Tag Archive for: weekly read

Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders

Simple Habits for Complex Times – Powerful Practices for Leaders (2015), by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston. Stanford Business Books: Stanford, CA.

“Damn!” is the first word in Simple Habits for Complex Times. And with this, we are ushered into the world of Yolanda, the CEO of a child welfare agency, and her team of dedicated and passionate social care staff, as they face yet another tragic outcome for a child in their care.

Yolanda’s journey towards ‘thinking anew’ is a narrative through which the authors describe and help us understand the VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) and how to navigate it in these uncharted waters. One of the first concepts they tackle is the human need/drive for predictability, structure, patterns and safety:

Our minds love categorizing and learning from the past in order to keep us safe into the future. And that has been great for us. Without this capacity to predict and determine risks, we’d just be a stunted branch on the evolutionary tree. We carry with us a kind of bell curve of possibilities, and depending on our background and knowledge…we are constantly making decisions about risk and reward. That internal judging system has done pretty well to protect and keep us for tens of thousands of years, but it is beginning to short out now. And one of the key ways our system misfires is as it considers the difference between the probable and the possible.” (p. 10)

If we look to the past to predict and order the future (probabilities), we constrain the array of options available to us (possibilities). This is great if we are facing a knowable future as we can be efficient with our decision-making time and resources. However, as we are in an increasingly VUCA world, the past can’t always help us predict the future—it is simply unknowable. Complexity then is about wrapping our mind around what is possible, rather than what is probable (based on past experience). 

This is easier said than done. Brain and behavioral research suggests our “general pattern is to prune and simplify” (p. 12). In the social care field, that translates into looking at what we know from prior experience, what the risks are, what outcomes we want, what directions we have received (from legislation to policies) and weighing it all to formulate a plan that will result in a specific outcome. 

However, there are so many variables that we can’t possibly know anything for sure. When faced with complexity, we have to intentionally nurture new ways of thinking and acting that stretch us into the realm of more possibilities… and this can be uncomfortable. Further, there is a dissonance between what we are often expected to do as leaders (predict, plan, direct, be in control) and the reality of the VUCA world. The authors suggest three ‘deceptively simple’ habits that can help grow more complexity of mind:

  1. Ask different questions
  2. Take multiple perspectives
  3. See systems

I am going to focus on asking different questions. This is a place that we can start working right now and it relates to my previous post on fixed and growth mindsets. Think of this as yoga for the mind. The first thing to be aware of is that not all questions are equal. We already know that it is helpful to be curious and ask questions. However, our sneaky brains want to generate questions that will lead us towards more familiar destinations and confirm our hypotheses so as to reduce discomfort and perceived risk. 

Because most leaders get stuck when they’re dealing with intractable problems, or with problems so murky that every answer leads both somewhere and also nowhere, they tend to find themselves…asking simple questions about solutions and next steps.” (p. 16)

We need to ask new and different questions that we don’t know the answers to. These are ‘mindset-shifting’ questions. Consider what mindset you are bringing into a particular situation: a mindset of scarcity or abundance, of threat or opportunity, of curiosity and openness or focus and action? It is not that these mindsets aren’t helpful, but that we benefit from stretching out into new mindset territories when dealing with complex situations.

For example, if you notice that your mindset and questions are focussed on threats and the need to make a quick decision and act, you may want to open up to explore different ways to understand and act in the face of the threat. Instead of “What needs to be fixed?” or “Who is at fault?” consider “What else could go wrong?” or “What would happen if I acted/didn’t act in this way?” Or you could ask questions about the opportunities we have in the face of the threat: “What is the very best move to make here?” or “If I had one bet, where would I place it?” To really stretch, you might shift from the narrow focus on the threat to a wider exploration of possibilities: “How could we take this tragedy and create a better future?” or “What are other ways of looking at this?” (see p. 17)

Sometimes (well, often) we have mindsets about the people that we are working with and for (e.g. he is disruptive, she is too challenging, they are unfocused, she is hard-working, he is creative, they are calm under pressure, etc). The authors suggest that we benefit from noticing these mindsets and then shifting them to consider: “What if this person wasn’t a problem for me to solve, but a key knowledge holder for me to understand?” and “What is it that this person knows about the situation that could shift or change my mind and how might I find this out?” (p. 65). In making this shift, we begin to think of new and different questions that help us connect with new knowledge, understanding and possibilities, and build relationships. “It’s not enough for everyone to hang out by their own particular truth pools: we need the largest shared pool possible. If you want to learn and you want the other person to learn, you can have a different kind of conversation, the kind in which you are each asking different questions” (p. 71) that gather data, feelings/reactions and impact.

