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November 12th, 2021

Your Brain At Work LIVE – S6:E07 – The Great Realization: The High Cost of Exclusion

As offices continue to open up, a study, recently conducted by Future Forum, found that only 3% of Black professionals want to return to the office full-time. Looking deeper, this statistic is a reflection of the depth and breadth of microaggressions that occur in the workplace and the psychological harm Black professionals experience. 

Which brings larger questions of this impact to light. What ramifications could this have on diversity of teams, innovation, and companies’ bottom lines moving forward? What should leaders do to address this alarming discovery?

In this episode, Dr. Brian Lowery, Dr. Michaela Simpson, and Janet Stovall will unpack this data and its relation to workplace culture and Black professionals’ sense of belonging at work. Tapping into the science of cognitive bias and lived experiences, they will share ways organizations can create more inclusive cultures in the era of hybrid work.

Episode Transcript





[00:00:03] SW: Welcome back to season six, episode seven of Your Brain at Work podcast. As offices continue to open up, a study recently conducted by Future Forum found that only 3%r of black professionals want to return to the office full time. Looking deeper, this statistic is a reflection of the depth and the breadth of microaggressions that occur in the workplace and the psychological harm black professionals experience, which brings larger questions of this impact to light. What ramifications could this have on the diversity of teams, innovation and companies bottom lines moving forward? What should leaders do to address this alarming discovery?

In this episode, Dr. Brian Lowery, Dr. Michaela Simpson, and Janet Stovall will unpack this data and its relation to workplace culture and black professional sense of belonging at work. Tapping into the science of cognitive bias and lived experiences, they will share ways organizations can create more inclusive cultures in the era of hybrid work. 


I’m Shelby Wilburn, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly Friday webinar series. This week, our show is a conversation between Dr. Brian Lowery, Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Stanford University Graduate School of Business; Dr. Michaela Simpson, Senior Research Scientist at the NeuroLeadership Institute; and Janet Stovall, Senior Client Strategist at the NeuroLeadership Institute. Enjoy.




[00:01:28] SW: Today we have an incredible conversation lined up to discuss our next topic, The Great Realization: The High Cost of Exclusion. So I’m going to also introduce our guest today. Today’s first guest studied emotional functioning in people with neurodegenerative disease in her PhD program at UC Berkeley. Her experience as a researcher leads our biggest projects at NLI, translating social and neuroscience findings and distilling that information into learning solutions, research summaries and journal articles to help organizations grow. Speaking of growing, she’s an expert on growth mindset, speaking up, power dynamics, and right now is helping to lead the charge on the science behind our allyship solutions on the topic. She’s a Senior Scientist and Researcher here at NLI. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Michaela Simpson. Michaela, it’s so great to have you today 


[00:02:19] MC: So lovely to be here. Thanks, Shelby.


[00:02:21] SW: You’re welcome. Our next guest is Walter Kenneth Kilpatrick professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He received his PhD in social psychology from UCLA in 2002, and his research focuses on the psychological experience of inequality. More recently, he has explored intersectional identity and the role of social relationships in living a meaningful life. At GSB, he focuses on experiential leadership education. And you can also follow along on his journey by tuning into his podcast at knowwhatyousee.com. Please join me in giving a wonderful welcome to Dr. Brian Lowery. Brian, it’s so great to have you here today.


[00:03:01] BL: Great to be here, Shelby.


[00:03:02] MC: And finally, our moderator for today is a speaker you bring in when you want everyone’s jaws to drop by the end of the speech. In her current position, she delivers briefings and keynote presentations, facilitates workshops and helps develop solutions for our client organizations. Just this year, Reagan Communications named her one of the Top Women in Communications and a diversity champion. And in her career, broke barriers as one of the only black female C-level speech writers in Fortune 100 in her time at UPS. She challenges businesses to get serious about inclusion in her TED talk that has over 2 million views. Not only do we feel lucky to have her, but she is here today as our Senior Client Strategist. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Janet Stovall.


[00:03:44] JS: Well, thank you Shelby. I’m not a doctor yet, but thank you for giving me that honorary title. I will take it. But I am thrilled to be here today with a couple of doctors who I think are going to help us have a wonderful conversation. So welcome everyone for joining us. And like I said, this should be interesting. And I hope you’ll join us in the chat.


Let me start. For those of you who don’t know much about NLI, let me start by telling you a little bit about us. We’ve been around for over 20 years. And our focus is to use science to make organizations more human, therefore better. And that’s kind of what we’re going to talk a little bit about today. An interesting situation that’s going on and where science plays a role in that, and maybe where science can help. We’ve done 50+ research papers since we began. We revised over half of the Fortune 100. And we have operations in all over the world, all over the world. So that’s us. I’m looking forward to doing this today. 


All right, so let’s start with a question. What is the great realization? Everybody knows, I think, about something that happened this year, in the US, the pandemic, and the subsequent exodus from the office to the home led to millions of people, from frontline workers, to Fortune 50 execs saying bye-bye to their jobs. Just, “I’m not doing this anymore.” And in fact according to recent research from Microsoft, more than 40% of the global workforce is considering leaving their jobs at this point. Well that mass walkout was dubbed the great resignation. 


