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November 4th, 2020

EPISODE 8: Bridging Deep Divides with Dr. Peter Coleman

Many organizations are wondering how to address the chasm between right and left, and what many consider right and wrong. In this week’s Your Brain at Work, NLI’s Dr. David Rock and Dr. Kamila Sip welcome Dr. Peter Coleman (Professor of Psychology and Education, Columbia University) for a frank and informative conversation that traces the history of polarization in America, explores conflict in the brain, and outlines the steps organizations can take to successfully bridge the gap.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:04] GB: It can feel like we’re drifting apart. You’ve certainly recognized it in society at large and probably in your neighborhood, maybe even your family. What about in your organization and within your team? This widening chasm of right and left of what we think is right and wrong affects how we see, understand and work with each other. Often, it leaves us looking across seemingly impassable barriers of suspicion and resentment.

 

What can organizations and leaders do to stem this drift and bring their people together? That’s what we asked Dr. Peter Coleman, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, who specializes in conflict and bridging deep divides.

 

I’m Gabriel Berezin. You’re listening to Your Brain At Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday. This week, our panel consists of NLI’s Dr. David Rock, Dr. Kamila Sip and Professor Coleman. Together, they discussed the history of polarization in America and the world at large, explore the science of conflict in the brain and they outline the strategies organizations can employ to successfully bridge divides among their employees. Enjoy.

 

[EPISODE]

 

[00:01:18] DR: Peter, thanks very much for joining us. I know this is a topic near and dear to your heart and your research that we’re excited to hear from you in a minute and Kami as well. We’ll just want to give a little bit of context. For those new to NLI, we make organizations more human through science. We’re advising over 50 of the Fortune 100 now and we’ve been going since 1998, based in 24 countries.

 

We do a lot of research. Research is the core of our work, published over 50 peer-reviewed academic research papers, and then help organizations build better talent strategies and better leaders based on that research. Let’s dig into today’s topic. It’s a lot to talk about.

 

Let’s talk a little bit about where we are. As we were thinking about next week, to put a point to it, in the last few months, it had an eerie similarity to four years ago for lots of obvious reasons, but also the actual division, not just the fact that it’s another election, but actually the division that happened after the election was really, really intense.

 

I wrote a piece, came out December 2016, was basically in response to a whole lot of organizations asking us, what do we do? We have red hats lining up against Black Lives Matters in factories and literally, a divide; people unwilling to work together, because of the politics. What do we do? What should leaders say?

 

I wrote this piece after really thinking a lot internally with our researchers and talking to organizations as well. The challenge then and it’s a similar challenge now is you couldn’t say nothing. To say nothing at all about what was going on felt like it was complicit and supporting one side or another, but you also couldn’t as a leader, necessarily come out for one side or the other and say, “Well, I support this leader or not.”

 

It was a double bind. Like, “I can’t say nothing. I can’t say something. What do I do?” What we came to is actually you need to ultimately bring people together around shared goals that are ideally pro-social and meaningful to your organization. You actually need to be the binding energy in your organization and take people’s focus off the division and on to the commonality and onto the shared goals. To do that, maybe first, you have to label the different experiences people are feeling, so they feel heard.

 

This was an important piece then. It’s probably equally as important now, but we also wanted to bring Peter’s thoughts into this work and deepen and widen this whole point of view as well. First of all, where we are, there’s pretty deep divides. This was done in 2012. This is, I would say, got a lot worse since then. People are more opposed to having family members marry someone from an opposing political party than they are for another race. Now that’s a big statement and there’s a lot of racial tensions here, but political tensions are bigger than racial tensions for many, many people, which is interesting. There are some pretty deep divides.

 

The political tensions right now add to an already heightened stress state from COVID and the uncertainty and the lack of control that’s happened, plus the social unrest, plus another possible way. There’s a lot of tension that the political tension is sitting on top of as we would say in Australia and where I’m from, it’s a bit of a tinderbox, which means things could flare up very, very quickly.

Interesting, some new research, so fresh off the press from Gartner, more than 36% of people say they are avoiding co-workers, because of politics. More than a third of people actually avoiding others, which is terrible for collaboration, obviously. Also, nearly half say this election has impacted their ability to get work done. This isn’t just a small HR issue. Half of employees are not able to get their work done as they should. There’s a serious productivity impact happening. No doubt, the next week, or a few weeks, or months, that productivity could be harmed even more.

 

There are better reasons to bridge these divides than just productivity. If you want to get the attention of your leaders, productivity might be one. That 47% is really quite a statement. That’s a little bit where we are. Now for the good news, this is 2018; 89% of Americans say they want both parties to try to find places to compromise. People actually want to build bridges. People are not necessarily happy with these divides on either side. They actually do want people to find compromise overall.

