Tag Archive for: psychology

2020 Resources – Reflections on mindfulness

I went on my first 10-day silent meditation retreat 34 years ago. Back then, I didn’t dare tell anyone at work that I was meditating. Even telling friends and family was a challenge. They wondered out loud if I was going to shave my hair and head to India, or renounce my worldly possessions, or whether I could levitate (yes really).

I too was under some major misunderstandings back then. I thought that I could achieve a higher consciousness (if not enlightenment ) after those 10 days and that I would be impervious to the stressors in my child welfare job as a result. However, after the first 10-day retreat, I came back to Earth and learned that my mind was incessantly narrating my life and focusing on stupid things. I was a lot more judgmental about others than I had known or was comfortable with. And although meditating all day was painful, I became present and more fully alive through the experience.

It did not make me impervious to life’s challenges, I was just in my life in a more mindful way. I loved it and I sustained a daily practice of sitting meditations and annual retreats for many years. But then work got really demanding, children arrived, divorce happened, and there no longer seemed to be a way for me to get back to my daily practice of meditation.

Fast forward many years. I began to notice that meditation and mindfulness practices were becoming more mainstream in the Western world. Jon Kabat-Zinn brought Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) into the realm of health care and demonstrated that participants suffering from a wide array of chronic and serious medical conditions and stress-related illnesses experienced significant improvements in health and wellbeing through simple mindfulness practices over an 8-week program. Brain Imaging has enabled researchers to see the ways in which the brain works both when highly stressed and when practicing mindfulness. This has demonstrated that the parts of the brain responsible for ‘higher order thinking’ (aka executive functioning) are more active when people engage in mindfulness and meditative practices. Long-term mindfulness practice has been shown to thicken the cortical regions related to attention and sensory processing, and may offset thinning of those areas that typically comes with aging.

We are continually learning about the science of mindfulness. For example, mindfulness enhances the neural circuitry and neural integration leading to more balanced self-regulation and flexibility. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel (whom many of you will know from his work on the “developing mind” in children and youth) states that: “being mindfully aware, attending to the richness of our here and now experiences, creates scientifically recognized enhancements in our physiology, our mental functions, and our interpersonal relationships. Being fully present in our awareness opens our lives to new possibilities of well-being” (2007, p. xiii).

Research suggests that mindful leaders are able to see things more clearly, cope more effectively with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), “disentangle itself from premature conclusions” and routinized behaviours, generate creative ways to solve messy problems, make better decisions, and be more effective in their relationships at work (and elsewhere). Increasingly, we see health care providers, corporations, academic institutions, governments and schools embracing mindfulness practices to enhance wellbeing, reduce health care costs, and improve performance. Meditation and mindfulness are now mainstream in the Western context.

Although I still don’t get to the cushion and meditate for an hour a day as I used to, I have found that I can still weave mindfulness practice into my everyday life in a helpful way. In the hopes that you might be willing to explore mindfulness further—to enhance well-being, nurture relationships, develop your leadership, address stress or simply to practice the pause—I offer a few Q’s and A’s and some recommended resources below.

Q. What is the distinction between meditation and mindfulness?

A. Contemplative meditation traditions and practices have existed in all faiths and in diverse contexts and countries for thousands of years, and I can’t possibly represent all forms and intentions of meditation here. However, the tradition of insight or Vipassana meditation that I am most familiar with is the practice of training our attention to see things as they really are; to enhance awareness of both internal and external here-and-now experiences. It requires that we focus on a single object (often the breath to start), and as distractions arise we aim to let them go and re-focus on the object. This gives us a ‘centre’ to come back to when things get hairy in our minds. Meditation requires that we be still – or at least very intentional in our movements as in the case of a walking meditation – in order to bring a high quality of attention to our practice. This is where ‘time on the meditation cushion’ matters, as by being still we become aware of the incessant chattering, distractions and interpretations that our minds fix on, and gives us an opportunity to see them for what they are and let them go.

