Diversity Paradigm Shift 1: The lions’ den

How we think about things affects what we see and perceive in the world and how we respond to it. When we undergo a paradigm shift, it changes our thinking, our perceived reality and how we respond to it. Over the next few blogs I’ll be sharing some reflections on the Diversity Paradigm Shift Jonathan and I have been undergoing, culminating in our focus upon Inclusive Leadership.

Diversity is a natural fact. Equality is a moral and a legal stance which can help make sense of diversity. Put together, are they a good thing? After decades of promoting ‘E&D’ I’d have to shout a resounding ‘Yes!’ But let’s press the ‘pause’ button. If E & D is self-evidently good, why do E & D consultants have to keep banging on about the ‘case’ for it? And what accounts for the sometimes extreme resistance and hostility we encounter in the course of our work? I can honestly say that some of the experiences I’ve had whilst delivering E & D training have been among the most unpleasant I’ve ever had. I call these my ‘lions’ den’ experiences: you get the picture!

Yet I can also report that over time those experiences have become fewer and farther between, whilst the feedback Jonathan and I have had on our work has never been better, especially from people who start out as sceptics. So what has been going on? An incidental conversation with a friend gave me a clue…

Steve has lived with M.E. for many years. He recently told me he was trying something called Amygdala Retraining to interrupt negative thought patterns triggered by minor events. It was a light-bulb moment. The amygdala, as you may know, is an important part of the brain’s limbic system. It is shown in research to perform a critical role in processing memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. Notably responsible for our “3 F’s” – Fight, Flight or Freeze – responses, we can be sure that whenever we feel a sense of deep threat or anxiety, the amygdala is somehow involved (it’s also responsible for our other ‘F’ response, but that’s another story…!).

When the amygdala is stimulated by a perceived threat, all rational thought can be suspended in favour of a flip into ‘survival’ mode. It’s what Daniel Goleman calls ‘amygdala hijack’. The result? Aggression (fight), withdrawal (flight), terror (freeze). Nothing describes better those ‘lions’ den’ training room moments, where everyone in the room – sometimes including the trainer – seems to be in one of these three modes.

Over the years, Jonathan and I have observed that E & D may be an area of inquiry particularly likely to trigger ‘amygdala hijack’. Now, it’s easy to blame others for our unpleasant experiences – by putting it down to their ‘resistance’, ‘ignorance’ or ‘prejudice’. But as a consultant whose work depends upon understanding the psychology of the workplace, that’s not good enough. It’s our job to be helpful. So we need to understand what triggers others and ourselves into ‘amygdala hijack’, and then help to in reduce or eliminate those triggers. Why? Because most people do not have direct control over what triggers amygdala hijack, and during the process virtually no useful learning can take place.

To avoid these lose-lose situations, I would argue that all good E & D consultants, coaches and trainers over the years hone through trial, error, creativity, courage, a sense of humour, and inspiration, our skilfulness in managing the adverse emotions E & D can trigger in people. Over the next few blogs, I’ll talk some more about how the particular approach to Jonathan and I have been developing during Diversity Paradigm Shift has led us toward an intensive focus on Inclusive Leadership.