In making this shift, we begin to think of new and different questions that help us connect with new knowledge, understanding and possibilities, and build relationships. “It’s not enough for everyone to hang out by their own particular truth pools: we need the largest shared pool possible. If you want to learn and you want the other person to learn, you can have a different kind of conversation, the kind in which you are each asking different questions” (p. 71) that gather data, feelings, reactions, and impact.

Asking new and different questions can also help us when we are evaluating the different possibilities for action. In the VUCA world, we need to get better at innovating. With that comes the likelihood of missteps, failure, and learning. In a predictable world, we would ask questions such as, “Did this work before?” But in the VUCA world, we need to create a safe-to-fail space so we ask questions that help us understand the risks and rewards (as we don’t want to be reckless), such as, “How might this fail and how bad would it be?” and “What could we learn from this whether successful or not?” (p. 154) and “What processes can we put in place to listen well to what is going on?” (p. 170).

Being open to failure and learning takes us to another set of new and different questions about ourselves, which relates to Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets that I spoke about in an earlier post. People with a growth mindset are more orientated to their own growth (and the growth of others) and are much better at learning and recovering from failure than people with a more fixed mindset. As such, they do better in the VUCA world. Like most leaders, they will ask themselves, “Who am I and what am I good at?” but they will go beyond this and ask, “Who have I been and who is the leader I want to be next?” (p. 177). 

These questions fuel a growth mindset that helps leaders become self-transforming “who handle complexity with the most grace because their openness to learning and to questioning their most fundamental assumptions gives them the largest set of possibilities… seeing new options where others are hopeless, finding areas of commonality where others see only opposition” (p. 182). Research also suggests that these are the people who can effectively lead organizational change. 

The good news is that by asking new and different questions we can nurture our own growth mindset and development, while also becoming more skillful leaders now and supporting the growth and development of the people that we work with. Given that we are in a VUCA world, that seems like a pretty good combination.

You may also want to check out…

The authors’ consulting website which includes a number of articles and blog posts that tested out the ideas in this book, as well as their research, podcasts and videos.

The article, Why Leaders Who Listen Achieve Breakthroughs by Elizabeth Doty. When we ask new and different questions, we have to be prepared to listen to whatever arises.

Nine self-care reminders for the over-committed activist

In her article, Nine self-care reminders for the over-committed activist, Vancouver-based Christine Boyle writes that: “the idea of self-care bubbles up every now and then in community and activist circles. It’s not an easy topic; often associated with self-indulgence, it can be seen as a luxury that can wait until after the next crisis. And yet, it continues to arise. Why?”

We include this article in our 2020 materials as we believe in the message: to focus on self-care is not a selfish practice to get to when all other important work is done; it is a leader’s discipline. In fact, it is a generative act. Sure it provides personal benefits, but it also has ripple effects on others including our families, clients, and colleagues. We are more able to serve as leaders when our head is clear, when our bodies are hydrated and nourished, when we feel connected and engaged, and when we are mindful and present. 

If you are interested in diving deeper into the topic of self compassion, two researchers/authors that are doing great work are Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. Kristin has a wonderful website complete with a self-assessment tool, her TEDx talk and other videos, guided mindfulness practices and resources. Christopher’s website is also very helpful with access to articles, excerpts from his books, guided meditations, and handouts from the Mindful Self Compassion training program. 

Both have also written very accessible and thoughtful books:

Kristin Neff (2011). Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.
Kristin Neff (2013). Self Compassion Step-by-Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (CD).
Christopher Germer (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself From Destructive Thoughts and Emotions.

Resources on Theory U

In the Leadership 2020 final residencies we work extensively with Theory U as both a framework for the final week’s design and as a method for change leadership. Our design and hosting team loves working with Theory U as participants both ‘see themselves’ within the model/method and discover a language and process that informs their work in the world. However, learning about and working with Theory U doesn’t need to wait until a formal residency.  It is learnable through self-study and practice, and applicable to the complex situations we frequently find ourselves in.