Meditation cultivates concentration, mindfulness and compassion. As Sharon Salzberg states, “Concentration steadies and focuses our attention so that we can let go of distractions. Distractions waste our energy; concentration restores it to us…Mindfulness refines our attention…” (2011, p. 11-12).  As we enhance our capacity for mindfulness through some kind of meditative practice, we can then take it into every aspect of our daily lives. It enables us to become more aware of sensations, thoughts, feelings, reactions, and create a space for the “nonjudgmental acknowledgement” of experience. This gives us a bit more space to shift from habitual reactions to seeing different options.

For example, if you are having difficulty with a colleague and are dreading the meeting you are about to go into, mindful awareness might allow you to see the habitual patterns that the 2 of you are locked into, or the way in which your mind creates a whole storyline of how awful your colleague will be and why you have every right to be disappointed and frustrated – before you even get into the meeting!  Mindfulness helps us catch ourselves in the spiral and disentangle ourselves from the judgments and stories so that we can try something different. As Salzberg suggests, “mindfulness helps us get better at seeing the difference between what’s happening and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening” (p. 13).  I love the story she shares about a student who, after a particularly stressful day, was in the gym locker room and tore a hole in her pantyhose. She said to a stranger, ‘see, I need a new life’, to which the stranger responded, ‘no, you need a new pair of pantyhose’. 

Q.  How can I bring more mindfulness into my days?

A.   As noted above, our capacity for mindfulness is enhanced if we do some meditative practice – even 15 minutes a day can be very beneficial. However, can also practice ‘mindful moments’ in which you are stably present and attentive to one thing for a minute or more, including:

  • Sensations – such as the smell of your toothpaste or morning coffee, the sound of the rustle of leaves in the wind or a child’s giggle, the different tastes in your meal, the sensation of your back against the chair or the way in which you are holding your jaw.
  • Thoughts –noticing what thoughts are arising, how they evolve in your mind and how your body responds to the thoughts.
  • Feelings – noticing what different emotions (from pleasant to unpleasant) arise in particular situations, and how your thoughts and body are affected.

You may find it difficult to be aware and focused for even a minute, in which case, just notice that and be aware of the way you are distracted. It helps to bring curiosity, openness and a sense of humour into these mindful moments.

Q. How can mindfulness support my leadership?

A. Research suggests that mindfulness enables us to detach from habitual judgments and responses and see things as they are. Instead of mindless inattention to the small things that can become big things if ignored, we are more alert to early warning signs and can take appropriate action. As our capacity for concentration and awareness grows we can become more flexible, innovative, productive, and make better decisions. Further, mindfulness enhances our capacity for compassion and empathy, which helps us as leaders (see Langer, 2014). 

Michael Carroll, in his book, The Mindful Leader, suggests that the primary act of mindful leadership is “to open – to fully appreciate our circumstances before we seek to influence or act upon them. When we are willing to open to our world before we act, we not only learn what we need to know, but equally important, we express a vital, innate intelligence that is sharp, flexible and unassuming…We grasp directly the full measure of our present circumstances, recognizing opportunities, appreciating other’s views, [and] acknowledging difficulties” (2007, pp. 23-24).

Recommended references:

Carroll, Michael (2007). The Mindful Leader.

Focuses on ten key principles of mindfulness and how they apply to leading groups and organizations.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2012). Mindfulness for Beginners.

Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness into Western medicine and remains one of the best teachers of mindfulness practices. This book is a series of short reflections and stories that can be used to stimulate practice. A CD of guided meditations is included.

Langer, Ellen (1989/2014). Mindfulness.

This classic written by a Harvard psychologist in 1989, concluded that ‘pervasive mindlessness’ was costing us dearly (limiting mindsets, unhealthy aging, loss of control and self-regulation, burnout, etc.) and proposed a way out through mindfulness.  It is still a great read.

Salzberg, Sharon (2011). Real Happiness – The Power of Meditation.

Offers a thoughtful, balanced 28-day program that introduces the basics as well as different forms of meditation (e.g., walking, eating, hearing) and simple mindfulness practices; includes a CD with guided meditations. 

Siegel, Daniel (2007). The Mindful Brain.

For those interested in the research pertaining to mindfulness and neurobiology and how they interact.

Stahl, Bob & Goldstein, Elisha (2010). A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook.

If you are interested in developing mindfulness practices to relieve stress, anxiety and health concerns, this workbook does a great job of presenting MBSR techniques and practices.    

