The Invitation of Janus

As the days grow short and nature draws us into silence, Western Christian culture flings us headlong into the “Lights! Camera! Action!” of the holidays. Clean, shop, cook and eat til you drop on Thanksgiving. Line up the next day for Black Friday shopping specials. Keep scrambling after work for gifts for everyone, including the ‘safety’ gifts you store up in case someone springs that unanticipated prezzie on you. Host/attend office and social holiday parties. Host/attend family holiday celebrations: often several, in different cities. Recover ’till New Years Eve, only to glitz up and hoist a glass too many. Then leap back into work, which reprises at break neck speed.

Why do we catapult ourselves into hyperdrive, when our wisdom traditions, including the vast wisdom of nature, calls us to introspection? One of my favorite wisdom teachers for this time of year is the Roman god, Janus, after whom January is named. He/she/they are the two-headed figure who look both backward and forward, taking stock of what’s been and gazing at what’s awaiting.

If you’re lucky enough to have another minute before careening back to work, might I suggest that you take Janus up on their invitation, and cuddle up together with a cup of tea and a journal? I’ve been steeping a few questions for you, just in case.

Looking back

  • What was 2019 ‘the year of’ for you? In the story of your life, what will the title of Chapter 2019 be?
  • What is in your life today that wasn’t here, or here in the same way, this time last year?
  • What or whom has been lost in 2019?  What’s been shed or become irrelevant?
  • What things, people, relationships, experiences, ideas, and forces have occupied your attention this year?  How do you feel about where you’ve spent your energies?
  • What did Chapter 2019 teach you most powerfully?
  • Which of 2019’s contributions to you would you like to carry with you into 2020?

Looking ahead

Warning: Janus and I are staunchly anti-NYE resolutions, so you won’t find any encouragement to set a higher bar so that you can bear down harder on yourself in 2020.

  • As you turn toward the promising unknown, what do you sense might be calling you?
  • What intentions or invitations would you like to extend to 2020?
  • What good shake-ups would you like to come your way?
  • Are there any small ways that you could be more available for the things you’re intending or inviting in?  For example… any beliefs you might challenge? any settings you could put yourself in? any connections you might make? any topics you might become more informed about? any expectations or standards that might be choking off ease or opportunity?
  • What are the two or three qualities with which you’d like to meet every challenge and triumph that awaits you in the year ahead?

Maybe these are the perfect questions for you; maybe they will lead you to better ones. What I hope is that you will take the precious opportunity of this moment to really land in yourself, your life, your lessons and your yearnings. As I look back and ahead on this first day of an awaiting year, I’m overcome with gratitude for so much, even (in my better moments) for the things that were really hard. But the work I’ve gotten to do with so many of you has been among my greatest treasures and lessons.

May 2020 be a year of bounty and well-being for you, your communities and families, and this aching world.


Grit Gone Wild: Armed and Dangerous

Normally this blog focuses on ways that individual leaders can blend grit and grace for maximum positive impact.  But the grit-grace imbalance that we often see in the workplace takes place in a larger context and at a larger scale. One person’s leadership sits within a corporate culture… which sits within a larger regional/national culture… which sits within the global context.

This is a time when events in the U.S. and around the world demand the larger view.  We’re being forced to examine leadership at every level: not only in our teams and organizations, but also in our lives, our communities and our countries. Everywhere I look, it seems to me that ‘grit’ seems to have so many leaders – and followers – by the throat.

Grit is the part of our brain and psyche that differentiates, delineates and strives, while grace is the part of us that unifies, connects and accepts. Both elements are useful and necessary. But for both to contribute their best, they each need to be in partnership with the other. Martin Luther King, Jr. sums up what happens when they become disjointed:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

It seems as though “power without love” is the dominant and rising force in so much of the world. The perspective of “I and mine” is overtaking the mindset of “all of us and all of our’s.” Collectively it seems we’ve muted our compassion, curiosity and gentility, and we can see the reckless and painful results. Ask the residents of Newtown, Parkland and Charleston. Ask African Americans; ask the police. Ask conservatives and liberals. Ask LGBTQ persons; ask Muslims and immigrants. Ask the people of Puerto Rico and Syria. Ask the poor and the working poor. Ask the oceans, forests and air.

This is grit gone wild: a radical swing to one side of the psyche’s pendulum, divorced from the mediating aspects of grace that could restore grit to its healthy best. This imbalance isn’t a new phenomenon. We move in and out of balance, from one side of the pendulum to the other. What does seem new in this gritty time is the level to which we are separating and armed at the boundaries.

