Keep Your Team Mindfully Centered – Just Breathe

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When the going gets tough, teams often forget Benjamin Franklin’s advice on collaboration: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” In business as in revolution, that advice is as sound as any – yet not always followed. A study from the American Psychological Association formally concluded about team failure something most leaders have known, “It’s because stress brings on a loss of team perspective – the sense of “we-ness” that helps team members connect and coordinate to get the job done.”

The increasing pace of change, increasing ambient stress, and demands of business and life are reasons “mindfulness” has become so popular. Magazines like Forbes and HBR now regularly post articles on meditation and mindfulness practices. Mindfulness resources are increasingly found in the workplace through benefits and on-site classes. And, as with all new things, there’s healthy debate about what it is and who it’s for, as read in Amy Jen Su’s article “If Mindfulness Makes you Uncomfortable, It’s Working.” If you’re one still wondering about if it’s a religion or cult or otherwise just weird, read Seth Gillihan’s mindfulness myth-buster in Psychology Today.


So, how does mindfulness contribute to that sense of “we-ness” that fails under stress?


We have written about the mindfulness benefits for teams that share an eating practice and fitnesspractice. But articles on “Centering” practices like Fast Company’s “The Business Case for Meditation” almost always show a picture of one centered person seated amidst the chaos. Since work and life happens mostly in teams, here are two of our five mindfully centered practices for teams.


Intention Setting – Not Just for Buddhists Anymore

Setting intentions is increasingly a means to realize how you want to live or the impact you want to have. It’s an essential aspect of Buddhism and yoga and expands on goal setting to include a sense of why and the greater value. But anyone can set an intention for a day, a meeting, a debate, or sharing feedback. In his book, “The Buddha Walks Into The Office,” Lodro Rinzler gives a simple example, “My intention is to be a bit more patient with my co-workers.” Intentions can be of deep resolve and they can be of simple steps – for individuals and teams.


Intentions can be of deep resolve and they can be of simple steps – for individuals and teams


Setting intentions can also be a powerfully guiding group effort. Mindfully centered teams don’t have meetings where people ask, “Why are we here?” Starting a meeting with a stated intention provides focus and makes plain the intent behind the goal. When a person sharing feedback states their intention in sharing it, it can open the ears of the receiver. Simpler than Mission, Purpose, Vision or Values, a consistent intention-setting practice can optimize a team’s efficiency and effectiveness on a daily basis.


Breathing – calming, energizing, balancing


We breath every day – and on more stressful days we breath with shallow, rapid breathe and with deep sighs to catch up. Angela Wilson outlines the physiology of pranayama (breathing) and how breathing drives the body’s nervous system. Mindfully centered teams prompt each other to breath intentionally during the day to calm when stressed, energize when down and balance when off center. These three techniques work well, in our experience:

The three-part yogic breath is a simple practice that grounds attention at the base and expands to fill both body and mind. The three-part breath fills the lungs to capacity – something people just don’t do. We teach it as a brief group exercise suitable to begin any meeting.

Bhastrika Pranayama, or “bellows breath” is energizing practice that opens the flow of internal energy upward and stimulates the body in many ways. Bhastrika is especially valuable during the challenging hours of mid-afternoon, and when following a sub-energizing lunch.

Alternate nostril breathing, or “Nadi Sodhana” is a near silent technique of alternating breaths between the nostrils. Nadi Sodhana creates a greater sense of physical and mental balance – particularly useful after a brisk debate or difficult decision.

While it might seem odd for a group of people in a room or conference call to take a 2 minute breathing break, groups that adopt the practice are stunned at the effect and at the subtle increase in positive team dynamic that builds over time.

APP offers personal and group training in these practice areas as well as on-going support and coaching. Click here for free tools!

