2020 Reflections – Thinking about the other

We believe that Leadership 2020 is much more than a leadership training program. Sure, it builds the leadership capacity of individual participants just as other programs do. But more fundamentally, the program builds collective capacity to work differently with complexity and in the ‘spaces between’. 2020 aims to build stronger, more resilient, and effective teams, organizations, networks and systems. We do this, in part, by breaking through some of the limiting judgments and beliefs that we hold about ourselves and each other (e.g., MCFD vs. agencies; Indigenous vs. non-Indigenous).

We believe it will make a big difference if we can embrace the real complexity of our work, engage with our diverse communities, and enact new ways of practicing and continuously learning together. So how can we get better at working in this way? For one, we have to unpack how we see ‘the other’.

In several communiqués released in December, I talked about the implicit judgments, biases, and prejudices that can cloud our view of ‘the other’ and limit our ability to be open and curious, understand, embrace and engage.

Stick with me while I share a little story. I am currently in Oxford UK for two weeks of intensive learning for the Global MBA Program that I have been in for the past year. This is primarily an online program so my interactions with others have been through Skype, Whats App, and course discussion boards. I am now spending 12 hours a day with 17 other students from 15 different nations and I have come up-close and personal with my judgments and biases! I hate it when this happens!

For example, through the online posts and occasional team projects, I had unconsciously created whole stories about people based on age, ethnicity, experience, occupation, country of origin, etc. And sometimes these stories weren’t very flattering. But now that I have met some of the other learners, I see that their stories are not at all like the stories I wrote for them. That ‘accountant-type’ is an incredibly generous human being, who is so passionate about his calling that he tutors young people in his African nation who want to learn about numbers. And the strong, multi-credentialed woman from Asia is trying to figure out how to be the best parent she can be to her 3 year old while navigating cultural, organizational, and ethical challenges that make it really difficult.

So what does all this have to do with 2020? I offer it as an invitation to consider how you might create stories about others without really knowing them, and in so doing, make it more difficult to work together. I also offer it as an example of how important it is to work on our self-awareness and cultural agility as an ongoing leadership practice.

We are human and humans have historically benefited from creating in-groups and out-groups. However, in this time of reconciliation we have to ask ourselves, how beneficial is it to perpetuate us and them or ‘other’ thinking when we need so many perspectives to address complex issues?

For the Weekly Read, I offer a guest article from Tess Charlesworth on how we can catch our implicit biases and work through them to become more open, inclusive and culturally agile. She shares some new research on ‘cultural metacognition’ and then suggests concrete things you can do to reduce bias and judgments. 

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make sense any more.


Working Through Our Implicit Biases

by Tessa Charlesworth, for Leadership 2020 (copyright)

I research implicit intergroup biases and prejudices across the age span, and yet every day I experience at least one moment where my own biases trump my well-meaning conscious efforts. I am prone to negative self-stereotyping because of my gender, because of my age, because of my image, yet I am also sadly prone to stereotyping others because of their gender, race, age, or culture. How is that I can know so much about my biases and yet still be shocked by their presence? That is, in fact, the scary thing about implicit biases – by their very nature, implicit biases are outside the realm of easy cognitive control and therefore remain in our “blind spots”.

Such a depressing perspective of the “perennial implicit bias” would seem to suggest that we could never be wholly tolerant individuals, equal in our acceptance of all groups and social categories. In some senses, this may be the case: our brains seem to be wired to express “out-group” threat responses in evolutionarily old brain regions like the amygdala; and early implicit biases are strongly predictive of biases and discrimination across the lifespan. Thankfully, however, the fact that our implicit biases are pervasive does not mean that they dominate our cognitions or behaviours, nor does it mean that they are entirely static.

This brief essay will consider how we can reduce, or more appropriately “work through”, our implicit biases. It is not about suppressing, erasing, or eradicating your biases out of shame and embarrassment. Rather, it is about monitoring, evaluating, and updating your assumptions and beliefs about another individual, group, or culture, with the ultimate goal of engaging in mindful intergroup knowledge-sharing and friendships. This is part of Leadership 2020’s aim to enhance cultural agility and humility.