As we turn against each other, we have so many weapons with which to assert our positions and silence the other. Here are just a few:

  • Systemic privilege
  • Misused positional power
  • Public shame and bullying
  • Destructive technologies
  • Self-righteousness
  • Xenophobia and nationalism
  • Prioritization of individual rights over the communal good

It’s as if we’re stuck in the sinister version of Thelma and Louise, grit-riding ourselves over a cliff.  As long as we keep flooring the pedal of self-interest and righteousness, we’ll hurl ourselves to the movie’s inevitable conclusion – a soaring demise … without the fun ride, the gorgeous sunset or the liberation.

We don’t need to abandon the productive engine of grit. But there’s also a serious imperative to to engage the forces of kindness, connection and care if we’re going to get the outcomes we really want.

The questions for leaders are clear. How are we complicit in grit’s reckless ride?  How will we usher love back in?







Happy Interdependence Day

July 4th: the day America celebrates its independence from England. Independence is one of our culture’s most cherished values. Individually and collectively, it is burnished into who we are.

Independence is the spark of the American spirit that created a nation, launched a bold social experiment, ignited countless breakthrough technologies and industries, and told each of us that hard work can give us a living dream. Today we pay homage to that uniquely American blend of self-reliance, courage and pluck. We celebrate the abundant fruit of that.

But today is also a painful reminder of what happens when we prize independence and neglect our connectedness. Independence (like any quality on the grit-grace continuum) cannot stand apart from of its opposite and remain a healthy force. Unmediated, it becomes toxic.

And it has. Let me count (some of) the ways.

We are a nation of people who are conditioned not to ask for help, and to denigrate those who request or need it. More people are separated from family, community and opportunity. Many of us live segregated by thought, class and race, and we fear those across the divide. We have built organizational cultures that foster vicious competition and drain people’s joy and imagination. Too many of our companies make decisions that harm the very people, communities and environments that make the enterprise possible. We have withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord and from the world.

This is a country that gasps for grace as it glorifies grit.

A larger idea is calling

Our stance of independence is neither sustainable nor practical in this world.  Look around and see the harm that it’s doing. It is time to claim both our self-reliance and our connectedness. Interdependence is the only stance that can advance us now, and we should claim it as our next bold aspiration.

And do it, like, today. So Happy Interdependence Day. Let’s get going.

What about you/us?

Independence was this country’s and culture’s first bodacious and beautiful aspiration. What if we claimed interdependence as the next frontier?

  • What would it feel like if you lived life more aware of the people, systems, and ecologies on which your comfort and possibilities depend?
  • What would it feel like if you remembered the people, systems and ecologies that are affected by your actions and decisions?  How would that change what you do?
  • What would your community need to shift in order to make high-quality resources equally accessible to every resident? What would it take for all public spaces to feel welcoming to all members of the public?
  • How would your organization change if its leaders understood that they were as dependent on their employees as the employees are on them?
  • How would our companies change if they treated their community and environment as true stakeholders on whom their success depended?
  • What would shift in this country if we embraced, philosophically and practically, ‘interdependence’ as our bold new value and promise?



Are you a leader who wants to better blend grit and grace in how you lead?
[button href=”” style=”emboss” size=”large”]Contact Me[/button]



Leading in the Eye of the Hurricane (Part 5): Charting the Next Right Step

You’ve found yourself leading in a time of crisis: which is to say, you are guiding others in a time of reality-shifting change. If you’ve been reading the other posts in this series, you’ve joined me in exploring several tasks that are especially helpful for leading in times like this:

  1. Catching one’s breath
  2. Confronting what’s happening and
  3. Connecting to what’s enduring and essential

All of these tasks involve pulling yourself out of the fray and entering the still, quiet “eye of the hurricane,” where you can find necessary grounding and perspective.

“Charting the next right step” is the final task and the natural outgrowth of the first three. It marks the transition out of reflection and into action. Yet even for the action-oriented, moving forward in a crisis can be daunting.

First, crisis often invokes a sense of powerlessness. The forces of disruptive change are frequently far beyond your control. It’s sobering (and sane) to recognize the limits of your influence, especially when your team is looking to you to handle it all.

