26 03, 2020

By |2020-03-26T17:18:42-05:00March 26th, 2020|


The challenge of holding two existential threats in mind at the same time

Today, my news feed is utterly packed with virus news – the rate of spread, city-by-city, state-by-state, country-by country, with accounts of medical system overwhelm, government response, and public cooperative efforts contrasted with heedless gatherings.  We are in a global state of health and social emergency.

One month ago, my news feed was dominated by climate news – the rate of warming, local, regional, national and global effects, with stories of loss of biodiversity, innovative responses, youth-led activism and utterly critical timelines for action.

Both streams speak to direct existential threats.  COVID-19 imperils us individually and millions around the world right now, today, and in the coming year.  At the same time, the human-driven changes in our climate are a menace to the survival of species of innumerable species of life, and bid to flood our cities, burn our countrysides, and create hundreds of millions of climate refugees in the next few decades.    We are faced with unprecedented challenges to our survival, and we are called to attend to both at the same time, a nearly Herculean trial of our ability to focus and act.

Our in-the-moment focus on the novel virus is understandable and actually imperative.  We are facing potential meltdown of many of our social systems and, with that, our ability to deal with anything beyond our immediate survival.  Accordingly, our capacity to address the disruption of the biosphere requires sufficient social stability to organize our collective response to global warming, in spite of how we have struggled to act effectively thus far.  However, much like the vitally important “flatten the curve” model for infection, we also must act immediately to reduce the speed of climate disruption or reap ever-redoubling effects of ocean rise, extreme heat, violent weather, and species extinction.  To hesitate now, on either, is to doom ourselves to exponentially worse outcomes.

Thus we are tasked with holding both crises fully in mind, no small feat.  In truth, humans are ill-equipped to attend to two threats simultaneously.  Multitasking is a neurophysiological myth. Instead, we are going to have to become skilled at switching up, bringing our attention and intention to bear on one, then the other, and back again, for the foreseeable future.  Yes, it feels like double work.  It is double work.  That being said, we have little choice.

Here’s what we can do:

First, name it and tame it.  Allow yourself to recognize and feel the sense of overwhelm.  Identify it, sense it, accept that it is part of life right now, and then mentally place it on a nearby shelf where it can be known but not in charge.  You can tell that feeling that you won’t forget or deny it, and it is not in charge right now.  This frees you up to do your work.

Next, set a specific amount of time that you will commit to each of these two mental marathons in a day, and make those allocations of time and energy reasonable for your mental, physical and spiritual well-being.  Allow as how it could be as little as ten minutes or as much as several hours – whatever you honestly sense is healthy for you and explicitly forgive yourself for maintaining self-care boundaries.  Within those time frames, read or listen to a limited amount of news, opinion and research.  Take action for a defined period of time (contributing to social media, writing or calling government officials, informing family and friends, etc.).  Choose actions that have the greatest return on your investment.  Not all action is equal, and when we are tired, we tend to lose effectiveness quickly.

Thus, equally important is to dedicate a separate measure of time, every day, to self-care.  Each of us responds to different mixtures of regenerative inputs.   Among those can be exercise, meditation, fun or inspiring reading and video consumption, gazing on absorbing images of nature, or getting outside to take in the healing bounty of the earth around us – trees, clouds, flowers, birds and more.  Whatever works for us, our self-care should be non-negotiable in our overall allocation of time.  Without it, we undermine our short-term and long-term capacity for service.  With it, we are rejuvenated, our innovative thinking expands, our compassion deepens.  In this, we enhance our potential to see new answers, ones that will address the sources, and generate the solutions, to both crises.  And so the loop closes, from recognizing and forgiving our sense of overwhelm, to strengthening our ability to work in spite of it.

This is our time.  We did not aspire to it, we would dearly love for it to be different, and nonetheless, in this moment, we are called to action.  Finding our way forward with a measure of wisdom, grace, and inspiration in both of these stories is the task that falls to us.