In the early 2000s, amidst the global conflicts peaking after the 9/11 attacks and “wars on terror”, Ang and colleagues (2003, 2011) proposed a theory of “cultural intelligence” in order to account for individual differences in cultural competency, flexibility, and intercultural success. Within their framework of cultural intelligence, the authors suggested a central linking element of “cultural metacognition” (CM) which involves: (1) awareness of cultural assumptions; (2) monitoring and updating those assumptions before, during, and after cross-cultural interactions; and (3) planning for future interactions. Although it speaks explicitly to how we are able to ensure positive contact and efficacy across cultural differences, it can be extended to include efficacy across a wide variety of differences (based on income, job, age, gender, race, etc.). In fact, the “metacognitive” abilities implied by CM can also be seen as general abilities in mindfulness and awareness.

Following the conceptualization of CM, numerous authors began to investigate the mechanism of how CM leads to cross-cultural success (including in negotiation, adaptability, and creative collaboration). One of the more convincing proposed mechanisms was that of “affect-based trust”, or the feelings of reciprocity and mutuality between two groups or individuals. Specifically, a team of researchers from Harvard and Columbia Business Schools led by Roy Chua found that the power of CM “flowed through” affective trust. Without both affect-based trust and CM, cross-cultural teams showed poor creative collaboration success.

Although this study doesn’t seem to be immediately related to our discussion of how to reduce implicit biases, it does, in fact, reveal a very potent way of regulating our biases so that we can achieve positive outcomes (both in terms of productive successes and friendship potentials). The study shows that, if we engage in metacognitive processes of awareness, and flexibility about our assumptions, we can engender intergroup trust. This trust, in turn, will help to combat our implicit anxiety responses (like those I alluded to earlier that arise in the amygdala), and reduce our nonconscious prejudices. Ultimately, this trust and metacognition will establish productive relationships that will then further reduce our stereotyping about out-group ignorance or incompetence.

In sum, our implicit biases may be our perniciously ubiquitous friends but they also offer the opportunity to engage in intergroup learning: they can inspire us to engage in “metacognition” and “trust” that will beneficially result in intergroup friendships, collaborations, and acceptance.

A praxis framework for working through implicit biases

STEP 1: Become aware of your biases

  • Take implicit association tests on Harvard’s Project Implicit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/index.jsp
  • Discuss with a close friend, colleague, or family member what they see as your “blind spots”. Try your very best not to get offended (maybe do this while munching on a nice piece of dark chocolate so that your “happy hormones” are engaged…)
  • Practice personal reflection, meditation, or journaling

GOAL: Establish “cultural metacognition”

STEP 2: Mindfullly engage in interactions that may help to update or disconfirm the biases

  • Participate in programs like L2020 and reach out to those who seem to have very different views from your own perspective. Have personal conversations.
  • Read books or articles written by authors with different perspectives, cultural or historical backgrounds. Watch documentaries about different opinions, or films produced from different viewpoints

GOAL: Establish “affect-based trust”

STEP 3: Plan for future interactions

  • Continue to think about or journal about your experiences: how have your assumptions changed? How have they stayed the same? What has been most helpful in working through your biases? How can you continue to support these experiences?
  • Schedule further conversations with friends or colleagues from different perspectives. Perhaps do a project together, watch a new cross-cultural film together, or start a cross-cultural book club.

GOAL: Create a loop between “cultural metacognition”, “affect-based trust”, and “intercultural success” that is continuously sustained

Further reading:

Ang, S, Van Dyne, L, & Tan, ML (2011) Cultural intelligence, In R. J. Sternberg & S. B. Kaufman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook on Intelligence (pp. 582–602). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Chua, RYJ, Morris, MW, & Shira, M (2012) Collaborating across cultures: Cultural metacognition and affect-based trust in creative collaboration, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 188: 116-131.