Last week, my colleague Leigh Bailey wrote an excellent article on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. One of his messages was good intentions about DEI are wonderful but they are often not enough. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is about the electrical and chemical make up of the brain, in other words, it is rooted in neuroscience.
Neurologically, our brains have a strong preference for similarities which results in a strong tendency for our brain to classify others (in 200 milliseconds or less) as “us” or “them”. (For more information on this topic, I suggest the book The Neuroscience of Inclusion, by Mary Casey and Shannon Murphy Robinson.)
All brains do this without conscious thought. It does not matter how who you are, it is a characteristic of the biological functioning of the brain. The brain notices something like 200 possibilities of difference! Difference is both about tangible things—like color, gender, race, sexual preference, hair color, eye color, body type, language, accent, as well as ideas, thoughts–like socio-economic status, political beliefs, personality characteristics, etc.
And, once our brain classifies someone or something a “them”, it sends another unconscious impulse to “move away”. Evolutionarily speaking, the emotional parts of our brains are not set up for inclusion.
Luckily, anyone can also, with self-awareness and commitment, over-ride these impulses with conscious choices. And this is not just a “nice to have” ability, it is a must-have necessity to become a successful leader—if not a successful human.
The first step of this process is self-awareness. What are the clues your feelings, thoughts, and/or body give you when YOU notice an “other”? Do you recognize the miniscule impulse to move away? Check this out by putting yourself in a position where you will see folks who are “different” than you and just pay attention to how you feel. Notice and remember what that feels like so you can recognize it and admit it.
Then, find something to connect to with that person/thing. What is similar between you, not JUST different. It is truly easier to find the differences so it will take some discipline and practice to retrain your brain. Intention to do so is critically important but practice is what will make it work.
Honoring the natural impulse to move away and with self-compassion, developing the skills to move toward others is work we can do. We can widen our circle of “us” and decrease our circle of “them”. I am challenging myself to do that, in ways big and small, in differences easier or harder for me to find similarity within. How do you do it? Send me an email, I’d love to learn.