July 27th, 2021
EPISODE 5: Can We Bridge The Gap?: The Neuroscience of Division and Polarization with Jonathan Haidt and Alison Taylor
In this episode of Your Brain at Work, Dr. David Rock, the CEO and Co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute is joined by two esteemed guests: Jonathan Haidt, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and co-author of the best-seller The Coddling of the American Mind, and Alison Taylor, the Executive Director of Ethical Systems. The three shed light on the core divisions in America, how those divisions seep into professional discourse, and most importantly, what we can do to bridge divides. When the trio gets into strategies for bridging the divides we have, it’s less about deleting Facebook from your phone and more about what decades of brain science and social science research have taught us about practicing empathy, seeing others, and listening to opposing viewpoints.
[00:00:04] SO: America of course has been deeply divided before, but the last five years or so have felt very drastic between the rise of social media, local chefs, racial and gender discussions coming fully to the fore and more. We’re now at the point where some companies notably coin base and base camp have attempted to ban political discussions at work because of how divisive they can be. In both of those cases, the concept fell flat and employees left. We’re clearly divided and one of the strongest voices on that topic is Jonathan Haidt, an NYU professor who wrote the bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind.
Based off a previous Atlantic article in 2018, Haidt is a leading researcher on division and polarization. One of his collaborators, Alison Taylor is the executive director of Ethical Systems and also a leading voice on employee activism, politics at work and the role of organizations in the modern movement. Haidt and Taylor join our co-founder and CEO, Dr. David Rock to discuss the current climate, what is the company’s role, how actively should they take social justice, what should employees be focusing on and when divisions do appear, how do we heal them, is it possible to have a true culture of empathy listening and understanding. These are huge questions right now when argument seems to be the norm on platforms and even inside organizational walls. We need paths away from the rancor and division. The conversation with this trio of experts will help get you there.
[00:01:52] DR: Alison, it’s been great to get to know you recently. I know we had a really great long conversation and a new friend. Jonathan, I was looking at — when I last saw you before recently, it was actually 2005, so I was 10 years old and you were 11.
[00:02:07] JH: The world was very different.
[00:02:08] DR: Very different. We’re at the Gallup Positive Psychology Conference, the summit that they ran back there in DC when we all used to go to conferences, very optimistic crowd. I actually remember your session. I remember being kind of hit by your ability to deal with the gray, actually think in terms of complexity and see both sides of arguments. It’s been really fascinating seeing you continue to do that and really be able to think and very nuanced and complex ways, where a lot of people like to see the world in black and white. Congrats on your incredible work and contributions to social psychology and other fields.
I’ll disclose, I’ve read your book just about cover to cover. I haven’t read one for a while on the coddling of the American mind, and really gripping reading and kind of explains a lot of what’s going on. Alison, in another 15 years, when I have 15 years of history, I’ll do as warm an intro for you. Sorry.
Let’s dig in. There’s a lot to talk about. Firstly, congratulations on the center that you’ve set up at NYU, Ethical Systems. It’s a really brilliant structure that you put in and vision and partnership that you have. I know we were talking about potentially doing research together and let’s kind of see what comes out of this conversation and what organizations are interested in kind of digging into. But I wanted to dig in first of all with the question that’s pretty central in the recent book of yours and in your work overall, which is — it’s a question for both of you. Why are we so polarized, particularly in North America, not just here? Where is the polarization coming from? Also, particularly, how is it affecting organizations.
[00:03:42] JH: I’d be very happy to talk about that. That’s something I began studying in 2003 or 2004 when it seemed as though we were really coming apart. In my personal investments, if I did exactly the opposite of what I did, I would be a wealthier man. But in my academic investments, I did invest in exactly the growth stocks of the 21st century, namely polarization, disgust, the problems of Gen Z, rising depression and anxiety, social media, et cetera.
The way to understand why we’re in such a mess now is to look at two historically unusual periods. The first is the late 20th century. It’s very hard to have a large diverse secular society, a theocracy you can hold together, an ethnic group you can hold together, but a large diverse secular society is very hard. You have to look at the forces pulling us in, the centripetal forces and the forces pulling us out, the centrifugal. The late 20th century was an amazing period of centripetal force. World War II is the most power — a war, a foreign attack, Pearl Harbor is the best possible way to bring people intensely together. That whole generation who remembers World War II, they were great citizens, social capitalists for the rest of the century.