 

That’s where we are. I think the cliff note there for me is this is really affecting people’s mental health, but also companies’ health and could go on for some time. It is a significant issue. It’s an issue that companies should unfortunately, pay attention to; had to pay attention to COVID. They’ve had to pay attention to racial crises and racial tensions. Now they have to pay attention to political tensions, because leaders really need a third thing to really have to focus on, I’m sure. But it’s been that year.

 

Peter, tell us about why we’re here and just for folks who don’t know you, Peter knows a lot about this whole world navigating political polarization, one of his really big pieces of work, sustainable piece, all sorts of things. Peter, tell us first of all, from a historical context, give us the overview effects. Pull us back to the moon back over a long time. Is it inevitable that these divides happen? Or why do we have these divides? Give us a bit of historical context here.

 

[00:06:20] PC: Sure. Thanks for the introduction. Political polarization is not a bad thing. In fact, there were times in our country when the parties were too close and too similar and we felt that was politically unhealthy. Having differences and having distinct differences can be helpful. Of course, it can become too extreme and become problematic.

 

The current trajectory we’re in is approximately about a 50-year trajectory, depending on some measure. Again, political polarization is measured in different ways. If you look at just congress, like voting patterns in congress, how many times a republican will cross the aisle and work with a democrat, and vice versa, that we have been increasingly polarized since about the mid-70s to early 80s that trajectory has continued.

 

In DC, we’ve become acutely polarized to a place where it’s very uncommon for one party to support the others. This is true of the general public as well. They’ve found really since the 1970s that there has been increasing animosity. What’s interesting is that you don’t see stronger political party affiliation and you don’t see stronger affiliation with being a liberal or progressive. What you do see are these three concerning trends.

 

One is much more emotionality in this. There’s much more contempt for the out-group, for the other party and much more love and loyalty and warmth for our own party and that’s been increasing considerably. That’s one of the biggest concerns, of course, because it affects all of our decision-making, in that degree.

 

[00:07:56] DR: I have a lay theory that has no science behind it. It’s a total hypothesis and a wild guess. My wild guess is if in the world of sports, like football for example, if we had only two football teams in America, there would be riots every game. I think part of the issue is we naturally categorize everyone as in-group, or out-group. It’s a very binary, like you’re either in my in-group, or you’re in my out-group.

 

I have seen research showing that people feel better with an in-group and actually have an opposing out group and having an out group to push against, creating group which is a positive response. I think having only two major political parties, even though there are others, having only two parties just creates the potential for just such strong in-group, out-group. That’s my theory. I’m Australian originally, we have two parties. There’s maybe been a third or fourth, but many parts of Europe, there really are three or four parties and it’s more conversation. Do you have any perspective on that? Am I just a crazy person?

 

[00:08:51] PC: No, you’re not crazy at all. I mean, you’re right to think that the political structures matter and that having just this bifurcated choice matters, particularly when so much is at stake; so much power is at stake. In America, there were many decades when we were much less polarized, either in Washington or on the ground. Isn’t necessarily the two-party system that’s driving?

 

Definitely, what you see in other countries like Kenya is around times of election, when there is this critical choice that’s made and it’s a bifurcated choice, you see a spike in hostilities and violence that have been existing, but just become much more salient and much more urgent.

 

[00:09:34] DR: Right. I guess, on top of already strong threat responses people are experiencing, because of the uncertainty and job loss, racial tensions, these things are going to be exacerbated as well.

 

[00:09:44] PC: Let me say though that it can be mitigated. That factor can be mitigated by something called ranked choice voting. In Maine, in state elections, what they do have is you don’t choose between two candidates, you actually rank your top candidates. That tends to decrease negative campaigning and attacks to either side, because you want to appeal to as many people as possible, not your base. There are structures that can work against that, but we don’t have it at the federal level.

 

[00:10:12] DR: Oh, that’s interesting. What’s it called again? We might –

 

[00:10:14] PC: Ranked choice voting.

 

[00:10:16] DR: Ranked choice voting. Yeah, that’s interesting. We might just have a look at that. I mean, you can imagine that would change the structures, because a lot of it is about the structures as well. Interesting. In your work, you’ve been studying the concept of positive deviancy. Tell us about that and why it’s relevant to this time as well.

 

[00:10:33] PC: Because the problem that we’re in is not just a political problem, it really is a cultural problem and it’s to some degree, a geographic problem, like we’ve been sorting into these rural-urban divides in the US. To some degree, that’s happening elsewhere in the world. There are these deep cultural divisions that are now aligned with political parties.

 

The problem is again, 40 to 50 years long, it’s increasing and it’s highly complicated. It’s really resistant to change. I think that there have been good faith attempts by some political parties to build bridges to connect the citizenry, but it’s been resisted for decades now. What that tells me is that this isn’t a typical problem. It’s a different problem. One of the things that we find when working with what we call wicked problems, really and deeply ensconced, culturally ensconced divisions is that what seems to work best in those is something called positive deviance, which is a term from organizational science, but it’s applied in a lot of different domains.