First some background: The ‘U Procedure’ or ‘U Process’ was first developed in the Netherlands in the late 60’s as a change management approach to address conflict and shift unproductive organizational behaviour. Otto Scharmer and his colleagues at MIT, The Society for Organizational Learning, and the Presencing Institute have been further developing the concepts as ‘Theory U’, for application in organizational, community and systemic contexts. They note that the deeper social, economic, ecological and spiritual challenges of our times cannot be addressed by either looking to the past for direction or by looking for simple solutions. Instead, this complexity work calls for “a new consciousness and a new collective leadership capacity to meet challenges in a more conscious, intentional, and strategic way.”

Theory U evolved after a deep and extensive inquiry into what effective leaders do when they successfully address complex challenges. Scharmer and his colleagues  discovered that “successful leadership depends on the quality of attention and intention that the leader brings to any situation. Two leaders in the same circumstances doing the same thing can bring about completely different outcomes, depending on the inner place from which each operates.” Theory U thus informs a way of being as well as offering a framework and method for change.

Central to this way of being is:

  • Shifting from reaction to inquiry and from acting alone to engaging with others
  • Cultivating the qualities of attention, observation, presence and deeper listening
  • Uncovering the voices of judgment, cynicism and fear that hold us back
  • Challenging these voices by cultivating an open mind, open heart and open will
  • Illuminating the blindspots that keep us stuck in old patterns (letting go)
  • Being willing to act in small ways to probe and test out ideas – and yes fail – in order to learn and evolve new solutions to complex issues.

A scenario might help to illuminate how Theory U can be applied. Let’s say that you and your colleagues are noticing that a growing number of youth in your community are engaging in high-risk behaviours and the community is becoming alarmed. Your agency is getting pressured to respond in some way – and quickly! Now what? When we are faced with such pressure, our response is often to act from what we currently know and do, for example, look to an existing program to address the concern, or seek funds to implement a known crisis intervention. While there might be value in these responses, Theory U encourages a deeper level of inquiry and understanding.

The first ‘movement in Theory U calls for ‘co-initiating’ – inviting and engaging with others who share similar concerns and interests in order to develop a shared purpose or intention, such as better supporting youth in the community, or stemming the high risk behaviours. At this point in the process, the voice of judgment often arises, in which we explicitly or implicitly look for and judge the circumstances or people that we believe might be causing or contributing to the problem. This sounds like, “Government cut our program and this is why there is a crisis” of “If the (agency, school, parents, etc.) paid attention, it wouldn’t have come to this”. The voice of judgment clouds our capacity to see what is going on beyond the obvious and narrows our views of what is possible – not a great way to begin approaching a complex situation. The antidote to the voice of judgment is an open mind as curiosity and judgment cannot co-exist. The open mind allows us to ask, with others, “What is going on here?” and “What do we need to learn in order to make sense of the situation?”

An open mind prepares us to engage in the second movement in Theory U – ‘co-sensing’ – in which those involved inquire and learn, to discover new information about the phenomenon, from multiple perspectives. The Presencing Institute website noted below offers an array of tools and practices that support this. I have assisted a wide array of organizations to engage in co-sensing processes – from small non-profits, to BC Women’s Hospital – and the results have always been illuminating and inspiring for the participants and frequently shift the course of action taken. 

As we go deeper into the ‘U’, we come up against another insidious voice – the voice of cynicism. This sounds like, “We tried this before and it won’t work” and “No one will support us, they won’t get it”. The antidote to the voice of cynicism is an open heart. This enables us to be available to the learning journey and discoveries, and to receive the gifts of diverse perspectives and offerings. From this openness we will receive insights or offers that we might have never conceived of, as we widen the circle of inquiry and engagement. At this point in the U process you may also hear the ‘realist argument’, which sounds like, “I am not being a cynic, I am just a realist – we haven’t got support before so we won’t get support now” or “How is it going to help us to talk to all these people? They don’t really know what is going on and we have to act now!” However, by cultivating an open mind and heart we can suspend judgment and cynicism and ask, “Is this true?” and “What can I understand about what holds people back?” and “What/who else is out there?” and “Who can help here?” Returning to our scenario, you might learn from all sorts of people that have not traditionally been involved in youth work, but who nonetheless have something to offer such as a unique perspective, assistance, support, critique, etc.

At the bottom of the U is the third movement – presencing. At this point, stillness is required. Rather than rushing straight from information to action, there is value in tapping into ‘the pause’ that we often talk about in 2020, so that our minds can be present with and available to what has been discovered. We can sift and sort, find patterns, discover dissonance and perhaps gain a more nuanced or broader understanding of what is going on. Sometimes in our field, even with the most complex and urgent issues, there is great value in “slowing down in order to go fast”. 

