New research and tools for addressing implicit bias and leadership

brain-iStock_000004321955XSmallThe most effective leaders and healthiest organizational systems work skillfully and mindfully with the ever-present dynamics around power, rank and privilege. To help us all on the journey, the team at Racial Equity Tools has just released another wave of outstanding resources, this time from a growing body of work around implicit bias.  As they describe it:

Implicit bias is a concept based on an emerging body of cognitive and neural research. It identifies ways in which unconscious patterns people inevitably develop in their brains to organize information actually “affect individuals’ attitudes and actions, thus creating real-world implications, even though individuals may not even be aware that those biases exist within themselves.”

The research confirms what many have known or suspected – that years of exposure to structural and cultural racialization and privilege have embedded stereotypes and biases in our individual psyches and the broader culture.  And because of the link among cultural stereotypes and narratives, and systemic policies, practices and behaviors, implicit bias is one part of the system of inequity that serves to justify inequitable polices, practices and behaviors – part of the complex cycle people are trying to disrupt.

Current research on implicit bias offers at least two pieces of good news.  One is that individual neural associations can be changed through specific practices (debiasing).  And, if those biases can be changed at the individual level, by definition they can be changed at the societal level given sufficient will and investment. Work around debiasing can contribute to slowing down or stopping a rapid, almost automatic response, including in very stressful situations.  For those reasons, some practitioners are embedding work on implicit bias in training with law enforcement, teachers, health care providers and juries.  Early evidence indicates doing that can spark behavioral change, a very positive result. The other is that making people aware of the concept of implicit bias seems to open them up to discussions about structural racialization and privilege in new ways. This seems to be a particularly useful way of engaging with people reluctant to participate in those discussions.

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Art of Leadership for Women in Racial Justice taking applications

This is a powerful training and community… 5 days that can change your life.

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Facilitating an organizational vision: Guided Visualizations

Asian woman dreaming iStock_000015298832XSmallMany visioning processes begin with a guided visualization, where participants close their eyes and listen as they are guided by a facilitator through a series of images and questions. The key is to imagine we have arrived at a specified, fabulous point in the future – where all of our dreams have been realized. It is exactly the way we want it. It is about what we are for – not what we are against. And for most of us, our experience of being in this desired future reality is vivid and visceral. (Note: a few of us experience “visualizations” slightly differently – some of us don’t see pictures in our minds at all. Instead, we see words, or experience a set of sensations.) The experience of imagining that we have arrived at a point in the future – that we are there, right now – can unleash a whole new set of innovative, creative ideas. Click here for a list of 14 questions or elements to weave into your visualization script.

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20 Questions for scoping new facilitation gigs

So you’ve been hired to facilitate a strategic planning session for a new client group or team. You want to offer maximum value, and you definitely do NOT want to get blindsided by unexpected eruptions from the Board or staff, or by your own ignorance of their culture, context or decision-making protocols. How do you best begin scoping the project?

As with all facilitation, investing in solid preparation pays off in the form of a richer, better use of precious face-to-face time. I was recently doing a little technical coaching for another facilitator, as she got ready to shepherd a campaign strategy session with a first-time client. It got me thinking about the sorts of questions I typically ask at the beginning of a new project. Some of these questions would also be useful when doing a fuller assessment at the beginning of an organizational change initiative, although that would require more robust preparation. Meanwhile, here’s a list of things to consider even for facilitating a one-off meeting.

Big Picture

  • Purpose: Why now? What is the overarching purpose of this session?
  • Outcomes: What would “wild success” look like for this session, specifically? What specific outcomes might the team be hoping for?

Process Context

  • Timing: Where does this session fit contextually – is it part of a larger planning process? At the tail end of one? Are folks exhausted from planning? Excited and eager?
  • Experience: What planning frameworks and processes has this group done in the past? What about the styles and approaches of past facilitators?
  • Attitudes: What are the attitudes folks have toward planning in general? (Flakey? Waste of time? Exciting? Overdue?)
  • Energy: How much bandwidth do folks have for this process?
  • Conflict: How is conflict handled by the group, traditionally?

Decision-Making

  • Norms: How are decisions made in this group (Consensus? Majority voting? One decision-maker?) And who makes them – Board only? Executive and Management Team only? Everyone? Is it different for certain kinds of decisions?
  • Decision-makers: Does anyone NOT in the room need to be consulted before decisions are final? This is almost always the case for coalition meetings, for example.

Participation

Scoping out the participants can be tricky, but the more I can know about who’s going to be in the room – and who isn’t – the more I can tailor the agenda design to the group’s real needs. So I might ask:

  • Participants: Who’s going to be in the room in terms of:
    • rank and power
    • institutional knowledge/history
    • relationships and influence
    • skills, including strategic ability and experience
    • Is the Board included in the session? Staff? What about key consultants or partners? What about founding directors? Why or why not?
    • What about participants’ primary leadership styles? Do they tend to be focused on details? Great at generating ideas/innovative? Tend to highlight risks/downsides? Tend to highlight possible benefits/upsides? Comfortable or even drawn to conflict? Conflict-averse?
  • Influencers: And here’s a key one: who’s NOT going to be in the room that has influence on the dynamics or the outcome from the outside?