 

In this international peace domain, that means going into communities and finding existing individuals and groups that are doing good work to build bridges and heal the divide and working with them to encourage what they’re already doing. I see it as the antibodies that exist in the body politic of a community. It’s about finding them, bolstering our autoimmune system, so that it can heal itself. As opposed to doing what we usually do, which is try to come in with some ideas and fix a problem, it’s really identifying who’s already doing that.

 

We at our center have been identifying over the past six to eight months, all of the community-based and sector-based groups that are doing bridge building. We have a link to a website we can show you.

 

[00:12:27] DR: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I ran a sa[inaudible 00:12:28] years ago with some of the smartest people I could gather. It was an all-evening event. The theme was how does positive change happen? We went around really debated. We might have drank a lot, but what we ended up getting to was one simple idea, which is all the different stories that we’d seen in all the situations, it’s because people could see something they hadn’t seen before.

 

I was thinking about that biologically, neurologically in you literally can activate a visual circle. Your occipital lobe lights up. You see an image you hadn’t seen before. Because of that, you can hold something to connect to. I think that’s what I’m hearing you saying, positive deviancy is creating these role models, those stories that you can see are actually positive and then you can take aspects of that and map that and do similarly.

 

[00:13:11] PC: I think that’s true. I mean, it’s also true that these things tend to spring up locally. They’ll spring up in a local community, or in an organization. Because they spring up there and oftentimes, are able to navigate difficult conditions there, they have figured out how to survive locally and what resonates locally. Again, as opposed to us coming in from the outside with good ideas and something new that doesn’t take root, these have already basically arisen from that.

 

[00:13:40] DR: Right. No, that’s really interesting. In the work we do with organizations, where we’ve been trying to work out for 22 years what’s the most effective way of bringing people to insight. It’s a big thing that people miss in organizations is showing folks what great looks like. There’s a lot of benchmarking and stuff. I guess, that’s positive deviancy. It’s really showing people what great looks like, whether it’s having a tough conversation, or addressing bias, or being more inclusive. What is great look like when someone does this? It’s such an important thing, I think, in all spaces.

 

[00:14:10] PC: I think again, the reason it’s deviant it’s because it’s usually something effective working in a place where other people are failing. You have high levels of malnutrition in the community and yet, some mothers have figured out how to keep their children healthy. How do they do that when no one else can? It’s really not just greatness. It’s greatness under really difficult circumstances and other people can’t figure it out.

 

[00:14:35] DR: Right. Very specific hacks. Let’s go in a slightly different direction for a minute. I mean, this is a session about building bridges over deep divides. Kami, come on with us. Let’s talk a little bit more about the in-group, out-group. I know you’ve done a lot of research in that and been synthesizing a lot of research out there as well.

 

Tell us a little more, Kami, about the brain’s tendency to categorize and what do we know about that? Also, what do we know about the bridge part? Firstly, about the divide part. What’s this mechanism, the in-group, out-group mechanism? Tell us.

 

[00:15:00] KS: Yes, absolutely. Thanks, David. Yes, so Peter, and you already mentioned that this tendency to divide and categorize people as either friend or foe, basically, that’s what it is from a survival perspective is just so natural to us, that we do that in a split second and completely unconsciously, based on a whole range of factors. It doesn’t really matter. It’s not just for us as humans, the physicality, whether that’s gender, or ethnicity, we associate in-group and out-group across so many different factors from going to the same school, being on the same project, having the same picture on the wall, it’s already triggering some of the tagging information that we are putting on people that, “Oh, I feel affinity. Oh, I like you. Oh, I feel like I can get along with you much more.”

 

It has absolutely both emotional and cognitive consequences for us, in terms of the perception. When we classify somebody else in-group, we actually feel from the perception perspective, that they feel more attractive. We think that they are going to do better work. We think that they are better physically, like they have better abilities.

 

That is translating into the opposite when we think of somebody being from our out-group. We don’t see them the same way. That is on a very unconscious level. That definitely is a consequence in terms of how much empathy we can feel for others, if they are from our out-group. How much motivated we are to actually help, or hurt them? When you bring up the sports analogy, it’s actually very palpable, because the pleasure pain that we get from the other team hurting physically on the field, the same mechanism translate to everything else that we do at work, in a political realm, the biology and physiology is exactly the same. It’s going to kick in so fast.

 

Right now, I think one of the challenges that because we have that coming for us naturally, with everything that has happened from social unrest, to massive layoffs, to political tensions, we are so emotionally and cognitively taxed that we are at such level, we don’t have that much capacity left in terms of resources. Everything else is just fueling the tinderbox, I think, that we are in that state emotionally and cognitively. It’s building bridges from that perspective. It’s challenging, because we don’t have enough resources, so we need to –

 

[00:17:16] DR: Right. Self-regulation. Yeah. Self-regulation is diminished under high cognitive load, as well as under high threat. There’s going to be that issue. Let’s talk about the science of the superordinate goals as well. Maybe, Peter, first of all, tell us what you’ve been finding about superordinate goals and the bridge part. How do we build bridges, versus the divine self here?