Online resources:

Palouse Mindfulness, MBSR Program

Dave Potter is a certified MBSR facilitator and psychotherapist and has created a free 8-week MBSR program, modelled after the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s program (which was founded by Jon Kabatt-Zinn). A number of 2020 participants have gone through this program and found it very helpful.

Dr. Tara Brach is an author and meditation teacher (her books True Refuge and Self-Acceptance Acceptance are powerful) and she shares many guided meditations, as well as how to meditate articles on her website

2020 Resources – What Makes a Good Life?

Recommended TED talk: Lessons from the Longest Study on Human Happiness by Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger, a professor at Harvard Medical School is the Director of a study that has been tracking two groups of men (and now their partners and children) for 75 years. One group is comprised of Harvard graduates and the other from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods and families of Boston at the time the study began. Throughout this period of time, researchers have interviewed the participants every one or 2 years, collected medical records, undertaken brain scans and tracked their life journey and stories.

This study has informed our understanding of what makes people happy and healthy through their lives. In this easy-to-listen-to 12-minute TED talk, Waldinger shares three factors that make a difference – all connected to a sense of belonging and having meaningful relationships. “The people who fared the best had leaned into relationships with family, friends, community” even when messy and complicated.

While this talk is not about leadership per se, it is still relevant to our work in a number of ways. Our personal well-being influences how we show up as leaders, so how are we tending to the relationships we have with family, friends, and community? How might we foster positive relationships in our teams and organizations to create a sense of belonging and connection amongst the people we work with? Given the vital importance of strong attachments and relationships to long-term physical, mental and emotional health, in what ways do we design, deliver and lead services to foster healthy connections for children, youth, and families?

We know this stuff, but a little reminder doesn’t hurt!

Positive Teams are More Productive

Positive Teams are More Productive, by Emma Seppala
(Harvard Business Review, March 2015)

One of the first things to note about this very short article is that is written by the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Think about the fact that an institution like Stanford values compassion and altruism such that it has established a center dedicated to researching the phenomenon. I don’t think this would have happened a decade ago. I think that it reflects a growing body of research evidence and understanding that attending to the well-being of ourselves and others – in our families, friend groups, organizations and communities – is not just nice to do if we can find the time, but essential to support thriving families, workplaces and communities.

The author draws on research from a number of different sources and suggests that the traditional approaches to increasing productivity – setting plans and goals, streamlining procedures, setting targets, measuring performance or offering incentives and perks – might have their place. However, so does paying attention to the context and culture for the team’s work and how this contributes or detracts from well-being. Citing a study from University of Michigan, she notes that workplaces “characterized by positive and virtuous practices excel in a number of domains.” They increase positive emotions (which helps to build resilience and amplify creativity to solve difficult issues), buffer against negative events and enhance personal and collective resilience, and they attract and bolster employees, including enhancing loyalty and staff commitment to offer their best.

These positive and virtuous practices include:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues.
  • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
  • Avoiding blame and forgive mistakes.
  • Inspiring one another at work.
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.
  • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust & integrity.”

So what creates a climate or culture that is virtuous? The author suggests that leadership is critical. In particular, modelling caring and supportive behaviour in an authentic way. Small steps also make a difference – there doesn’t need to be a grand strategic plan and dedicated resources to encourage a more positive workplace.

Another article that offers some insights here is by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, in which they distil their research into the relationship between authenticity and effective leadership. They found six principles or virtues at work in dream workplaces, in which people are happy and engaged:

  • Individual differences are nurtured
  • Information is not suppressed or spun
  • The organization adds value to staff (through support, supervision, learning and growth opportunities, training, mentorship, etc.)
  • The organization stands for something meaningful
  • The work is intrinsically rewarding
  • There are no stupid rules

The authors note that: “several of the attributes run counter to traditional practices and ingrained habits. Others are, frankly, complicated and can be costly to implement. Some conflict with one another. Almost all require leaders to carefully balance competing interests and to rethink how they allocate their time and attention.” Nonetheless, they issue an invitation to leaders to consider how they might enact some of these virtues in their spheres of influence.

