Archive for the 'Facilitation' Category

ACT to Mitigate Unconscious Bias


Confirmation Bias

2017, like many recent years, has seen events, both political and environmental, produce a flurry of polarising opinions, interpretations and platforms – many of which seem beyond comprehension to one side or another. In the midst of this, both organisations and governments are looking hard at how they can bring people together across these seemingly impassable divides.

To this end, I have spent nearly all of this year working with clients to help them create a more inclusive and effective culture.  While employers may wish their workplace to exist in a perfect bubble, people inevitably bring their biases and prejudices to work.  Unfortunately, sometimes these biases can consciously, and unconsciously, put up barriers to communication and working effectively together – or in the case of AppleWatch, completely miss a desirable feature for a product.

So what can be done? For about 15 years, I have been supporting people to work with their biases and how they may unconsciously stifle innovation and make working together difficult. While unconscious biases cannot be removed, some of their negative effects can be reduced by using some simple techniques. Below is an overview of the approach I have developed after working on and researching this subject for some time – see this article I wrote in 2016.

I hope you find some tips for yourself and leading your teams.

The irony is, you may not notice what your unconscious is thinking – and that is the point, you can’t consciously know your unconscious. The thing is, trying to “think differently” doesn’t help, you must ACT to mitigate unconscious bias!

And when I say ACT I mean:

  • ARTICULATE  an alternative point of view
  • CREATE COMMONALITY – establish common ground and goals
  • TEST IT – ask for more information to test your ideas

And the pneumonic is key: You must take ACTion and actually DO things that reduce your bias, not just think you should be open-minded. Below are some typical situations with simple suggestions of things you can do to get over some suspected biases. They have been shown to help people work more effectively with colleagues and clients, in interviews and in meetings. They are examples which encourage ACTion rather than thought as the main tool to mitigate bias:

1) Articulate Alternative POV:

We often make judgements about people we spend less time with. This show up a lot with new joiners and people in other departments/teams. To apply this approach, begin by asking:

  • What are your assumptions about this person?
  • Where did they come from?
  • What could be an alternative perspective be?

Take this example sometimes levelled at older colleagues:

 Point of View 1: They are so stuck in their ways.

Alternative point of view: They’ve learnt a lot about what works for them.

You can apply this in many other situations where prejudices arise, particularly when there are differences in power. Try looking at the following:

  • What are your beliefs about yourself and your autonomy?
  • What are your beliefs about others, specifically those at different levels to you?
  • What might their beliefs about you be?
  • And do these assumptions help or hinder your performance and contribution?
  • Finish by coming up with an alternative, but plausible view-point that could change your perspective on them or yourself.

In summary, to work with prejudice, first identify your assumptions, then ask, “What might be an Alternative position or approach that might improve your desire to work with them?” Articulate that view to yourself, write it down, perhaps even tell others – even if you are just trying it out.

2) Create commonality

When working with people you find difficult or don’t know, finding out more about them or focusing on common goals can help you move past prejudice to work more effectively together. It sounds obvious, but common sense isn’t always common practice. It’s important to understand yourself what the common purpose of a conversation is and it also helps to make these goals known by those you are working with. For example:

We are here to decide what can save us all time in the long run.

3) Test your assumptions

Finally, we can get caught in assumptions when we are excited about something or have been working on something for a long period of time.  Both of these situations are prone to the influence of unconscious assumptions. So, when working with new clients, products or teams, are you able to help test your ideas to ensure you’re working toward the best possible outcome? Here are some tips:

A) Make your assumptions explicit: write them down, tell other people what they are
B) Enjoy getting it wrong: at least once, try to come at the problem with ignorance, foolishness or just a different perspective
C) Ask for other people’s perceptions
D) Use open questions to find out more

Doing at least two or three of the above will help you identify opportunities that you might miss and make your meetings – and products – more effective!

That’s what it means to ACT on unconscious bias – let me know how you get on?

A final note: Unconscious shortcuts are particularly prevalent under pressure or in complex situations. While the above may seem simple, I would recommend choosing not more than one situation a day to test your biases and try an ACT approach. Otherwise, you will get exhausted and end up being biased anyway.


Why the Alt-Right won’t go away

White Protester

Image from NPR

And neither rational arguments nor censorship will make it do so.