 

[00:17:35] PC: Yeah. Those are very robust effects in research is that nothing unites groups more than a common enemy, more than a common task, or a common challenge. It’s a well-established fact that if you have groups that are divided and are competitive, that if you give them something that they really believe in and adhere to as a common goal, it can unite them.

It is interesting. My daughter is studying neuroscience. She came back recently and said, how frustrating she was about how difficult it is to overcome what Kami was just describing, which is this in-group, out-group difference that happens, that most of the interventions they have can have an immediate effect, but then they dissipate and we go back to our default. What she was saying which I think is true is like a hard truth, is that what does make a difference is time. When you have relationships that have taken time.

 

It’s not just having one event where you’re working together, but it is a process of working together with other people that builds up a sense of rapport. Those kinds of thicker structures and neural pathways can basically mitigate against this in-group, out-group thing that we run into.

 

[00:18:42] KS: That’s a very good point, because I think it all comes back to it needs to be a process, not an event for something for us to shift. We can associate in-group, out-group very fast, but we are very fluid in terms of how we are doing that. The exposure and shared experience needs to be combined in the shared goals, so we can actually build the emotional connection to what we are both experiencing in a positive way, so it can fuel the upward spiral, so to speak. Meaning, that if we do small things and it brings us positive association, we feel good about that, we want to do it again and we are going to try and expand that circle much more likely than one-off events. It’s just the progression of time and experience and exposure is really important, that shifting.

 

[00:19:28] DR: Interesting. This reminds me of a story in the New York Times a couple of years ago about the grandson of David Duke. David Duke was one of the white supremacist leaders. His grandson was all set up to join that and was already a radio show host, all this other stuff. He ended up going to university and living in a dorm with a couple of Jewish people and white people. Over time, the story of over time how they just included him in everything and didn’t challenge him or attack him. Just included him. Over time, he accidentally see that they were just good people. It really changed his whole future. It was that shared experience in this case, but it was over time that it happened. You remember that story, Peter?

 

[00:20:06] PC: Yeah, I do well. Yes. It’s true. There are many stories just like that. There’s a great story about a woman named Megan Phelps Ropers, who was born into the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Her grandfather had founded it. She was a very charismatic part of that. She had a similar experience on Twitter in basically, engaging with people on the outside who were challenging her, but over time, really felt that they were really paying attention to her and listening to her and it started to affect her attitudes and ultimately, affected a major decision in her life to leave that community.

 

It’s true that it’s really through relationships. That’s one of the problems with research is it’s easier to do these immediate studies to see what the immediate effects are, but what we’re learning more and more is that there aren’t simple solutions to these more hardwired neurological tendencies that we have. They really have to be more thoughtful long-term solutions.

 

[00:21:01] DR: Yeah, and that’s great. Thanks. There’s a lot of organizations building employee resource groups. You’ll have a group of people who are Hispanic, another group who are may be a different race, different sexuality. On one hand, this looks great. On the other hand, it actually creates out-group.

 

From our perspective, the work of inclusion, if we go that way for a minute, there’s a danger in calling out and isolating specific groups. What we think should happen with inclusion is everyone being thoughtful about including everyone. It doesn’t mean everyone being in every meeting, but our same, is if you’re not actively including, you’re accidentally excluding. Particularly, because people are covering a lot and just about everyone, including even white males have this propensity for feeling not included.

 

There’s something about not necessarily focusing so much on these individual groups, but focusing on everyone, actively including others and understanding what it takes to do that. I’m not saying, “Hey, let’s defund these employee resource groups.” What we want to do is bring them together under shared goals. Maybe bring all the groups together under common goals. Individual difference works really well when it’s within the context of subordinate goals, or super ordinate goals. I think that’s an overarching message.

 

Same in the US. Individual goals, individual differences, all that can be amazing. The diversity can be amazing if the country is united under some broad common goals as well. I think that’s the challenge is we have no common goals in the country at the moment overall.

[00:22:25] KS: Yeah, that’s a really good point, David. One other thing that we need to remember that not shining the light on one specific group over another, because that’s going to create this polarization and isolation of that group from the pack, or from the pack of the organization, but that should not be also – there is another concept in psychology of this dual identity that if we have shared goals, they need to have a dual identity. Meaning that we have shared goals without eliminating the identity of diversity that is contributing to that shared goal. The balancing act for organizations is actually, it’s not necessarily an easy one, but it all comes back to inclusion, meaning the psychological needs that we all have as humans. The moment somebody feels like they don’t have something, we are going to react unconsciously and quite fast, usually.