Within the great resignation though, there was something else going on, quieter but longer brewing. And it was underway from a specific group of employees, namely black professionals and knowledge workers. This probably is not a surprise to most people, but black people face some unique pressures in the workplace. They’ve been there since the beginning. But in the past couple of years, those pressures have increased from what’s been going on in the world outside of the workplace, the social unrest and the racial animus that we all are aware of. It’s increased the pressure. 


So when black workers got a chance to get out of the office, like a lot of people, they decided they didn’t wanted to keep those jobs. But those who did even keep those jobs said, “I’ll keep my job, but I don’t want to go back.” 


For black workers, it was something that we’re calling the great realization, namely, that I don’t have to feel this way. I don’t feel great in the workplace and I don’t have to do it. And I’m not going to and that epiphany was much bigger, I think, than a lot of people realized. In fact, according to a recent study, only 3%, 3% of black knowledge workers want anything to do with going back to the office. And while black workers were not alone in that, you’re talking about seven times more white workers willing to go back. Well, why? That’s the question we’re here to talk about today. 


So what we’re going to do is we’re going to dig in on that and we’re going to try to start by examining how we got to this place. How do we get here? Then we’re going to discuss that this is why it’s not just a black people problem. It’s a people problem. It’s a workplace problem. It’s a company problem. It’s an economy problem. And finally, we’re going to talk about what maybe some of us can do to fix it. 


Okay. So let’s get going. What I’d like to do is I’d like to start by posing a question to Dr. Lowery and to Dr. Simpson, who I’m sure I’m going to end up calling Brian and Michaela before this is over. But I’m going to start off the right way. Let me pose a question. When you saw this number, and when you saw this study, what surprised you? And then what didn’t? 


[00:07:21] BL: I’ll go first, Janet. And I’ll kick it off by calling you Janet so you can – 


[00:07:25] JS: Okay. So are we good? Okay. Alright. 


[00:07:28] BL: I wasn’t surprised at all about the lack of interest in going back to work or the comfort of not being at work. I mean, for black folks in predominantly white workplaces, it can be obviously very uncomfortable both because of things that we talk about a lot these days, microaggressions and such. But generally just because, often, you don’t really feel like you can be your full self at work, right? That people won’t understand. That it won’t be respected. That you won’t be seen as intelligent. There’s a lot of concerns that almost all black people have a sense of. And at work, there’s discomfort in having to manage that. It’s extra work, right? The cognitive effort to deal with that. Not at all surprised that people have very little interest in dealing with that if they can avoid it. What I was surprised by was people saying that they felt more supported by their co-workers and they had better views of management. That was a little bit surprising to me. 


[00:08:18] JS: Michaela, what do you think? What got you? 


[00:08:21] MC: They’re somewhat along the same lines as Brian. I would have to say I was a bit surprised that the number was so low of people, of black people who didn’t want to go back to the workplace. But again, not overwhelmingly surprising. And, again, to kind of piggyback on what Brian was saying. Just the toll that it takes to literally walk out the door as a black person. Like you have to put on your armor. You have to put on your shield of like, “Okay, I’m going out in the world.” What that does, that creates basically a kind of sense of hyper vigilance of always kind of having to be on alert and the tact that it takes cognitively, but also emotionally and physically. There’s a lot happening there. 


Again, it’s then not surprising to know. Like there’s an element where you think about it, if you’re at home working from home, you don’t have to put on that armor. You can, in a way, be more you, because you’re only exposing yourself to a certain extent when you’re working remotely, right? And so you can be more at home and feel more comfortable, which I imagine, going to that thing of people feeling more of a sense of belonging now that they’re from home, is really telling, I think, right? Like how much of the fact that we have to go out in the world is accounting for this added stress that we carry. 


[00:09:33] JS: Well, it’s fascinating if you think about it. In fact, it almost is an inverse. I feel a greater sense of belonging when I’m not actually there. And so the question is why is this the case? Why do black people feel this way? What is going on in the workplace that is unique? Because I’m sure that there’s some people who would look at this and say, “Well, whenever I have to get out of my house and I got to put on clothes and put on makeup, I can’t do it in my pajamas. I can’t have the dog with me. Of course, I’m uncomfortable in the workplace. And of course there are pressures.” There are other diverse groups. Women, for example, who face these things. What is it that is unique about being black in the workplace? What are the forces? What are the things in force that are causing this pressure and this sense of exclusion? What’s that coming from? 


[00:10:20] BL: That’s a very good question. So I’m not going to talk – I would say it’s not about the workplace per se. I think it’s about society. What does it mean to be black in this country? And when you think about taking that to your place of work where you’re being constantly evaluated and your performance affects your ability to make a livelihood, that amplifies all the things that happen every day. I don’t necessarily love the experience of walking in the stores where I can afford to buy almost anything in there. Like that’s not necessarily a great experience for me either sometimes. 