The recent furore (not Fuhrer) in Charlottesville and other US flash points has triggered a global wave of discussion, encouraging many people to express opinions about race who have not done so before, particularly white people. This is long overdue. Here is my view – both appreciative and critical comments below would be most welcome.

Point One: Arguments based on facts are not going to work.

As with global warming, we have already seen the dismal failure of science/fact-based arguments to successfully inspire personal, corporate and government action to produce change. If many of the scientists studying global warming do little to change their behaviour, what can we expect from the rest of the population?  Knowing, or even believing, the facts alone does not always change behaviour. And it certainly won’t work here.

As we move to the messier world of human interaction, the facts are even harder to pin down and therefore, harder to use to show those interested in “ethnic purity” the shortcomings of their arguments. The videos from recent events, particularly Vice’s “Race and Terror” documentary, reveal some convenient omissions of history by the alt-right to justify their racial hatred – both recent (declining wages) and older (wealth from slavery).

And with google, it doesn’t take long to find omissions or just ignore facts presented by those with differing views. (This argument can also be thrown at the left). As they themselves profess, the alt-right’s position is not about “facts”, it is about safety, having a voice and power (or loss of it) – just listen to Trump.

Their voices are, for the most part, emotionally driven grievances that are as much about being heard, wanting justice and the reduction of personal threat, both real and perceived. It is a point of irony that, like their nemesis “SJWs,” the alt-right want social justice! And like their rivals, they sound more like desperate teenagers than the superior race they claim to be.

The point here is that emotional vitriol rarely listens to facts alone, if at all. Note to the left: Stop using facts alone to shut down the alt-right! Instead adopt the language they understand, like Jobs, Safety and Freedom of the Individual as these things are not only crucial, they are supported by a fair and egalitarian society.

Point Two: Censorship is not the answer

Shutting down rallies, exclusion from debates and firing of individuals (unless because of their competence) will not work either.  Here are a couple of reasons why:

  • The internet (still fairly open) will allow discussions to continue, but drive it underground. And like most online discussions, it will continue inside an echo-chamber of re-enforcing beliefs. As an experiment, I recommend spending time on a website dedicated to a value system different to your own and look at how little contrary evidence is presented. Then reflect on what this will do for people looking for surety in a complex world? You may also like to apply such analysis personally… To counter this, I believe the grievances of the alt-right need to be understood, and for that to happen they need to be heard. This will:
    1. Release some of the pressure that leads to violence,
    2. Meet their need to be heard and
    3. Show up the many flaws in their logic.
  • Exclusion from public discourse will add fuel to the belief that the left and liberals are “brain-washing communists that seek to stupefy the public” and turn us all into “docile sheep” at best, and “enslaved in a gulag” at worst. While sanctioning of abusive behaviour ought not be tolerated, ostracizing the alt-right from debate will further convince them that they have a legitimate cause. That said, any violence condoned by either side should be shut down.

So what?

What needs to be understood is that the audiences of the alt-right positions are already feeling marginalised. Radical voices that are shut down will create a further affinity with those already feeling excluded, and actually increase their appeal. Not only that, it encourages the need for an extreme response as their voices are further pushed from the public discourse. And this is why the alt-right will not go away.

Another reason why it will not go away is that most of the possible futures currently presented, both hopeful and apocalyptic, show less of a place for white men than they did in the past. While logically correct, this will ultimately feel threatening. (The rebukes to an all-female cast of the recent Ghostbusters film is one of many examples where anger rises when the role of white men is being questioned.) This is inevitably being felt by the population to a degree they have never felt before. There is not a place at the table as there once was. And although many would agree that this may be a good thing, it’s hard to see that as a white man right now.

Of course, this experience is familiar territory to women and people of colour before that, and still is. However, the challenge of unquestioned assumptions of power that go to the heart of white male identity is not only disorienting, it is destabilising. In order to find redress to this threat to power some blame Islam for the deterioration of Christian insights (even though its far more likely that science is to blame for that); Or “gender fluidity” for destabilising the role of the family as the back bone of society (which again may find its cause in the economics of western nations that require the ideal worker to be on 24/7), the list goes on.

All of these moments are asking men (and mostly white men) to find out who they are without their position and self-worth being handed to them by the machinations of white history. It is an important question that men need to start asking – who are they without power? Without their god-given/biological-given/socially-given place at the head of the table?