The news media had its period of enormous professionalism in the late 20th century. Before the 1920s, it was all terrible and now, the 21st century, it’s getting all terrible. Not all, but it’s getting worse. The late 20th century is really unusual in having in American and other countries a lot of binding forces, and cohesion, and common norms and a news media that — we all watch the same three or four stations. That was a really unusual period and having us be less polarized. Then everything changes beginning in 2000.
There’s a wonderful book by Martin Gurri called The Revolt of the Public and he talks about how information used to actually be something we sought out. I don’t know if you remember those times, but it used to be that you had to actually reach out to try to find things. Now, we’re all hit by a fire hose of information, most of all — you know it’s almost all free and we’re just trying to like not drown. That changed everything. Then that fire hose of information becomes really toxic between 2009 and 2012. People don’t understand how much social media changed in those years. It wasn’t polarizing before 2009. We thought that it might even be good for democracy as we saw in the early hour of spring.
But once Facebook introduced the like button, Twitter introduced the retweet button and they algorithmicized everything based on engagement data, by 2012, we created this gigantic outrage platform. The public square, public debates were incredibly nasty. Since 2015, 2016, that nastiness has crept into almost every major institution. To bring this home to business, I began studying this weird stuff that was happening in universities. It began in 2014. It wasn’t there in 2012. But in 2014, all of this weird new morality and safe spaces, microaggressions, bias response teams, words of violence. It seems to come out of nowhere and it really made it very difficult for us to do our job and just huge internal conflicts that are still going on.
People thought, “Oh, well, it’s just college students being college students and this is this generation’s protest. But once they started graduating in 2018 and then other national global factors as well, it all spread into business around 2018. It spread into journalism by then as well. In the late 20th century, we had institutions that largely worked, never perfectly, but we had institutions that were more or less functional. Since about 2014, 2015, I would say we have very few institutions that are functional. The courts are one of the last remaining institutions that are really doing their job.
[00:07:19] DR: It’s really interesting. It sounds like four trends that I see happening there. It’s kind of the rise of easy internet access. It’s always on you, the —
[00:07:28] JH: It sounds like it should be a good thing. In general, it should be a good thing. Yes.
[00:07:32] DR: The phone giving us immediate access to information, stories, news. The social media growth and particularly the feedback loops that started with the liking, and the sort of segmenting, trying to give people things that they’re going to read. That was kind of an accident of the way social media was set up. But then ultimately, it’s all built on something we dug into a lot with Jason Mitchell from Harvard in the last few weeks, actually. The brain’s fundamental drive to create like in-groups and out-groups and the way we tend to actually feel much better when we’re with in-groups and we have a clear out-group/
I think the combination of these sort of ready access to things, the social media kind of feedback loop sort of on top of this human desire has created an unfortunate massive kind of split. Is that a reasonable summary of it?
[00:08:18] JH: Yes, that is. I’ll just underline what you said about tribalism or sectarianism. We are an innately tribal species. We evolve that way. We love it so much that we invented team sports. But tribal people are not always focused on the in-group, they actually are very interested in trade, and exchange, and exploring what the other groups have to offer. The thing is, we very quickly go into tribal mode and we slowly let down our guard to be more open.
College students for example used to be very open. They were here to learn. But the new media environment puts everyone in this more defensive tribal mode and they’re not as interested in learning. They’re much more trained to perform. The word performative is a really important word for the 2020s. The new media environment has encouraged us not to do our work, but to be performing all the time. This is something I think we see in companies. Now, of course, there are real problems being addressed, but they’re often dressed by activists, not in a practical way to solve the problem but in a performative way that they’ve learned to do outside.
[00:09:15] DR: Everyone feels like they’re being watched, because they often are. What’s the impact of all this on organizations? How is this affecting the way companies are being run and how they need to think about the future?
[00:09:26] JH: Well, for that. I’ll turn to Alison, She and I agree on many things, but I think she’ll have a different spin on this one. But Alison, what do you think both in terms of modifying something I’ve said and also in answering David’s question?
[00:09:37] AT: Sure. We’ve had this view of business going back to John’s late 20th century, that’s epitomized by the Milton Friedman story, that we have the market and freedom and we can separate very clearly politics and business. This has arguably always been fictional. It’s arguably the point on which Friedman was most naïve. But what has happened I think is that those boundaries have broken down. That’s happened for many of the same reasons John describes. It used to be that companies could control their reputations and control what was being said about them, very cozy relationship with the media.