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How Mindful is Your Diversity Strategy – Intentions Today and Tomorrow

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A journey of D&I, like a journey of mindfulness, will have bumps, twists, turns, jams, collisions, and detours. It will also have clear paths, beautiful scenery, good company, and destination arrivals. We take the challenge with the opportunity because the benefits outweigh the costs – individually and collectively. A question for all of us is, what are our intentions for it?

2017 has been an amazing (in every way) year for D&I, particularly (but not exclusively) in the U.S. We had the painfully overt – racist gestures in baseball’s World Series, protests and violence around historic monuments, sexual power trips in entertainment and politics, and the tech industry’s diversity civil wars, to name a few. And we’ve had the surprisingly controversial – including Apple’s VP of Inclusion and Diversity, Denise Young Smith, finding herself apologizing for referring to the diversity of “12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room” as diversity of experience or Deloitte’s decision to abandon employee resource groups in favor of inclusion councils – debated as being either good for inclusion or bad for diversity. So, if we weren’t struggling enough with D&I, we are now also struggling simply to keep D with I. It’s been a tough year.

So, if we weren’t struggling enough with D&I, we are now struggling simply to keep D with I. It’s been a tough year.

As we’ve written so far, the benefits of mindfulness may be helpful to inform diversity strategy and practices through increased awareness, attention, non judgment and compassion. In this last article, we discuss an often-overlooked mindfulness practice that can make a significant impact in the tactics of today and the strategy of tomorrow – – intention setting.

What’s Your Intention?

One of the challenges to mindfulness and to D&I is that we are directed by increasingly smart media to pay attention to voices that reinforce our beliefs, which include our biases, conscious and unconscious. This isn’t surprising – we read books and watch movies we like, hang with people we like, and, as people, strive to believe what we like, or at least believe what helps us quickly make sense a world of infinite and often conflicting input. When we are considering the time, effort, and expense of D&I in the workplace, we do well to begin by deciding our intention for this investment – and our response to potential resistance and conflict. Intentions are more than goals – they reflect the “why” as well as the what, by when or how, etc. Intentions can be many things, but for D&I let’s think of them as organizational, decisional, and individual.

Organizational Intention

Intentions are how Mission and Values translate into organizational strategy. Most large organizations say they have a D&I strategy to gain “competitive advantage” with customers, talent pools, product innovation, or other similar reasons. Given the general lack of progress in D&I, one could conclude that most organizations are either strategically inept or that they engage in D&I activities simply because they feel they have to. It doesn’t have to be this way. Organizational intentions around D&I can be powerful statements of “who we are / intend to be” and, critically, why.

For D&I, an organizational intention might be “We intend to increase the diversity and inclusion of minorities and women in senior leadership because it improves our decision-making through more diverse and relevant experiences reflecting our evolving customer base.” Long? Yes… but the “because” is what counts. The because is why we do this and gives us something (and reason) to measure the effectiveness of our efforts. The why unapologetically makes the business case that relates to and embraces everyone – not just minorities and women.

The why unapologetically makes the business case that relates to and embraces everyone – not just minorities and women.

Decisional Intention

Decisional intentions happen when an important decision needs to be made. They can be matters where ethics and values are at stake like a product recall or firing an otherwise productive but damaging leader, or they can inform a difficult decision that doesn’t seem to have any good options. A decisional intention is a statement about the outcomes we intend and why we intend them. A decisional intention also facilitates fuller awareness of possible unintended outcomes and assessment of the risk. When intention setting becomes a team or leader practice, it becomes natural to pause and take the moment to return to the ‘why’ this decision is important and what is or is not at stake, rather than let the urgency or emotion of the moment make the call

For D&I, a decisional intention may be in making decisions related to hiring, assignment, development of staff, or in gathering input from unusual sources, or in questioning established assumptions – about anything. Decisional intentions aren’t made to “check the box” or created as an afterthought but are made before the decision is concluded with the intention to inform it. For example, the intention in hiring should always be to “hire the best person” (#HireWhoIWant). The decisional intention behind that, however, is to actively and collectively decide what “the best” means for this role, in context of other roles, in this company, at this time.

