How Mindful Is Your Diversity Strategy?

 Imagine the Ultimate Affinity Group – All of Us

With the increasing research in mindfulness, the data is beginning to catch up with the hype. Some companies are finding ways to convert the floating, bright, shiny object of mindfulness into a solid, fit-for-use, building block that grounds business strategies, leadership development, team effectiveness and productivity. But what about D&I? What do we know about the diversity of mindfulness, or the mindfulness of diversity? This is the first of a series of articles leading up to our Thursday, October 26, 2017 2:00pm – 3:00pm EDT, ATD webinar “Can Mindfulness Reboot D&I? 

Mindfulness in the Workplace

While mindfulness practices are ancient, mindfulness as a clinical practice in the west began gaining ground in the 1970’s with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR (Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction) program. In the last ten years, mindfulness has walked the path from clinic to workplace in forms from the famous Search Inside Yourself program at Google, Fortune 100 Chief Mindfulness Officers and many mindfulness-practicing leaders. Advice abounds on how to introduce mindfulness into a company, including our own published in Strategic HR Review, but how to integrate it into diversity and inclusion strategies? Not so much.

Mindfulness and the D&I Strategy

The increasing public polarization, particularly in the U.S., on matters of race, identity, and gender has brought increased focus and scrutiny to what employers are doing, or not doing, and the increasing pressure on business leaders to “do something.” Most would agree that D&I progress has been limited and that the training gets mixed results, at best. Recent events at Google highlight that, despite having great investment in D&I and also in mindfulness, not even they are immune. One D&I pro recently said to me, “If Google is struggling, what hope do we have?”

“If Google is struggling, what hope do we have?”

The opportunity before us is to strengthen the employee D&I experience by integrating practical practices of mindfulness. D&I and mindfulness share a common challenge – balancing to optimize. Like the D&I challenge of exploring and leveraging individual differences to optimize collective performance, the mindfulness challenge is to explore and refine focused attention and expand awareness to optimize the individual. But here’s something many don’t realize: mindfulness practices facilitate outcomes that are key to the success of a D&I strategy:

  1. Awareness – of self, others, and ourselves-on-others
  2. Attention – focused on what is, without distraction
  3. Non-judgment – suspending emotional reaction to what is
  4. Compassion – empathy for what is with intention to act

Marjorie Derven and I will discuss this on Thursday, October 26, 2017 2:00pm – 3:00pm EDT, in the ATD webinar “Can Mindfulness Reboot D&I? In this webinar, we will discuss the challenges to D&I today and the need to get below the surface if we expect different outcomes in the future.

What’s Sinking D&I is Below the Surface

Most D&I curricula focuses on the “we” – how employees relate to each other in the organization. The parts of curricula that deal with treating people with respect and avoiding micro-aggression are generally understood and received. At work, employees expect to be trained on how to deal with each other. The more challenging sessions to lead, and for many in which to participate, are the discussions of unconscious bias and the flash point of “privilege” (more on privilege in a future blog). These discussions are more difficult because the focus goes below the surface – from “we” to “me.”

These discussions are more difficult because the focus goes below the surface – from “we” to “me.” 

While we are experiencing a disturbing public resurgence in supremacy-cloaked-in-science, the most common and persistent obstacles to D&I in the workplace are unconscious biases, the below-the-surface beliefs each of us has about another group. They are common because every human has them (if you doubt that, take the test).  They are persistent because we aren’t aware of them and we’re embarrassed or resentful when we become aware of them. Unconscious bias is increasingly well understood to be the iceberg below the surface that sinks diversity and inclusion.

Many companies do address unconscious bias and privilege in their D&I curricula. That said, while they do create awareness of these issues, there’s little to help employees respond to or manage them. “Be aware,” is necessary but insufficient. Increasing awareness of unconscious biases is a heady, public psychological exercise that too often results in feigned acceptance and resentment. Introduce “privilege” and you can experience outright hostility and denial. While many different experiences have been designed to surface these issues in D&I training, little has been been provided to help people process them – privileged or not.

 “Be aware” is necessary, but insufficient

Research is showing that effective D&I training includes increasing the capability of perspective taking. Incorporating mindfulness practices into the curricula does that, as written about by Law Professor Rhonda Magee, JD describing the advantages of “color insight” over the nice-to-imagine-but-impossible-to achieve notion of “color blindness.” Training that increases people’s ability to focus on what’s common and leverage what’s different between each other adds competitive advantage.

One goal of D&I training that mindfulness can deliver is to reduce cognitive rigidity, the tendency to be blinded by past experience or perception – and a major driver of unconscious bias. Skills that increase awareness and insight can bring the unconscious to the conscious, which is necessary for recognizing these uncomfortable biases. But that’s not enough. We also need skills that enable people to process and face what’s uncomfortable without increasing resentment or denial. This makes it possible to truly leverage differences that create competitive advantage while being united on what matters.

D&I: Mindful, or Mindless?

With a few decades of D&I initiatives behind us and insufficient progress, we should be asking ourselves what we need to change rather than why we aren’t getting bigger budgets. Practicing D&I the same way and expecting a different result feels pretty mindless at this point. Practices of mindfulness – awareness, attention, non judgment, compassion – however, may contribute to what’s been missing in common D&I curricula. It may be time to bring a stronger skill and practice set to the “me” if we intend for the “we” to be stronger.

More to follow in upcoming articles on Awareness, Attention, Non Judgment and Compassion, all leading to the Thursday, October 26, 2017 2:00pm – 3:00pm EDT, ATD webinar “Can Mindfulness Reboot D&I?.

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Author: Chris Altizer

Chris Altizer, MA, MBA, is a 30-year senior, global HR executive turned performance and wellness consultant. A certified teacher of yoga, karate, and diving, Chris and his partner Anne Altizer work with executives and teams to integrate performance and wellness.

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