And there, I don’t have to see those people day-in and day-out. So it’s day-in and day-out. You go to work. Sometimes you’re nervous somebody’s going to say something crazy and you’re going to have to deal with it and see that person for who knows how long, right? You’re going to have to pretend or behave as if what’s happening is not happening. I just think the amount of pressures that we face, as Michaela pointed out already, are just so taxing because of the way society functions. 


[00:11:13] MC: Yeah. And, Janet, please follow up. 


[00:11:18] JS: What i was going to say was, Michaela, from NLI, we talk about some of these issues from a neuroscience standpoint. From a neuroscience standpoint, what are some of the factors you think that might be going on that are causing this?


[00:11:32] MC: Well, I’m going to talk more about the response, right? So you pose like a much bigger question, like we are in a society and a culture that has lots of history to it of like what’s creating circumstances that would lead us to be talking about this right now when there is an environment or culture where we, and we, I’m talking about black people, are not necessarily welcomed, always, or accepted into spaces, whether it’s walking into a store, or walking into your office. That can create a sense of threat in somebody. 


And so at NLI we talk a lot about threat and reward. And again, this is for everybody, for all units. We can be in situations where we feel a sense of threat. And it doesn’t matter if you’re walking on a hiking trail in the hills above Oakland in California and you spot a snake or what you think is a snake, or you’re engaging in the office or with co-workers and you realize you’re not invited. You weren’t invited to a critical meeting that you should have been at. The brain is still processing that as threat. 


And so if people are experiencing heightened experiences of threat, it’s going to create a sense of – It’s basically we talk about going more into the limbic system, kind of the emotion center, like fight or flight, which means we’re going to have fewer resources available to our prefrontal cortex. We love to talk about our prefrontal cortex because that’s considered the center of our executive functioning, right? Our ability to reason. Even our ability to calculate, to do math really quickly. Or our ability to think analytically, to solve problems, to collaborate. We become less able to do that when we feel under threat. 


So even think of, again, how much more it takes for somebody to walk into the office. People who do their job beautifully, but they have all this going on in the background. Again, just imagine how much energy that takes to like show up, be professional. Make sure you can prove, “Hey, I’m worthy to be here,” and then still have to deal with these slights that you might be seeing and just feeling these threats. It has a very big impact on our ability to perform and show up and have a sense of well-being actually. It actually affects our sense of well-being. 


[00:13:40] BL: I want to add one thing to that, if you don’t mind, Janet. 


[00:13:43] JS: No. Right ahead.


[00:13:44] BL: That I think people – The way we talk about it could give the impression that people are consciously doing this all the time. They know they’re doing it. Like when I said you’d have to worry about is this person going to make a comment that’s upsetting to you and how you’re going to deal with that. But it’s also the case that this is happening at a level where you might not even be aware of it. So it’s so ubiquitous that if you’re in these situations, you just might have an experience of fatigue or experience of stress and sometimes not even know what it’s about or where it’s coming from. You might not even be able to name what the experience is because it’s so diffused and all around you. 


And in addition to that, sometimes it’s just about the uncertainty about what’s going on. Like how do I understand? How do I even interpret what’s happening? Is this about this? Is this not about this? I think it’s hard to overstate the cognitive toll of this. Like how much effort this takes? How much space it takes up? And also that people who are going through it probably can’t even quantify the extent of it. It’s more than they even realize it is. 


[00:14:45] MC: Well, thank you for mentioning that. I just want to note, yeah, those conscious versus unconscious processes. And most of this stuff we’re processing unconsciously. There’s so many cues out there that we’re reading, which what we’re not necessarily consciously processing, that the brain is still working. Like our conscious processing is so much slower. And we’re just aware of just this much. But there’s a lot of other things that our body and our mind are processing, to what Brian was saying. 


And also, sometimes you don’t even realize how taxing the situation is until you’re in another situation where you’re like, “Oh my Goodness!”


[00:15:20] JS: When you’re out of it. When you’re out of it.” 


[00:15:21] MC: Right. Maybe you’re on vacation. Maybe you’re in another country where there’s other issues going on. And maybe you’re working from home and you’re like, “Oh wow! I feel so much more relaxed and at ease.” And then you realize what a toll it takes for you to go out there in the world.


[00:15:35] JS: Well, and that’s exactly what happened, which is why I think you’d have to call and get the great realization. When we’re building this topic, one of the questions that I kind of bounced off somebody, the answer came back, “Well, isn’t it better now?” Because, yes, we know that post-George Floyd, there was suddenly the moratorium on not talking about race and issues around race in the workplace was lifted for a moment. So isn’t that better? Because we can talk about it. 


But what I see and what I’ve experienced and what a couple people have pointed to in the chat is that, in some ways, for a minute that was good. For a minute it was like, “Ah! We can talk about this.” And then it made things even more complicated, because things didn’t change necessarily. But you found just having to face it and talk about it more. Would you agree that that was some of what has also led to this number being what it is? That maybe things got, I won’t say better, but it got interesting for a minute and then they got worse in some ways? What does talking about it do? Does that make it better, worse? What does that do?


