April 19th, 2021
EPISODE 11: Equity Explained – Understanding the “E” in DE&I
In recent months we’ve seen much debate, some productive and some not, on the concept of equity. So we, as we often do at the NeuroLeadership Institute, have looked at equity through the lens of neuroscience. In this episode of Your Brain at Work, Janet Stovall, Senior Client Strategist; Jeanine Stewart; Senior Consultant and Facilitator; and Dr. David Rock, Co-founder and CEO unpack the concept of equity. They explain why equity is different from equality (and why that matters), how allyship can increase equity in the workplace, and why equity rounds out diversity and inclusion in the modern corporate landscape. Throughout the discussion, they debunk common misconceptions and offer clarifying science.
[00:00:06] AC: The difference between equality and equity given the debate we’ve seen over the past few months, it doesn’t seem entirely clear to most people, and that’s not surprising. It’s easy to confuse or conflate the two concepts. Even the words themselves sound and look similar, but it’s important that we get this right, and at NLI that means following the science. So we invited a few in-house experts to help us unpack the concept of equity. Together they explore the clarifying science. They discuss how to advance equity in organizations. Hint; it’s through allyship. And they explain where equity fits in modern DE&I besides in the middle of the acronym. The bottom line our experts say is that while equality is aspirational, equity is actionable. So listen up and let’s get to work.
I’m Gabriel Berezin, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuralLeadership 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 analyze co-founder and CEO, Dr. David Rock; senior client strategist, Janet Stovall; and senior consultant and facilitator, Jeanine Stewart. Enjoy.
[00:01:23] DR: Welcome everyone. And Jeanine and Janet, look forward to learning lots from you guys. I know Janet you’ve been deeply immersed in this space a lot longer than I have and researching it, and I’ve really enjoyed the conversation so far. And Jeanine, you’ve been actually teaching this to lots of people and really curious to hear how that’s been and what your experience has been.
One of the things I love about the work we do at the institute is we get to and I get to continually learn new things, and I really didn’t understand anything about allyship a year ago, and it turns out to be a really important topic. So let’s learn from each other, and I look forward to learning from the audience as well. We’ve got a good group of people who probably know a ton about this as well.
Let me give you some context kind of what’s going to happen. Firstly, about us, if you don’t know NLI, we’re actually 20 – Is it 23-years-old officially in 2021? Middle of 2021 we’ll turn 23. So we’re not a toddler or even a teenager anymore. We’re in 24 countries, advised over 50 of the fortune 100, and what we do at NLI is a little bit different. Basically we start with research. We start with biological research of leadership challenges, the foundational biological research. And we didn’t set out to build a DEI practice necessarily. What happens in about 2013, we asked heads of organizations and heads of talent, heads of people, we said, “What’s one of the biggest challenges that you wish you could solve?” And what came out was mitigating bias. And we did two years of research before launching something that’s now a framework in about close to 300 organizations, big organizations. And then from bias it kind of evolved where we started researching inclusion. Looked at a whole different way of thinking about inclusion biologically, speaking up, all sorts of things. And so we’ve now published eight original pieces of research that essentially say if you’re following the science of DEI this is what you should do around, say, bias, or inclusion, or speaking up, or various things, and really formed a body of work because basically there is a gap between what the science says and what organizations do. Sadly there’s a very big gap quite often. And what we’re committed to is closing that gap and addressing things through DEI.
So sometimes it might look like we’re overly scientific and we don’t care about the human side. We actually do care deeply about the human side, but we just like to approach it through the real science. We know particularly gatekeepers of large organizations more willing to like really invest in big things when they have the rationale, not just the business case, the rationale, like the real rationale of why things are happening. I think it’s been really helpful.
Anyway, that’s backdrop. What we decided to do given allyship has become such an important topic this year and people thinking about it is we actually decided to have three sessions on allyship. This is the first in a series of three. So we could really go deeper. This session is really about defining allyship and its relation to equity and where equity fits in the whole thing and the neuroscience of all that. So how do you mobilize? If you know our framework for change, PHS, priorities, habit, systems. This is the P stage. This is kind of what is it and how do we make it a priority and how do we mobilize leaders around this? Part two next week is how do you really build equity in an organization and particularly in the actions of individual leaders. And then thirdly is more like the systems work. So it’s kind of priorities this week, habits next week, the third week systems, and really teasing apart more of the science and kind of the language and definition. So we’re excited to learn even more about allyship over the next few weeks than we do so far.
So let’s dig in, and Janet I guess I’ll head over to you for this first question of what’s allyship? Why does it matter? And then we’ll talk about equity itself. We’re going to talk about power and the brain and then kind of mobilizing. So we’ll bounce between us. Take us away on allyship and why does it matter.