Individual Intention

Like organizational and decisional intentions, individual intentions can have deep and lasting impact. But, unlike organizational or decisional intentions, individual intentions are not often expressed and research shows that people are generally pretty bad at correctly inferring another’s intentions. In thirty years of HR work, I have too many times heard (and sometimes found myself saying), “That’s not what I intended.” The challenge is that, when it comes to intentions, we are sometimes unclear or and sometimes not proud of our own and so don’t share them – or we assume our clear and authentic good intent is understood by others. In my experience, the favorite team rule “Assume good intent,” is one that comes up when it’s already too late to hope it will be followed.

research shows that people are generally pretty bad at correctly inferring another’s intentions

In D&I, individual intention setting can be a valuable practice to introduce when discussing “micro-aggressions” – those unintentional insults or slights that come from unconscious biases or common cultural norms. Too often in D&I programs, people will think or say, “I better not say anything to anyone,” either out of genuine concern or just resisting a concept. Intention setting helps people get away from the trap of “I don’t want to do that…” to the outcome of “I want to do this.” The practice of setting intentions can help people clarify their intentions for themselves, which enables economy of word and deed. Exploring the role of setting and stating intentions, particularly when in doubt, can reduce the uncertainty that reduces team performance and conflict.

the favorite team rule “Assume good intent,” is one that comes up when it’s already too late to hope it will be followed.

As unsurprising as it is, it still surprises us that anyone would not understand our unspoken intention or that our own assumptions would confuse us about the intentions of others. By setting and sharing our own and proactively asking others to clarify their own, we increase our potential to gain the benefits of diversity and inclusion at work. Of course good intentions don’t outweigh low performance, but while you can improve low competence, you generally can’t improve bad intent.

Series Summary – How Mindful Is Your Diversity Strategy?

In 2016, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” stating that companies that focus on positive efforts rather than control efforts are more successful. They wrote that programs that spark engagement, increase interaction, and appeal to people’s desire to “look good” are most effective. They make a key point that controlling for bias at the organizational level doesn’t work.

It’s hard to disagree with their research and conclusions as to what isn’t working. We submit, however, that since biases and behaviors begin internally and personally, so too must their anecdotes. Increasing people’s abilities for greater awareness, focused attention, suspending emotional judgment, and for greater compassion for self and others may have a transforming effect on the effectiveness of D&I strategy.

Is this the time for Mindfulness 1.0 in the workplace? It is all the rage – but by itself it has the potential to be another passing fad. But perhaps it may inform and contribute to D&I 2.0, as well? If we intend different outcomes from what we have seen so far, it seems we do something different from what we’ve kept on doing.

If not, you know what they say about insanity…

My sincere thanks to my many sources for these articles, in particular to Jeena Cho, Rhonda V. Magee, Kristen A. Pressner, and Marjorie Derven.

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Take Your Corners – the Fight Over “Privilege”

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Despite the stereotype of mindfulness as meditators alone on literal or imagined mountains, the practices contribute to a common connectivity that reduces barriers rather than building them. For D&I, mindfulness can contribute to the ultimate affinity group – people. Building on our discussion of mindfulness strategy, awareness, attention, and D&I, we explore a particular and often difficult concept – privilege.

Non Judgment, Compassion, and Privilege – at Work

Candid discussions of discrimination, unconscious bias, profiling, and entitlement often create tension, if not anger, withdrawal, or resistance in the course of D&I training or discussions (or anywhere else, for that matter). However, there’s plenty enough data and increasing examples and awareness of these facts that paying attention to them – and discussing them – becomes easier to do. The never-cooling-potato, however, is the concept of “privilege” and the difficulty it has and continues to have in the workplace.

