A tale of two presentations…

I am in the Dallas-Fort Worth area today for HRSouthwest and this morning I presented a session called “this is your brain on diversity.”  This is a session where I take some significant insights from the fields of neuroscience and social psychology and consider what they mean to how we do diversity and inclusion work (and to some extent how we do human resources, leadership & organizational development work as well).

I speak a lot about my belief that one of the greatest challenges to this work is that diversity and inclusion are so poorly understood and so commonly misunderstood.  I would suggest that another of the great challenges facing this work is that we do not have an accurate understanding of human behavior and what drives it.  The robust intersection of psychology (study of human mind and behavior) and neuroscience (study of anatomy and physiology of the brain) provide us with new clarity around some of the drivers of human behavior.

One of the fundamental flaws of much diversity and inclusion work being done is that it is built around a paradigm of intentions…directly or indirectly, implicitly or explicitly the message is about how and why to “be good to other people, even people that are of a different race, ethnicity, gender, etc.” That is why our conversations around D&I are so heavily peppered with words like respect, tolerance, sensitivity, empathy, compassion, understanding.

I am a big fan of being good to others, but this approach to diversity and inclusion work is not terribly effective.

Diversity and inclusion is about much more than simply having the right kinds of intentions. Social neuroscience and social psychology make this pretty clear. As much as we love to tell others how non-judgmental we are, how open minded we are, how we would never judge a book by its cover, it simply is not true.

The human brain is naturally, automatically and very quickly judgmental.  The limbic system (including the watchdog amygdala) process social stimuli looking for threat-reward cues in as little as a fifth of a second…well before it comes into our conscious awareness.  There are no bad intentions, hatred, ignorance or laziness required for us to automatically jump to conclusions about people, to make assumptions, apply labels and categorize…it happens on its own.

The good person / bad person paradigm is problematic because it provides many of us with a way to let ourselves off the hook.  As someone who “gets it” …someone who likes, appreciates, values and celebrates diversity I do not have any work to do beyond fixing those people who “do not get it.”  It is also problematic because it generates a great deal of resistance…people often view being sent to diversity training as being told that they are a bad person and now this trainer is here to try and help you become a good person.  If I already consider myself to be a “good person” (as we likely all do), I am likely to see this training as a complete and utter waste of time. Sound familiar?

I had a series of conversations in the hallway following my session this morning, and a couple of them stuck with me.  I talk in my session about how quickly and automatically we start to make assumptions about others based on the visual cues that we have access to, and a couple of people shared with me some of the assumptions that they had made about me before I even started talking.

The first lady that spoke to me said that she was seated in our room a little early and though she did not know me or anything about me, by the time my presentation started, she was really looking forward to hearing what I had to say. While she was waiting for me to start she had noticed that I was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, she noticed that I had some visible tattoos and that I was playing a fairly loud and eclectic mix of music…this stuff attracted her attention as it was different from what she had come to expect from a 7am session at an HR conference.  And she liked it.  These were positive things to her and they led to her being really interested in what I had to say.  Her assumptions about me influenced her expectations going into my session.

The second lady that spoke to me said that she had almost walked out before I started.  She had come in to the room about 10 minutes before I started, and when she realized that I was the speaker she had some concern.  She saw that I was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt (and thought to herself “hmmm, wonder where they found this yahoo?), saw visible tattoos, heard the music being played…all of which attracted her attention because they were different from her expectations related to a 7am session at an HR conference and they led her to have some very serious questions about how serious and professional and competent I was.  Those things were negatives to her and she almost walked out.

Keep in mind, these are two HR professionals that self selected to attend a 7:00 am session about diversity.

They both have really good intentions and aspirations.  They are both educated and experienced and competent.  They are also both human, and they both observed the visual cues before them (basically the only data that their brains had access to) and started interpreting them…giving them meaning.  Social stimuli are actually on their own very vague…we give them their meaning.  The assumptions that we so quickly make about others generally have more to do with us than they do with them.

There are a lot of things that our brains do with our participation and even without our permission.  We have to have a better grasp on these blind spots so that we can do a better job of checking them.

Having wonderful intentions and aspirations does not change the fact that you are going to categorize and make assumptions about people…it does not change the fact that your interpretations of social stimuli (language, behavior, etc.) will likely be influenced by things like race and gender and age.

Inclusion is not an intellectual endeavor. It is not about what you say or think, it is about what you do. It is activist. Saying your are inclusive is of little value. Believing in inclusion is of little value.  Intentionally and proactively and deliberately taking action to check our blind spots and to make our decision making more explicit, transparent and participatory …these are the kinds of things that make a social space inclusive.

Additional reading…

A great document about unconscious bias from the good people at Diversity Best Practices.

David Rock has done wonderful work in distilling key learnings from new brain science research and providing insight into what they mean for the workplace.  The Emerging Field of NeuroLeadership, Managing With the Brain in Mind, and SCARF: a brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others are all really good reads.

The September/October edition of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council features a wonderful debate about the meaning and significance of implicit / unconscious bias.

The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam is a wonderful book full of great examples and research.

Paul Zak is a neuroeconomist that has examines the chemical underpinnings in the brain of things like empathy, trust and morality. Here is a Fast Company article, an article from The Guardian, and a TED Talk from Zak.

Be good to each other.

  1. Ehtisham Rao

    well written and articulated. I wonder if you ever thought about how being judgmental and biased drives our own actions in defense of our preconceived notion about it. just as it is natural to be judgmental, it is also natural to know others will be judgmental and therefore by trying to avoid such judgments most of us will overturn our true intentions in an attempt to conform….or live upto the judgments of others…..I grew up on this in the 80s when every movie advised teens to “be themselves”….great writing, thanks for this.

  2. Amri Johnson


    You are brilliant and you continue to push the envelope.

    If you are reading Joe for the first time or 100th time, don’t stop!–his ideas,mindset, and intentions are the future of this conversation we most often frame as D&I. . .

  3. Got an eye for talent? Better check that bias blind spot.

    […] categorize. We jump to conclusions. We interpret what we see, hear and small and give it meaning. The meaning that we give to what we see, hear and smell is often times more about us, our beliefs and our own life experience than it is […]

  4. Got an Eye for "Talent"? Better Check That Bias Blind Spot. | Be Leaderly

    […] The meaning that we give to what we see, hear and smell is often times more about us, our beliefs and our own life experience than it is about what we see, hear and smell and what it is actually evidence of. We all know a guy that only hires extroverts because they make the best sales people. We all know someone that believes a college degree is proof that someone follows through on things. Neither of these things are facts, they are simply beliefs that sometimes prove to be true and sometimes prove to be inaccurate. […]

contact       brand management by venn market strategies