Another voice that often emerges as we approach this deeper level of understanding of the need to act is the voice of fear. This sounds like, “I/we don’t know how to do this and I/we might fail” and “If we fail, we will look foolish/incompetent/cause harm/waste resources” and “I/we will lose” and “Something terrible will happen here.” As you can no doubt appreciate from your own experience, fear is very incapacitating.  This is because our ‘survival brain’ is activated and the executive functions associated with our neo-cortex (our thinking brain) are hijacked. Instead of being able to see an array of possibilities for response, our repertoire is limited to fight, flight, freeze, or appease. The antidote to fear is easier said than done – open will. There is a quality of self compassion and empathy for self and others associated with an open will and it can sound like, “I/we might fail, but I am not a failure and I will figure it out” and “This is really important work and it matters to me/us so it is worth it to try”. In this way, we let go of our judgment, cynicism and fear and become more open to possibilities  

At this point of the U process we are ready to act – and act with intensity. This is a time for co-creating probes and protoyping – for trying out a number of ideas to see what difference can be made and what else can be learned. There will still be judgment, cynicism and fear lurking about, but the qualities of openness that have been cultivated and the joy of enacting things that have been co-informed and co-created can help to keep the voices at bay.  I will share more about probes and prototyping in a future communiqué but know that if we are going to address complex issues we will not ‘get it right’ the first time – or the second, third of fourth!  However, as we try, and fail, and discover, in small and low risk/low resource ways, we can learn and develop the ideas until such time as we are ready for the final movement of co-evolving. This is when we enact the new, well-informed and tested response to the complex concerns we identified at the beginning of the process.

Here is a visual that shows the five movements, three voices and three ‘antidotes’ to the voices:


For further reading:

Presencing Institute: Otto Scharmer and colleagues host a wonderful array of resources on their Presencing Institute website. Here is an overview of Theory U, and here are some tools for practice (especially in the co-sensing movement).

Margaret Wheatley: Turning to One Another

From Margaret Wheatley, Turning to One Another, 2009

In working with many people in very different cultures, I’ve learned to define leadership differently than most. A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation. It might be a parent who intervenes in her child’s school; or a rural village that works to get clean water; or a worker who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in his workplace; or a citizen who rallies her neighbours to stop local polluters. Everywhere in the world, no matter the economic or social circumstances, people step forward to try and make a small difference.

Because a leader is anyone willing to help, we can celebrate the fact that the world is abundantly rich in leaders. Some people ask, “Where have all the leaders gone?” But if we worry that there’s a shortage of leaders, we’re just looking in the wrong place, usually at the top of some hierarchy. Instead, we need to look around us, to look locally. And we need to look at ourselves. When have we moved into action for an issue or concern that we cared about? When have we stepped forward to help and thereby become a leader?

The process that creates change in the world is quite straightforward. We notice something that needs to be changed. We keep noticing it. The problem keeps getting our attention, even though most people don’t notice that there’s even a problem. We start to act, we try something. If that doesn’t work, we try a different approach. We learn as we go…

The Reason You Walk, Wab Kinew (2015)

Wabanakwut Kinew is an Anishinaabe pipe carrier and member of the Mediwin, hip hop musician, CBC broadcaster, author, TRC honorary witness, and University of Winnipeg’s associate vice president of Indigenous Relations. Raised on the Onigaming First Nation in Ontario and in Winnipeg, he is the son of respected traditional chief and elder Tobasonakwut Kinew (also known as Peter Kelly) and Kathy Avery Kinew.

The Reason You Walk is a memoir of father-son reconciliation in the final year of Tobasonakwut’s life after receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Wab’s father was removed from his family at the age of 5 and was ‘raised’ in a residential school. The legacy of this experience coloured his entire life including his resilient drive for education (he obtained a PhD), activism and leadership, as well as the challenges he faced as a father and partner.

In the telling of the year of discovery, learning and reconciliation, Wab shares rich descriptions of both his father’s and his own experiences growing up and provides the reader with a very personal account of the legacy of residential schools as well as the power of the human spirit, reconciliation and forgiveness. His descriptions of ceremony and community, such as the Sundance Circle, are both vivid and illuminating (here is an excerpt on the Sundance Circle).