How might your team context and culture stack up against the principles noted above? What small steps might you take as a leader (either by position or influence) to contribute to a greater sense of well-being (and thus productivity, effectiveness, and creativity) in your team?


Carol Dweck has had an extraordinary career at Columbia, Harvard and now Stanford universities, and she has spent decades researching and exploring how we learn, develop and grow. She is fascinated by the perseverance of infants as they learn to talk and walk, despite the challenges and setbacks. She is also curious about why people stop challenging themselves and arrest their learning potential. She notes that contemporary brain research confirms that we each have much more capacity for lifelong learning and development than previously thought, and yet many people don’t continue to grow. What makes the difference?

Carol’s decades of work has been beautifully summarized in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006). Her research has shown that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life” (p.6). She describes two kinds of mindsets – fixed and growth. People with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities and attributes, such as intelligence and talents, are “carved in stone” and there is not much you can do about it other than you had better keep proving that you have these enough of these traits to not feel deficient. In a fixed mindset state people avoid challenges, given up or get defensive when faced with an obstacle, reject critique and feedback (too threatening) and may resent the success of others. Their reactions are not because they are ‘bad’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘resistant’ or ‘passive aggressive’ but because there is so much at stake in their sense of identity! Carol notes her own school experience where IQ scores were everything. Her 6th grade teacher organized the class by IQ scores and used this to determine who could be trusted with a task and who couldn’t. The message was you are either smart (and you better keep proving it), or you are stupid (and that is the end).

By contrast, a growth mindset “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial aptitudes, interests or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (p.7). She is not proposing that we all just have to apply ourselves and we can be and do anything we want. Rather, she is suggesting that “a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training” (p.7). Growth mindset individuals embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, value effort towards mastery, learn from critique and are inspired by and learn from others. Seems to me that Cindy Blackstock and Melanie Mark are growth mindset people.

One of my favourite excerpts from the book is this:

“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Dweck goes on to describe how we go from being that persistent, growth-oriented infant to having a fixed or growth mindset as we develop. She illustrates how this influences the running commentaries in our minds and how we judge our experiences and situations (remember the discoveries some of you will have made in The Work exercises and in the mindfulness practice). And in so doing, she challenges conventions and beliefs in parenting, education, hiring practices, coaching, supervision and leadership, and offers ideas and insights about how to cultivate a growth mindset, such that a “passion for learning” is encouraged. Here are a few ideas:

  • Pay attention to your own inner dialogues and whether they reflect judgments such as “I can’t do this” vs “I am not there yet”. Explore different messages you can give yourself that could inspire a growth orientation, e.g. “I am struggling, but I can figure this out in time. I have figured things out before” or “my job is to learn from critique – I am not flawed – just on the path to learn more.”
  • Exercise the brain through learning new things. This sounds simple, but the brain is more like a muscle and it develops and grows new connections and capacity through challenge and novelty.
  • Whether as a parent, coach or a supervisor, shift from recognition of intelligence, talent and achievement to recognition of effort, persistence, problem solving, collaboration, etc – whatever was applied by the person to achieve results. This is ‘process’ praise rather than ‘results’ praise.
  • If you have faced a setback such as not getting your dream job, notice your reaction (e.g. blaming such as “they are threatened by me” or self-judgment such as “I knew I wasn’t cut out for this” or shocked such as “I thought that I was the wonder-child around here” or resilient “well that is disappointing but I will try again”). Take a step back to think about your goal and what you can do to stay on track towards achieving it – e.g., “Who can I talk to to get feedback? How might I incorporate the feedback. What might I need to learn before the next try. What additional information do I need?”
  • As a leader, consider the questions, “What are the opportunities for learning and growth within my team today – for myself, for my team colleagues?” “How can I enact a plan for learning and growth?” For example, can you change the format of your team meetings so you discuss case or program challenges and help each other through them, or offer a short TED talk? Can you approach supervision differently?
  • Be mindful of fixed and growth mindset talk and behaviours and respectfully offer growth alternatives and challenges (to our family members, people we serve, colleagues, etc).