 

[MESSAGE]

 

[00:23:16] ANNOUNCER: If you’re enjoying this podcast, you’re going to love NLI’s annual conference, the NeuroLeadership Summit. This year, the all-virtual summit centers around building a better normal and will offer three days of impactful sessions, focused on your most pressing issues. How to remain resilient? How to thrive through crises, allyship, equity, equality and fairness and continually learning while in a work from home world.

 

Join us online, November 10th through 12th and attend sessions available across the globe. You can watch sessions live on your desktop, or access content on the go. We promise, you won’t want to miss it. To register and learn more, visit summit.neuroleadership.com. To save on a three-day non-member pass, use the promo code podsummit2020. That’s podsummit2020. We look forward to seeing you there.

 

[EPISODE CONTINUED]

 

[00:24:14] DR: When the racial crisis really started to kick in, we published a piece of thinking in Forbes and then we ended up running a series of webinars on this and podcasts and we ended up advising on this. When the racial crisis hit, we said, look, what leaders have to do right now is listen deeply, unite widely and act boldly. Maybe one of my team can put that article in the chat. Listen deeply, unite widely, act boldly.

 

We’re not advising exactly the same. We’re actually saying something slightly different right now. Many organizations are still in the flow of executing listen deeply, unite widely, act boldly. There’s some nuance to this one, I think as well.

 

[00:24:49] KS: Also, David, the fact that we’ve seen quite a lot of nothing, it’s also a function of in some ways of the reactivity that is also prompting us to just wait and see what happens, so it’s not strategic, but it’s based in and not necessarily understanding, or not necessarily knowing what to do, which way to go. I think that in some ways, the silence is worse than any action, but any action is also probably threatening. It’s a double bind and double whammy in many ways that –

 

[00:25:19] DR: The political inclusion is taboo comments. I’m going back and forward on this one. There’s a part of me feels like, talking about politics should be in the same category as talking about sex or religion. You’re not allowed to talk about the particulars of sex in the workplace. It’s not okay. Or religion, you’re not allowed to try and convert people at the workplace.

 

Maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to talk about politics as well. It’s too divisive and too wrong. On the fence of that, at the same time, we work with firms like Patagonia and others, who are absolutely passionate about their politics and they really champion it and you really couldn’t work there if you didn’t have that politics. It’s hard to know, but it’s an interesting question to ponder on.

 

[00:26:00] PC: What I would say is that certainly in America, it’s counter-cultural to talk about politics at parties, to talk about politics at work. It really isn’t. I mean, I think it’s different in Europe. It’s different in other parts of the world, where there’s more of an inclination to engage on those issues. I think given the current level of enmity and the hostility and rhetoric and even the increasing incidents of violence, people are really concerned about that. The context is that we’re in COVID and we’re in an economic downturn and we’re in a time of great racial injustice, awareness of racial injustice and concern and movement mobilization around that.

 

There are multiple dimensions on which people are destabilized right now. Now we have a political election, which you begin our conversation with. I think for many leaders and for many organizations, it’s difficult to know what to do in this context. If this was the only thing, there probably would be more proactive thinking about it.

 

One of the best things I’ve seen is I’ve had at Columbia, certain departments just say to students and faculty and the staff, “We’re going to hold a space. That space will be a space where whatever happens over the next couple of weeks, we’ll work with you to try to create some psychological safety to process it together.” They’re not clear on what that is, because everything is so contingent on what transpires over the next couple of weeks, but they’re signaling that they understand that people are anxious, that this is a distraction at least and a derailer potentially, and that people will need something and they’re ready to work with them to find what that is, depending on how things evolve.

 

[00:27:43] DR: Yeah, it’s interesting. I want to talk a bit more about bridge building groups in a minute. Also, may be cultural. A few people saying, like in Puerto Rico, it’s a bad idea. People get too heated. Whereas Eastern Europe, maybe they’re used to it. They were allowing it. There may be different cultural nuances in different countries as well. Some companies, there would be huge, huge, huge issues if they said you can’t talk about politics. Other companies, maybe it’s the right thing to do. It might be quite contextual to the organization and their mission and even the culture and country that you’re in as well.

 

Let’s talk about what we think an NLI is the right thing to do for leaders in particular, and I think, publicly address the emotions everyone’s going through is the first thing and this is similar to the piece we wrote in 2016, but label the emotions that people might be feeling. When we label emotions, they turn down, we have a shared experience, which creates more relatedness. We feel more certain. We feel like we’re being heard. It might increase a sense of fairness as well.

 

For leaders to acknowledge, or recognize, or publicly address the fact that people are experiencing strong emotions and maybe to identify what those might be. If you’re on the liberal side, you might be experiencing this. If you’re on the other side, you might be experiencing this. Show that you understand that and that you accept that those emotions are strong and real. I think that’s a really important first step. To go and click into showing that you understand how passionate people are. I think that’s an important first piece. Kami, do you want to add to anything there?