[00:16:36] BL: That’s a great question. I wrote an op-ed piece that was shortly after the George Floyd murder, or when people were spending a lot of time talking about it. And the point I was making is that everybody was checking on me and black people. And I was like, “This is always how it is.” Nothing new happened. You just started paying attention to it, right? 


So from my perspective, this has been my life as long as I can remember. And now you’re checking on me. And my point was like, “How about where you are?” Like now that you see what it is, what are you going to do about that? How do you feel about that? And I felt it personally as I didn’t – Even when it was at the beginning, I didn’t love it. My experience, it was not like, “Great! Now people are talking about it.” That was not my sense of it. 


I think there’s still a lot of talking that is about requiring other people to make sense of – Requiring black folks to make sense of white people’s experience of what’s happening with race in this country, right? And I don’t find that personally. I don’t find that relieving. I was not particularly optimistic about the commitments that were being made being sustained long term. And I still am at that place. Like what matters my perspective is not are we talking about it? But what are we doing about it? And there were many commitments made. And are those being followed through on? Like what are people doing? How they change the way they live and the way they interact with people at work? And what they support? Has that shifted significantly? And I think, from my perspective, the jury is still out on that.


[00:18:12] JS: Yeah. I think that that is definitely part of the discussion. And we’re going to talk a little bit towards the end of this about what we can do. But I think you’re right. The frustration, I think, people are feeling is that you did get a chance to open the door to this to talk about it. And I read an article the other day that said part of the challenge was, for a long time, nobody asked, nobody cared. And then they asked and they care. And so you kept your guard up. But then people asked, and they cared, and they got interested. And you let your guard down. And then you waited to see if anything would change. And it hasn’t really changed that much. 


And so what’s going to be interesting is that now that this pressure has been lifted and people don’t want to go back, how are we going to deal with that? And we’re going to talk about that in a little bit. But one of the things that both of you mentioned sort of the long-term effects, and there is some work being done by an academic named Arline Geronimus. And she talks about the concept of weathering. And her initial work was done in looking at maternal morbidity and mortality and the effect of just lifelong racism on black women. And what it did to their ability to have children. And what it did to the children that were born? And so she called it weathering. Sort of like the long-term constant pressure. 


And to me that’s kind of what this sounds like in the workplace, is that a lot of the fact is that nobody ever thought about the fact that you didn’t have to feel this way until you didn’t. And I think, Brian, I think you said that. Or either Michaela. I’m not sure which one said. But all of a sudden you just didn’t feel it anymore. The weight was lifted. And just like I didn’t even know that I was feeling this until I wasn’t anymore. And I think that’s what we’re looking at here. And why the number is so small, because I think it was. I don’t think it was an epiphany for anybody that this was a problem. But I think it was, for me, personally, it was an epiphany that so many people felt this strongly about it. I think that was the surprise for me.


Okay. So that being said, it’s really easy to look at this and say, “Well, all right, it’s a black thing. It’s a problem. I get it.” But the reality is, is that this seems like a problem for more than just the people who are affected. It seems like it’s a problem for other people who are affected who aren’t necessarily black. 


Now, I know economically it is. There was a study done by CT Group that said, over the past 20 years, we’ve lost 16 trillion, trillion with a T, of GDP because of racism against, specifically African-Americans, in this country. And it cited things like lack of access to education, wage disparities, those things. 16 trillion. And the study went on to say that if we fix this problem in the next five years, we could get a $% trillion boost in GDP. Clearly, there are economic benefits and detriments to racism in the workplace. But how does workplace racism – What could possibly be the effects on other people who aren’t black in the workplace? What do you think about that? 


[00:21:20] MC: Okay. So just so I understand it. So like, basically, given the state that we’re in, black people aren’t the only people being affected. What effect does this have on other people? 


[00:21:28] JS: Yeah. Does it? Does it have an effect on other people? I mean, economically it does. But what does it do psychologically to the whole space when you have a group of people who are feeling this way in the middle of it?


[00:21:40] MC: Yeah. I mean, I think we’re all affected, right? We’re humans and we’re all connected. And we all are affected by threats, by rewards, by unconscious anything, unconscious behaviors towards one another. And we are all part of the system, right? It’s not just me exists in a vacuum and only this one group is affected. We’re all affected in different ways. And even like talking about this, we were just talking like what happens when we talk about issues like this and just even reading some of the things that are coming up in the chat? And the impact that it can have? And all these stuff I think is in the ether. Although people might not be talking explicitly about what’s happening in a workplace setting. And I’m not even talking about racial issues. Just things that are just happening that play out in a workplace. So many things happen that we don’t talk about that we don’t name and are just under the surface. And we’re all feeling these things are being affected them in different ways. And then we don’t really know necessarily how to talk to one another, which increases anxiety and uncertainty. And so we just have like this stew of uncertainty and anxieties and like unresolved issues, which is not to say that you can’t have a sense of inclusion and belonging in psychological safety, because that’s what we want to work towards, and that does exist as well. So that’s kind of what’s coming off. 