And a final example of why this matters now as we consider equality: Carol talks about how kids living in poverty, on reserves, or in vulnerable neighbourhoods are often assumed by educators and others that they will not perform well. However, her team’s mindset interventions have resulted in dramatic shifts. Schools creating a growth mindset culture have gone from the bottom of their district to the top in spans of 12-18 months. Children went from being discouraged by effort and difficulty to being encouraged when faced with situations requiring effort as they understood that their “neurons were firing and they were getting smarter” – effort makes a difference.

A brief 10-minute introduction to Carol’s work (and some of her results within the education system) is in this TED talk: Carol Dweck – The power of believing that you can improveYou can also check out her informative website.

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.

2020 Resources – TED Talks for Enhanced Understanding

Those of you who have participated in leadership 2020 know how much I am a fan of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks. If you are unfamiliar with TED, all you really need to know is that this is a platform, created by a non-profit organization, in which leading thinkers and activists are invited to give the best talk of their lives on something that matters to them and that could benefit the world, in 18 minutes or less (most are between 10 and 18 minutes). In addition to global TED conferences with prominent speakers, there are hundreds of independently run TEDx gatherings that have a similar intention. TED curates the best talks and presents them as TED talks. You can search for specific topics or follow recommended playlists. There are three things I particularly love about TED talks: I am introduced to interesting people and topics in a bite-size chunk of time; I learn from how people present ideas as well as what they present (e.g. through storytelling); I can view talks outside of my primary field of interest which stimulates my creative thinking (the value of obliquity).

Here are a few wonderful talks that might help to uncover, understand or further challenge our hidden biases and beliefs – more yoga for the mind!

Bryan Stevenson:
We Need to Talk About an Injustice

Bryan Stevenson is a public-interest lawyer who works with the poor, incarcerated and condemned in the United States. He’s the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (http://www.eji.org) and they have won legal challenges to eliminate excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerate innocent prisoners on death row, confront abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aid children who have been prosecuted as adults – throughout the US.

“In this engaging and personal talk — with cameo appearances from his grandmother and Rosa Parks — human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson shares some hard truths about America’s justice system, starting with a massive imbalance along racial lines: a third of the country’s black male population has been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These issues, which are wrapped up in America’s unexamined history, are rarely talked about with this level of candor, insight and persuasiveness.”

 Although the talk focuses on the US system – which is markedly different than the Canadian justice system – there are underlying themes that confront us in Canada. Most notable is the over-representation of Aboriginal people, the poor and people with mental illness and addictions in the justice system. This is a beautiful talk that can encourage empathy for those who are most marginalized in our communities

Verna Myers:
How To Overcome our Biases? Walk Boldly Towards Them

Vernā Myers is a diversity consultant and “recovering lawyer” and leads an organization that breaks down barriers of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation in workplaces. She is also the author of Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go from Well-Meaning to Well-Doing.

“Myers encourages us to recognize our own biases in order to actively combat them, emphasizing a “low guilt, high responsibility” philosophy. In her work she points to her own inner biases, because, as she says, ‘People relax when they know the diversity lady has her own issues.’”

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Part Two)

Last week I shared Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s premise that we all carry hidden biases (blindspots and mindbugs) resulting “from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality”. I suggested that – as self-aware leaders – it is important that we uncover and understand our biases. In this week’s issue we will look more closely at what the authors suggest we can do about our blindspots.

The authors suggest that, “effective methods for removing mindbugs that contribute to hidden biases have yet to be convincingly established” (p. 149). Nonetheless, we can ‘outsmart them’ even if eradication is challenging. Awareness alone does not change our thinking or behaviour – we have to get engaged and we have to stretch our thinking through counter-stereotyping experiences and images. For example, to counter the dominant negative images and stories that affect us every day, we can choose to search out and display contrasting images, e.g. a construction worker in hard hat breastfeeding her baby, to counter stereotypes related to gender and jobs; or highly esteemed and inspiring Indigenous leaders – elders, youth, women – to counter the images in the media and stored in our mind of Indigenous people as being victims; seniors joyfully engaged in physical activities or learning new things to challenge our ideas about aging and infirmity.

We also have to seek out contact and begin to get beyond the ideas we carry about ‘the other’ to building empathy for ‘the other’ through personal contact, as Tessa suggested in her feature article last week. The suggested TED talk by Verna Myers speaks to the idea of walking towards our biases without shame or guilt.