My clients who are taking effective action in critical times tend to focus in on what they can control and influence, and take action in that zone. They stay attuned to the uncontrollable forces at play, but invest their efforts where they can actually accomplish something.

The second obstacle to moving forward is the desire to establish the “perfect” plan before taking action. The stakes are high and you want to get this right. But in the chaos of crisis, there is no perfect plan. If you wait for it, you’ll never act. So you have to take what you do know, take a logical next step, and use that step to inform the next one. When things are changing fast, taking action is sometimes the only way to discern what the ‘right’ action is.

Otto Scharmer, a Senior lecturer at MIT, calls this “prototyping.” It involves sketching out an initial strategy and testing it out through implementation. Each action cycle produces new learning, which in turn informs the next cycle of implementation. This iterative approach can often build momentum more effectively than searching for the illusive perfect plan.

You can also prototype yourself! In the swirl of changes, you may be stretched to develop a whole new skill set or aspect of yourself. (I can help you with that.) Don’t attempt to take on all the changes in one fell swoop. Pick one or two areas to start and make small new moves. Then reflect on the results, recalibrate, and reengage.

The third obstacle to useful engagement is frenzied activity.  Frenzy functions in a strange way in the brain. The stress hormones pumping through your body tell your brain that you’re in danger and the only way out is to step harder on the gas. But your logical mind knows better: you will never manage all the debris that a crisis throws into the air. And if you try, you’ll probably end up just depleting yourself and your team – with little to show for it. If you find yourself in frenetic activity, it might be time to return to the ‘eye’ and attend to Tasks 1 – 3. There, you can settle yourself and figure out what matters most.

In normal times, leaders tend to map out a long term strategy and execute it according to plan. But in crisis – when the world as you know it is falling away and something new is emerging – it’s often impossible to see far enough ahead to map more than a few next steps. So crisis requires a different mode of taking action. It calls on you to discern new patterns as they are emerging, to formulate a prototype strategy, and test that prototype by putting it into motion. Then learn as you go, using the actions you’ve take to inform the actions to follow.


Leading In The Eye Of The Hurricane (Part 4): Connecting To What’s Essential and Enduring

This is the fourth of my five-part series on crisis leadership.

If you’re like many people, you tend to equate ‘crisis’ with ‘disaster.’ But the word crisis actually comes from the Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ It describes any event – whether positive, negative or neutral – that separates a new reality from an old one. Thinking about crisis in terms of ‘separation’ certainly doesn’t eliminate the difficulty and loss of change.  But when leaders look at crisis as being cast into a new world, vs. as being thrown to their doom, they may be more able to navigate the storm of change productively.

In this series, I’ve explored the implications of this different lens on crisis, and mapped out five essential “renewal” tasks for crisis leadership: 1) Understanding the nature of crisis; 2) Catching one’s breath; 3) Confronting what’s happening now; 4) Connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and 5) Charting the next right step. So far, we’ve covered the first three.

  1. “Understanding the nature of crisis” involves relating to crisis, not necessarily as disaster (though that may certainly be there) but in a larger way: as a moment of profound separation from what we’ve known, expected, and believed.
  2.  “Catching one’s breath” requires pulling yourself out of the fray of change and into the eye of the storm, where the winds are quiet and the skies are clear. Taking the time to reflect and get your bearings feels counterintuitive when the world is going haywire.  But it’s critically important work, because it’s hard to lead others when you’re in a swirl.
  3. “Confronting what’s happening now.” is about leading others in seeing what’s happening, making sense of it intellectually and processing it emotionally. This is what it means to confront something – to face it head-on and heart-in.

Today we’ll explore the fourth task of crisis leadership: connecting to what’s essential and enduring amidst the change.

In crisis, we can become preoccupied with what’s being lost or threatened. Your world may be turning on its head and upending you, your team and your organization in the process: fighting for survival; recasting missions; questioning long-held beliefs; restructuring, regrouping or recovering.

But in the press of adaptation, we often forget to anchor ourselves in those things that aren’t changing, which can sustain and stabilize us. These are usually deeper “DNA” things like values (personal and organizational), shared history, accumulated knowledge, unique capabilities, or a strong reputation. There’s an essential “you” (or “us”) that continues, even if you have to radically change how you express it in your new reality.

Over the past months, I’ve been in conversations with many leaders who are remembering to tap into what is essential and enduring.  Here are some examples of how they’ve expressed that:

“I know we have to pay attention to the business. But focusing on our people is the only way this business survives.”

