult to become an upstander or a whistleblower in those situations for a variety of reasons. 

Again, it could be that you truly fear losing your job. You can't be without your job, you don't want to get blacklisted and not be able to get work somewhere else. And sometimes even if it seems unethical, especially, hindsight's 2020, but we might just place trust within those authority figures, especially if we respect them.

So if we look up to these people and they see what they're doing is right, then we might think, well, they must know more than I do. Therefore, I'm going to trust that what they're doing is right. And then, looking back, we think, gee, I guess that wasn't right. I should've seen all the red flags.

But I think that authority figures and having somebody in a position of power can really affect our ability to stand up when we see injustices or unethical behavior.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It really makes a difference. And I know that the Stanford prison experiment and Stanley Milgram's experiments have come under some criticism for different aspects of it. However, there is a truth to the fact that when people are authority figures, we tend to defer to their judgment oftentimes. 

So both looking in a societal perspective for social movements and within organizations, how can leaders encourage or create the kind of environment where more bystanders are willing to step up and become upstanders?

Gia Nardini: 

Yeah, I think, what could be very helpful is creating a leaderful structure. So we talk about that in the paper. Read about it from Leslie Crutchfield's book on how change happens. And I think it's a great lesson in the sense that you're not saying everybody has equal power in the organization is considered to be flat. But you're also not assuming the role of one directorial leader who's telling everyone what to do, and there's a very rank and file system. But instead you create a culture in which you empower your employees to feel capable and able of instantiating change. Creating open environments for honest discussion where difficult things are discussed. And in that way, when employees feel empowered and they feel capable, when they feel able to make change, they feel less in that inferior role. 

And I think that makes it easier to break down that authoritarian figure and allow people the opportunity to feel comfortable, to share and to stand up and to become an upstander. Especially if they feel like they're in a culture that is understanding and that truly wants the best for the mission of the organization.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it's interesting Gia in some respects, some of the virtual aspects to the world we've been living in have enabled more of that where people don't have some of the status symbols that elevate them in organizations, whether it's the size of the office or whether it's where they sit at the table and everything else.

So we do need to be mindful of giving everyone the opportunity to be an equal in order for them to feel capable, to become upstanders. 

Gia Nardini: 


Mahan Tavakoli: 

So Gia with respect to movements, what are movements that you think have done a good job transitioning bystanders to upstanders?

Gia Nardini: 

I think the ones that are most salient in my mind would be the marriage equality movement. As well as the black lives matter movement. It's such a modern day movement where we saw just different collections of people decide to take action and decide to stand up. So I think maybe those two would be good examples of bystanders transitioning into upstanders.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And what do you think they did to be able to do that effectively? So there have also been many movements that haven't done as well including Occupy Wall Street. That was a huge movement. It got people to a certain level of becoming upstanders, but not beyond. So what do you believe these two movements did well to make people become upstanders and then move beyond to the other steps you mentioned also?

Gia Nardini: 

Sure. So I think there were a couple of key things, but I think each one of the elements in that social movements paper is important. So if we're missing one like Occupy Wall Street, they didn't have a very clear, shared mission and goal versus looking at black lives matter and even the marriage equality movement. 

Although individual people and individual groups of people may have wanted very specific changes. Maybe it was laws changed or different practices in the workplace, whatever it may be. But there was more of a broader collective sense of, we are trying to just bring light to injustices towards black men and women in America. Or, we want marriage equality. We want, same-sex marriage to be legalized. And yes, you'll see splinter groups, but I think having that clear vision and that shared purpose allowed movement members to connect with one another. And even when they disagreed on how to go about getting that change or what the ultimate change would be they knew they were all trying to achieve some broader level goal that was the same. And I think that allowed them to really connect with one another and become upstanders or feel comfortable taking a stand because they knew they were in it together. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So what you say actually aligns very well with what Greg Satell, who I also interviewed for the podcast on his book: Cascades, talks about, you mentioned bystanders becoming upstanders, then groups connecting and proliferating. Then coordinating groups with shared purpose, which aligns very well with Greg also mentioned small groups, loosely connected, but United by a shared purpose.

Gia Nardini: 

Absolutely. Couldn't agree more with him. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

With respect to all of this you have also repeatedly mentioned that being leaderful is an important part of social movements that succeed and also change within organizations to succeed. What is leaderful leadership?

Gia Nardini:

I think it's kind of a difficult thing to attain because it is a leader model in which you do have leaders and usually a couple of multiple leaders but you also empower grassroots or in an organization, your lower level employees to feel as though they are leaders within the wrong right. And I think the difficult part of being leaderful is letting go of ego. Not that that's a negative thing to have ego, but to be able to be humble and to say, you might have a better idea than I do. And, regardless of our education or something like that, and being able to be actively listening.

So not just hearing people to give them the benefit. Yeah. I heard you, but hearing what they're saying and finding a way to reverberate that and to communicate with them that you have heard them and that you want to address their concerns. I think those are two characteristics of leaderful leader, as well as the diversity of opinions.

So we've constantly seen in research that having a diversity of perspectives and past life experiences and ideas collectively allow us to achieve our mission more effectively than having a very narrow minded perspective on an issue. 

And I think that rings true, not just for movements, but also for organizations. Bringing in that diversity of perspectives and, going hand in hand with, letting go of ego. You might have to be okay with being wrong or disagreeing with someone on the best way to handle something. 