[00:05:14] JanetS: Okay. Thanks, David. Let me start though by giving you NLI’s definition of allyship. We define it as when someone is aware of and uses their advantage position, also known as power, to actively support people in less advantaged positions. And I’m really glad that some people put in there the concept of advantage and power because that’s what we’re going to talk about today. But first, when we define it, let’s talk a little bit about some of the things that people think it is. Let’s debunk a couple of myths about allyship. First of all, the first myth is that allyship is that awareness is enough. Allyship addresses unequal and unjust situations. So when we think of inequality, one person or group is a disadvantage and another person or group is at an advantage. Just knowing that though may not be enough. Myth number two is that allyship is about friendship. Friendship is about creating connections, but allyship is a little bit different than that. It directly addresses inequity. It’s about elevating equity. And then the third myth is that once an ally, you’re always an ally. That’s not necessarily true.
When we talk about the facts of it though, the facts of allyship are that allyship is about action, and that fact number two is that allyship directly addresses inequality and inequity. And fact number three is that allyship is a continuous practice. So no matter what we believe, what we’ve come to believe about allyship, it is not a kumbaya moment. It is actually something that you can do, which means that if it’s something you can do, it’s something you can learn, and we’re going to talk a little bit about how that works. But one of the things I mentioned when we were getting the answers in the chat, I said I was glad to see all these different opinions because allyship is not one size fits all by anybody’s standards. There are so many ways to approach it, so many options. And really allyship depends on, first, the situation and who the ally is.
So here a couple of examples that we’d like to show about what we see where we’ve seen allyship play out, and I think of allyship as being on a continuum, that not everybody is ready to jump up in the middle of a meeting and say something. When we think about allyship and being that great defender, not everybody’s comfortable with that and not every situation calls for that. So think about it as a continuum, and it can start with something as simple as learning about the challenges and the issues that face a group that has less advantage than you do. And the trick to know about learning though is that first of all there are lots of sources. You can get research, there’re books, you can learn this. The trick is not to ask less advantaged people to educate you. You do not want to put that burden on them, and not to mention the fact that the important thing about being a scholar about allyship is that it gives you a chance to understand something from somebody else’s perspective through your own eyes. Me telling you, somebody else telling you from a disadvantaged, less advantaged group, not disadvantaged, a less advantaged group. Telling you it’s still through their perspective. The trick is you learn it through your perspective. So that’s allyship; learning, understanding, making yourself a scholar.
Another version of allyship is inviting less advantaged people into more advantaged circles. Giving them access. Letting them come to stages that they might not normally have a part of. And when they’re on that stage, making sure that they get credit for their success. So that’s a little bit more active. And if you’re in a position to do it, that’s one way to be ally. The biggest way to do it that goes across all of them basically is to leverage your advantage. To hold other people who are advantaged accountable. Allyship is about equity, and we’re going to talk about that connection, but you cannot create equity. And if you’re in a position of advantage, you have to push advantage. Use your advantage. Leverage your advantage with people who also have it.
So allyship a lot of times is really about holding other people accountable to be allies as much as you are. When we talk about equity and allyship, allyship leverages advantage intentionally, and that’s a key point. It’s about being intentional. It’s about knowing the situations when you see them and acting in those situations. It’s about using your advantage to advance equity. Okay?
So when I say equity, that word is often conflated with another word, and I’m going to talk a little bit about why that’s not the best way to think about equity. So the next question I’m going to throw out there is what is equity and how does it work in the brain? We’re going to talk a little bit about that, okay? Because equity is just like inclusion and advantage. There’s some brain-based science that’s behind that. But first let me define equity.
[00:10:18] JeanineS: Janet, before we go forth, can people of color or people who are less advantaged also be allies?
[00:10:25] JanetS: Absolutely. For example, if you think about what’s going on right now from a racial standpoint in this country with the issues against anti-Asian sentiments, people of color can stand up for other people of color. You can be a person of color in an organization that has power. People are at different levels if you’re in an organization. Advantage varies, because having advantage in one situation, you can have advantage in one situation and not have advantage in another. You can be a woman in an all-female organization and then a man doesn’t have advantage in that situation. So, absolutely, it’s all about advantage and about leveraging it for equity. So if you have the advantage, you can be an ally.
[00:11:12] DR: Right. And advantage is very context dependent. There’s no like one flavor of advantage. It could be financial. It could be social status. It could be the network you have. It could be the power you have. Power is kind of the go-to that we think about around advantage, but actually it can be very relative to the situation that you’re in. So we’re going to dig a bit more into power, but I think it’s important to just realize lots of people have lots of different advantages depending on the context as well.
[00:11:40] JanetS: And to that point, when we talk about then how we use allyship to leverage equity, when we talk about equity, you really have to dig sort of deep to understand the root causes of disparity. And I think that’s why the question, “Why can a person of color be ally?” I think that’s why this question comes to the forefront is because disparity may manifest itself interpersonally between people, but it really stems from systematic and systemic inequities, and there’s a difference.
When we talk about systematic inequities, we’re talking about things that are a system, that are planned, that we can see, that are on the books. That’s like the laws you saw, the Jim Crow laws you saw back before the Civil Rights Movement, the things that you can see. They’re there. They’re determined. There’s a plan to them. The reality is in most places. Those things don’t exist as much not openly. When we talk about inequity, that’s not generally what we’re talking about. Systemic inequities however, those are the things you cannot see that are the vestiges and the results of those systematic things that existed before. That’s the stuff that sticks. Those are the things where you see disparities in health care, in the economic wealth gap. Those are the systemic things. And when we think about equity and inequity, that’s generally what we’re talking about that’s generally where advantage comes into play. Equity seeks to level the playing field, but it is not the same thing as equality.