In Leadership 2020 we aim to build cultural agility – this means moving along a learning path from awareness to understanding (empathy) to agility and humility. I will come back to this in a future communiqué. This topic is particularly alive for me as I review the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released this week. This is an amazing time in our history. How will we show up to live into the promise of reconciliation? I believe that we can be more skillfull if we are open to being more self aware of the judgments that hold us back.

Reflective practice questions:

How will you ‘walk towards’ the judgments and biases that you are uncovering in 2016?
In what practical and concrete ways can you build relationships with members of groups that are less familiar to you?

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

This week’s suggested read is one of my favourite books of the past year. Blindspot – Hidden Biases of Good People (2013) was written by Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University and Anthony Greenwald of University of Washington to share their extensive research and learnings about “the hidden biases we all carry from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality” – and what we can do about them. I am going to review this book in two communiqués. This week, I will describe the premise of the book and the importance of understanding biases, and encourage you to take an online (free) Implicit Association Test to prepare for next week’s issue. Next week, I will look more closely at what the authors suggest we can do about our blindspots.

The authors developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which helps reveal stereotypes or ‘blindspots’ in our ways of thinking about and perceiving ‘the other’. Having completed a number of them myself I can attest to the positively disruptive experience – as I became more aware of my own biases (and there were some that shocked me) I felt better equipped to begin to realign my thinking and behaviour with my intentions (e.g., to be an open-minded and empathic person, to be more culturally agile).

As the authors describe, we are social beings that, by evolutionary necessity, have formed social groups, and have developed an array of ways of defining our groups and characterizing other groups. We are also ‘meaning makers’ – as information comes in, we sift and sort this information into categories in order to make sense of it. These categories include value assessments such as good/bad; trustworthy/not trustworthy; smart/stupid, etc. In fact, we bring this need to belong in a social group and the need to make meaning together by trying to figure out what the members of our social group think about things and how they attribute meaning. Indeed, “other minds matter to us enough that regions of neural real estate are uniquely engaged for the purpose of making social meaning” (p. 13). What this means is that we are heavily influenced by what we think others in our social group/cultural environments think.

Biases are comprised of “bits of knowledge about social groups…[that are] stored in our brains because we encounter them so frequently in our cultural environments…[They] can influence our behaviour towards members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence” (italics added, p. xiii). In other words, we think we know something about ourselves or others as truth/fact (e.g. “I am not racist”, “I embrace people who are different than me”), and yet our minds can (and do) operate at an unconscious level and we behave according to these hidden biases.

Banaji and Greenwald describe these as ‘social mindbugs’ that act unconsciously to influence our views and behaviour towards others. At their very worst, these mindbugs contribute to actions such as the murder of innocent people based on a perceived (internal) – but not actual – threat. But in the day-to-day, they operate in the construction of beliefs and judgments we make about others – the people we serve, the people we live with, and the people in our communities. “Understanding how mindbugs erode the coastline of rational thought, and ultimately the very possibility of a just society, requires understanding the mindbugs that are at the root of disparity between our inner minds and outward actions” (p. 20).

The authors speak about two minds – our reflective mind and our automatic mind. The reflective is our conscious mind and the one which drives what we say to the world (and ourselves), e.g. “I value and respect Aboriginal peoples”. The automatic mind however is “a stranger to us. We implicitly know something or feel a certain way, and often these thoughts and feelings are reflected in our actions too – the difference being that we can’t always explain these actions, and they are at times completely at odds with our conscious intentions…Our automatic preferences steer us towards less conscious decisions, but they are hard to explain because they remain impervious to the probes of conscious motivation” (p. 55).

However, we don’t need to be held captive by the automatic mind. If we can shed some light on the unconscious, implicit preferences and biases we hold, we can create a cognitive dissonance between our two minds and through this dislodge some of them. This is where the IAT comes into play.    

Practice opportunity: Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu and you can sign in as a guest or register and then will be given the opportunity to take a number of different tests. You’ll have a choice of seven tests as a Canadian (included are Weight, Age, Gender, Sexuality, Nation and Race IATs), but not before reading a disclaimer: “If you are unprepared to encounter interpretations that you might find objectionable, please do not proceed further.” This is an invitation into self awareness!