And I think that's where things can get tricky because none of those things are easy to do. But if we can do them effectively, I think that's going to give us an organization that believes in the mission and that feels capable of achieving the mission and overcoming adverse situations and pursuing and being persistent. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I love the way you put it Gia, that diversity of perspectives is critical. And in order to ensure those perspectives are aired, there has to be psychological safety. 

I really like the way Rishad Tobaccowala also puts it. He says not just diversity of faces, but diversity of voices. And we need to give power to those voices to be shared for that leaderful leadership that you're talking about. 

Another thing that you keep mentioning, whether it's with respect to social movements, and I think it transfers very well to organizations also, you talk about that winning hearts and minds is really important. The power of emotions. Can you talk about the impact of winning hearts and minds, the importance of it to social movements and change in organizations?

Gia Nardini: 

Sure. So people are more likely to act when they are viscerally connected to a cause whether that is an organization or a movement. But when they can see themselves in a situation or they can truly understand what somebody else has gone through, that really allows people to join in on the movement or to believe in the organization.

And I think that has become very apparent with the black lives matter movement and the continual stream of online videos we're seeing that allow people to see firsthand what's happening and to connect to that movement on an emotional level. 

And so I think, understanding the power of storytelling and sharing with others, what you have gone through, if you've personally experienced something or allowing the story of the organization to come to light in a very powerful and emotional way allows people who may have been on the outside to truly understand it and to connect with it and to see its purpose and see its vision. And then to believe in it and to follow through with it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

This is an absolute gem, Gia, that a lot of leaders, unfortunately, don't fully grasp and aren't able to implement, which is we are creatures of emotion and it's through effective and powerful storytelling that we can help others visualize the impact of what the organizational purpose is, what the mission or the goal of the social movement is through the repeated storytelling that comes from the leaders. We are not looking for the facts. We're looking for those emotional triggers. 

Now you also have been looking into how organizations can scale social impact. That's your latest research that you're writing about. What are some of the perspectives based on your research on scaling social impact?

Gia Nardini: 

In our talk there were all sorts of organizations across the food desert paper, and even the social movement paper, it became apparent that being small is okay. But the problem is a lot of times funders don't see it that way. And So the purpose of our scale paper was two fold.

We wanted to think, well, yes, it's okay to be small, but how can we help you grow if you want to. Maybe not replicating, and have similarly to a McDonald's franchise across the U S but how can we help you proliferate your ideas and get them out there. As well as, how can we share your story of success with funders and help change that perspective so that we don't just define success as large scale, franchise model organizations, but instead see success as these small scale deeply embedded organizations within their communities effectively addressing really difficult challenges. 

So that was really the purpose of that paper was to bring their stories to light and try to change the perspective of funders, but also give them a framework that they could follow if they wanted to go from a deeply scaled organization to maybe one that's more widely connected. The framework was scaling deep and then scaling wide. And not that, that means replicating, but instead sharing ideas with like-minded organizations and collectively collaborating to achieve more success together than could otherwise be achieved alone.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So pulling some of these thoughts together, Gia, a lot of organizations and leaders are going through transition after transition, lots of disruption happening, both in the way we work and also in the way many organizations meet their client's needs or serve the community. 

So if you were to give advice to leaders that want to lead their organizations through change more effectively and want to lead movements because change in organizations is also a movement, what advice would you have for leaders that want to lead change within their organizations and in the community?

Gia Nardini: 

I would say first and foremost, be open to listening. I think understanding the community you're working in first and foremost is what's going to get you in the door. You have to gain buy-in and trust from the community members for them to see you as an insider versus an outsider.

And to develop that authenticity. And I think beyond that, being able to relinquish a little bit of control so that you're collaborating and co-creating with whether it's employees or community members effective solutions and growing together. 

And also, I have heard it before, but just being persistent, knowing that change happens over sometimes decades, right? It's not something that just happens overnight and that's why it can be so helpful to have a deeply connected network of people who all are in it together because they can help you get over those setbacks and those difficult times when things just don't go right or it all seems wrong. That happens. And it's just about persistence and really being able to persevere and push through it and just stick with it.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is. And there are a lot of great lessons to be learned from your paper, which I absolutely love. Together We Rise: How Social Movements Succeed, because I think we can both learn a lot with respect to social movements, but also learn a lot about how we can have a greater impact on our community and how we can lead change in our organizations.

I do believe that the most effective organizations will be the ones that will have such a strong purpose that they are seen as movements, but the people that are inside that organization. So over the coming decade we're going to see more in commonality within movements and the most effective and purpose driven organizations.

So Gia in addition to your own research, which is outstanding, what leadership resources would you typically recommend to leaders looking to lead their organizations more effectively?

Gia Nardini: 

Obviously I love Leslie Crutchfield's book, How Change Happens. I think that's such an inspirational book. I'm currently reading Think Again by Adam Grant and really, really liking it. So that would be another one. The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday is a really fun book that just helps you keep your mind right. 

I use an insight timer for free meditation. And yeah, I would say that maybe those off the top of my head would be some of the ones I love the most. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Those are all great recommendations. I love Ryan Holiday. Adam Grant is an absolute favorite and you know that I have a strong association and affinity for Georgetown McDonough and their social impact and all the work that they put out. So all great recommendations 

Gia I want to thank you for being part of this conversation, partnering leadership and also want to end with a favorite quote of mine that you also had in your paper, which I hope will resonate with all the listeners. 

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time, we are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change we seek former” President Barack Obama 

Gia Nardini. Thank you so much for all the great research and thought leadership on social movements and on change, and then sharing some of your perspectives with the partnering leadership community. 

Gia Nardini: 

Thank you again so much for having me.