“Everything about how we do our work is changing. And personally, I don’t agree with the new direction. But I keep bringing myself and my staff back to our core mission – which is, has been, and always will be – of vital importance. We will adapt whatever we need to in order to keep this critical mission alive.”

“The company is exerting enormous pressure on us to sell, sell, sell. But what’s always won us business is delivering exceptional results for our clients. So that’s what we’re going to keep doing. I’m keeping an eye on sales, but I’m not going to chase ‘just any’ work or work we can’t deliver on.”

“Our church is losing its pastor after 30 years. We have two main tasks in this transition.  The first is to affirm this community’s many strengths, which are the pastor’s legacy to us. Our second job is to be intentional about drawing on those assets, so that the congregation stays robust beyond him.”

We can all take a cue from these leaders, who are drawing on foundational values and assets for stability in the storm. But that doesn’t mean it’s all going to work out for them – or you. Maybe you’ll still have to lay off staff. Can you challenge yourself do that in a way that’s true to the organization’s animating values? True to your own? Perhaps your team will lose the funding for its cherished project. Rather than fight to keep a doomed project alive, can you lead your team in reimagining its offering for a new world?

This makes sense, right? But you’d be surprised how often I see leaders abandon essential and enduring strengths as they scramble to adapt to a new reality. Try not to join their ranks. Instead, remember to articulate and amplify what is good and abiding amidst the change.

What about you?

  1. Think of a time when you led (or are leading) in profound disruption.
  2. How consciously or effectively did you leverage the power of what is “essential and enduring” during that time of change?  What were the results?
  3. The next time you face a major ‘separation,’ how can you better articulate and amplify the aspects of your organization that will continue?






Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane (Part 3): Confronting What’s Happening Now

This is the third installment of my five-part series on crisis leadership. The premise of the series is that leading in times of crisis (disruptive change) requires, to quote Liam Neeson, “a very particular set of skills.” This post examines another of those important capacities.

First, a quick recap. The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ We normally think of a crisis as something terrible. But it’s actually any cataclysmic event that separates “what is” from “what used to be.”  Crisis shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibility and what/whom we can trust. You may see the Presidency of Donald Trump as the edge of Doomsday or a floodgate of opportunity. Either way, this is a time of crisis, in the sense that it’s a profound separation from what has been. And you are leading in it.

In Part 1 of this series, I mapped out four essential tasks for crisis leadership: catching one’s breath; confronting what’s happening now; connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and charting the next right step.

Part 2 focused on the first of those tasks: catching one’s breath. Catching your breath requires pulling yourself out of the fray and into the eye of the storm, where the winds are quiet and the skies are clear. Getting centered is counterintuitive when the world is going haywire.  But catching your breath is crucial, because it’s hard to lead others when you’re breathless.

This post zeroes in on the second task: confronting what’s happening now.

Because crisis disrupts what we’ve known and relied on, it challenges how we think about ourselves and our world. So in times like this, leaders need to help their team to get grounded and to differentiate reality from the predictable hallucinations of fear.

Fake news, fact-as-opinion and partisan information bubbles make it very challenging to get an accurate picture of reality. Here are a few tips for getting your bearings in the swirling hurricane of change.

  • Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” In chaotic times, it’s natural to try to minimize confusion. But the danger in that is that you might miss critical information. Navigating crisis requires leaders to model the ability to stay curious, keep learning, and adjust as you go. Try not to assume (or let others assume) that you know how this situation is going to go. Beware of over-simplifying a complex and nuanced reality. Take care not to shut down to perspectives or people that you disagree with. Stay open.
  • Engage your stakeholders. Don’t make assumptions about what your customers, suppliers, competitors, employees and bosses are experiencing. Ask them – and let in what they’re telling you.
  • Get educated. If your business is affected by pending legislation, read the bill itself, rather than relying on legislators’ or media’s interpretations. Consult legitimate media sources on the left and the right. If you’re wondering if media reports are accurate, here’s a link to an article by on how to spot fake news.
  • Look at objective measures. Facts are the best stars by which to navigate this new terrain. But since “facts” have become a matter of opinion, make sure that the methodology by which the measures were arrived at are sound.

Once you gather information about what’s happening now, you have to make sense of it intellectually. Involving your team in this process is a great way to get everyone engaged, out of denial and up to speed. Here are examples of questions you can ask:

Based on what we’ve read, heard and experienced…

  • What do we know?
  • What do we not know, and when/how will we find out?
  • What do our data indicate will be the most likely outcomes?
  • What are the opportunities and threats of those outcomes?
  • What contingencies should we be preparing for?