This is the question that the alt-right proposes to answer to, or rather seeks to avoid by changing the conversation to force things back how they were “when things were good/safe/clear” – MAGA! Maybe you deserve to be there, and maybe like many others, it is not your place, let’s see what happens…

This truly is an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Unfortunately, aggression will often follow and we still live in a world where access to violence is more available to men. In fact, the dogma of the alt-right is that if you don’t have a place, you can have your role fulfilled by becoming a fighter, whether that be for traditions or social justice. What better way to channel frustration than through violence and anger – after all, it makes you feel like a man! (or should I say human?) And like feminism or BLM, the alt-right demands will not go away until they get a seat at the table.

For me, part of the answer is about recognising the positive role of men in the world and not just the negative stereotypes that are often perpetuated by both sides of the argument. People who are kind, clear, strong and supportive – no matter what your background.

Another step is to understand the position of those feeling excluded – a point Hillary Clinton missed so abysmally in her “deplorables” statement. Without either of these things happening, the alt-right’s cause and following will remain on a fuse.


How to work with bias – addressing a hidden dynamic

When working with groups looking at prejudice and bias, one of the most frequent questions I get is:

But how can I get them to change their bias and behaviour?

Naturally, when an individual expresses a prejudice in a harmful way, people can feel the need for them to change their behaviour. However, the other person doesn’t always see it this way. In fact, they often defend their position and attempt to assert it more powerfully. Recent election campaigns have seemed to promote this behaviour – no matter which camp you are in, defensiveness and ridicule are par for the course.

This natural defensiveness poses a number of challenges when working to change perceived biases. So I decided to look at what we are asking of someone when we deem their prejudice is bad and try to “help” them change.  Assuming we’ve managed to jump the yawining chasm and engage in a conversation, what we are asking is,

That they:

  1. Know they are biased;
  2. Want to change it (by far the biggest challenge), and then
  3. Know how to change them

If that wasn’t difficult enough, although acts of discrimination and hurt are usually delivered by people, they are all culturally informed and sustained. The segregation of blacks and whites in the US and South Africa did more to reinforce the prejudices than the other way around. Growing up in such a situation can make one’s own bias:

  • Difficult to identify
  • Seem impersonal and therefore decrease perceptions of personal responsibility (ie. colonial guilt)
  • Even if the person does want to change, they may feel like they are betraying the culture where they learned the bias, which can create shame as well as threaten their sense of belonging.

To illustrate this last point, or the hidden dynamic of bias, imagine the following:

If a pick-pocket goes past a bulging wallet and doesn’t take it, they may well feel guilt or shame. After all, according to Fagin, “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two.”

In the world of pick-pocket culture, not taking the wallet is not only a missed opportunity, but a challenge to identity and belonging. It is almost shameful to a pick-pocket!

The point being that if your group does things in a certain way, and that group is like family, then, if you do something different, you will feel guilty about it – even if you don’t want to feel guilty, and even when you know it’s “right.”

It is this last point that I would like to think about before going trying to “enlighten” the other person’s stance or viewpoint. Be careful, because you are also talking about their culture.

What would you do if someone came and told you,

“Only idiots lock their houses! If you want to get anywhere in life, you should leave all the doors unlocked in order to let strangers in who might bring new gifts or stories that you and your family really want…”

You’d probably tell them they were crazy – at best.

If you are short on real-life examples, a cursory look at the language of the recent American presidential candidates will give you plenty of examples of how “stupid” and “crazy” the other is. So is it helping?

What might be a better approach?

Based on my years of mediating and running groups, here’s what I suggest.

  1. Identify what’s in it for them (benefit)
  2. Let them know you are interested in their well-being (care)
  3. Check your own assumptions and prejudices (authenticity)

First, identify the pay-off or benefit for the person. This will help re-humanise the other. This may not be obvious, or even conscious, but at some level, the person is getting something back for having that point of view. (see Kegan & Lacey, “Immunity to Change” and Dan Ariely “Pay-off” for more on this). Nobody does anything that is 100% bad for them. Find out what the pay-offs are and speak to those first.

These could be anything from friends and belonging; safety and the avoidance of shame; certainty in the face of ambiguity and threat; or even just a good way to have an argument or get some attention. There is always a payoff.

