How Mindfulness Helped a Workplace Diversity Exercise

By Dr. Patricia Thompson

TLG Senior Consultant As published in Harvard Business Review January 16, 2017 A couple of years ago I was invited to facilitate an offsite training for the diversity committee of a Fortune 500 company. In an era in which “diversity” has become a buzzword in the business world, the firm’s interest in the topic was both admirable and understandable. Research shows that having an inclusive and diverse workforce is associated with creativity and innovation, and exposure to racial diversity has been linked to greater problem-solving skills and expanded perspective. The diversity committee, which had been meeting for about six months, seemed interested in trying something new. I was told that they invited me to lead the session precisely because I wasn’t a “diversity trainer.” Yet I was reluctant to accept the invitation. As a corporate psychologist with training in mindfulness, I have worked with many CEOs and senior executives to cultivate positive organizational culture, but the subject of diversity trainings is a tricky one. According to the sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, who have studied the effects of such trainings in approximately 830 U.S. companies over more than a decade, companies implementing compulsory training for managers actually showed a decline in employee minority representation. Moreover, one of my most memorable experiences with diversity training had occurred in graduate school, when I was the only person of color in my class. You might think that people training to be psychologists would be open to examining their own biases, looking within, and having authentic discussions. Much to my surprise, I was the only person in the room willing to acknowledge that I had any privilege (I was working toward a PhD and came from an educated family, both of which seemed to count). The discomfort among my peers was palpable, and we ended up having to scrap most of the exercises because of people’s inability (or, more likely, unwillingness) to dig deeper into the topics. Nonetheless, I ultimately accepted the diversity committee’s offer. Diversity initiatives are important, and discussions about sensitive topics like race, gender, and ethnicity need to occur. The training session could serve as a sort of pilot study: What if mindfulness could be a tool for helping employees tolerate the sort of discomfort my grad school peers weren’t able to handle? As I soon discovered, it could. In thinking through how to facilitate the meeting, I reflected on the context one of the group leaders had given me. Prior meetings had exhibited a consistent pattern: The same few people had dominated the discussions, the majority of the white men had stayed quiet and seemed disengaged, and after the sessions many of the people of color and women had expressed frustration among themselves about how the meeting had gone. One of the group leaders had also mentioned that she wanted the people in the room who usually didn’t speak to feel “uncomfortable.” My sense was that she perceived the quiet disengagement by some of her colleagues as comfort. My own assessment, however, was that they were probably shutting down because they were unable to tolerate the discomfort and their behaviors were actually their best efforts to cope with those feelings. Therefore, I knew that at the meeting it would be important to create the sort of environment in which people not only knew that they could talk but were expected to talk. I also knew that for an authentic conversation to occur, people would need to tap less into their analytical sides (which might have created a “polite” but less vulnerable conversation) and more into their emotions. So, in the meeting, after a quick review of the importance of diversity, I had the team agree to some mindfulness-based guidelines for the discussion to follow. For example, we explored the idea of coming to the discussion with a sense of openness. We talked about the importance of staying engaged and guarding against shutting down. I reviewed coping strategies such as deep breathing, taking a step back from your thought process, and questioning your perceptions if your find yourself disengaging. We talked about avoiding judgments (about each other and about themselves) and striving to accept each person’s perceptions as their truth. We discussed the importance of having empathy for every single member of the group, even when they expressed an opinion that differed from other people’s. I suggested that there was a high likelihood that each person might feel uncomfortable at some point and normalized that, encouraging the group to be supportive of others in their efforts to broach uncomfortable topics or try out unfamiliar behaviors. As we finished our review of the guidelines, one of the white males in the group laughed nervously and said, “This sounds like it’s going to be pretty scary.” Instead of moving past the quip, the group processed it — in a supportive way, with others also admitting their anxiety. It helped them to recognize their shared vulnerability while reinforcing their need to move through the discomfort so that they could be advocates for diversity in the organization. Going through this discussion took time, but I knew it was the only way we could lay the groundwork for the depth of conversation we needed to accomplish our goals. The ensuing discussion was meaty and productive. Some people of color talked about their frustrations and challenges — not only in the organization but also as people of color in the world. Some white males disclosed that they never really talk about these topics because they feel ill-equipped to handle them well and are afraid they will say the wrong thing or be perceived poorly. The key to making diversity training worth anyone’s time, it was clear, was to create an environment in which people could tolerate the discomfort that accompanies dealing with sensitive topics and the self-judgment that can go along with taking a hard, honest look at themselves, warts and all, so that they could eventually let down their guard. That mindfulness helped with this process probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the many studies that show how it can help us become aware of our biases and reduce them. Research by Adam Lueke and Bryan Gibson of Central Michigan University, for instance, has shown that people who listened to a 10-minute recording encouraging them to focus on their bodily sensations and thoughts without judgment showed less implicit bias based on race and age on a subsequent implicit associations task. Mindfulness can also decrease linguistic intergroup bias, which is essentially our tendency to expect people in the in-group (people of our own group) to behave more positively than those in the out-group. Then there are the emotional and interpersonal advantages associated with practicing mindfulness, which may help it play a role in diversity trainings. One study using fMRI showed that after a short mindfulness intervention, participants showed reduced activation in brain regions associated with emotional processing (the amygdala and the parahippocampal gyrus). In other words, the participants who practiced mindfulness were able to better regulate their emotions in response to negative stimuli. We also know that connecting with others of equal status with common goals in cooperative situations enables us to see more similarities with members of the group. I argue that mindfulness can make this more likely to happen in diversity seminars, because if you are more open to the experience, there is greater opportunity to listen without judgment, feel empathy for others, recognize commonalities, and build those deeper connections. Diversity initiatives shouldn’t be done away with — they just need to be reimagined. During our session we were able to talk about how everyone has biases, and many participants were willing to make themselves vulnerable by disclosing theirs. People of all races shared how their upbringing shaped some of their views and recognized that they have to be careful of how their perceptions affect their interactions with others. In short, they were able to be “real” with one another, a critical step for being able to learn from each other and truly experience the benefits that diverse opinions, ideas, and backgrounds have to offer. Dr. Patricia Thompson 770-270-1723