Preparation

  • Pre-work: How much pre-work can we do in terms of sharing information through prepared briefing notes or other materials? Examples might include:
    • Having group members prepare advance briefing notes to bring everyone up to speed on key topics in advance
    • Conducting interviews and/or on-line surveys
    • Conducting pre-session scoping meetings or focus groups with smaller numbers of the team?
    • Any other research or data-gathering that I or someone on the team might need to do to make the best use of our face to face time together
  • Orientation: What do I need to know about the group’s culture and ‘language’? For example, I once needed to develop a glossary of acronyms before being able to effectively work with one science-based land use coalition, in order to keep up with flipcharting and the direction of the content. With other groups I’ve needed to memorize the spelling and pronunciation of traditional First Nation names. With some, I’ve needed to avoid terms like “energy” (“atmosphere” might be OK) or business planning concepts like “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).

Logistics

  • Documentation: How will decisions be documented? This is key. If no one takes notes, or if the group relies only on my short-hand flipchart notes, there’s a risk that key decisions and ideas won’t be carried forward – rendering the whole exercise a waste of time. And note-taking is a critical skill – it requires being able to listen, type and sort for key ideas at the same time; it is a powerful role, not at all a ‘junior’ one as some mistakenly assume
  • Venue: What kind of physical space will we have? Natural light? Access to outdoors? Easy access to breakout spaces? Room to stand and spread out? Ample space for posting flipcharts?
  • Room set-up: What kind of restrictions might we have in terms of room set-up? For example, seating arrangements need to account for some participants joining in as ‘disembodied beings’ by speakerphone, skype, or videoconference. Seats might also need to be adjusted if everyone needs to be able to face a single wall to view a visual presentation.
  • Location: What about the location – is it easy to access by transit or bike? Is there access to outdoors with the option of doing any work outside?
  • Food and drinks: What about food and refreshments? I strongly advise having beverages (at least tea/coffee, herbal tea and plenty of water) at the outset of the session, and for every break – that way participants can refresh themselves throughout the day. I also advise that all break snacks include healthy, high fibre finger foods: nuts, fresh fruit, raw veggies, possibly cheese or yoghurt – with the addition of carby, sugary wheat-based things like muffins as an option. Usually it’s the other way around: all starch and sugar, which pretty well guarantees a group-wide sugar crash at about 2 pm
  • Timing: Are there fixed times for lunch or breaks? I generally try to schedule breaks every 90 minutes; is that an option? Do we need extra time prior to the meeting to set up the room or will that be done by the facility? Do we need to push the start time back due to any participants commuting in that morning?
  • Equipment: What kind of equipment will be provided? Typical equipment includes: at least one flipchart pad and stand; odor-free markers (some participants are sensitive); masking tape; various sizes and colours of Post-it notes; sticky dots for “dotmocracy” exercises; an LCD projector, table, and 3-pronged extension cords, along with various Mac laptop adapters for the projector. I always have my own portable equipment for local work, but often rely on clients to provide these items when I’m working out of town.

Do you have other questions you typically ask? War stories to share about the impact of NOT asking certain questions? I’d love to hear them!

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Facilitating an organizational vision: Collage

ImageSometimes words are not enough. Creative approaches such as collage can be incredibly powerful for developing compelling visions – starting with images. The words can follow. Leadership coach and facilitator Olive Dempsey offers a beautiful workshop on visioning using collage, or what she calls “visioning boards”. Sharon Livingstone, a brilliant focus group moderator based in New Hampshire, first taught me to use collage as a creative-association technique when I briefly studied with her several years ago.

The basic idea is this: provide stacks of different kinds of magazines, glue stick, scissors, and some sort of cardboard backing. Invite participants to thumb through and pick out any images that speak to them about an aspirational, fabulous future life – personal or professional or both. They may pick out words, or letters to make up words. You might add coloured pencils, watercolours, anything else to facilitate capturing a collection of images that convey a feeling AND specific outcomes or states of being. For organizational visions, this is fantastic to do in small groups or teams.

The trick to making this really work lies in the debrief afterward. Have each group present their completed collage. Ask: Why did those specific images speak to you? What’s surprising and new? What are the key themes or threads that may draw it all together? What do others see, outside of the group? What’s most resonant here for all of us?

Here’s a lovely example of several simple vision boards; these are focused on personal visions, but of course could equally apply to organizational visions.

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Countering the “Culture of Critique”: The “Yes, and….” exercise

man & woman struggle over mic iStock_000001361410XSmall“I can’t believe how hard this is!” exclaimed Vince. “It took all my self-control to not to say “yes, BUT!” The group of civil rights activists, many of them trained attorneys, laughed knowingly. Several had just the same experience. We were sitting in a sunny boardroom in Los Angeles yesterday, debriefing a short exercise we’d just run called “Yes, And…”. If you’re familiar with improvisational theatre or comedy, you’ll know that it’s a powerful training tool, while being highly entertaining in its own right. “Yes! And…” is also one of the most effective, simple exercises I know to help leaders and groups disrupt long-held habits of negative collective thinking in order to generate a more creative, innovative flow of ideas.