Here are a few of my favourite excerpts with some passages italicized for emphasis. Indigenous ways of knowing and the power of imagery and story shines through:

“Many people ask what the pipe is for, and some ask what we smoke in it. We fill it with tobacco, only tobacco. The pipe is a model of reconciliation. The bowl is feminine. It is of the earth, and it receives the stem. The stem is masculine. It is placed into the bowl, but also grows from the earth. Each has an integrity on its own. When we place the bowl and stem together, the two elements form a new unified entity, which is stronger than each on its own. This is how we might think of reconciliation – two disparate elements coming together to create something more powerful” (pp. 129-130).

“There are four layers of meaning to these words [the reason you walk]. They are from the perspective of the Creator, as though God himself were singing to you. The first meaning of ‘I am the reason you walk’ is ‘I have created you and therefore you walk.’ The second meaning is ‘I am your motivation.’ The third meaning is ‘I am the spark inside you called love, which animates you and allows you to live by the Anishanaabe values of kiizhewaatiziwin’ [the power of love, kindness, sharing and respect]. The fourth and final meaning is ‘I am the destination at the end of your life that you are walking toward’” (p. 132).

Reconciliation is not something realized on a grand level, something that happens when a prime minister and a national chief shake hands. It takes place at a much more individual level. Reconciliation is realized when two people come together and understand that what they share unites them and what is different about them needs to be respected. Reconciliation happens when the archbishop and the sundancer become brothers” (p. 211 – in speaking about the adoption ceremony that Wab’s father arranged with archbishop James Weisgerber).

“The underling message of my father’s life, and especially his final year, is one that wise women and men have known for millennia: when we are wronged it is better to respond with love, courage and grace than with anger, bitterness and rage. We are made whole by living up to the best part of human nature – the part willing to forgive the aggressor, the part that never loses sight of the humanity of those on the other side of the relationship, and the part that embraces the person with whom we have every right to be angry and accepts him as a brother or sister” (p. 265)

“This is not to say we should always forgive immediately, or ignore demands for justice. The anger of previous generations of Indigenous people won some of the most basic freedoms my generation now takes as a given…Challenges remain…As a result of colonization, many Indigenous peoples have been prevented from contributing fully to our globalized society. Consequently, the Indigenous cultures practiced by those peoples have not been able to share their strength, wisdom, and beauty with the rest of the world [yet] many solutions to the [complex] challenges of our time can be found in Indigenous culture” (pp. 265-266).


In Praise of the Incomplete Leader

In Praise of the Incomplete Leader
By Deborah Ancona, Thomas Malone, Wanda Orlikowski & Peter Senge
Harvard Business Review, February 2007. Can be downloaded at HBR.

The authors of this exceptional article (all teachers and researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Leadership) have decades of experience working in diverse organizational contexts and declare, “It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader: the person at the top who’s got it all figured out.” They go on to say, “Most leaders experience a profound dichotomy every day, and it’s a heavy burden.”

They are referring to that awareness we carry that we actually don’t know what to do or what is right – that is in tension with the belief that we should know what to do. In these times of increasing complexity many of us continue to hang on to the myth that we must figure things out and know what to do – but this is neither possible nor sustainable. They note that, “incomplete leaders differ from incompetent leaders in that they understand what they are good at and what they’re not and have good judgment about how they can work with others to build on their strengths and offset their limitations.”

What I appreciate about this article is that it doesn’t just urge us to let go of the myth (how easy is that anyway!) but provides us with a framework that we can apply as an antidote to the myth. Their model of ‘distributed leadership’ integrates their research with many contemporary thinkers in the field and reveals four capabilities that effective leaders are attuned to. Leaders do not need to personally embody all four (this is extremely rare) but do benefit from nurturing the capabilities within their team and network:

  • Sensemaking = Entails ‘mapping out’ and making sense of the contexts and complexities within which we are operating, including sensing from different perspectives or vantage points and uncovering patterns.
  • Relating = Here the authors borrow ideas from Chris Argyris and Don Schon (who encouraged reflective practice work and learning through doing that many of you will know about). They suggest that it is vital to establish strong relating capacities within an organization or team, through inquiring, advocating and connecting. Inquiring is about suspending judgment and listening openly to genuinely understand the perspective of the other. Advocating entails being able to convey one’s own perspective clearly. While relating is about holding the 2 in balance – being able to listen to deeply understand as well as convey one’s own values, vision, etc.
  • Visioning = While the above two capabilities set the conditions for understanding what is called for and how to motivate and connect, visioning and inventing are more creative and action oriented. They “produce the focus and energy needed to make change happen.” Visioning is about “creating compelling images of the future…and produces a map of what could be.” It is not a static vision but one that unfolds in a “dynamic and collaborative” way with others in the team or organization.
  • Inventing = This is about finding new ways of doing things together to achieve the desired vision or state. They note that creating doesn’t have to be about large scale change: it can be about how tasks are distributed, or how meetings are conducted, or how information is shared. You might ask, ‘What are the creative ways in which the work can get done that is in service of our shared vision?’