The last, and perhaps most difficult, aspect is confronting what’s happening at an emotional level. Disruptive change has a profound impact on us personally, and failing to deal with these impacts is often what inhibits our ability to adapt.  Here are some questions you can use to confront the new reality at a personal level:

  • How does this all affect me?  How does it affect us?
  • What do I/we need to confront about the world or ourselves to really let this information in?
  • How do we feel about what we know?  What emotions does it stir in us?
  • How might our emotions and reactions be clouding our view or impeding our progress?  How might we manage that?
  • How can we leverage our emotions to foster positive action?

One of the greatest temptations in crisis is to jump to action. Sometimes, immediate action is exactly what’s called for. But often, that impulse to act is rooted in a desire to escape discomfort. Taking the time to catch your breath and to critically assess what’s happening can help you take action that is rooted in reflection, vs. in reactivity.









Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane (Part 2): Catching One’s Breath

Six weeks ago, I posted the first installment of “Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane,” a five-part series on crisis leadership. I knew then that big change was afoot, though I’m not sure many of us knew how hard the winds of change would blow.

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ A crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. Whether we see this disruptive event as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. You may see the Presidency of Donald Trump as the edge of Doomsday or a floodgate of opportunity. Either way, this is a time of crisis, in the sense that it’s a profound separation from what has been. And you are leading in it.

In Part 1 of this series, I mapped out four essential tasks for crisis leadership: catching one’s breath; confronting what’s happening now; connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and charting the next right step.

This post focuses on the first of those tasks: catching one’s breath.

Whether perilous or auspicious (or both), a crisis is a stormy time when the winds of change howl at hurricane force. For most of us, the instinct is to jump into the swirl and do something. Have you had any experience with that in the past couple of months? If so, you may have noticed a lot more activity than productivity, because we’re often taking action from an off-balanced place.

People are intently looking to you for What To Do, so it can be counterintuitive to slow down and get still. But that’s exactly what’s needed, because your wisest action will arise from your deepest center. Most leaders agree on the utility of entering stillness, yet most say it’s a lot easier said than done.

First you have to notice when you’re in the frazzled fray, so you can recognize when to pull back. The signs of being off-center are different for everyone, but can include:

  • an inability to sleep, and/or chronic exhaustion that is not improved by rest
  • increased irritability
  • confusion or overwhelm
  • obsessive thinking and/or engagement in media
  • a change in eating or drinking habits (e.g., consuming more carbs, fat and alcohol)

Even if you notice these symptoms in yourself, you may tend to override or gut through them. But these signs are actually your greatest allies, because they’re telling you that you’re probably not at your best. Heed them as a call to pause.

Leaders often tell me, “I know I need to take a minute to get myself right, but I don’t have the time.” As compelling as that narrative is, it’s counterproductive. Most of us think ‘pausing’ means taking a huge time out: a trip to the Carribean, a retreat to the mountains… But who has time for that? In times of wild change, leaders need to come back to center over and over while on the run – much like tennis players return to a balanced stance after every stroke.

The most accessible pause button is the breath. Slowing and lowering the breath, even for 30 seconds, changes your inner circuitry. It stills the inner winds. It lowers anxiety and returns oxygen to the brain. With oxygen comes clearer thinking.

Try it right now. For the next 60 seconds, relax the muscles in your belly. Gently inhale for four slow counts and exhale for six, letting your belly passively receive and become empty of breath. As you do this, see if you can rest your attention simply on the gentle sensation of that process. At the end of that minute, compare how you feel now vs. a minute ago.  What do you notice?

If you have more than one minute to pause, by all means take it. Take lunch and eat good food. Take a walk around the block between meetings. Listen to a piece of music you love. Get in the pool or the gym. Leave work on time for once. Take a mental health day. Take a social media sabbatical for an hour or two. The goal is to interrupt the spinning so that you can find your ground.

Once you’ve found the stillness of the eye of the hurricane, it’s crucial to get grounded before you go back into the fray. Because if you’re not reengaging from your center, then you’ll reengage from a place of stress. Which, I’m going to guess, may not be you at your best.