Kit Tennis



6 03, 2020

5 Strategies: Tackle Unconscious Bias and Transform Your Culture

By |2020-03-06T19:31:05-05:00March 6th, 2020|

Unconscious Bias Training That Actually Makes a Difference

Unconscious bias training is rapidly finding a place in training menus across the country and beyond.  The reasoning behind this trend is perfectly sound, grounded in a commitment to foster workplace environments that succeed in efforts to embrace the advantages of workforce diversity, including fostering increased creativity, improving decision-making, enhancing teamwork, achieving exemplary customer service and community relations, with improved financial performance.  However, as we shall see, this training all too often falls far short of its potential as an organizational intervention.

Why Unconscious Bias Training?

What is the purpose of unconscious bias training? We’ve come to understand that humans are enormously subject to unconscious bias in our thinking, attitudes, and resulting behaviors.  With the human brain encountering as much as 11 million bits of data per second, we reflexively rely on enormous data reduction and simplification tricks to simply function, moment to moment.  Sounds good, except, it turns out the non-conscious mental shortcuts we end up using in problem-solving and decision-making (often called heuristics) are greatly subject to bias, influenced by the worldview we are exposed to in our environment.  The attitudes, beliefs and storylines transmitted to us by family, schools, community, and media provide a template that we naturally employ in making sense of what we encounter in the world.

Those mental frameworks are socially inherited from prior generations, including the fears and biases about others that were prevalent in the past and are tied to the neurophysiological programming of our earliest species survival models.  Thus, we inherit data processing algorithms that are centuries, even millennia out of date.  It is no wonder, then, that we are apt to make split-second negative judgements about people who are different from us, without ever consciously considering our response or how we came to that conclusion.  This is unconscious bias in action, and it interferes directly with our interpersonal, leadership and organizational competence.

Why Does It Fall Short?

Faced with limited success in efforts to foster a successfully inclusive environment, many organizations have identified unconscious bias as a critical obstacle to successfully employing, retaining and utilizing a diverse workforce.  Trainings have rolled out that identify the mental processes underlying unconscious bias, how it shows up, the business and human impacts, and sources of attitudes that affect our judgements about others.  In addition, this training often leads participants in self-examination of the biases they may hold and the behaviors, from micro-aggressions to adverse employment decisions, that can ensue.   And then participants are sent back to work with advice on what not to do as a result of their bias – a sort of aversive model that can have unintended consequences, such as leading people to avoid having interactions with colleagues, so as to avoid making a mistake.

Unfortunately, we now know when we simply add conscious awareness of our bias to an existing base of unconscious attitudes, we can exacerbate the negative behavior we are aiming to reduce, particularly when we are activated to avoid doing the wrong thing.   It turns out that, when we don’t provide a set of strategies or practices that can be employed by individuals to intentionally overwrite the biased mental frames they are carrying, bias can, in fact, worsen.

 Unconscious Bias Training as Skill-Building

It is possible, however, to provide robust tools for reasserting control over our thinking and making active choices about what we allow to influence our attitudes, behaviors, and decisions.  Building on the same training platform, we can go beyond basic understanding of unconscious bias to provide very accessible personal practices that have demonstrated powerful bias-reduction and that stimulate inclusive behaviors and attitudes.  In the training space, these exercises translate into easily learned and practiced skills for enhanced self-awareness, for noting how bias intercedes in our thinking, and for building alternative storylines that first counteract, then overwrite the negative interpretations embedded in the bias.

Strategies that serve this purpose engage us in building a set of habits that help old biases fade and foster new, positive beliefs and attitudes.  These exercises undertake activities such as stereotype replacement, perspective-taking, courageous conversations, micro-affirmations, goals setting, and more.  Rather than focusing on aversion to bad behavior, all of these tactics are oriented toward increasing for clear thinking about our own mental processes, explicitly recognizing our capacity for personal and professional growth and committed action.   With practice, these skills can become second nature, a continuous, self-enhancing process that includes:

  • recognizing bias in our thoughts,
  • considering where the bias came from,
  • examining data that contradicts those negative stories,
  • deepening our insight and empathy for the experiences and challenges of others,
  • engaging in honest, open-ended exploration of colleagues’ experiences,
  • building new internal narratives based on attention to strengths and contributions, and
  • setting goals for our own learning and inclusive behavior, tied to proactive changes in the workplace environment.

