A Workplace Inconvenient Truth

A workplace inconvenient truth is that the persistence of a white male majority in leadership positions is simply a reflection of human culture. Human culture, in turn, is a construct of our brain. Our brain determines our behaviors. So, to dissipate the white male majority in leadership positions, we need to change our brain which in turn changes our behavior. The need to change behavior should come as no surprise because changing culture takes changing behaviors. The bad news is that the behavioral changes needed will depend on the individual employee and how their brain is wired. The good news is that neuroscientists now understand enough about how the brain is wired to specify the pre-requisites for behavior change.

Human culture, according to Wikipedia, is the social behavior and norms found in human societies. Social behavior and social norms depend on our social beliefs. According to behavioral neuroscientist Stephanie Faye Frank, beliefs are based on neural circuits that have formed in our brains from the interactions we have had on a regular day-to-day basis over the course of our lives (http://stefaniefayefrank.com/videos/neuroscience-growth-mindset/). We need to be with the same people day after day in order to form belief neural circuits – the brain requires enough repetition to regard a belief as important enough to encode a neural circuit. Since many of us grew up in homes with people like us, we learned about people not like us from people like us. It seems crazy to learn about people different than us from people like us but this is how our brain works.

Stereotypes are a specific type of belief for understanding others. Stereotypes are beliefs about the characteristics of different groups of people that we tend to learn from people like us. We use stereotypes because they serve several cognitive functions for us. For example, stereotypes help us feel the world is more predictable and understandable by being able to categorize the different people we encounter. Stereotypes also help us relate to others and compare ourselves to others because grouping people means we assign specific characteristics to people in that group. Finally, stereotypes help us have autonomy because it is easier to control groups than to control many different individuals.

Neuroscientist Dr. David Amadio makes a distinction between stereotypes and prejudice (“The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping,” D. Amadio, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 201: Volume 15, pages 670–682). Dr. Amadio describes prejudice as the emotional component of intergroup differences. Specifically, prejudice is an evaluation and emotional response to another person different from us based on preconceived notions. The emotional response from prejudice can range from avoiding the person to deliberate dehumanization of the person – both undesirable behaviors in workplaces. Dr. Amadio describes stereotypes as the cognitive component of intergroup differences. Stereotyping involves assigning attributes to different social groups. Stereotyping can lead to both desirable and undesirable behaviors in workplaces.

The impact of stereotyping on our behavior depends on how we respond to a difference between our stereotype and reality. If we respond to a difference between our stereotype and reality as a threat to our knowledge, then the resulting behavior can be dysfunctional and damaging to the individuals involved. If we respond to a difference between our stereotype and reality as an opportunity to learn and grow, then the resulting behavior can be adaptive and helpful to the individuals involved.

Workplaces have tried to eliminate the negative impacts of stereotypes and prejudice through various tactics. For example, workplaces have created company policies to promote inclusivity by regulating words and actions that can lead to ostracizing workers. Workplaces have also encouraged the formation of affinity groups around characteristics like gender, race, and sexual orientation. Affinity groups are meant to create a safe place for employees who feel different than others in the workplace to talk about their challenges and seek advice from others like them on how to best navigate the workplace. Policies designed to promote inclusivity and affinity groups designed to support integration into the existing workplace culture both bring awareness to the challenges of a diverse workforce. Awareness of the challenges of a diverse workforce is a necessary but insufficient condition for workplace diversity and inclusion.

Awareness of the challenges of a diverse workforce is not enough because of a cognitive bias built into our brains called bias blind spot. Bias blind spot is the tendency to identify biases in other people but not in ourselves. The tendency to see biases in others but not in ourselves means there is no natural incentive for behavior change. Let’s take a look at an example of gender bias to illustrate the problem caused by bias blind spot.There was a 2019 article in the New York Times about Julie Sweet, the chief executive for Accenture North America, a consulting firm with 469,000 employees and annual revenues of $17.8 billion. In the article, Julie recalls her first experience with gender diversity training as quoted by the New York Times:

“In 1999, I was two weeks away from the meeting where I was elected partner, and we had our first unconscious-bias training. I was one of only a couple of women in the room and the most senior one. The facilitator, a woman, was going through all these different scenarios, and she turned to me and she said, ‘Julie, you’re a senior woman here. Have you had any of these experiences?’ To this day, I remember I went to speak, and I started sobbing. I could not speak. I couldn’t compose myself, and I left. I went back to my office.”

Bias blind spot is why non-conscious bias training designed to raise awareness often leads to crying female leaders and confused male leaders. Female leaders cry because they are still in the minority in their ranks and they recognize the biases holding them back in other people. Male leaders are confused because they don’t recognize the biases in themselves that are holding back female leaders. This is one example of how awareness is not enough to produce the new behaviors needed to eliminate the barriers to performance that result from a diverse workforce.

The goal of a workplace diversity and inclusion program needs to go beyond awareness of diversity challenges. An effective workplace diversity and inclusion program helps employees convert their diversity knowledge into diversity wisdom that boosts their workplace performance and the workplace performance of others different from them. Workplaces need to train employees to identify and then address the diversity errors that can result from stereotypes and prejudice and can cause unintended performance limitations to themselves and others. One employee’s diversity errors are likely not the same as another employee’s diversity errors because these errors result from each person’s unique brain wiring. Diversity errors are an example of forces invisible to us limiting our success. It takes a credible self-coaching process or qualified coaches for employees to identify and address the diversity errors limiting their performance and the performance of co-workers.

Self-coaching and third-party coaching are ways to access the pre-requisites for behavior change. Neuroscientists and behavioral scientists have found four basic pre-requisites for behavior change. First is understanding when a new behavior is needed. Second is understanding why a new behavior is needed. Third is understanding what new behavior is needed. And fourth is applying the new behavior when needed an average of 66 times to rewire the brain and establish the new behavior.

Most employees aren’t being non-inclusive on purpose. Employees need tools to become aware of when their behavior has led to a performance barrier for themselves and for others different than them. Inclusivity in the workplace is really about rewiring employees’ brains to change behaviors that create performance barriers for workers. In turn, behaviors stem from belief systems and cognitive biases stored in our non-conscious brain. By helping employees apply the four pre-requisites to behavior change, organizations can build an inclusive workplace one rewired brain at a time.

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