No Image Available

Jan Hills

Head Heart + Brain


Read more about Jan Hills

Promoting a thinking environment creates inclusion


There are a whole lot of new words being created to explain the impact of bias and sexism which comes with it. Words like:

  • Manterrupting: Unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man.
  • Mansplaining: Explaining without regard to the fact that another person in the group knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman
  • Manstanding. Talking excessively or over a woman.
  • Bropropriating: Taking a woman’s idea and taking credit for it.

And these behaviours are most prevalent when we are trying to solve business issues, usually in meetings. Not only do these behaviours damage thinking they exclude colleagues from taking part in quality problem-solving.

We have been researching what strategies work when organisations want to create a more inclusive work environment.

The research is for our forthcoming book Brain-savvy Wo+men which is being published in early October. As part of the research we spoke to leaders of companies, as well as HR directors, heads of diversity and inclusion. We also carried out a survey asking men and women about their experience in the workplace.

We used our Success Profile methodology which helps to identify the difference that makes a difference in moving to a more gender diverse workplace and inclusive culture. The full results and the model which we created will be described in our book but we wanted to share with you a little of what we found on inclusion given it is such a hot topic in business right now.

Our research participants certainly recognised these new words and the behaviours they describe. Ask any woman in the working world and they all recognise the behaviour. A woman speaks up in a meeting, only to hear a man’s voice interrupt. A woman puts forward an idea, only to have a man repeat it five minutes later.

The women said they may have the creativity but men have the right vocal cords, tone and a sympathetic audience. And as a result, many women said they shut up, lose their confidence or worse, the credit for the idea.

You might have thought you are just being paranoid…

But thanks to Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant you can feel just a little less so when you mentally replay those meetings which went so wrong. In an article in the New York Times, they point out the perils of ‘speaking while female,’ along with a number of studies that support the anecdotal experience of women.

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant say “We’ve both seen it happen again and again. When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea.”

Getting heard

One area that comes up time and again in the research is the difficulty women have in getting heard in meetings, the words above have been created to describe these difficulties. And along with not getting heard is a loss of confidence and for the organisation, the loss of diverse perspectives.

One senior leader who has championed gender diversity told us women bring a different perspective to the conversation and to decision-making. Without their input things get missed and decisions are made based on a much narrower perspective.

The reality for many people, not just women, is that meetings are a litany of poor behaviour and no time to think.

How many times have you been in a meeting and your idea gets killed by a frown from the boss? How often do you get interrupted? How often do you feel people are speaking just to hear their own voice? And how many times have you wondered why you bother going to meetings at all? And meetings are a fertile ground for exclusion, the same old people speak, no one listens and ideas are stolen. And only a small ‘in crowd’ get their ideas heard.

Better thinking

Having a structured approach to meetings, to decision-making and problem solving can be a powerful means of creating inclusivity and with it better decision-making and better quality thinking about how to solve problems. One approach which has the advantage of tackling all of these issues at once is the Thinking Environment developed by Nancy Kline.

Kline created the 10 components of the Thinking Environment to improve the quality of thinking. But we learnt it has a positive by-product of improving inclusivity and with it a positive impact as part of a diversity and inclusion strategy.

We talked to Nancy, as part of our research, and she described some of the remarkable results organisations are achieving when they use the Thinking Environment as part of their inclusion strategy. Nancy said she believed these results are achieved because the methodology provides a safe inclusive environment in its design.

The Ten Components of the Thinking Environment

Nancy provides an online self-assessment on her website: 

  1. Attention: Listening with palpable respect and without interruption
  2. Equality: Ensuring equal turns to think and speak
  3. Ease: Offering freedom from internal urgency
  4. Incisive Questions: Finding and removing untrue assumptions that distort thinking
  5. Information: Supplying the facts and dismantling denial
  6. Diversity: Encouraging divergent thinking and diverse group identities
  7. Encouragement: Giving courage for cutting edge thinking by removing internal competition
  8. Feelings: Allowing sufficient emotional release to restore thinking
  9. Appreciation: Practicing a 5:1 ratio of appreciation to criticism
  10. Place: Creating a physical environment that says to people, “You matter.”

The 10 components of the Thinking Environment are also brain-savvy, mitigating threat and increasing reward in the CORE elements of our brain-savvy model. The approach creates more reward than threat in:

  • Certainty: People know the process, have a space to speak and a space to listen.  
  • Options: People can choose to speak or not, they may reveal as much or as little of their thinking.
  • Reputation: There are no challenges to status everyone’s voice and ideas are equally welcome and respected without criticism.
  • Equity: By its very design the components create equity, giving equal voice to all involved.