[00:23:06] SW: If you enjoy this podcast, you’re going to love our annual conference, the NeuroLeadership Summit. Coming to you virtually on February 15th through 16th, 2022. We’ll bring business leaders, academics and visionaries from around the globe to an incredible virtual gathering where we’ll zero-in on powerful insights, trends and breakthroughs, as well as the principles of NeuroLeadership. All to help leaders and teams adapt faster in a transforming world. 


Join us online, February 15th through 16th, 2022 and attend sessions available across the globe. You can watch session live, participate in breakout rooms, interact with other members of the NLI community, or access content on demand. No matter how you prefer to engage, we promise you won’t want to miss it. To learn more and to save the date, visit summit.neuroleadership.com.




[00:24:04] JS: Well, Brian, when you and I talker earlier, one of the things you mentioned was the whole concept of advantage versus disadvantage and awareness of that. And how people are aware of that and how maybe they’re not even – We talk about not being aware of what we’re feeling. But what about that issue? How do people process advantage versus disadvantage?


[00:24:26] MC: Yeah, that’s a good question. So in some of the work I do, what I demonstrate is that people don’t think in terms of systems. As Michaela pointed out, that we all are part of the system. Like you can’t affect one person in the system and not affect other people in the system. That’s definitely true. But people, for whatever reason, psychologically, don’t experience it that way. So they can create a situation where they say, “Oh, women and black folks are discriminated against.” And that’s too bad. But as a white man, that has nothing to do with me. And that clearly is not true. 


And I think, on one level, what you get is an erosion of people’s moral character. And in some sense, I would say at a high-level, a loss of humanity. And like you’re not the person that you think you are or that you would like to be. So that’s one level in which there’s a cost. 


At another level, it’s constrains what people are – What’s acceptable in the space. When you limit it down to one group, that everybody is constrained. Like imagine a workplace where people truly could bring varieties of themselves to the workplace. Who would not benefit from that? Everybody would benefit from that, right? 


I’m in situations in – And I’ve been in situations over the course of my like career where you’re in these rooms with guys, and maybe for me it’s mostly white guys. And you can just tell, like you know enough of them personally. Like they don’t like it either. They don’t want to play this. They don’t want to play whatever the game is being played and talking about sports or whatever. Some of them don’t even care or know anything about it, but they feel like they have to participate in that too. So you’ve created – We have created this environment where no one gets to really be who they would like to be, or a very, very limited number of people. 


Now that doesn’t mean that everyone suffers the same. I just want to be clear. But it’s not the case that most people are in that situation saying like, “This is fantastic. Everybody’s paying a price. Some people are getting more for that price than others,” right? So if you’re a white guy in that situation, the benefits that accrue to you for playing the game are very different. It’s not necessarily the case that you aren’t also playing a game and that is not also coming at a cost to you. And your life would not be better if you didn’t have to participate in that. And I think we don’t do enough to articulate that. That everybody is worse off not just in terms of economically, but in terms of morally and psychologically because of the limits we place on particular people or the experience that people can bring to the workplace. 


[00:26:57] JS: Right. So I guess it’s safe to assume that the adage, bring your authentic self to work, is nice to have, but not really – It doesn’t really work.


[00:27:07] BL: Come on. Come on, Janet. You know that’s not true. 


[00:27:09] JS: Look. If I brought my authentic self to work, I would be fired, okay? I would. I would. I mean, I bring a version – I bring a piece of my authentic self, but this isn’t really it. I don’t think anybody might want to bring it. 


[00:27:23] MC: Yes. And it’s so true. There’s some research around inclusion and how do we measure that? And some researchers talk about two really important aspects. Inclusion is a sense of uniqueness and belonging, and one of like, “Hey I am appreciated, and I can bring what’s unique to me. And it’s allowed to be there.” And then that aspect of belonging, like I have this sense of connection with the people I work with. Again, that uniqueness piece made me think of bringing your authentic self to work or kind of the flip side of that of covering, right, or code switching? Like when we’re at work, like, “Okay, I have to cover parts of myself.” 


And even, Brian, I think we do want to mention we are talking about focusing on the black experience and we’re also talking about these phenomena that affect all of us as humans. And even that aspect of our norms and our society of how men should behave, or what they should be interested in like sports, and basketball, or things like that. And in what ways are men not able to bring themselves to work. And as Brian said, there’re varying degrees of that. But just even that issue of covering. To what extent do we have to like, “Okay, I’m just going to bring an aspect of myself. But I can’t bring these other aspects of myself because it won’t be welcomed,” or we think we might scare people, or they’ll think we’re too black, or too this and create a threat in others. And what are the things that we do? And I’m just saying that as humans generally, that we don’t bring parts of ourselves because we’re afraid we might create threat in other people? 