[00:29:06] KS: Yes, absolutely. I think that it links back to when you think about labeling of emotions, or acknowledging emotions, versus suppressing emotions. I’m from Poland, definitely from Europe. We do talk about politics and everything and anything at work, at a kitchen table. All of those emotions are really out in the open a lot of the times. That also, I think, helps put them aside. It flare up, you have a conversation that is highly intense for a short period of time, but then you move it aside and you start working.

 

I think that the difference, maybe it’s the lack of suppression of the emotion, actually allows you to express them and move on to the next topic. I think that it’s a combination that a lot of the times, because of different cultural environment, those things go counterintuitive to what we need as people to be able to put that aside and lower the reactivity to be able to have cognitive resources and be able to concentrate on something. Labeling emotion is really important, essentially to call it, and allow the brain and our mind to be like, “Okay. At least I know that I’m hurt. Let me concentrate on something else.”

 

[00:30:17] DR: Yeah, an interesting nuance on this though, we’ve been publishing a journal since 2008, 12 years now. In the second journal in 2009, when we still published paper, we still published an actual physical journal, there’s a bunch up on my bookshelf there. In 2009, we published one called The Brains Breaking System, working with Matt Lieberman from UCLA, and explaining the labeling phenomena.

 

There’s one really interesting quirk that I came across when we did that paper, which was that people actually predict that labeling something will make the emotions stronger. They actually feel if I talk about anything people are feeling, they’re going to flare up and explode. It is true there’s a slippery slope into overly activating emotions, but the key is the word symbolic. Symbolic labeling. Summarizing and categorizing and almost putting an actual label on a box, versus opening the box. There’s this mental model that labeling actually works really well when you’re not creating the space to vent, but you’re more summarizing the work.

 

I think that’s a particular skill that’s important. People literally predict, it’s quite a robust finding. People predict that labeling emotions will make the emotions worse. They actually don’t. They actually turn down the emotions and turn up the brain’s braking system. A lot of leaders just literally won’t do this, because they intuitively feel like speaking about this stuff at all is bad. The science is clear on that. Maybe my team can put on.

[00:31:37] KS: I think that it’s a really important distinction. I think that naturally, we think that the moment we say label emotions that we’re going to go into this long exploration and deep diving, scuba diving almost, to the emotion and feeling of the emotion, but that’s not what labeling is. I think the fear that we have that we just go right into the venting and the ranting territory, that’s what’s stopping us a lot of the times from actually saying, “I feel angry, or I feel frustrated about this.”

 

[00:32:07] DR: Yeah, it’s interesting. That’s the first step. I think it’s a really important skill. I think secondly, there’s a really important thing to come back to your values as an organization. That may be the actual stated values, or core values, or it might be a set of leadership principles, or it might be a mission. It doesn’t have to be directly your actual values. I think it’s super important to come back to this is what matters to us as an organization. The clearer you are about what matters, the more able people are to make the right decisions that align with those values.

 

I was talking with Dean Carter recently from Patagonia. He was on my mind. He was saying that they give people a lot of autonomy in the organization, but they do that within a lot of clarity about what their values are. People come up with crazy ideas, to do really big things without running it up the flagpole, to leadership. It’s because there’s tremendous clarity about what their values are. I think this is a really, really important thing for leaders to do, after making sure people feel heard. It’s like, well, this is what we stand for as an organization.

 

Then the third step is these are our shared goals. Ideally, these should be pro-social and actionable and there’s a whole lot of qualities of these shared goals. We think those are the three things, like label the emotions, restate your values and focus on shared goals, particularly in this time, this crisis, we think this is the three key steps. Peter, do you want to comment on that?

 

[00:33:28] PC: Yeah, I just want to connect back to you the idea of values. Because what some organizations do is really, even at the mission or vision statement level, will be explicit about things like inclusion. Ben and Jerry’s has a tripartite mission. One of the three is their social justice mission and what they plan to do with that.

 

I agree with you. I think that particularly leaders that communicate to the organization what their values are and if those values reflect more inclusion and tolerance of difference. Tolerance of different voices. There’s all kinds of research that talks about the benefit of different perspectives on more innovation and creativity and ultimately, on the bottom line. Diversity of ideas.

 

Recognizing that and having leaders, both identify that in a vision or mission statement, but also model it. One of the things in psychological research is a concept called integrative complexity, which you’ve possibly heard of. It’s what Philip Tetlock and others have done a lot of research under the book Super Forecasters, which I would recommend. Talks about the role of this in decision-making and making good decisions in a changing environment in the long-term.

 

What it is simply is the leader’s capacity to see a problem break it apart, see the different components of it, but then put it back together and make a decision. It’s differentiation and integration. What we found is that when leaders are able to talk to their employees, to their organization, to their clients and stakeholders in ways that don’t oversimplify complicated problems, but say this is complicated. Politics today are highly complicated. There are divisions within the democratic party and within the republican party. It’s a very complicated set of issues.