Up front – while we can’t separate the workplace from society, I’m focusing on the use of the concept in workplace training. That said, a little mindfulness might go a long way in the public discussion. I could say privilege is hotly debated, but it is more accurate to say it is passionately defended or intensely rejected in monologues and opinion articles. I haven’t found anyone actually debating it because there’s little willingness to talk to each other – but that’s another article.

For this article, I’ve interviewed a diverse group of people with widely ranging views on privilege. Even the most ardent advocates, some white, some male, acknowledge that acceptance by those with privilege is hard-won and getting harder to win. Some of the most ardent opponents, not all white or male, think it could be real but it could also be a PC-conspiracy that threatens equal opportunity or disparages women or minorities. (Note: no AntiFa or NeoNazis were interviewed for this article). And some felt it very personally. One told me about her stunningly difficult conversation with her husband about privilege – he simply didn’t buy it and seemed annoyed that she did. In my discussions, some suggested I avoid the topic because I’m a white male, while others encouraged me to write for the same reason. So here we go…

Privilege – Simple Terms

“Privilege” means possessing rights, benefits and advantages that are enjoyed by people with certain characteristics beyond the advantages of other individuals without those characteristics. While it’s often discussed in the context of “white privilege,” it’s also discussed in contexts of any one or combination of able-bodied, heterosexual, male, Christian, owning, middle-aged, and English-speakers. And it’s cumulative – making me as one of the most privileged people I know.

What’s Not Working, Why

While intended (in D&I training) to create and expand awareness, the use of privilege as a vehicle to open discussions and increase understanding has had, at best, mixed results. It has not translated into business language and doesn’t seem to be changing the hearts or minds of the target audience. Perhaps it’s due to the perceived or real social or political positions or intentions associated with its use. Perhaps in part to the chilling or aggressive way it has been sometimes used. “Check your privilege!” may be intended to stimulate another’s self-reflection, but, ironically, without context it can be heard as belittling whatever the privileged person was saying because of who they are, not what they said. The irony, of course, is that this behavior and reaction are simply the power roles role-reversed – and equally hard to retort or debate.

Another reason many are challenged by privilege is that people with it are generally borne to it and can’t “do anything” about it. Privileges, by definition, are unearned and are granted them whether the person wants them or not. When asked in one session I attended years ago what we were to “do” with our hard-won awareness of our unearned privileges, the instructor replied, “Just be aware of it.” Unfortunately, once someone is aware of their privilege, without a meaningful context of positive action, the result tends toward guilt and resentment, which often translates into denial and avoidance. If we add to this the concept that anyone with privilege is an agent of institutional oppression, as is taught in some university courses, we exponentially ramp up their denial and avoidance, because, frankly, who comes to work to be told that? And what in their normal workday could they do about it?


Another, perhaps larger, reason privilege isn’t working as a concept is that holding privileges is, for most, as unconscious as holding biases. As we wrote in Awareness, people typically accept what they recognize from their own experience – which is why many reject the idea of unearned benefits. In general, people underestimate the positive effect of “tailwinds” (unearned benefits) that speed them along, if they acknowledge them at all – and that’s before the references to poor, rural white people come up as a counter-argument. Before privilege can be accepted, it first must be brought to awareness – and as we wrote mindfulness can help with that. But whether it’s actual unconsciousness, repressed consciousness, or denial of recognizing and dealing with one’s privilege, awareness and attention alone are insufficient to manage the reality. Two other fundamental aspects of mindfulness are required: non-judgment and compassion.

Non Judgment

In mindfulness, non judgment is the ability to suspend reaction to reduce the emotional, fight/flight/freeze response that comes from a stressful perception. Developed through different meditations and practices, with non judgment, I can hear and listen without needing to counter or rationalize. In the case of privilege, non judgment is the ability to realize that, without intention, I have benefits simply by being an able-bodied white, hetero, extraverted (yes – that’s a privilege), if not tall (that is too) male.

non judgment is the ability to realize that, without intention, I have benefits simply by being an able-bodied white, hetero, extraverted (yes – that’s a privilege), if not tall (that is too) male.