In the chaos of disruption, where do you turn to remember who you are, what you stand for and what really matters? Maybe you find your ground in a personal mission statement or a set of core values. Maybe you find it in a tenet or practice from your faith tradition. Maybe nature is what grounds you. Maybe a favorite writer, poet or musician helps you find your center. Maybe your friends or family bring you back.

Where and how you get grounded is a deeply personal and intimate thing. What matters is that you know where your ground is and you know how to find it. The more chaotic the environment, the more often you need to return to your center.

What about you?

Most leaders agree that catching their breath is vital in disruptive times.  Yet so few of them actually do it. What about you? How are you at ‘finding the eye?’ If your answer is “Not so great,” what stops you from doing what you know is so important? Maybe it’s a bit of arrogance: a tacit belief that you, uniquely, can lead with mastery while off balance. Maybe a sense of powerlessness: a sense that you would catch your breath if you could, but conditions won’t permit it. Maybe it just feels self indulgent. Or maybe you just never learned how.

Start somewhere. What is one action you can take today to lead more skillfully in the hurricane of crisis?  Who will support you in carrying that out?


Leading In The Eye Of The Hurricane

“Crisis.” You hear that word a lot these days: in the media, in the coffee shop, around the world and around the kitchen table. We speak the word in anxious tones because we equate ‘crisis’ with ‘catastrophe.’ Trust me, I’m right there with you. But I’ve started to wonder. Could the way we traditionally relate to crisis actually limit our ability to respond well to it?

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ In this light, a crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. It is something that shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. By this definition, events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the launch of the internet and the 2008 housing crash were all crises. More recently, there’s been Brexit and the U.S election. Whether you view these events as positive or negative, they have fundamentally changed our lives.

So here we are. The wild storm of change is bearing down and you’re leading in it.  People are looking to you for guidance, but you may be thinking, “How do I lead others in terrain that’s alien to me?” Or in plainer terms, “How do I lead when I don’t have a clue?”

The wild storm of change is bearing down and people are looking to you for guidance.

If you’re leading in times of profound disruption, it’s natural to hunker down, drive yourself harder and work longer – as if somehow you could get it all in order. But you’ll exhaust yourself if you try to tame the hurricane of change. You’ll be overtaken if you try to outrun it and upended if you ignore it.

The safest place to be in a hurricane is the eye, where things are quiet and still. There is such a place within you, where you can go to regain your balance, strength and sense of perspective. Those who are following you need you to go there. They need you at your best so that they can be at theirs. The eye of the storm is where you can go to carry out four “tasks of leadership renewal” that are vital in times of crisis:

  • Catching one’s breath (if even for a moment)
  • Confronting what’s happening now
  • Connecting to what’s essential and enduring
  • Charting the next right step

In upcoming posts, we’ll explore each of these tasks in more depth. In the meantime, I invite you to notice what shifts if you view a ‘crisis’ as a radical separation from what was. Such a departure is, at its heart, a transformation. And in it, we will experience not only the tragedy of loss but also the triumph of invention – if we don’t lose our way.

How Do We Loosen the Grip of Implicit Bias?

Implicit bias is the new hot topic in diversity these days. But what is it, exactly? Why are we talking about it now? And what do we do about it? Here’s my take on those questions.

What is it?

The best way to define implicit bias is to contrast it against explicit bias. Explicit biases are the conscious judgments that we hold about other people/groups and that intentionally drive our individual, collective and/or systemic behavior. Examples include segregation, sexual harassment, bullying of LGBT people and racial profiling. On the other hand, implicit biases are discriminatory behaviors and outcomes that arise without intent. They’re often born from judgments/beliefs that we don’t even know we have and may not even agree with consciously. Here are some examples of implicit bias:

  • executives’ making important decisions on the golf course
  • the use of unintentionally denigrating turns of phrase (e.g., “He’s so articulate!” “That is so gay.”)
  • expectations of women to be the meeting note-takers and corporate party planners
  • unspoken organizational norms that pressure people to be someone they’re not in order to be accepted or successful.

While one form of bias is overt and the other more subtle, they can have similarly profound effects – not only on those on the losing end of bias, but also on the health, productivity and harmony of our collective engagement.

Why now?

Implicit bias has come to the fore for a couple of reasons. The more hopeful reason is that, having significantly reduced explicit bias from our workplace policies and practices, we can now address the subtler vestiges of inequity. It’s like manually removing the fragments of computer code that are left on your hard drive after you uninstall a program.