Second, let the person know you have their back. This is basic care.

No one cares how much you know, unless they know how much you care.

If you are interested in changing them for your benefit only, chances are they will tell you to take a long walk off a short pier… Its not going to work.

Finally, be authentic.  Start by checking your own assumptions and prejudice. Asking someone to check their own without you doing it first, is not only hypocritical, it also lacks integrity. And no one likes being lectured by a hypocritical dupe! To do this authentically, to really look at your own biases takes courage and letting go. It’s important to know what that is like before expecting someone else to do it

So once you’re aware of some of your own fears, here are some steps you might try:

  1. Find out more about their world and situation – understand the context for why that view exists. AND importantly, let them know you understand that.
  2. Find out about the person’s hopes, needs and wishes. Identify the persons aspirations and speak to those
  3. And, if possible, find a way to help that person get the pay-off easier or in a different way.

– and with Christmas coming up, I am sure you can find some relatives to practice with. You might even get them to do it to you.

Thanks for reading – please comment below if you have your own thoughts on the subject.

The Irony of Teams

High performing teams are given credit for being the element that sets businesses apart.  It is often said that the challenges and complexities of todays world require the effective working of teams.  Ironically, if we look at what is celebrated, collaboration tends to get a left out?   At work, bonuses are divided between exceptionally perfomring individuals, and rarely to teams.  In school, it is an individual’s performance that is accredited and recognised.  In fact, for most of my schooling, outside of drama and sport, team work was not a featured part of the way that we were schooled.

My experience in schools today does not provide me with much evidence that this has changed.  Yet it is that sense of something bigger than oneself that encourages me to put that extra piece in for the team.  And this trait is not one that is encouraged in much of the school environment.

Does your kid’s school have team assessed work?

Does it have collaborative opportunities, whether they be sport, drama or somekind of project work?

If not, I would encourage them to find ways of making meaningful contributions to group projects.  Of course we all learn on the job, but work is still pluaged by an individualistic culture. Of course Rand would argue the benefits of this, and systemically, we are encouraged to celebrate our personal success.  However, it is effective colloboration that gives organisations the edge.

Ironically, accorrding to Katzenbach, it is not teams for teams sake that drives successful collaboration, but goals that require team inputs that forge successful teams.

A Presentation on ProcessWork

Here is a very basic presentation to Process Work. I am running an introductory workshop on it tomorrow at UK Mediation Academy for the Professional Mediators Association.

It’s the tip of the iceberg of how people can start to change the way they look at situations in order to grow through them.

Managing the Frustrating Conversation: Two sides of the Facilitative Spectrum

How much do parties need to experience the “frustrating conversation” in order to move forward? It is a balancing act between getting to the nub of the conflict and keeping them in the room. In the spirit of “authenticity” it sometimes pay’s off to allow the “destructive conversation” when parties may blame or even insult each other.  However, “authenticity” does not always equate to abuse and it is crucial that parties trust the process and have a conversation that helps them to move forward. This raises a number of questions about the role and responsibility of the mediator.

I will explore these questions by drawing on a recent mediation experience.

The Case

The frustrating conversation in question followed a hearing concerning allegations of racism within a workplace. My approach was to declare that I too shared the parties’ Continue reading ‘Managing the Frustrating Conversation: Two sides of the Facilitative Spectrum’

Reflexive Leadership – Shifting Balances

As a provider of leadership and management training, with endorsements from  Train to Gain, I believe it is important to lay out what I mean by leadership development.  There is a big buzz about “leadership” following Iraq, the financial crisis and even climate change issues.

There are at least two forces challenging notions of leadership that are facing us today.  They include:

  1. The dissatisfaction with current models of political and organisational power that have led us into the calamities listed above.
  2. A matter of definition – one that remains, perhaps necessarily, mercurial and oblique.

The first of these two issues is a matter of some debate and energy, particularly in current think tanks.  Matthew Taylor of the RSA is adamant about challenging the current and outdated models of “leadership by deference.”  One of the challenges here is that to step beyond a culture of deference requires an extra degree of self-responsibility.  This is an interesting challenge and one that can be explored on his blog here.