These benefits are too numerous to cite, but they include permission or the expectation to speak first and up and that, until I prove otherwise, what I say carries weight. Rather than rationalize that I have earned the opportunities I have had and still get, non-judgment allows me to see myself for who I am, what that means, and not react with anger or resentment to face my fact of possessing unearned benefits. It makes space for compassion, for myself and for others.

Another interesting aspect of non judgment is in the dynamic between those with many or some privileges and those with few or none. One D&I professional shared an experience where he was criticized by a social worker peer for working for a corporation rather than volunteering full-time for a cause. While keenly aware of his privileges, as a man of color and passionate advocate in and away from work, he still needed to ground himself in who he is rather than defend why he is not someone else. It can’t surprise us that someone with little or no privilege might resent and even criticize someone with more privilege – regardless of what else they may have in common and even if just in the moment. Non judgment isn’t just for those with privilege – it benefits all as we naturally tend to judge each other and ourselves.


Self-compassion, not to be confused with self-esteem or worth, is kindness, connection, and balanced awareness that allows us to accept rather than deny what is real and positions us to positively act. For privilege, compassion allows us to acknowledge and accept our unearned benefits, which is the only way we can choose not to leverage or abuse them or choose to make the benefits available to those without them. Compassion is where the realizations of privilege can translate to the positive action to share or not abuse – which is all one can do since they can’t be given back. Compassion, or empathy with an intent to act, not only allows people to move beyond their own limitations but helps them engage with others. Compassion, rather than sympathy, is a powerful attribute of allies and advocates.

Compassion, or empathy with an intent to act, not only allows people to move beyond their own limitations but helps them engage with others.

Like non-judgment, compassion (self- and other) is also not just for the most privileged (extra-ironic if it were). A black businessman I spoke with shared his internal battles, wondering who thought he was successful by virtue of Affirmative Action rather than his skill, or how to respond when asked for his views “as a minority,” or how to recognize his own privilege as a man in the company of women. One woman of color asked me if I felt privileged – when I said I do, she expressed genuine empathy and asked how I managed it. I was deeply touched and educated by her compassion. A gay man chuckled when we were talking about how those with privilege think those without it actually have it. “Oh yes, they think we (LGBT, minorities, women) are just raking in the government contracts and promotions and new jobs. But (he reflected), I guess some of them are just afraid of what they’ll lose or already lost – and need someone to blame.”

But I guess some of them are just afraid of what they’ll lose or already lost – and need someone to blame.”

Compassion in action can be as simple as waiting to speak until someone else does. Amping that up would be inviting someone else’s input before sharing yours – and listening intently. Want to take it even higher? Mindful lawyer Jeena Cho shared an example of a fellow who declined a speaking panel opportunity because the panel was all white men. Frances E. (Francie) Kendall provides a very tangible set of examples of how allies can behave. Every suggestion isn’t for every person or every situation, but a key point here is that the greatest sacrifice to be made by one with privilege is sacrificing the comfort of its ignorance.

A key point here is that the greatest sacrifice to be made by one with privilege is sacrificing the comfort of its ignorance.

Compassion is what differentiates paternalistic sympathy from conscientious empathy – and drives results. Like non-judgment, compassion is also not just for those with privilege. Compassion allows anyone to empathize and act on that empathy – and action is the goal. For the most part, people are about “doing” something – which is why “just being aware” of privilege has failed to move the needle of diversity and inclusion and, perhaps, has contributed to the backlash we’re seeing today.

Mindfully Privileged? Unprivileged?

“Privilege” may or may not be salvageable as a concept in D&I training if the intention is to sing to anyone but the choir. But increasing awareness of the benefits it confers with the intention to educate about how to share or not abuse them, unearned as well as earned, may be a more effective strategy. It may also be that the language and skills of non-judgment and compassion create more inclusion, engagement, and opportunity to educate than the language and tone of oppression, subjugation, and privilege.