So when we talk about equality, and those words are often conflated, we have to understand that equity is about fairness. And David’s going to talk in a minute about how fairness operates in the brain. Equality is about sameness. Equity is about addressing disproportionality. Equality, it assumes proportionality. It assumes a level playing field. Equity is about leveling that playing field. Equity is actionable. Equality is aspirational. We would all love to get there, but there’s not a lot that we as individuals, as organizations can do to make that change in societies that are inherently or traditionally or historically inequitable. However, equity is something that we can control, and that’s what we want to talk about today. And so I’m going to turn this over to David to talk a little bit about how fairness plays into this and what the science is behind that.
[00:14:15] DR: Thanks, Janet. That’s great some interesting comments in the chat. Jeanine, if you want to bring anything up at any point, feel free. For me the clarity of this really came when I saw fairness versus sameness, because equity and inequality, the problem with equity and inequality, they literally look like the same word, and in the brain you end up categorizing them and conflating them just because they’re so similar in terms of the letters and the concept. But when you hear fairness versus sameness you start to pull it apart and deconflate, and I think that’s been really helpful for me. And so equity is really built on a foundational mechanism in the brain that is really, really helpful to understand. And we’ve been talking about this mechanism for quite some time. It’s one of the the five big drivers in the SCARF model. It’s the F in SCARF.
But fairness, it’s really, really interesting how big fairness it is in the brain and just like what the mechanism is. I want to dig a little bit into it. There’re been a lot of different studies on it, and what those scientists tried to do was really isolate the fairness reaction to something versus anything else. They’re trying to isolate, like what is actually happening in the brain during an exchange for example? So they often use things like the ultimatum game and splitting a pot. If you split a pot between two people and each gets you know five dollars out of ten, you get a fairness response in the brain. The reward network activates. But if someone tries to split it and take eight dollars and give the other person two, you get a reaction.
And what they’re able to do is see through FMRI and other techniques, they’re actually able to see what’s going on in the brain. It’s really interesting. It’s a disgust network, like the same network that would activate when you smell food that’s off or you see something really awful and this sense of unfairness activates this network that’s very visceral in that way. It’s a very felt sense. But what’s also interesting is it activates the pain network in a way very similar to physical pain. This is actually important. The pain network when activated like does all sorts of things to us. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think well when I’m in pain. All I want to do is reduce the pain, right? I eat differently when I’m in pain. I eat like more comfort food, right? I stop doing things like socializing. My world shrinks a little bit. All sorts of things start to happen when you’re actually activating the pain network. So there’re a number of things. There’s a there’s a distressing component of unfairness, which is essentially the sense of disgust, but then there’s also actual data literally of this is pain and a certain degree of pain. These are two different things, and I don’t want to digress too far, but they’re actually separate networks in the brain but connected as part of the same system.
So what we’ve got to do is recognize that a sense of unfairness when it’s felt is really strong for people. I mean it really feels like something you have to get rid of like a pain you’ve got to address. And when you think about it, unfairness is at the heart of actually all – The whole legal system is based on fairness, a sense of fairness. Like this is fair. This is fair. Like all the arguments from local courts of the Supreme Court are all about fairness, and basically the whole politics and all the arguments in politics all about fairness. And when you think about the racial crisis that happened last year, the big kicker that put millions of people into the streets endangering their own lives who were not people of color was actually this enormous sense of unfairness. The unfairness that they felt at the event that kicked this off was enormous. So it’s really interesting. So we have to realize just what a big driver fairness is. Jeanine, do you want to comment there?
[00:17:56] JeanineS: Yeah, can we build on that? Do those with advantage see or experience fairness in the same way as those with less advantage?
[00:18:03] DR: It’s interesting, because if you’re already threat state, something that might be neutral is classified as a threat, right? So you imagine your teenage daughter, for example. I’ve got two teenage girls. So they’re always top of mind. You imagine your teenage daughter is already in a bad mood and you say, “Hey, that looks nice,” and they say, “Why do you say that?” So someone already anxious sees something neutral as threatening or sees something even positive as threatening. We reappraise something down. We can also reappraise up, which is a healthy mechanism that we use. But if you constantly feel treated unfairly by life, by systems, other things, it’s going to be really easy for that to hit you much harder. We’re going to talk about power in a minute. And power has actually the opposite effect. Power makes you maybe not notice unfairness at all. We’ll come back to that. But let me show you –
[00:18:52] JanetS: David, before – Yeah, I just want to go back to that question a little bit and put a slightly different spin on that. When you ask, “Do those with advantage see or experience fairness in the same way as those less advantage?” Yes, fairness operates the same way in our brains, but what triggers that depends on your perspective, because what’s fair to you depends on where your advantage is, and that you could be perfectly advantaged, but if in that scenario you’re disadvantaged. So fairness is also not one size fits all when it’s in action, but the way it acts in your brain is the same.