[00:28:53] JS: You brought up a word, and it’s a word that we hear a lot. And I’m trying to decide how I feel about it. The word belonging. It has worked its way into the diversity, equity and inclusion space the same way equity did. It should just be DE&I now, a lot of places belonging. That’s an interesting word, and it’s very germane to this conversation, because, like I said earlier, one of the surprises was people felt a greater sense of belonging. For me, that word’s always interesting, because when you say it from the perspective of an organization, or from those who are the reason, or the situation that somebody doesn’t when they belong to, I have a hard time with that word. Because to me it feels like you’re putting the responsibility for feeling the connection on the person who feels disconnected. 


For me, personally, I’m much more inclined depending on who I’m talking to use the word inclusion, because I feel like inclusion is something that an organization can build systems, habits, processes to encourage. But they can do all that and somebody can still feel like they don’t belong. So what do you think about that? I mean, am I just being – Is it semantics here? Or is there sort of a difference between the concept of belonging and inclusion?


[00:30:07] BL: That’s a good question. I don’t have a strong sense of those words. I think people mean such different things when they use those words. But I think something that’s not talked about, and that we can think about how it’s connected to inclusion and belonging, is ownership. Like who owns this space? Like when you walk into that space, who does it belong to? And it’s not like who’s belonging do you feel a sense of belonging? But it’s a different way of saying like who does this space belong to? 


If you’re a black person, you walk into places that are primarily white and you have a sense of like, “I have to figure out how to fit in here.” People can do whatever they want to make you feel like you belong, but you can still have a sense of like, “I’m visiting someone’s home. This is not my home. I would not set up my home this way. These people, their backgrounds, the way they engage with each other, the way they talk is not the way the people who when I’m at home, when I really feel like I belong, this is not the sense of how that feels culturally.” And so you have to find a way to engage with that. 


I think, to me, that’s about who does this space belong to? And we all have that concept. You can walk into a place and be like, “This is not my space.” And for black folks, often, that’s what the workplace feels like. And the idea of, “We’re going to make you feel welcome.” I don’t want to feel like a guest. Don’t make me feel welcome. I want this to feel like my house.


[00:31:28] JS: Change the space. Change the space. 


[00:31:31] BL: Exactly. If you feel like you’re walking into your home, that’s how I want to feel. I don’t want to feel like I’m welcome to your home but I’m welcome to be there. That’s not what I want. 


[00:31:39] JS: I don’t want it to be your home. I want it to be our home. That’s interesting. I love the way you kind of flip that word. Yeah. I feel bad about the word now, but I like it that way. 


[00:31:49] MC: We have these terms, right? What do they mean? Like you might have – One researcher defines it this way, and another this way. Who knows what it is? And I almost have the sense of belonging is a felt sense. I’m a bit into – I’m a psychologist by nature. I studied emotions. I love emotions. To me, like as opposed to inclusion, belonging is on the person, right? It’s my subjective sense. To Brian, it’s like, “Hey, I want to walk in like I feel like I’m at home.” Other people might mean something else. But it’s like almost like you probably know it when you feel it. 


[00:32:23] JS: And I think that’s it. I think that’s my feeling of it, is that when we as – When organizations try to say, “We want to create a sense of belonging.” I don’t know that that is not incredibly aspirational and not as actionable as it could be. Because the question is the sense of belonging – Inclusion is a means to that end. And you don’t control that end is the way I think about it. So when I think about it from companies, what I believe companies need to do is they need to figure out what can you do to create an inclusive culture so that then maybe people could feel belong, like they belong. But you can’t control that. But you can control what you do in the culture. 


Let’s talk a little bit about that in light of this discussion that we’re having today with the only 3% of black folks wanting to go back. What can companies do? I’ll start with companies, I mean, because I think we can talk a little bit about what we can do individually as well. But let’s start with the company. What can the company do? What can organizations do to create inclusive environments so that people have a chance to feel a sense of belonging? Short term and long term. What are we going to do about this?


[00:33:30] BL: Hire some more folks. Hire some more black folks. How about that? Promote some black people. I would like to start with that. 


[00:33:38] MC: That would be something, right? Because I’m sure a lot of us are one of few in organizations. And in this case, I’m talking about black people. Sometimes you can kind of get a sense of like there could only be one in each department or something like that. And so if you get a sense of like, “Oh, it’s possible to have more of us. It’s okay,” right? And getting this sense of that you’re not the only one. So I think there’s something powerful to that of just even hiring more people. Where do your actions align with your intentions? Because there are a lot of companies that espouse wonderful things. How aligned are you on that? And whatever those wonderful things are and however they define diversity and things like that. But are we seeing, “There’s proof in the pudding?” And so what’s that pudding looking like? So I think there needs to be a lot of alignment along that. You need to see the role modeling and leadership. You need to have the sense of bringing people together around a common goal as an organization within teams and managers being aligned in that way with their direct reports. There’s a way systemically to create this, to create these habits and behaviors. We talk a lot about that at NLI. You actually have to set these priorities. You have to embed these habits and practice these habits. And again, not just give talk to it.