It may also be that the language and skills of non-judgment and compassion create more inclusion, engagement, and opportunity to educate than the language and tone of oppression, subjugation, and privilege.

There are and forever will be people who believe everyone has an equal chance to succeed in life and they have examples as proof. The goal of mindfulness for these people is to increase their awareness of others beyond their own experience and manage the complexities that such realizations inevitably bring. And, to be clear, there are people with privilege benefits who know it, deny it, but will fight to keep them and keep others from them. Mindfulness practices may help these people realize their own narcissism, but the mindful response to injustice and intolerance for everyone else is to call it out and combat it without rest. Mindfulness is not a path for avengers, door-mats, or victims – but it can help people stay off those paths.

Join Marjorie Derven and me on Thursday, October 26, 2017 2:00pm – 3:00pm EDT, ATD webinar “Can Mindfulness Reboot D&I?

Image credits: Shutterstock/10752928 and Shutterstock/Phovoir  

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How Mindful is Your Diversity Strategy: 3 Paths to Focused Attention

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Raising awareness in D&I isn’t a double-sided sword – it’s a light saber that can cut in any direction – including toward those wielding it. As we wrote in Awareness, we need to enable a shift from awareness to attention, similar to focusing your eyes just when you’ve been awakened. Especially if you’ve awakened to something that challenges you.

As written about by many and recently and compellingly by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, mindfulness strengthens the brain’s ability to focus on one thing and ignore distractions. “The neural circuitry for selective attention,” they write, “…can be trained – contrary to the standard wisdom where attention was assumed to be hard-wired and so, beyond the reach of any training attempt.” (Altered Traits, Penguin Random House, 2017). One study they note found a positive, if not permanent, effect on attention after only seventeen minutes of meditation training – and that for non-meditators. Improving the ability to focus attention has always been a goal of mindfulness, and Goleman and Davidson powerfully make the case. But what matter is that for D&I training, initiatives, or progress?

Many aspects of D&I require attention – your processes, including programs, policies, and practices and your people, including Board, leaders, and employees (if not also your customers). While attending to the processes is necessary, attending to the people is what makes the difference.

Organizations spend tremendous attention on both processes and people. A big opportunity, however, is to increase the attention capacity and skill within the people.

Attention Power – Flip It?

Mindfulness meditation is the first path to focused attention. The good news for training mindfulness meditation to business people is that, not only does it improve the ability to focus and sustain attention, it also improves working memory and the damaging impact of chronic multi-tasking. Integrating these skills into D&I curricula or offering them separately is necessary for effective D&I in that it helps people focus rather than “check-the-box” or ignore the uncomfortable realities that come to their awareness, not just to D&I but also other matters of ethics, compliance, product safety, etc.

In addition to mindfulness meditation there are other attention-enabling practices that may not seem obviously mindful, but are. One was created by Roche HR VP Kristen Pressner – “flip it to test it.”

Pressner created the ‘Flip It To Test It’ test after becoming aware that she, in her senior HR role, would, at times, treat men and women differently in the same situation. It’s a very quick test to bring attention to a real and immediate situation: flip the situation on its head, and imagine it in reverse, are you comfortable with it? Flip It To Test It is a simple-yet-powerful intellectual attention practice that can follow awareness and bridge to the compassion and non-judgment most people need to face and manage the unconscious biases we all have.

Beyond the immediate benefits to individuals in daily work, increasing the ability to focus attention has other D&I and business benefits. A more traditional mindfulness practice of attention is setting intentions.