The Culture of Critique

Most of us working on social change are experts at criticism. This is particularly true for those of us with academic training, or whose work is focused on advocacy or legal strategies. Through our work as change agents, we learn to finely hone our abilities to rebutt, refuke, counter, critique, denounce and generally point out the shortcomings of other peoples’ ideas. We become so skilled, in fact, that many of our critical tendencies become habits – unconscious, almost knee-jerk reactions to the world around us. And those habits get expressed internally, interpersonally, within organizations and across entire movements. Together, they form what I call a “culture of critique”.

Is criticism necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. The critical, free-thinking minds and imaginations of human beings are among our greatest gifts. Those gifts make it possible to talk about risks, to fight oppression, to influence human systems and behaviours so that we are more just, equitable, collectively intelligent and compassionate.

Criticism has its place. The problem is when it becomes an unconscious habit. It becomes even more of a problem when that habit starts getting routinely expressed across entire cultures.

When critique gets in the way of social change

In fact, the more we aspire to working collaboratively across difference as leaders and movements, the more the “culture of critique” becomes a liability. And it can impede collaborative leadership in several ways:

  • Debate vs. dialogue: Instead of dialogue, we automatically veer toward debate. In conversation, we stop listening, often too soon. The energy becomes more focused on ‘who’s right’ than ‘how can we best move forward’.
  • Missing the full picture”: As Steven Covey says in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the best leaders “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. If we’re immersed in a “culture of critique”, our unconscious habit will be to counter before hearing, or understanding, the full story of another person’s perspective, missing out on important pieces of the whole truth. That means we also miss out on the full spectrum of potential opportunities to move past sticking points into new solutions.
  • Weaker relationships: In the contracted mental and emotional state of “critique”, our focus stayed narrowly confined to our own perspectives, and fails to account for the truths of others. We become less compassionate, less empathetic. The result? Weaker, less trusting partnerships with others.
  • Shutting down good ideas: When others experience critique, they more likely to shut down before their own ideas can fully blossom. Worse, people can become habituated to ‘playing it safe’. They become more likely to avoid sharing risky, innovative ideas that might get shot down as being ‘inappropriate’, ‘stupid’, or befall the idea-purgatory of ‘we already tried that.’

What’s more, all of these effects are compounded when those modeling a habit of criticism hold more institutional, positional, cultural or personal power.

Practicing the “Yes! And…” exercise

As facilitators and leaders, we know that both a desire to do things differently, and a commitment to practice, can help replace less helpful habits with new ones. One of the simplest, easiest exercises I know of as a facilitator is “Yes, And…”. It’s also a terrific energizer, as the results are often hilarious. At its heart, “Yes, And” is about fully accepting whatever someone else shares with you – and then building upon it. Here’s one approach to leading it:

  1. Form pairs. One person is the A, the other the B
  2. A starts by stating something about themselves or the other person… it can be anything at all. If it’s provocative, all the better.
  3. B responds with “Yes! And….”, adding to the statement
  4. A responds with “Yes! And…” and continues building on what B just said
  5. Run the exercise for 3-5 minutes, depending on the energy in the room
  6. Debrief as a large group

Watch out for any urge to counter your partner’s statement, either overtly or through sarcasm. Just keep building. Really, genuinely work with what you’re given!

Here’s an example my colleague Michael practiced with me this week. He was wicked, and we ended up laughing so hard we could barely breath. Here’s how it started:

Michael: So… I hear you’ve become a corporate weapons manufacturer! [I gasp inwardly]

Me: [gulping] Yes, and…. I’m really excited about the opportunity to become an internal agent for positive change in the industry!!

Michael: Yes, and… since I know it’s going to be challenging, I have some relaxation techniques I can recommend!

Me: Yes, and… I’m definitely looking forward to us using them together, since I know you’ve just been hired into the same weapons research division as me!”

Michael: [eyes widening] Yes! And….

And so on. Of course, it can be a lot more serious and “real” than that. The point is to practice disrupting the habit of critical thinking, and building up the habit of embracing and adding to others’ ideas, no matter how weird those ideas may feel.

Want to see a real-time example? Check out this improv theatre training video by Avish Parashar and Fred Gleek.

Applying “Yes! And…” over time

There are two keys to this being really effective in the long-run.

Debrief well: at least for the first time working with a group, make sure there’s enough time to really debrief what it’s like. Where was it hard? In what ways? Did it get easier? How did it feel? What did people notice?

Practice it often. “Yes! And..” is a short, useful energizer in it’s own right, especially during meetings after lunch or when group energy is low. It’s also extremely useful as a “drill” to use before, say, a strategy session, or any kind of collective brainstorm involving at least two people.

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Senior job posting: VP, Leadership Development, Banff Center for the Arts

ThBanff Center in Canada is “the worlds largest arts and creativity incubator on the planet”, and they are looking for a new VP of Leadership Development. Banff is definitely one of the world’s most spectacular mountain paradises in which to work,  play and learn …  Click here for more info.

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