Now, what we have is that companies are being critiqued on social media and internal information is being leaked onto social media the entire time. We all can get a lot of opportunity to opine on internal meetings and decisions and look at leadership. That brings forth new accountability and a need to respond to this much broader set of voices. We’re also in this era of political and social activism that’s risen by 11.5% globally since 2009. Of course, companies have become wrapped up in this because companies have never been separate from society. Companies think in terms of risk, so one way we might argue this is that the impact of a business on society, things like climate change, and pollution and inequality is kicking back much faster and hitting companies with risks.
The third thing that’s happened is that young people, so millennials and let’s not forget the eldest millennials of 40 at this point. Younger people have very, very different expectations of business, expectations of their careers and expectations of work. Business has historically said, we are neutral on political and social issues. We just stick to making money. We leave that to the government. For all those reasons. it’s become much, much harder for companies to take that position and you even see companies that are trying to just focus exclusively on the profit motive being punished because that in itself is perceived to be a political position. The idea of political neutrality or a safe middle ground, that middle ground has turned into a quicksand.
Now, however you position yourself, there are risks and consequences and companies have become much more political actors in society with many good and bad consequences.
[00:12:16] DR: You do nothing in the middle. You’re in trouble if you come out for the left, you come out for the right. In any of those situations, there are challenges. John?
[00:12:24] JH: Yeah. I agree with Alison’s analysis, but I think Alison tends to think that this accountability is generally a good thing and that you can’t be non-political, that companies do have to engage, and that this could be a good thing. Is that fair to say Alison, that that’s the difference between us, that you’re more on the side that this this is a good thing? I think this is overwhelmingly a bad thing. Is that fair to say?
[00:12:45] AT: Well, no. I’m very concerned about the idea of business leaders opining on policy. People like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have far more influence over education in the United States than voters do. That is a huge concern. But there is a lot of thinking about how you can prioritize and determine the issues on which you can have a direct positive impact and that will have a direct impact on your bottom line. I certainly don’t agree that businesses should become policy makers, businesses are not governments, their customers are not the electorate. But at the same time, I don’t think you can put your hands over your ears and say, “This is nothing to do with me” because that is just not going to fly anymore and I think businesses have to adjust and business leaders have to adjust to that dynamic.
[00:13:36] JH: Okay, yeah. Let’s explore this point, because I think that that is actually the position that companies in most cases should probably take. It might seem difficult this year, but I think it’s going to become clear that to get involved, just admires you in incoherence. To explain, let me point out that we all think accountability is a good thing, but accountability in the absence of any way to get accurate information leads people to be responding to ghosts and going glimmers, not reality. For example, someone — I can’t remember who told me this, but somebody said, it used to be 20, 30 years ago. If a company got 10 angry letters, they’d say, “Oh my God! Ten people bothered to write to us. There must be a thousand people who are upset about our product.
Now, if you get a thousand angry tweets or retweets, what you should say is, “Oh! There must be ten people who are upset about our product. But instead, what actually happens and there’s case after case of this. Ten tweets from nobody about a product or saying somebody is transphobic or something like that, the company will — within 24 hours, they will react. I think accountability in the abstract makes sense, but in the fun house weird fake reality that is social media. Twitter is the most serious perpetrator or the most serious problem. I think companies are way too reactive. It’s not real accountability. It’s accountability to whoever goes on Twitter. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, in terms of taking sides, Alison and I are both very much in favor of the move away from Milton Friedman to stakeholder, more of a stakeholder view. All these different stakeholders should have their interest taken into account. But if there’s some way for companies to do that, that would be great. But if it’s not really thoughtfully balancing stakeholder interest, but instead responding very quickly to whoever is threatening your reputation, whether it be a small group of customers or a small group of employees. That again is going to lead to really, really bad decisions. I think that’s what we’re seeing.
I think the only way out is going to be this new movement. It’s sometimes called the mission focus movement, which is to say, you know what, we can’t be making statements on everything. Our employees don’t agree. Our customers don’t agree. You know what, we’re not going to make statements on anything, unless it’s related to our business. Now, I’m not saying this is definitely the way to go, but I think, given the chaos we’re seeing and given what we’ve seen in higher ed, ultimately, I think businesses would be wise to be as non-political as possible and to largely say, “Sorry, we’re not getting involved if it doesn’t involve our purpose. If you don’t like it, go elsewhere. What do you, Alison?
[00:16:08] DR: A very complicated questions. There’s a lot of energy in the media around like the base camp decision recently to not say anything. I know a lot of people voted with their feet, but it’s too early to say kind of the impact of that. I remember when the Trump election first happened, the first time there was tremendous angst in organizations. I had clients calling me saying, we have red hats lined up, literally lined up against Black Lives Matters in the factories, what do we do? How do we calm these things down, and shouting and yelling and all this stuff.