The Attention of Intention

Broader and more meaningful than your typical goal, intention setting is often described as a means toward clarity of communication. As mindful lawyer and author Jeena Cho writes, however, it can also be a means of being in this moment with all else that’s with you in this moment – pleasant or not. As we write in Mindfully Mobile and Way of the Road Warrior, intention setting can be a life-changing practice, because:

  • Your intention is an attitude you choose to take about something, making it the only life force fully in your control.
  • Intentions – crafted or unguided – influence every perception, interpretation and response you have to whatever you perceive.
  • Intentions enable mindful action by informing the choice in the moment between perception and action.
  • An intention can shape a moment or an entire day; a daily intention practice can shape a life.

While the research is scant, in our experience we find intention setting has other tangible business benefits as well: more efficient meetings, more productive discussions, and more strategic as well as ethical decisions. In D&I, training people in intention setting is a powerful way to help them focus attention on the business and personal benefits they intend to receive from creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive environment. And it can also help people focus attention on the uncomfortable feelings and facts that come with increased awareness.

3 Paths – Pay Attention

Mindfulness meditation, Flip-it-to-test-it, and intention setting are three practices that, when practiced, increase capacity and skill in focusing attention in the multi-tasking, constant-demand world we face every waking moment. There are different ways to train these practices and nuances within each, and you must have people who know what they are doing working with people who know your organization. But, the exact path you train matters less than the discipline of staying on it.

Like any practice, the benefits improve with practice and decline without it. So training people in a a one-and-done mindfulness program works about as well as any other one-and-done training of any complex, behavior-change skill set. Don’t expect a silver bullet – mindfulness doesn’t solve everything. But it just might be the reboot your D&I strategy.

Join Marjorie Derven and me Thursday, October 26, 2017 2:00pm – 3:00pm EDT, for the ATD webinar “Can Mindfulness Reboot D&I?

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How Mindful is Your Diversity Strategy – Awareness

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In our How Mindful is Your Diversity Strategy, we discussed the potential value of mindfulness in D&I training and workplace behaviors. The first benefit of mindfulness practice is increasing awareness.

A consistent mindfulness practice, even of just ten minutes a day, can improve and increase awareness of self, others, and self-on-others. Mindfulness, as well as practices of breath and yoga, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system response (rest/relax/refuel) and mitigates the sympathetic nervous system response (flight/fight/freeze) that overly focuses on perceived threat or stressor. Mindfulness helps us deal with stressors more effectively – physically and mentally.

And – So What for D&I?

One of the challenges to D&I is that humans tend to take their view of things from, in order, their own conscious experiences, the expertise or experiences of others, and finally, hard-won insight through thought and reflection. What we learn by experience typically trumps what we learned in class and few people are trained to learn through insight and reflection. Unfortunately, when it comes to complex or difficult matters, our primary learning method, conscious experiences, aren’t always representative of the broader world and they are filtered by our unconscious beliefs.

This isn’t a surprise because we all have limited time and “fast thinking” (what we experience- Daniel Kahneman 2013) helps us get through the day, while “slow thinking” (what we study and discern) is time and effort intensive. We rely on autopilot until we hit turbulence – then we think slow and deep. This plays out in almost any discussion of importance, and very much in D&I topics.

In some of many D&I-related discussions over the years, I have been challenged by others with their very real and tangible experiences expressed to “prove” that:

  • “I don’t see race – some of my best friends / co-workers are (different color)”
  • “It’s all about quotas – women are getting promoted here to meet a goal”
  • “It’s nobody’s business – LGBT employees don’t want the attention of being out”

These are difficult discussions in which to engage for two reasons – both related to awareness and both worth understanding.

The first reason is that people view the world through their conscious and unconscious experiences. My colleague says, “The gay people I know would prefer no one knows they are gay!” This may be true in my colleague’s experience, but there’s a problem: 1. my colleague believes all gay people are like those he knows, 2. he assumes the ones he knows behave around him as they behave around everyone else, and 3. that they behave as they choose, as opposed to in self-preservation. People who don’t want to be aware (or confronted) with the sexual identities of others make that clear one way or another – increasing the likelihood that the gay person will stay in the closet or risk creating an uncomfortable situation.