[00:19:27] DR: Extremely subjective and context-dependent. Extremely objective and very context-dependent and very relative, like it’s also relative between you and someone else, right? So it’s an interesting dynamic. Thanks very much, Janet, for that.
I just want to walk through something that blew my brain a few years ago. This has been out for a while. This is research from a book called The Spirit Level, which is as in something balancing to see if it’s flat. A couple of amazing researchers from the UK did this work and they’ve got a new book as well, but basically what they did is they had an equity measure between states and between countries and they actually quantified how equitable different countries were. And they basically were able to find really clearly that the more equitable a society is, the better it is for everyone. And not just for people at the bottom or middle or top, like the whole social strata does better. It’s more safe, it’s more well, has longer life, everything. And there’s some really crazy research on this. Countries with greater income and equality tend to have higher life expectancy even. It goes all the way through to life expectancy. And this is a scary one, with lower income and inequality actually have more health and social problems.
And what’s interesting is that at every point of life from literally birth through death, you’re more likely to have health issues and social issues if it’s more unequal. Now all of this stuff makes no sense at all until you realize that a sense of inequity activates a pain network, and what you’re going to do to mitigate pain is unsafe things and different kinds of foods and different kinds of practices. And know if you’re in pain constantly, you do different things. So this is an outdate, it’s from a really powerful book called The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett, and it just really tells the story that equity has a deep driver that ends up affecting everyone. Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox on that. I just wanted to say it really is an issue.
Janet, back to you. Why is kind of equity happening now and kind of where does it fit? Let’s have that conversation.
[00:21:20] JanetS: Well, if you’ve been paying attention or been in space or just been reading anything, up until probably two years ago, it was D and I. It was D ampersand I. Then it became D-E-I. And in the past year or so, that’s pretty much the term you see everywhere, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because, well, the social justice movement that happened after the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Aubrey, that sort of pushed that and it brought it into the business arena in a way that had never been there before. It essentially lifted the moratorium on talking about racial inequity.
And so when you start talking about inequity racially, the whole concept of equity comes up for everybody, but it’s not the same thing as diversity or inclusion. Diversity is about individuals. It’s about people with cultural, physical, neurological, ideological differences. It’s one-to-one, person-to-person. Inclusion is about the relationship between different people or within an organization and how somebody feels whether or not they belong, the degree to which we feel that we are part of an in-group or an out-group. Our SCARF model talks about how the brain works to advance or inhibit the sense of belonging or inclusion. But when you get into equity, it’s like I mentioned earlier, that operates at a systemic or organizational level. It’s not the group. It’s not the individual. It’s bigger than that. And so when diversity and inclusion are there, it’s sort of like the way I think about it is that diversity is a given. You cannot be in a world that’s changing the way it’s changing and opening up for you not to have diversity. Inclusion is sort of an ideal state, but it’s going to take equity in the middle to bridge that gap. That’s how you get to inclusion. You have to level things out a lot a bit.
And so equity is about writing systemic and structural injustices, but to achieve equity and the benefits of inclusion, you have to have practices or habits that can actually make that happen. And there’s no way that you can talk about doing any of this without addressing the issue of power, and that happens in the brain, and I’m going to turn it over to David to talk a little bit about how that actually happens.
[00:23:46] JeanineS: David, I’m actually going to jump in and talk about power if that’s okay. Let me start by setting some context. So love what Janet just said about equity bridging diversity and inclusion. I think that’s just a brilliant way to think about this. It is a very dynamic system. And power is one of the factors that influences how humans interact in this dynamic world that we occupy. So I think of power is actually being very much related to the human need for belonging. And B is sometimes included in our DEI profiles. Someone else just shared recently the addition of the letter J for justice. So let’s talk about how belonging fits in.
As we talk about power, we’re bringing our focus to asymmetries, to the places where we don’t align with others. And so we actually have a short definition of power here, and I’m going to build on that for just a moment. We’re thinking about power as a situation where there’s asymmetry in the ways that individuals control the flow of resources. So an asymmetric control over valued resources. So somebody else in the group has something that I desire. How do I get it? And the complexities of the social interactions that we have to navigate in order to achieve that to, to acquire and retain the resources that are important.
Now, we’re defining power this way, simple short definition. Let me give you an example of what this looks like in the day-to-day. Imagine a meeting between a supervisor and their entry-level direct report, and the supervisor has a great deal of power because they have the ability to provide or withhold resources or administer punishments. So the resources can include things like training, advice, other job opportunities or promotion opportunities, assignment of plum tasks. But there also can be negative outcomes that they control things like reductions in salary, ejection from the role, or on a different level perhaps just a poor performance evaluation or harsh criticism. All of those things influence this person’s sense of belonging. Am I going to be able to stay a part of the group that I care to be a part of? I care to be a part of the group because resources flow to me when I’m successful in doing that.
So the employee in that scenario actually has very few resources. They’re less able to administer punishments. If they have a Twitter account, their opportunities are not zero, but there are very different options and consequences. And when these two people meet, think about how the power inherent in that relationship influences each one’s behavior. Researchers would have us ask things like, “How will it affect each person if somebody shares their emotions in a meeting? Reveals how they’re feeling? Shares too much?” or directs the focus of attention in a way that is not comfortable or appropriate in the setting.