These are the goals of the most effective and impactful unconscious bias training, invigorating participants’ sense of positive possibilities and self-empowered learning in service to the organization’s vision of a truly inclusive workplace that brings out the best of every employee.

Leveraging for Culture Change

One further thought. Naturally, the highest return on this investment occurs when cohorts undertake this proactive learning together.  Because the model is non-judgmental, yet focused on action-oriented personal, professional, and team development, colleagues can enroll to help each other continue the journey of self-discovery in an atmosphere of cooperative learning tied to motivation for positive results.  This, in turn, enhances individual and group emotional intelligence, generates a new shared language for naming and depowering bias.  This fosters supportive accountability for inclusiveness and stimulates a collective commitment to examining and evolving work practices that rise above the bias of the past.

This is the good news.  Rather than “flavor of the week”, unconscious bias training can really work.  When focused on skills of rewriting mental scripts and growing new personal and professional competence, unconscious bias training can be a potent cornerstone of leadership development and organizational culture change.


Christopher (Kit) Tennis, Ph.D. & Anita L. Sanchez, Ph.D.

18 01, 2018

The Epic Face-Off: A Vision of Humanity’s Collective Potential vs. Bigotry/Xenophobia

By |2018-01-18T16:17:46-05:00January 18th, 2018|Tags: , , , , , , , , |

We are definitely in it, this contest between progressive advancement of society and deeply entrenched fears and animosities. Some days I wistfully remember that, 30 years ago, I believed that this aspect of our work (diversity, inclusion and equity) wouldn’t really be needed by this late date. I was optimistic, and choosing to ignore the fact that society just does not change quickly, no matter how reasonable, sensible, ethical and practical the desired shift, more’s the pity. Homeostasis, even when it is miserable, is preferred by the human collective over change. It’s actually a hard-wired aspect of who we are. In the face of that, it can be hard to take solace in “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it aims toward justice” when we are living in the middle of that seemingly interminable arc.

Today, we are in yet another moment when we need to keep our eyes on the prize. When we allow ourselves to deeply, fully, joyfully envision the future for humanity that is our dearest hope, we are lifted up, renewed and invigorated in our pursuit of a human existence that is caring, just and equitable for every one of us. We have, every day, evidence that we are capable of moral greatness as individuals and as a species. We see it in acts small and large, from kindness to a stranger to entire countries welcoming refugees of war and disaster. Our capacity for goodness is astounding. As Desmond Tutu has said:  “We have seen some wonderful human beings –– Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa. What that says is that ultimately good prevails. It is a moral universe, despite all appearances to the contrary. Hahahaha! It is that… there’s no way in which evil will ultimately triumph.”

What does this mean on a daily basis? It directs us to live in this moment with conviction that we are ultimately on the right path. We have the mountaintop in our sight and know where we are headed on our journey, even as we slip into deep crevasses and slog through swamps and contest with misguided souls who stand in our way. One step at a time, always toward our goal, with firm determination grounded in inspired hope.

As has been recently observed, Trump and his ilk are a vaccination against the disease of electoral complacency that we have been lulled into. We now are powerfully reminded of the vital importance of being in action to drive toward our image of healthy democracy. When we keep our beautiful vision in mind, we naturally move toward it. We are inoculated against despair and empower ourselves to live into the dream.

In the corporate world, the confluence of regressive politics and demographic change is turning out to be quite the bracing tonic. It is clear to most of us that a positive future for humanity (and for business) everywhere will depend on a foundation of deeply effective equity and inclusion, one that allows the genius of our highly social species to bloom for our collective success. Our potential for living into the dream is magnificent.

Yes, the messes we’ve made will take a painfully long time to clean up, from post-colonial cultural dissolution to post-industrial economic disenfranchisement, but we have to keep on. The alternative is failure of this brilliant, beautiful, and terrifying evolutionary experiment of homo sapiens. I’m not going there, as a matter of conviction, faith, and sheer stubbornness. I’ve bet all my stake on our better nature winning out, in the end. How about you?