The Mission of Intergroup Relations

Contributed by Tessa Charlesworth (tet2113@columbia.edu)

In our sector, group divisions – between government and community agencies, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and organizations, as well as between “modern” and “traditional” experiences – have been, and continue to be, sources of misunderstandings and prejudice. Such attitudes ultimately result in compromised services for children, youth, and families in BC. As such, one of the missions of Leadership 2020 is to help bridge these pervasive divides.

The approach employed by L2020 is grounded in both current and historical research on intergroup relations, stretching back to Gordon Allport’s “On the Nature of Prejudice” (1954). In this pivotal publication, Allport delineated the conditions that give rise to intergroup prejudice and conflict, as well as the conditions that give rise to the reconciliation of conflict and reduction of prejudice through positive contact. He suggested that, in order for two groups to rebuild their relationships, they must experience contact (i.e. proximity and interaction), that is supported by (1) a common goal; (2) cooperative interdependence to achieve that goal; and (3) support from authority.

Contemporary research has largely confirmed the benefit of these conditions in reducing prejudice and promoting reconciliation (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Indeed, research has shown that positive contact with these satisfied conditions reduces prejudice by (1) increasing awareness and knowledge of the “other”; (2) increasing empathy towards the “other”; and (3) decreasing anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the “other”.

In considering such research, it becomes clear that L2020 offers a unique platform for group reconciliation. At the most basic level, the program provides an opportunity for dialogue and contact (via both online platforms and in-person at residencies) between groups that may be otherwise disconnected. To ensure positive contact, the L2020 program also fulfills Allport’s three aforementioned conditions.

First, the program sets a common goal to all participants – to revolutionize and repair the sector so as to provide the best services possible. Additionally, each participant is encouraged to set a personal leadership development goal. Although private, these individual goals become a “common” pursuit as each participant is aware of the other participants’ similar struggles and challenges. Second, the program stresses the need for cooperative interdependence in order to achieve both the common goal, and each individual goal. As one example, the webinar check-ins serve as a source of communal support and interdependence for each participant to share their successes and failures and receive guidance from other members. Furthermore, the unique design of the residencies – with multiple group problem-solving and brain-storming activities – models the cooperative interdependence required for the communal goal of sector change. Third, the program provides substantial institutional and authority support, not only from the design team and facilitators, but also from the government and agencies that encourage their team members to participate.

In this way, the program design aligns with the pursuit of positive intergroup contact and reconciliation. However, the program is also unique in stressing the mechanisms (knowledge, empathy, and anxiety-reduction) that help in reconciliation. Specifically, L2020 targets intergroup knowledge growth by having participants share their experiences and knowledge through stories, as well as by promoting deep conversations and clarifying questions between groups. In a similar way, L2020 increases intergroup empathy by targeting the “humanization” of the other through such stories and personal sharing (again, the webinar check-ins provide a unique resource for empathic responding). Through the propagation of such knowledge and empathy, the program also targets the reduction of uncertainty and anxiety by making the other group more familiar through consistent, positive interactions.

This brief exposé on the intergroup goals of Leadership 2020 has shown how the program is firmly grounded in historical and contemporary research, as well as in application and experience. More importantly, however, it has shown that the program has immense potential in resolving the pervasive intergroup prejudices that hamper our sector and compromise our practice.

For further reading:

Allport, Gordon (1954) On the Nature of Prejudice.

Pettigrew, T. & Tropp, L. (2006) A Meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Social and Personality Psychology, 90(5): 751-83.

Pittinsky, T. & Simon, S. (2007) Intergroup leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(6): 586-605.

Reflective questions: How might this information apply to your work with ‘groups’ that are struggling to work together, e.g. between teams, agencies, disciplines, etc? How might the notion that intergroup relations will be enhanced through having constructive contact (time together), shared goals, tasks requiring cooperation, and ‘top cover’ support and encouragement? What are some small probes/actions that you could take towards improving relations and practice between these groups, e.g. between your team and another team?

Note: If you are curious about the field of intergroup relations and prejudice, Tessa welcomes comments and questions and is happy to share research and references. You may reach her via email at tet2113@columbia.edu.