 

Where we come out on that is this. It models for people how to take something so complex, not prematurely oversimplify it, but break it up, but then put together a logic that makes sense influencing their values and their decision-making and modeling that by leaders has a major trickle-down effect on the climate and culture that the organizations will evidence.

 

[00:35:39] DR: Right. That’s great. Tell us a bit more about the bridge building groups, Peter, as well. Let’s get even more specific on those. We’ve shared what we think are the three things. Really get people labeling, come back to values and now focus on shared goals. We think that’s a one, two, three. Tell us the work you’ve been doing with bridge building groups a little more. Can you give us some specific examples to bring this to life?

 

[00:36:00] PC: Yeah. I can tell you what we’ve been doing. Let me say that in the organizational context, what I think is important is to go back to this idea of positive deviance, because these bridge-building groups are examples of positive deviance. It may be in your corporation, on your organization, even your local branch. There are individuals who are naturally inclined to be mediators, or conciliaries that can listen to people. Or there may be a group that has sprung up, that is taking on these issues and having coffee and conversations around some of these issues.

 

There may be the local emergence of solutions to the political divide and political tension that are in front of you, but that we’re not paying attention to. We get anxious about what we should do. The first thing we should do is look around and try to identify the individuals, the relationships, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg relationships with Scalia. Those kinds of relationships that exist that model and demonstrate tolerance. That’s what these bridge building groups oftentimes do. Again, there are different kinds of bridge building groups. There are many that are at the community level and they bring together people to talk about issues, tensions over race, tensions over political issues. There are thousands of these across the country.

 

There are also groups within sectors, in particular sectors, like journalism has been looking carefully at how do journalists contribute to escalation and polarization. What is it about how they report and the entertainmentization of media and the for-profit orientation to media, how does that play a role? You can look in each of these sectors and there are functional groups that have sprung up. Usually, they’ve sprung up to address a particular incident. If they’re effective, they will grow and be sustained. My recommendation to most organizational, either HR groups, or leaders within organizations is look to already what’s working within your organization and build on it.

 

[00:38:02] DR: Right. Essentially, it reminds me a lot of the work by Rob Cross and others on organizational network analysis, where you actually ignore the hierarchical system on paper, where the company says, “This is our organizational structure.” You actually analyze the organizational structure based on the data of how often people connect and who they connect to using either e-mail data, or other forms of data.

 

You actually see who the real connectors are, who the nodes are. It turns out, those are often not people that are really high up the organization. They might be the assistant to a general manager, or a junior person, or a sales exec, or anyone. People right across the organization end up showing up as mega influences. Then when you’re trying to do organizational change, what you want to do is tap those people and then things really, really spread in the network. As opposed to, let’s do a top-down change initiative. It’s do change initiatives, partnering with the people really doing it. I think, you can then study those people and say, “What is it that you do that is really helping? Specifically, politically, what are you doing that is really helping bring people together?”

 

[00:39:03] PC: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that’s right. There’s a lot of parallel between the two. I mean, I think the difference is that you can study a network, understand who the gatekeepers are, who the hubs are. Then leverage those to affect change. You can study that network and see, well, who in that network is already doing what we want to have happen. How do we encourage and help them basically scale up, right? How do we enhance their capacity to do what they’re already doing? That’s what we’ve been doing.

 

I’ve been working with a group called Unite, which is trying to deal with polarization. I’ve been in conversation with them for about a year, about what they’re trying to do. They initially came to me and said, “Oh, we want to have a dialogue process and we want to do this.” I said, “Well, there are hundreds of these groups in sectors that are already doing this work. Oftentimes, they’re competing for scarce resources and funding. Why don’t we work to basically, help everybody understand that there are a lot of folks in this space, that there are gaps where people are not working and how do we help make a more healthy ecology for depolarization work that’s already happening?”

 

[00:40:11] DR: One of the overarching themes I keep coming back to is the way the brain is attracted to danger, more than opportunity; the threats more activating and attention-grabbing, than rewards. It’s actually the same. Differences are more salient than similarities. We think we’re so different to each other. We’re so similar. We’re actually so similar to someone 5,000 years ago, because we’re all the same.

 

The differences really jump out. I just think the way the brain is structured is variance is given priority over similarity. Threat is given priority over reward. The media feeds into that. The media is built on attention. Where you get attention easiest is you focus on threat, you focus on division. I think there’s this self-reinforcing thing happening. This is why organizations need to bring the opposing force of actually, let’s bring people back to common goals. Let’s bring people back together.

 

The practice of mindfulness involves a labeling phenomena in it, by the way. When you’re practicing mindfulness, you’re actually labeling different thoughts and feelings and then moving on. You’re just putting a word to either a sensation, or a thought, or a feeling and bringing your attention back. They’re actually very synonymous in some ways. People strong in mindfulness activate stronger breaking systems when they label. There’s been a study by David Creswell on that.