The other reason we’re talking about implicit bias now is that, 50 years after the civil and women’s rights eras, we’re stunned at the inequities that still exist. Reducing explicit bias hasn’t made bias disappear; it’s simply driven it underground. It’s still shaping our landscape in powerful ways, but is harder now to detect and address.

What can we do?

To address implicit bias, we have to be willing to see it, to claim the reality of it without collapsing into shame or blame, and to commit to action. I’m going to explore it through the lens of gender, but the principles apply to all dimensions of “diversity.”

We know we need to start with awareness – but what do we look for to check where implicit bias is operating? I’ve developed an “AEIOU” model to help guide your inquiry:

A = Access.  Inclusion in the conversations and relationships that matter
E = Expression.  Permission to speak freely and fully
I = Influence. Power to sway group opinion
O = Opportunity. Receipt of plumb assignments and promotions
U = Updraft. Dominant social status and systemic advantage

Let’s dive in to each of these.

Access. Are there any people or subgroups in your organization who just seem to be more “in the know” than others? Folks who always seem to just be there when the off-line decisions are made? Then this person or group enjoys the implicit bias of “access” tipping in his/her/their favor. They won’t even see that the door of access is wider for them, but others will feel it acutely.

How does this show up?  Working parents – mostly mothers – often face access bias, since a lot of business happens after hours and on weekends. The guys on the golf course don’t intend to exclude women – in fact they may wish that more women would join them there. But events held outside of 9 – 5 implicitly block mothers (and primary care-giving fathers) from important goings-on.

What you can do. Pay attention to patterns. Starting noticing who’s always got the boss’ ear, who always seems to be ‘in the know,’ who hangs out together on off-hours. If you see demographic patterns, implicit bias may be at work. Beware the inner circle; challenge yourself to create a bigger welcome mat.

Expression. Watch to see if certain people or subgroups in your organization have greater latitude than others to express themselves freely. Are some folks allowed to expound on their ideas, while others are frequently interrupted? Are some folks forgiven when they misspeak or show emotion, where others are penalized for it?   These are signs of expression bias.

What does that look like on a practical level? I hear this all the time: that a man can forcefully speak his mind and be seen as passionate. whereas a woman who speak vigorously will be labeled as bitchy, shrill or angry. To avoid getting stuck with those career-limiting labels, women may mute their strong opinions, only to receive performance feedback that they are not perceived as a leader because they don’t speak up enough. It’s a maddening catch-22 that ties women and minorities in knots – while largely escaping the majority’s awareness.

What you can do. Notice patterns in how you interpret others’ behavior. Watch your thoughts when a woman speaks directly vs. when a man does. Watch who gets the airtime in your meetings. Are the members of one particular demographic group “just quiet,” while others are more vocal? If you see these signs of expression bias, build in processes and norms that encourage everyone to speak and to be heard. If someone says that you don’t listen to her, resist the urge to label her a whiner or oversensitive. Consider that she may be accurately describing a reality of which you’re unaware.  Say thank you, explore it and act on it.

Influence. Do some people or groups regularly sway decisions and conversations, while others’ ideas routinely go “splat” on the conference room table?  If there’s a pattern to who influences and who doesn’t, there may be some form of implicit bias in action. One of my favorite satirical cartoons sums up what this looks like in practice:

Miss Triggs










What you can do: Meetings are a great place to notice influence bias. You can keep written track of who gets the group’s attention; who changes the direction of the conversation; whose ideas get adopted. And whose don’t. If you’re too “in the mix” to do this kind of tracking, pull in an organization development consultant to do it for you. You’ll learn a lot.

One of the most powerful things you can do to even the influence playing field is to actively acknowledge the input of the unheard. Like this: “Wait a minute, I want to go back to the point that Peggy made.” or “Bill, thanks for restating Carlos’ earlier suggestion. Like you, I support his idea.” Folks will follow your lead and start paying more attention to the people they’ve overlooked.

Opportunity. Opportunity bias can show up in a lot of ways. Maybe there’s a well-respected woman in your organization whose career is progressing more slowly than male counterparts’. Maybe white employees tend to get the reputation for being “high performing” after one successful project, whereas women and minorities have to mount a series of successes before they’re similarly regarded. Maybe the boss has a couple of “go-to” people for quick-turnaround or high-visibility projects. If the go-to folks share traits in common with the boss, there may be implicit bias at play.