[00:34:55] BL: And another thing I want to say about this is when it comes to, “What can we do?” I would ask like, “What are you measuring and what are you rewarding?” Like if we were talking about, “Wow! Our sales dipped and we’re worried about it.” You wouldn’t be like, “What can we do?” You would say like, “All right, who whose job is it to make sure this happened? Who’s not making this happen? And what is the cost of that? If you people were serious about it, I believe organizations are serious about it when they treat it like other things they clearly care about. But when it’s just something they like, “How do we fix this?” and they want to talk about it and have conversations, but there’s no, as far as I can tell, real accountability, there are no real markers, there’s no real measurement, I don’t believe them. I don’t believe they’re serious about it. 


[00:35:37] JS: And I’ve heard plenty people say that you can measure diversity, but you can’t measure inclusion. And my response always to that is, “Well, you can measure anything if you know what you’re solving for in the first place.” So I think the problem we’re getting with diversity, equity and inclusion and why some of these promises, we don’t live up to some of these promises, is because we get into kumbaya la-la-land about this. And to your point Brian, we don’t do that about anything else. 


Yes, if you’re talking about sales, you’re measuring you know things that are accountable or whatever. But there are other things that we measure that are not tangible like that. And what we do is we figure out, first of all, why should we care about it? What’s the value of it to the organization? How great is that value? And how do we measure it. 


Not too long ago, I saw something from Boston Consulting Group and they took an interesting approach to try to measure the value of diversity to innovation. And we know in the work world, whenever people talk about what’s the value of diversity? I always say, “Well, because it helps us innovate better.” 


Well, if we truly believe that, to your point, Brian, if they truly believe that, they would doggone should be figuring out how to measure it. They doggone be sure treating diversity like a resource. Well, Boston Consulting Group said, “Let’s look at 1700 companies,” I believe it was, “and let’s take the ones who they defined innovation as having produced something new within the past three years.” And they said, “All right. So let’s look at the companies, all the companies that have done some in the last three years.” The most diverse ones were getting more of their revenue from things that they produced in the last three years than the least ones were. And it’s kind of an odd connection. But what they did is they connected the diversity in the company specifically to what they were solving for, which was innovation. To me, that’s what we got to look at. 


And Michaela talked about priorities, habits and systems. That’s one of the systems, the systems of measurement, the systems that are in place. How do you support? How do you make actionable the aspirations. And I think that’s what we got to start looking at doing, I believe from an objective standpoint. 


Well, what do we do about this issue about black folks not wanting to come back though? What do we do in the short term about this? 


[00:37:49] BL: Why is it a problem? I mean, why do we have to do something about it? I just want to make sure I understand what we’re trying to solve for. 


[00:37:55] JS: Yeah. Okay. Well, we’re going to assume that folks think it’s a problem. Okay? So let’s start from there. So assuming it’s a problem, assuming that we want folks to come back to the workplace, we want because we want diversity, because we want to leverage that diversity, because we value it and we believe that we want people to engage. Okay? So whether they come back or not, maybe that’s the answer. Maybe that’s what you’re saying. Do we have to come back? What can companies do? 


[00:38:23] BL: In this country, black folks should be – I mean, it’s incredible that black folks are treated the way they are. Because given what we’ve done for everybody else, it seems like we should be considered superstars, right? Like a lot of the Civil Rights that we enjoy right now and what people think of as morally correct came from from black folks pushing for those, some of those rights. 


In this case, the black folks are at the forefront of not wanting to go back to work. There’s a lot of ways that work didn’t work for a lot of people, right? So number one, you should try to figure out what’s wrong with the way work was being managed for everybody? I mean, and I think you can ask black folks, and there’ll be some specific things there. But a lot of things that are hard for black folks are, honestly, hard from other people too. They just don’t say it because it’s not as intense as what I would suggest. 


The first thing we should be trying to figure out is what’s wrong with the way we’re forcing people to work or what we were expecting from people at work? After that, I feel like why don’t you ask people, “Hey, what would make you want to be at work?” Instead of guessing about what people need and want, why don’t you ask them what they need? What would make them feel more excited about coming to work? 


I think, obviously, we can throw money at it, and that’s probably the easiest thing to do because you don’t have to figure it out if you have those resources. But I don’t know that’s what people actually need. You can lure people back to work, but at what cost for those people to some extent? So I don’t have a great solution for this. But the idea that companies are going to somehow sit around by themselves and figure it out seems like not the way to go given the track record. 


[00:39:59] MC: Right. And I think you know there’s that element of asking people. And even then, we’re talking about a segment, right? We’re talking about people who can work from home, like us, knowledge workers, if you will. If you are customer-facing and have to show up at the sandwich shop or the retail store, you don’t have much of a choice. But there is something about giving people choice and a sense of autonomy. And that’s really important, because that gives people a reward. And actually the brain processes having choice as a reward of like, “Oh, do I want to come back to work? And if I do, under what circumstances? Maybe I don’t have to come back to work.” And maybe you will go back to work part of the time because you know it’s your choice, and you can go back and forth. And that goes a long way. And that goes for everybody. Like giving people that choice and that sense of autonomy. And they find that when people have a sense of choice of autonomy, they’re more likely to engage in discretionary behaviors at work. Basically kind of going above and beyond. At least some more creativity. A whole bunch of other – A cascade of positive effects come out when people feel that they’re at choice.