Similarly, we could think about how an employee’s lower power might dictate their emotions what they’re calling attention to. How they’re shaping their focus in the conversation? So that’s a workplace example with two people in a really formal environment, but there are so many ways that we can think about the interactions between two individuals in any social setting and what they’re tracking. How all of this is impacting their brain?
So the research is very clear on this. A power differential may be obvious as in the scenario I just shared or it might be a bit more subtle, but either way, when we have an awareness that we are in a different or lower power state, it does affect our cognition. If we’re in a higher power state, that affects us as well. So one subjective sense of power shown on this slide often has a greater influence on behavior than the amount of power one actually possesses. Perception is reality to a great degree. So this is determined in part by one’s style of information processing.
Smith & Trope in 2006, and researchers we have looked at closely in preparing this program, have looked at the fact that abstract thought versus concrete thought is actually processed differently for people in power. So some of the results of that are shown here, people with power, with a strong subjective sense of power, tend to be more goal focused versus people-focused. People with a stronger subjective sense of power tend to be more optimistic versus risk sensitive. So they become a bit risk tolerant. And people with that stronger subjective sense of power are more comfortable going to those abstract or entering into abstract thinking and visioning. Thinking about what might be. Versus people with lower power who tend to be more detail-oriented. And that one in particular I think really helps us to I think relate strongly to the need to focus on maintaining our flow of resources.
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[00:29:36] DR: Jeanine, can I just add a couple of pieces to that I think just to take it down a click even further? There’re a couple of things really interesting to me. One thing is, and I’ve forgotten this. I learned this some years ago when we first did this power research, but it’s the subjective sense of power. Not the actual, right? So you might have someone who’s actually quite powerful but feels kind of small. Maybe it’s a woman for example who is the team leader but doesn’t feel confident and doesn’t feel like she has power in that situation, but actually does. And in fact there’s some studies showing when that happens, the group kind of punishes that person. When the leader of a group doesn’t kind of own their power, the group ends up in this conflict situation. It’s weird. But there is obviously some real power, and we can have a debate about that, but it’s the subjective sense that seems to matter most. The other thing that jumped out to me is how small the differential has to be to get a really very obvious effect in the brain and in behavior?
So very small differential, and by that I mean get a group of six people – Excuse me. Get a group of six people together for a study. They don’t know each other. Get them working together on a task. They’ve got to do a Jenga together or whatever and then just say, “Oh, by the way. Person A, you’re now just going to help the group organize a bit. You’re in charge of the group of peers.” And they’re just all peers and now this person – And then you watch what happens in their brain. That new person, their brain just changes. And in quite specific ways there’s a network in the brain for thinking about people as people. It’s the medial frontal, medial prefrontal. It activates when you’re thinking about yourself and others. And when you activate that network you’re also activating like people’s intentions. Like why they’re doing what they’re doing? What they might be feeling? What their goals might be, which are three quite different things, right? Their intentions, their goals, their feelings, their emotions, all that. So you’re activating a people network. And then what happens is when you give someone a bit of power, they don’t activate that people network. They actually don’t think of people as having goals and intentions and motivations and all this. They actually think of them as literally concepts to be moved around in your brain to achieve your goals. And even a really small amount of power like we just talked about where one person is now just going to help organize the others, they change how they see those humans and they stop reading their emotions quickly or automatically. They stop processing and digesting what those other are people doing and they start thinking about them as literally objects for their own goals, and you see that at really low levels. It’s fascinating.
Janet, do you want to add anything there?
[00:32:05] JanetS: I was. And when you think about – When we talk about that and that being sort of an interpersonal thing, we need not forget that that can very quickly become – If enough people do it, it can move to become a systemic thing. Think about how back in the American Civil War, before that, black people, the slaves are considered three-fifths of a human being. When you can take somebody and reduce them to that, we’ve seen it even more recently with some of the language that has been used around people of color to reduce them to something less than human. If human is your in-group, in order to make somebody out group, you have to make them non-human. And if enough individuals can do that, you can make it systemic, then it’s a whole lot tougher to dislodge and to do that. So it is important that we think about how power morphs into organizations and into systemic inequities. It doesn’t just stay one-to-one, which is why it’s so important to understand how it operates in the brain because that’s where it starts, but that is certainly not where it ends.
[00:33:13] DR: Right. And this mechanism has – And all three of these mechanisms actually have adaptive value if you are trying to lead people. If you have a team of six people and you need to get a task done like deliver some software and you have a team of six people and you’re trying to work out who should do what, your working memory just can’t hold their emotions, intentions and feelings as well as the task and move it all around. So you kind of need to strip them back to a straw person concept in your head. Not think about their feelings and just think about person A should do this, person B should do this. So partially it’s a working memory limitation issue that to be a leader and kind of make decisions about humans you kind of have to straw person them and take their feelings away and take the humanity away in order just to just to move them around. So it’s sort of a working memory issue, but then you have all these dark sides of literally dehumanizing that. But it’s amazing how that happens at such a small level of power, like a small differential. Now a big differential, it can really happen, right?