Actually, this point is, also this kind of crazy escalation that’s starting to happen. One of the things that we talked about and I wrote a piece on this, sort of what leaders should do with this environment is. If you come out for one side, you of course alienate the other. If you say nothing, that’s kind of tacit that you don’t care. The conclusion I came to is the organization, the leaders have to come back to actually bringing people together around shared goals. The most salient shared goals for people will be the organization’s mission. You’ve got to bring people together and say, “Look, we’re here to save lives or we’re here to make medicines or we’re here to help people get from A to B. Whatever we do, let’s kind of focus on that and turn down the noise a bit.”
That’s a controversial position, but I think it’s important bringing people those shared goals and then difference can be celebrated a little bit if you have that super ordinary goal that you’re all working towards.
[00:17:28] JH: Exactly.
[00:17:30] DR: Let’s change gears a little — we started with something very difficult and contentious, but I mean the word performative has come up. I want to change gears a little bit to talk about diversity, equity, inclusion. Obviously, there’s been some performative DEI companies out there that have been kind of doing things to look good. Everyone’s felt like they’ve had to say something for all sorts of reasons. Some companies are really committing to doing big things. But from your perspective, what are some of the traps that companies are falling into around focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion and what do you think is some of the right ways to do that?
[00:18:04] JH: I’ll start off because I’m in a business or an industry, higher ed and research in which our goal is to find the truth. I began seeing things going awry around 2012. There’s always been some most professors leaning left and that has caused some problems over the decades, but we were still able to do very good work. But as the country got more polarized, as these problems began mounting in the early 21st century, I saw more and more cases where psychologists were saying things that I know they didn’t believe. In private, they would admit they didn’t believe it. But an orthodox had began descending around matters of race, gender, LGBT, immigration, inequality.
Our research began to go awry, because if you come up with a finding that is counter to the narrative, it will be very hard to publish it and your career is in jeopardy. Whereas if you come up with some shoddy research that supports the narrative, it will go right to publication and out into op-eds and things like that. I got very alarmed about this. I co-founded an organization called Heterodox Academy to promote viewpoint diversity in the academy.
Now, to bring this back to business, what I’ve always admired about business is that the attitude has seemed to be much more pragmatic and less ideological or political. There really is a focus on getting things done. But what I’ve seen happening now in business is the same thing that swept through the academy, much more fear, much more fear of speaking up, much more fear of talking honestly about things related to hot button issues. As a result, company after company is doing things that we know don’t help. There’s been so many reviews now of diversity training. Nobody’s found a kind of diversity training that actually makes things better. It’s certainly not one that improves, that reduces bias or that improves interracial relationships, things like that.
Most business people actually seem to know this research, yet they keep doing it because they’re afraid to do anything other. When you get political orthodoxy and moralism, guiding really important policy decisions, the results are almost always bad. I would say, looking at what companies are doing on DEI, we can go through it item by item. Whether it be diversity training or employee resource groups. When you bring people together to form communities based on difference, there’s not much research on that, but what search we have done at universities suggests that people — putting people in groups makes them feel less a part of a larger group and causes them to dislike people in other groups even more.
There may be a need for these groups, but I’m just saying that a basic social psychoanalysis would say that a lot of what we’re doing for DEI is either ineffective or it actually makes things worse. I think this might explain why nobody — I mean, decade after decade, billions and billions of dollars spent, nobody can find a kind of diversity training that works. I think that at some point I’m hopeful, someone will come up with an alternate approach and be brave enough to say it. At that point, I think a lot of businesses would go for it, but they’re afraid I think to do something that will get them called names. Alison, what do you think?
[00:21:01] DR: We’re on the journey to that. I think one of the papers we published that I think is really meaningful and we were anxious about actually publishing it, because it did cause a noise, was called Take the Focus Off Difference. There’s a big movement out there about, let’s celebrate different cultures, and races and everything else. It sorts of intuitively makes sense and yet as you celebrate difference, you end up creating more in-group and out-group. You end up creating more conflict.
[00:21:27] JH: That’s why the U.S. Army or the military is often held up as an example of a place that had terrible diversity and racism problems in the Vietnam War era, in the ’70s, where they got serious about it and they did it. There’s a wonderful book called all that we can be by a black sociologist and a white sociologist in the military. They specifically said, we did not do it the way they do it in higher education, because that’s all about emphasizing differences. We suppress that, we focused on the mission, we focus on what we have in common. In that way, they’re able — of course, no place is perfect, but the military is doing a lot better than we are at universities and I would argue in corporate America.