 

If you are a person high in trait mindfulness, or state mindfulness, either you tend to activate stronger breaking systems on your label. Some interesting connections there. How is it that we’re attracted to dangers more than opportunities?

 

[00:41:39] KS: In many ways, this is David what you already mentioned, by survival, or by means of survival, the need for survival. We do pay much more attention to the negative things, to the things that can potentially endanger our safety. I tell the story that if you walk through a garden and you miss a ripe apple, well, it was a reward, but it’s not really a big deal. If you mistake a snake for a stick in the woods and it bites you, you’re actually facing a potentially fatal consequences. Because of that, we do pay attention to the negative things, because it’s not about attraction. It’s about survival that is like the preparation to counteract that and make us go back to safety, or the main goal is to keep us alive. I think that’s the main reason why we are so anchored and pay attention to the negative things, because that’s how we learn. That’s how we avoid them the next time.

 

[00:42:28] DR: Just from a physical real estate perspective, like the ventral striatum, which pumps out dopamine is deep in the basal ganglia. It’s quite small. Dopamine comes up into the prefrontal. It’s quite a subtle effect. Whereas, the limbic system is enormous and the whole limbic system is much more real estate than the reward system. The threat system’s stronger than the reward system. The limbic system technically activates with reward as well, but threat really activates the limbic system powerfully, quickly and it’s big. Whereas, the reward network is much smaller. It’s a physical thing as well. Peter?

 

[00:42:57] PC: I just wanted to go to the implications for this about what to do, because I think that you’re right that the fear center of the brain, in psychology we call this the negativity effect. That negative experiences, negative events are much more impactful, we remember them longer, they affect us much more deeply. It’s very difficult when you have a threatening encounter with someone, or a particularly negative encounter to get over it.

 

What psychologists have learned is again, it goes back to the relationships that you have. John Gottman’s research on marriage, which I think translates really nicely to the workplace, shows that because in marriages, one negative act will be remembered for a long time in a conflict interaction. Marriages oftentimes require, while they’re in conflict, is about five positive moments; a joke, a trust, rapport, some silliness for every stinging encounter. If they have that, they can learn from the conflict and grow and become more intimate, but they need that positivity reservoir. I think that’s true in organizations right now.

 

I think it’s true that common goals can help organize that. It really is about the climate that is there. Is there enough trust and rapport and friendship that’s being fostered, that they can tolerate difficult conversations about political differences?

 

[00:44:16] DR: The psychological safety phenomena. The overall threats are not too high, so there’s a general sense of trust, a general sense of people respecting you, a general sense of being treated fairly, all those things, so you can take a little bit of tussle here and there. We think of that through the lens of scarf status certain to autonomy, relatedness, fairness and the overall levels of scarf are not too low. You can take a little status attack. You can take a little fairness attack, because overall, you’re in a good place.

 

[00:44:43] KS: One last thing, David. In connections also to building the rapport, a lot of the times because we do prospective taking very naturally, but the way we do it is based on a lot of assumptions. We assume, we project what the other person is thinking, where they are coming from and when we are in such a heightened state of threat as we are right now cognitively, emotionally. What happens is that actually, we take less time to think and actively and effectively think about where are you coming from? What is that actually behind your emotions? That also contributes to this conflict escalation between people. That’s why we blame people that it’s because you did this, rather than oh, there was something in between, that is we both contribute to some of the dynamic.

 

[00:45:26] DR: It’s hard to perspective take with someone who’s an out-group as well. We don’t want to perspective take with them as well.

[00:45:30] KS: Absolutely. Yeah.

 

[00:45:31] PC: Well, it’s also that what some of the data by this group more in common is showing us is that there is such a gap right now between our perception of the other groups’ extremity of their attitudes and the reality of that. We’re not as far apart as we perceive each other to be. When I perceive you to be extreme, I tend to react and respond in extreme ways. That’s part of the feedback loop that’s driving this.

 

[00:45:54] DR: Right. That’s maybe a good place to close. The divides aren’t as deep as we think. Going back to that 89% of people actually want some compromise, maybe the divides aren’t as big as the media wants us to think. The media is just feeding us that, because it gets attention. Maybe we’ve got to calm down a bit, watch a little less media and get to understand each other more. That might be the takeaway. Peter, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been fantastic having you here. Really appreciate you joining us. Thanks for sharing.

 

[00:46:19] PC: Pleasure. Thanks for having me.

 

[00:46:20] DR: – continued conversation.

 

[END OF EPISODE]

 

[00:46:24] GB: Your Brain At Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producer is Danielle Kirshenblat and Cliff David is our production manager. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky and logo design is by Ketch Wehr. We’ll see you next time.

 

[END]

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