People who don’t want to be aware (or confronted) with the sexual identities of others make that clear one way or another

The second reason lies in increasingly apparent fact that people are willing to avoid facts that conflict with their beliefs – as evidenced by the proliferation of “alternative facts in politics. At work, I can provide reams of validated data on gender wage inequality, only to be met with, “Well, that’s not my experience.” Because they rely on their own experience (reason 1 above), it may be very true that it’s not in their experience. The obvious problem is that, unless he’s in HR, my colleague has no idea of the wage gaps of women in his company. When that point is made, the second reason kicks in: the unwillingness to accept verifiable data because it would require a reworking of the internal belief. That unwillingness, if it’s even realized, is driven by a fear that accepting this as a fact would logically require a change of position, one that may differ from perceived self-interest. So, providing proof points of exclusion and discrimination or that inclusion increases innovation or decision-making often doesn’t hit the mark.

So, providing proof points of exclusion and discrimination or that inclusion increases innovation or decision-making often doesn’t hit the mark.

Whether the subject is climate change, vaccines and autism, or the ever-debated concept of “privilege,” simply providing evidence can actually create a strong counter-belief that, while devoid of factual awareness, can still shut down discussion. So if facts don’t create awareness, what does?


One effective way to increase awareness in a D&I curriculum is to include taking the Implicit Awareness Test. Personally, this is one of the more frustrating experiences I have had, even knowing it’s measuring unconscious bias which, by definition, means I’m not consciously holding. Having participants complete the IAT individually before a discussion of unconscious bias sets the stage for candid if uncomfortable dialogue. Taking the IAT doesn’t feel particularly mindful, but it does test our capacity for non-judgment and compassion and jump-starts awareness in ways few other approaches can. One important caveat – there is considerable debate about whether the IAT predicts biased behavior, simply reflects biases, or if it does either at all. Personally, I find I/O psych debates to be pretty much like 3rd grade fights, but make up your own mind.

More Mindful-Feeling Daily Practices

Image: shutterstock/Oilyy

A more mindful-feeling and daily practice to increase awareness is simple meditation. It may seem counter-intuitive that quietly meditating can increase our awareness of others, but it can. By practicing the mental and physical discipline of being still, we can learn to manage or mute the incessant demands that are on us from every direction. Connecting our mind and body reduces our emotional reactivity to what we experience, which allows us to be more aware of how we are feeling about what’s happening. As we become more aware of ourselves, being social creatures (excepting narcissists), we become more aware of those around us. As we become more aware of those around us, we become more aware of the impact we are having on them.

As mentioned in the first article, other mindful-feeling practices well-suited to increasing awareness in training are the ColorInsight practices created by Law Professor and mindful thinker Rhonda Magee. The practices of “I See You” and “Just Like Me” are simple exercises that introduce awareness in a training environment and, more importantly, can become part of a daily mindfulness practice that is sustained well beyond the training curricula.

To be clear – mindfulness won’t eliminate racism or sexism or any consciously chosen bias. But by enhancing our awareness, we can surface the unconscious biases we each have and better understand the impacts we have on each other through unintended slights or exclusive behaviors. Increasing awareness can begin with a simple daily meditation or other practice of five minutes a day, ramping up to ten minutes over eight weeks. These are simple practices, easily taught – whether you call them “mindfulness” or not.

Be Aware – It Doesn’t End with Awareness

The downside to increasing awareness of biases in D&I is that, once aware, we tend to judge ourselves (and others) for having them and not feel very forgiving or compassionate about ourselves or others, either. Increasing awareness is necessary, but insufficient without appropriately focused attention, non-judgment and compassion. For this reason, in our next article, we will explore mindfulness and the benefits of focused attention to deal with hard-won awareness.

Join Marjorie Derven and me Thursday, October 26, 2017 2:00pm – 3:00pm EDT, for the ATD webinar “Can Mindfulness Reboot D&I?

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