Elements of Reflexive Leadership

The second one, of definition, is the main purpose of this entry.  It is also one that will be forever changing, so it is with a degree of predicted obsolescence that I attempt to name what I mean by leadership, or specifically, Reflexive Leadership.  It includes the following elements:

  • Awareness
  • Reflection
  • Creativity
  • Knowledge
  • Access to resources
  • Vision, and
  • Accountability

Reflexive leadership is based on the increasing awareness of the value of self-reflection in practice – whether it be as a therapist, student or business person. This practice is commonly seen in Kolb’s learning cycle and occurs when attempting to learn any new skill or conquer arising challenges.  The value of reflection has long been acknowledged, but in time-poor environments, it is often the first thing to go.

However, this can be a costly mistake in the long run.  As pointed out by David Allen, this thinking time. named “knowledge work” is often THE work that needs to be done.  Take yourself – as a skilled practitioner in whatever field you have chosen.  Let us say, something arises that is challenging your performance or objective.  Nine times out of ten it is not your lack of skill or know-how that is the problem, the problem is based on either one of two elements:

  1. It is relational.  Something is affecting you, your colleagues or your clients and is having an impact.  Chances are it is not directly related to the current content of your delivery or objective.  These matters may seem to be unprofessional distractions, but we ignore them at our peril.  Clearing such matters up can unblock many obstacles and put your delivery back on track.  If this is something that cannot be done by you, an acknowledgement of this as a genuine support need can go a long way to increasing your team’s performance.
  2. There is something outside of your awareness that is affecting the issue.  Take for example you are exploring diversity with your team for the day – and have hired a building that looks like a courthouse to do so.  It may happen that some of the people have not had good experience with the law, or may just feel intimidated by the setting.  Without realising why, you notice some of the people involved are closed or even irritated.  As people from minorities often experience oppression directly or indirectly from such institutions, the venue may be having an unitended impact on the day.  This is not to say that one shouldn’t use courthouses or avoid symbols of contention, rather an awareness of them needs to be brought in – and in fact, when done well, can make for transformational discoveries.

Addressing either of these two elements takes reflection and thinking time.  Building time in before and after to reflect on choices can go a long way in supporting solid leadership.

In any situation, it may also just be that the communication loop is not connected and that somewhere something is not coherent.  This may be between:

  • your intention and your message;
  • your message delivery and it’s perception;
  • or perhaps in missed feedback from your recipients.

Again, being a reflexive leader will help identify these shortcomings and address them.

Reflexive Leadership isn’t just confined to reflection and thinking time.  It also demands a more immediate sense of “response-ability.”  That is, good leaders are able to respond to unavoidable and unpredictable challenges.  While this ability can be improved through reflection, it also requires creativity, support and knowledge.  Moreover, it is not essential that these are present in a single person – a designated “Leader” by one title or another.  On the contrary, a good team will have multiple resources of these elements. Good leadership recognises where they are available and utilises them.

Another crucial ingredient of good reflexive leadership is vision.  Having a view for the bigger picture is crucial in knowing which of the resources is worth utilising at any point, given the circumstances.  Awareness of such goals and objectives provides good leadership in any context.

Finally, what really stands out in leadership is accountability.  Not shying away from this element is in fact one of the inspiring elements that draw people to one choice over another.   Developing an organsiation is about getting others to trust it – to invest in it.  Without accountability, leadership is trivial and unsustainable.  It is a lack of accountability that has created the disturbances in our financial system that we are experiencing today.

Leadership as “Role”

Above and beyond these elements of leadership, is recognising its shifting nature and that leadership is a role rather than an individual’s title.  This means that anyone in a team or organisation may exhibit leadership qualities.  For example, a receptionist may have insights gathered from interacting with customers that lead to important organisational change.

Optimum leadership is necessarily fluid and a shared responsibility that is not confined to the designated few, but available to all.  Such a concept may seem challenging to many organisational structures.  However, that is not the intention, organised structures create opportunities for fantastic achievements.  Rather, it seeks to promote a way of thinking that maximises the potential of a group rather than limiting it to the thinking of a few – this can be done while maintaining agreed structures and avenues of communication.  Importantly, recognising the mutable nature of leadership will support us in understanding how best to step into its role.

Using Reflexive leadership will help us find our leaders in the shifting balances of power and information that constantly challenge organisations today. By finding ways to respect both agency and community, groups and individuals, reflexive leadership will help us come to terms with the current challenges of leadership.