But overall the Thinking Environment creates social connection, attention and space – instituted silence in which to think. In an article [PDF] Dr Paul Brown, the neuroscientist and coach said, after experiencing the Thinking Session coaching process, “I think I know why this works. I think this quality of attention and its generative silence calm the amygdala, open the limbic system, and hold it open by keeping the amygdala calm, so that the brain can rearrange the architecture of the client’s life (both neurologically, and metaphorically).”

The neuroscience also suggests that when a person is in a thinking environment and there is a guaranteed quality of attention, the ‘approach’ mode is active – the reward mode. Neurochemicals such as serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin bathe the cortex, so that it can think whilst maintaining a productive relationship with the limbic system.

If this seamless attention is shattered by interruption or intervention, as happens in traditional problem-solving meetings the ‘avoid’ neurochemicals such as adrenalin and cortisol can begin to bathe the cortex, and thinking slows down. In effect, when we interrupt, talk over, or must defend our ideas we can extinguish fresh, independent thinking.

It seems, then, that the ‘magic’ which is created is the ability to experience attention and uninterrupted time to think. We experience it as ‘trust’.

The Thinking Environment values, encourages and celebrates deep quality thinking. Nancy says why this works to help mitigate gender bias and increase inclusion is 3-fold:

  • The components celebrate the masculine trait of thinking deeply and make it accessible to both genders.
  • The behaviours used are mainly feminine, listening, encouraging, asking questions  and they enable men to legitimately adopt these traits, by providing an environment where they are not just required but celebrated.

These first two components have an equalising effect and the more the components are used the more this spreads through the company.

These rituals strip away excuses for bias behaviour and using the components provides a decision-making environment that mitigates against bias, slowing down thinking, going deeper, looking for quality over quantity, listening to everyone involved equally.

  • Without the need to behave based on stereotypes the Thinking Environment brings to the fore the skills and traits of human connection and both genders can reclaim all their preferences rather than being judged on their masculinity or femininity.

Women take up traditionally masculine traits such as: being assertive, speaking boldly, acting with confidence and engaging in debate. And man reclaim the best of their feminine traits: listening, asking questions, using intuition and collaborating. 

Applying a Thinking Environment to the inclusion strategy

A key premise of the Thinking Environment is that action is only as good as the thinking behind it. So, when the thinking is flawed the action is flawed. This is a powerful statement when we apply it to understanding gender equality and inclusion.

How deeply have they been thought about collectively in your organisation?

To achieve a culture of inclusion managers and leader need to have the skills to create an environment where people think best. This requires that they understand about stereotypes, how they are formed and how they persist in organisations and the role of micro-messages in their meetings and day-to-day actions.

One way of doing this is to apply the principles of the Thinking Environment to the question of creating a gender diverse and inclusive culture, and together think about how to tackle it in the organisation. Such question might be:

People who feel they belong perform better, are more willing to challenge themselves, and are more resilient. This is something worth thinking about.

  • “What would change in the organisation if we accepted women as who they are?”
  • “How would the very structures and goals of work change if we eliminated gender stereotypes?”
  • “How will men benefit from women’s leadership?”

If you would like to receive a free copy of Brain-savvy Wo+men when it’s published, please comment on this article with your experience of creating a more inclusive culture or how you will apply these ideas to do so in your organisation. 

5 Responses

  1. Thank you all so much for
    Thank you all so much for your lovely comments. Nancy’s work is still even after all these years cutting edge. And it gets results. Copies of the book on the way as soon as it’s published, which should be early November. We just completed the index!

    Thanks again and i would love to hear your feedback when you have read it. Jan

  2. Hi Jan,
    Hi Jan,

    I do a lot of work with employee engagement, and part of that is absolutely about people listening to each other! I’d love a copy of your book when it’s out 🙂


  3. Thanks for this Jan. I have
    Thanks for this Jan. I have only recently come across Nancy Kline’s work – it’s very useful to see how creating a thinking environment can help to foster inclusion. As a facilitator, I will definitely be using it in my inclusion work.

    I would also love to read your book when it’s published.

    Best wishes
    Jenny Harrison

  4. Very interesting article –
    Very interesting article – and a great explanation of the neuro-science, thanks.

    I am a Time to Think coach and facilitator and part of Nancy Kline’s Collegiate. I use my learning of the thinking environment in workshops some of which are on inclusion and diversity.

    I would be delighted to receive a copy of your book when published. Look forward to delve into it.

    With best regards

  5. This is a great article Jan.
    This is a great article Jan. I’d love to get a copy of the book when it’s available.

    I’m a member of Nancy Kline’s faculty so diversity and inclusion are at the core of what I do. I’d love to share some of your insights more widely in my teaching.

    Look forward to reading more!


No Image Available
Jan Hills


Read more from Jan Hills

Get the latest from HRZone

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.