“These capabilities span the intellectual and personal, the rational and intuitive, and the conceptual and creative capacities required in today’s environment.” In the article, the authors offer 4-5 concrete ideas for bringing to life each capability, as well as a framework to enable you to assess where you are with each. This could be used by a team to check in on the collective capacity of the group to support each other in working with the complexity and burdens of the work.


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.

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.

One Native Life by Richard Wagamese

Gina Robertson from Victoria Native Friendship Centre and Indigenous Focus Cohort 1 introduced me to the work of Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway from the Wabaseemoong First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. Gina shared that she had gifted dozens copies of his first novel, Keeper ‘N Me (1994), to Aboriginal men who were incarcerated and trying to make sense of their experience. The book had a transformative effect on many of them. Since then, I have become a devoted Wagamese reader, and have been changed through the discovery of his work. As an author and journalist, he has created an impressive body of work including fiction, non-fiction, poetry and memoir. He is also a person that has been deeply affected by the legacy of residential schools – his survivor parents struggled to parent; he and his siblings were removed, separated and placed in many different foster homes; he was adopted into a white home that was unable to provide the support and care that he needed; and his life was very precarious for many years. However his love of language and great talent as a writer and storyteller sustained him as he rediscovered his Ojibway nature.  

His book, Indian Horse (2012), was the People’s Choice winner in CBC’s Canada Reads 2013. It is a story that sheds light on the “alienating effects of cultural displacement.” I think that it should be required reading for anyone training to work in our field. “Saul Indian Horse is a hockey phenomenon. But he is also victim to the legacy of Canada’s residential schools. This story is about Saul’s reclamation of himself after years of hard drinking and the need for all of us to hear all of our own story if we are to heal. At times, harrowing, brutal and sad but infused with the glory of a game, the light of redemption and forgiveness”

As wonderful as these books are, the one that I am drawn to these days – as I try and understand how to ‘live into reconciliation’ – is his collection of essays, One Native Life (2008). He tells stories about the things he has experienced and learned during his life. I can’t begin to do justice to the breadth of his essays and urge you to read them yourself, however, here are a few excerpts that I think are pertinent to the work of building/rebuilding respect, trust, safety and reconciliation through learning more about ‘the other’ and their stories, experiences and perspectives (italics mine):

On language, cultural connection and permanency:

“I was twenty-four when the first Ojibway word rolled off my tongue. It felt round and rolling, not like the spiky sound of English with all its hard-edged consonants. When I spoke that word aloud, I felt as if I had truly spoken for the first time in my life.

“That first word opened the door to my culture. When I spoke it I stepped over the threshold into a new way of understanding myself and my place in the world. Until then I had been like a guest in my own life, standing around waiting for someone to explain things to me. That one word made me an inhabitant.

“It was peendigaen. Come in. Peendigaen, spoken with and outstretched hand and a rolling of the wrist. A beckoning. Come in. Welcome. This is where you belong….The feeling of Ojibway in my throat was permanence. I stood on unknown territory whose sweep was compelling. Peendigaen. Come in. With that one word, I walked fully into the world of my people” (pp. 137-138).

On working towards justice through communication and understanding:

In reflecting on his first reading of Saul Alinsky’s seminal book, Rules for Radicals, Wagamese says, “His book contained less than what its title suggested, and at first I was disappointed. Then I read it over again and I started to understand that radicalism isn’t necessarily the mechanics of anger. Instead it is the need of the people to invoke justice in a system through a certain generosity of spirit. It is, as Alinsky suggested, a process of communication (p. 220).

On the value of being present for each other and through our differences:

“It is not necessary to bridge gaps between communities. Bridges rust and collapse. If, as a people, we work earnestly to fill those gaps with information, filling it in layer by layer with our truth, the gaps eventually cease to exist” (p. 221).

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?