[00:41:07] BL: Yeah. And, Janet, I’d love to go a little bit deeper and go beyond work for a second, because Michaela made a point that I think is really important. This is not everyone. The people that can work from home are actually a very limited set of people. And the people who are forced by the very nature their work to show up are often black, and brown people, and women, right? Because they’re customer-facing. They’re lower-wage people. 


[00:41:30] MC: Frontline.


[00:41:30] BL: From my perspective, this is a social problem, and the societies that should solve it. It is embarrassing that we are the richest country in the world and we provide the least support for our citizens. We don’t have federal paid leave, parental leave. It’s incredible. I mean, that we don’t have health care. Like unless you’re employed that’s – I mean, how are we allowing our country to be this way is one of the things I would ask? I think there’s also – There’s a deep social and political issues here that go beyond just what companies are doing. Like companies, in my opinion, companies should not be our source of health care. Like do you really want to depend on your employer for your health care? Like I think this is a terrible way for things to work. And almost no other rich country works that way. Not almost. No other rich country works that way. And I think we’ve just become so accustomed to employers being the thing that like provide all this stuff in our life. Not just a check to pay bills and discretionary spending, but basic needs. It should be untenable. I don’t know how we allow that to continue. 


And if you think about what it would be if you didn’t have to depend on your work, on your employer for basic needs, like really basic needs, people still want to work. People want discretionary spending. People want the dignity of showing up and contributing and creating value. I think this is going to be a hard problem to solve if we’re just thinking about it from the perspective of corporations or jobs.


[00:43:03] JS: I agree. I think I read something not too long ago, and they called it wasn’t a culture of work, but it was something like that where it said something about where everything centers around the work. And it is things like health care. And how much time you get to be on vacation? The breaks you get. Everything centers on work. And it basically prioritizes work over everything else. I dare say, between the great resignation and the great realization, a lot of that was people got back that autonomy that Michaela was talking about to not de-prioritize work, but they had the space to prioritize some other things. 


And so when they got that freedom, they’re like, “I don’t want to give that up anymore.” So if I want to think optimistically, my hope is that if we decide that – Because I don’t think we’re ever going back to – I don’t think we’re ever going back to the way things were. I just don’t think we’re going to do that. So the question is what are we going to settle back to that’s somewhat like normal? What’s the new normal going to be? 

And I do believe that that unexpected, that serendipitous autonomy, is going to make it real hard, because you give people something, it’s hard to take it back. It really is. And so my hope is, is that nobody planned this. But hey, we got it now. We’re not giving it back. But I’m hoping that that does change things. I don’t know how it will, and it’s not going to be quick, it’s not going to be easy. And there are going to be folks fighting it all the way. But you know I hope it does change things. 


Well, I know I’m going to start getting a notes from the NLI crew that I need to start wrapping things up a little bit. So this is not just a black problem. It’s a workforce problem. And it has significant economic and, I believe, psychological implications for people other than just black folks. In the short term, I think we got – As Brian was saying. And I think we have to rethink the whole world of work, and how we work, and why we work. And we got to lean into some flexibility in many different ways. 


And then finally the most important thing we can do is we have to build inclusive workplaces. And I believe that it has to be inclusive whether you’re in the office, or out of the office, or wherever you are. The workplace in general needs to be inclusive. And the only way we do that is by building objective solutions, which are actionable, measurable, accountable habits and systems. 


Here are our takeaways. But I personally want to thank Michaela and Brian for showing up today, for being here, for being so honest having this wonderful conversation. I appreciate it. And I hope everybody else. I think everybody else did too. Thank you so much for doing what you do. 


[00:45:39] MC: Thank you for the invitation, Janet. 


[00:45:42] BL: It was a lot of fun. Thank you.


[00:45:42] SW: Yeah. Thank you all so much. As always, thank you so much for joining us today. Your opinions matter to us. So if you’d like to share your thoughts, we’ll also drop in a one-minute survey link for you. And we’ll be sharing that on our respective platforms as well. 


Just some announcements. We are hiring. So if you’re interested in joining the NLI team, working with us on different projects and in different departments, visit neuroleadership.com/careers to learn more about our open positions. And this is where we say farewell. So on behalf of our guests and the NLI team, we really appreciate you being here. And thanks again for joining us. 


Next week, we’ll be returning for our topic Power and Expectations: The Neuroscience of Group Dynamics. So it’s going to be a really great conversation. We have some guests coming. And we’re very excited to have a discussion. So have a great weekend. Thank you so much again, panel, and we will see you soon.




[00:46:40] SW: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us make organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you listen to your podcast. Our producers are Matt Holidack, Daniel Kirschenblatt, Shadé Olasimbo, and me, Shelby Wilburn. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Catch Wear. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you here next week. 



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