What you can do. Go back over the special tasks and projects you’ve assigned over the last year. Who got them and who didn’t? Pay attention to how long it takes you to trust your male employees vs. the females; whites vs. people of color, straights vs. gays. If you notice that there are groups or individuals that you’ve overlooked, make a development plan to get as many of them as possible into your go-to group.

Updraft. Updraft refers to the phenomenon of ‘privilege’. In nature, an updraft is a warm current of air that lifts and carries something in flight, such that it rises and coasts with minimal effort. Updrafts occur in cultures too, where certain groups enjoy the ease of policies, structures and resources that were constructed with them in mind. Those who are placed into those cushy currents don’t even see their advantage – it’s just how things are. But have you ever heard women or minorities say, “You have to be twice as good to get half as far”?  That sums up life in the headwinds.

Historically, groups in the U.S. updraft have been whites, men, heterosexuals and the wealthy. And although the currents are shifting, these are still the groups that fly with the greatest relative ease.

What you can do: The question isn’t, “Is there an updraft?” The answer to that is yes. Rather, we need to ask, “How can those of us riding the updraft make more room?” “What systems can we reinvent so others may join the warm currents of favor?” Last, and perhaps most important, “How do we in the updraft tolerate the discomfort we may feel when our position in the current is shared by others?”

Addressing implicit bias takes commitment and persistence. And yes – to eliminate the impact of implicit bias is a massive personal and collective effort. Yet there is so much we can do to reduce bias harmful effects on people, productivity and organizational health. And it starts with each of us. Simple as A,E,I,O,U.


A Lesson From the Season: Change and Letting Go

It’s Fall in Washington, DC. Watching the leaves turn color always makes me think about change.

Did you know that when the leaves turn, the green does not actually change into a different color? Rather, the chlorophyl that creates the green color simply falls away, revealing the amazing reds, oranges and yellows that were there all the time. The leaves let go of something, and something else – often quite spectacular – emerges.

There’s a lesson in this for us. If we want to change, we often assume that we have to make ourselves into something new. Yes, change takes work. But the turning leaves remind us that there is an important receptive, “grace-full” aspect to change. Rather than will ourselves into a different color, we first need to allow our dominant hues to recede.  Change starts with letting go.

Here’s an example from my own life. “Effort” is one of my dominant personal traits; it’s my “color green.” I tell myself that applying maximum effort to everything I do is the key to my effectiveness. In part, this serves me and others well, because it causes me to strive for high quality in everything I do. But there’s a huge downside. I often expend more energy on something than is necessary or useful. I can get wound up in perfectionism and over-thinking, which often detract from the quality of what I’m doing. So this strong trait of mine, which has worked so well and so often, can also tie me and others up in knots.

So it’s time for a change. I’ve tried willing a new ‘zen me’ into being. And you can imagine how well that’s gone. Any shifts that I have experienced have arisen gradually from relaxing my cherished ways. Letting go has allowed other colors to emerge: colors that are more interesting and effective than I could ever have manufactured.

Relaxing my grip on efforting, I become naturally a bit more open, more collaborative, less tight. I waste less time and drive myself (and others) just a little less nuts. And often, the quality of what I’m doing is as good as or better than what I produce when I work something to death. I haven’t made change happen; I’ve simply eased up a bit on my dominant hues.

It’s a gentle process, but it is not easy.

  • It takes awareness to notice our “color green” moves.
  • It takes intention to resist engaging our default.
  • It takes a bit of courage. If we relax the grip on our ‘color green,’ how do we know what hues are lying in wait? What if we don’t like them? What if they don’t work?
  • It requires restraint and patience to let go of our dominant moves in small increments, so that our ‘green’ can fade gradually.

If you want guidance on how to make a natural and lasting shift in how you manage or live, watch the leaves and follow their lead.

What about you?

  1. What aspects of yourself do you feel have outlived their usefulness as dominant characteristics or habits? (Not ones that you would want to lose altogether, but that you’d like to augment with other hues.)
  2. What mechanism might you set up to notice when you’re leaning into your “color green” yet again?
  3. Once you notice that you’re “greening” again, what small experiment could you make to simply relax that pattern just a bit?
  4. When you relax your pattern, watch what new hues emerge: within you, in the quality of your actions, and in your interactions with others. Don’t look for radical change, but rather for small hints of something new.

And in case you need more inspiration, here’s a wonderful song by Carrie Newcomer about leaves, letting go and and the emergence of something new.  Happy fall!