And so this is one of the problems is that people in power literally don’t perceive other humans necessarily as having emotions, intentions, all of that. They’re perceiving them through the more lateral network in their brain, which is the outer regions, right? They’re not actually perceiving them through the medial. So they’re not thinking about other people the way they would think about themselves. They’re thinking about other people conceptually as literally as concepts. So that’s one challenge.
The second challenge is to go click deeper than essentially a little bit of power in a very small amount makes you err on the approach side or what we call the towards side versus the away side. So you’re actually optimistic. You’re on the approach side. You’re feeling positive. And what happens, when you’re in a towards state, you might classify situations coming at you that are neutral as positive. You might even classify things that are negative as positive because you’re primed for positive. So it’s the reverse of the teenage daughter problem, right? So now this is maybe the happy-go-lucky son who’s everything is great. Says, “Hey, don’t step on that log,” and they’re just like, “Everything’s great,” and they don’t see that that log is an alligator and bad things happen.
So you’re overly optimistic. A little bit of power can basically put you in that state where you don’t know if things are bad and you just go, “That’ll be fine.” And then the third one that Jeanine dug into a little bit is also that basically you chunk up into categories because of the amount you might have to think about. So you’re going to miss all the details that are going on. So these are very real brain mechanisms. We’ve written about it quite a bit, and this essentially explains one of the reasons it’s hard to actually educate leaders about being allies because they’re like, “I don’t see people having problems. Everyone’s doing fine, and I don’t get any of this stuff. Like it looks like everything’s fine.” And so, literally, they have this response.
Anyway, enough for me, but I just want to kind of anchor this very realm, occurs at very small levels, and has a very real effect on the brain that can make it really difficult to kind of just apply a normal strategy to mobilize leaders. And we’ll definitely come to that. We’ll get to that in a minute. So how do you mobilize leaders as a result of this? But back to you Janet.
[00:36:26] JeanineS: I was just going to throw out two quick thoughts before we throw it back. One, David, as you’re talking about the fact that this alters working memory. Anytime we are aware of that happening, we should recognize as well that we’re talking about unconscious processes, things that are happening way below the surface. And the researchers, Keltner, is one that we also follow looking at the neuroscience of power. He’s got a phrase that I think is really helpful here. It’s called the power paradox, and that is the fact that everything that we have to do to get power, all of the –If you think about it as emotional intelligence that we have to leverage in order to rise in our careers or gain advantage as we progress, we actually become less able to leverage those skills once we acquire the power because of all the things you just shared, David. And I’ll just point out as well, this is timely, but people in the chat are also wondering. So what do we do? Are there steps we can take? So I know that’s where we’re headed. I’ll stop there.
[00:37:25] DR: Yeah, we’re going to dig into that. And remember this is the first of three. So what we wanted to do today was talk about like definitions and kind of immerse a little bit in it and get to like mobilizing. So how do we make this a priority for people to increase equity? How does it all work? So I want to dig into this a little bit more and start. So, firstly, I mentioned this before. The way we think about culture change is priorities habits and systems, and this week we’re kind of immersing a bit into the priority. Next we’re going to look at the habits to build to actually make people better allies and as a result actively increasing equity. What we want to do is talk about how do we go to mobilize people to make this a priority to start with and what’s the step in this?
One of the things that we’ve been doing in the last, really, it’s now eight years since we’ve been working in DEI, but particularly in the last couple of years as we’ve kind of built all these different solutions in DEI around inclusion, around bias, around speaking up, is we’ve been looking at the habits that are necessary, and we always think about the fewest possible habits that have the biggest possible impact because we know brains are busy. And so one of the things we’ve been doing is building these solutions for the last few years. And we noticed a really interesting trend around allyship and around equity. So one of the things that we’ve seen is that allyship is like the active driver within all the DEI work that’s happening. Allyship and shifting the equity conversation actually underpins all this.
So we found for example in our inclusion work, we have a program called Include, that the three most important things to know how to do, one is run a really inclusive meeting when you’re in-person. Another is to run a really inclusive meeting when you’re virtual. That’s popular these days. And the third one is how do you actually address inequity and lack of inclusion but do so in a way that’s not too threatening? And that third one is really allyship.
Secondly, with bias, we have a solution called Decide. We looked at how do you label bias? How do you mitigate bias? But then how do you actively engage others and getting them to mitigate bias? And we’v realized that’s also allyship. And then even in speaking up, one of the critical functions in speaking up is doing so in a way for others, and that’s also allyship. So we’ve seen that allyship is a driver underneath all of the DEI work. And the picture I have of it is you’ve got mitigating bias, actively including, getting people speaking up, and underneath that is the skill of you actively advocating for and championing and actively creating the conditions for others to do these things. So it’s very underpinning from my perspective.
So we’re in this constant debate at NLI, “Should you do allyship first? If leaders have done nothing about DEI, can you start with allyship?” And we actually think you can. Does it go better after they’ve done all this other work? Maybe, but we don’t have any data to say you have to do all this other work first. If you had an ideal world, maybe you’d start with bias and do inclusion there. But we think you can actually go in any direction, and we have this kind of debate weekly. It is an underpinning skill about forwarding the conversation for equity in particular, but really for D and I.
[00:40:35] JanetS: Does there need to be a business case for equity and inclusion initiatives or can they –They’ll be moral imperatives that we pursue because they’re good things to pursue, or must be a bottom line tie? And that brings up your point about how you approach this within an organization. I think the challenge is that when you’re talking about organizations, you’re talking about profit making organizations. Does there have to be a tie to the bottom line when you talk about mobilizing leaders? Have to is a tough word. The question is do you want it to be effective or not? At the end of the day, because so much of this is subjective, just the nature of when you’re talking about equity, I mean we talk about power. Who’s where? We talk about perception. All those things are there.
I believe that the best way to say that is it’s a whole lot better and it’s a whole lot more effective if you can make the business case. Now the sad thing is why are we still making a business case for equity and inclusion and diversity? Why are we still making that case? We’re making it for 50 years. Why are we still making it? Because the reality is I think that organizations don’t really believe yet fully the value of this. They know intuitively that they should, but you have to build systems and frameworks to measure whether or not it actually has an effect. And there are plenty of studies out there that talk about the value of diverse teams, and of course diverse teams don’t work unless there’s inclusion and equity to make those teams to leverage that diversity. There’s lots of information out there about that, but we read those numbers and we don’t really see how it shows up in real world data —
[00:42:09] DR: Can I add a couple of things there, Janet? What you don’t want is something just anchored on a business case. You actually need the social and emotional and societal reasons and for those to be told very powerfully with stories that move people, right? So you do need the emotional and social reasons, and there’s some research showing if you just focus on business case you actually steer people away particularly around hiring. So you do need that. We’re actually moving away from just the business case. We were doing business case for years. What we started to move towards on the whole question of mobilizing is explaining the why in a more rich way and sort of a little bit of a business case, but the business case sort of looks like a black box that we don’t know why it’s working, right? So it’s like don’t just do the emotion. Definitely don’t just do the business case. The emotional reason plus a little bit of business case and then plus a lot of actually explaining the mechanisms of why it works.
And one of the reasons that’s important is it turns out that diverse and inclusive teams don’t make you feel like you’re actually doing better. It’s really weird. And we wrote a piece on this. It actually makes you feel less confident in your work because basically you’re working harder and doing all the stuff. So it’s important to really explain the mechanisms I think when you’re talking about mobilizing leaders. But let’s get more into this question of mobilizing. And Jeanine and Janet, I’d love to hear your insights as well. But we’ve been thinking a lot about how do you mobilize leaders in the right way? And I think maybe my team can put in the chat the session we did on – There’s a couple of sessions we did. One was we really dug into compelling versus mandatory. We did a whole session on how to make something compelling versus mandatory. We’ll dig into that. We also did a whole session on mobilizing leaders in the last few months. So I’m going to kind of crystallize some of those insights.
One of the first things I think that’s really jumped out to me is pitching to people’s better self. So what I mean by that is you can start a presentation to a group of leaders with, “There’s a problem in the world and we need to fix it,” and you immediately are actually going to get people kind of slightly defensive, and it shouldn’t, but it does. You could start with there’s a big racial crisis. It’s very easy particularly certain higher status groups. It’s very easy to accidentally have them feeling blamed or shamed or any of that. And the question is is that helpful to mobilizing them? And I don’t think that it is. I don’t know that it’s helpful. Instead of that, what we’re seeing is is if you want to mobilize leaders to create more equity, you want to pitch to their better selves. In other words, it’s something like tell me a time that you have really stepped up and helped someone be better and how did that feel? Maybe it was you were the coach of the little leagues. Maybe it was you were helping a new team member. Maybe you were helping a friend or relative or a child. Tell me when you helped someone. And let’s activate that network in your brain for how rewarding it is to see other people do better. And I bet you’re someone who would like to do more of that. Wouldn’t you like to be someone who feels great helping others progress?
There’s this whole kind of dynamic of telling people that they’re broken versus kind of pitching to their better sense of themselves and then saying, “Look, here’s a way you could do even more of that.” I think that’s a really important distinction. And even when we were doing our work on building our solution in this space, we accidentally went back to stuff that kind of as a white male I was reading some of our stuff going – Actually I feel uncomfortable reading some of this. I feel kind of attacked and I want to minimize that completely so that I keep reading. And so I’m a bit of the canary in that way.
Janet, do you want to add anything there?
[00:45:45] JanetS: I was going to say it, and I will tell you, I can say this from personal experience. Stepping into the space to do that is not easy. If you’re in this work, it is so much easier to just say, “This is what’s wrong.” For me, that’s been something that I have to work on every day to not do that because you see so many things around you, and if you’re passionate about being in the space, you’re passionate about this work, you want to see it change, but that is a whole different way of looking at it that just science and the brain tells you that this just works better. Activate a reward state as opposed to a threat state. Or as we say here in the south, I’m in Atlanta, you get a whole lot more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. I mean you know that. But it is not easy. We’re saying it’s the right thing to do with the sheer understanding that it is not easy to think about it that way.
[00:46:34] DR: Right. You’ve got emotion, right? You’ve got emotion and passion.
[00:46:37] JanetS: Passion is on your side too. Yeah. Right.
[00:46:40] DR: You’ve got emotion, passion, history data, pain, all this stuff, and now you’re being – The challenge is when you’re passionate about anything, other people can perceive it as a status threat. They’re wrong? Just being passionate makes others someone else uncomfortable that they feel a status threat and an autonomy threat that you’re telling them what to do, right? This is actually an interesting reason why I try to design sessions where you watch people talk versus have people talk at you, because when you’re watching people talk you’re less likely to feel like they’re trying to convince you something. So you have less status and autonomy threat. So this is what you’ve got to play with. How do we turn from a status threat to a status reward as you mobilize leaders? And it can be really difficult. I get that for sure.
The second one – I should move through this just in the time. The second one is how do you create positive social pressure? Now positive social pressure is one of the most powerful change drivers. It’s basically the number one reason people do things is because they think everyone else is doing it. It’s a really, really big driver of human change especially at scale. So rather than trying to like educate your top 100 out of 10,000, we’d rather educate all 10,000 a little bit and say, “Hey, everyone, just do these one or two things even if it’s just a couple of things. Everyone do that.” Versus going deep on kind of the top. And this creates this positive social pressure that everyone thinks everyone else is doing it.
One of the biggest mistakes that we see around mobilizing of allyship and equity is you’ve got to watch out for this mandatory trap. There’s a real trap. And the scary thing about this trap is literally you can make things worse. If you say, “Right, allyship is important. We’re going to mandate a program to become anti-racist, to be more equitable. We’re going to mandate.” It feels right, but the weirdest thing happens is that because of the status and autonomy threat people have is they shut down. And here’s the really scary thing, if you’re doing that because you want to make sure that like two or three four percent of people who are really fighting you actually get the message, the scary thing is those people will become even bigger fighters against what you’re trying to do. So if you think mandating is good because you’ll hit the people who are really negative, they become more negative as a result of a mandatory program. So we’ve got to really, really watch out for that.
And I think the biggest thing, and this is something that we’re really working on, is just how do you make it easy? If you’re going to compel leaders to be allies, how do you make this really, really easy? And Jeanine, can you speak to that? And we’ve got a couple of minutes. Can you speak to that? I know you’ve been involved in some of the pilots that we’ve done around allyship, and I was blown away by some of the data that we saw. Tell us what your experience has been with kind of mobilizing leaders around this.
[00:49:18] JeanineS: I think the wisdom from neuroscience that we weave through the design just gives people a strong sense of autonomy as they’re doing this learning. There are many ways to be an ally as Janet shared with us near the beginning of this program today. The educational program that we offer actually allows professionals to think about their own context, their own situations, make those choices. And I’ll just say, David, like no other program I’ve done, this one had people coming back in modules two and modules three very enthusiastic about things they had identified and tried and feeling really empowered.
[00:49:55] DR: Right. This was leaders in some of the biggest companies in the world. We did some pilots. Do you remember the percentage? There was a really high. We always measure the percentage of people now activating a desired habit. Some of the programs, some of them were like a hundred percent weren’t they? It was really high. Do you remember –
[00:50:08] JeanineS: I think we were around 90% with this group.
[00:50:10] DR: Yeah. About 90% of people had gone and done something that really was in the heart of being an ally after just one or two sessions because we don’t know after the third one as directly. One of the things you do is make it really, really easy to take action to reduce the inequities. We’re coming towards the end. Janet, anything you want to add there in terms of the mobilizing leaders overall?
[00:50:31] JanetS: Leaders, at the end of the day, there’s no leader that doesn’t want to see positive change. And even if they personally struggle with these issues, they want to see it. And so that’s the value of activating that sense of reward. If people can just understand that equity is not something you do just because it’s the right thing to do, it’s a smart thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do. I think you can get leaders to understand that. And the trick is to give them a way to do it, because ally ship seems like this thing that we cannot just touch. It seems so out there. So it’s woo-woo, but it’s not. I mean it is habit change. And like any other habit, if we can change habits, we can move the needle on things.
[00:51:14] DR: Right. So priorities, habits and systems. Next week we’re going to actually work on what are the critical habits. So come back next week. If you can’t make it in person, make sure you listen to the podcast. We’re going to have some different scientists and researchers. I think Janet will be with us again. We’re going to dig into the really critical habits for actually building allies, but what we wanted to do today was something kind of more foundational. So next week we’ve got that. And then the third week we’re going to look more at the system. So, Janet, thanks so much for your brilliant insights and sharing, and Jeanine as well. We needed more time, didn’t we? We needed another like hour to dig into this.
Thanks very much. Everyone, thanks for being here.
[00:51:49] 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 producers are Cliff David, Matt Holodack and Danielle Kirschenblatt. Our executive producer is me, Gabriel Berezin. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky and logo design is by Ketch Wehr. We’ll see you next time.