[00:22:00] DR: Alison?
[00:22:02] AT: Well, I mean I think this is an interesting question. One question might be, diversity and inclusion issues political or are they not? Do we consider these some of the political messy issues business shouldn’t get involved in or not? The second thing we can say is, in 2014. there were a lot of protests in Ferguson. That was one of the early stages of Black Lives Matter. At that point. corporations in general would not touch this topic with a barge pole. Nobody said anything. Compare that to the summer of 2020, where companies were falling over themselves to make statements on Black Lives Matter and diversity and inclusion.
Now, I completely agree with John’s earlier point, that reacting to noise on social media is an incredibly bad way to run strategy on any environmental, social, political or governance issue. You will end up playing whack-a-mole. That is not a good idea. It is not the only thing that is going on in terms of disclosure and reputational risk. There is a powerful movement called ESG, which is about driving accountability and performance on these issues. There are various established ways to kind of prioritize
I think where this is really kind of coming to a head is that making statements and treating all of this is a PR thing. Then responding in that way is not working anymore. You can’t control your reputation in the same way, and there is an overwhelming focus on hypocrisy. It is not enough to make a statement if you’re not also going to make changes. I fully agree with John’s analysis of what’s going wrong with diversity training. When I was first in the workplace, which was a long time ago, it was considered kind of cheesy and inappropriate to refer to social identity at all. We have this narrative of meritocratic promotion, and we don’t see color, and we don’t see gender and everybody just gets promoted on the basis of merit.
I’m sorry to say that has not gone so well. Our organizations are still absolutely dominated at the top by white middle-aged men. We’re arguably now seeing a backlash that is much too focused on social identity, much too focused on putting people in categories, much too focused on who needs to feel guilty and who needs to be blamed, and who’s the problem and we need certain numbers of these people and of these types in these divisions. I don’t think that’s helpful. But there is a lot that organizations I think can do to say, “We are pluralistic. You all ought to be able to work with each other even if you have very, very different personal values and even if you personally dislike each other.” What I see in the classroom is that young people are very, very comfortable with this idea. You don’t really need to make the business case for diversity and inclusion anymore.
I also hear that at the top, things are happening in boardrooms, things are happening in C-suites. We are getting more and more different voices in senior leadership teams. I do think that’s helpful. I have a little less of an overwhelmingly negative view of what’s going on diversity and inclusion in organizations. I do think change needs to happen. I do think that there’s a genuine problem. I don’t think that there is much option, but to engage with this and just to answer my own points. There’s quite a lot of data showing that Gen Z republicans believe in diversity and inclusion and climate change just as much as democrats. This is not a polarized political issue for young people. It just makes sense.
My argument would be, if you’re not responding to that or you think that all you need to do is put a black square on Instagram, you’re kind of missing a competitive advantage and you’re not going to be able to innovate and attract young people.
[00:25:58] ANNOUNCER: You love listening to Your Brain at Work and we love hearing your feedback. It’s a beautiful working relationship, and that’s why we’d appreciate it if you could take just a few minutes to complete our listener survey. Visit neuroleadership.com/pod survey to let us know what you love about the show, what we can do to improve it and topics you’d like to hear more about. Now, let’s get back to the show.
[00:26:22] DR: It’s good to hear an optimistic perspective. I mean, we’re working with about 300 organizations on the DEI strategy. I’m more on the whole actually quite optimistic. I think many organizations are quite serious. There’s really kind of ironic challenge and not in a good kind of irony sadly. There are kind of three really big mistakes that companies make approaching DEI. The ironic part is, it’s kind of very intuitive. These mistakes are very intuitive. They seem like the right thing. Like the first one is mandating anything around DEI, like it seems to make sense. It seems to make good sense to mandate anything you’re going to do in DEI, to make sure everyone gets there.
It turns out and we wrote a whole piece on this mandated program. It’s quite likely to actually make things worse. We wrote a piece called, “Is your diversity program making your company more biased?” If you mandate it, the answer is probably. But it seems so intuitive, right? The second one on bias itself is, it’s really intuitive to say if we raise awareness of bias people, we’ll do something. Well, it turns out, not to do much. It’s a cognitive constraint. You can’t see your own bias anyway. We’ve got around that with a tool for literally seeing each other’s bias in a friendly way and categorizing it and then labeling it. We find that’s actually helping.
Then the third one I mentioned earlier around inclusion, it’s really intuitive to say, let’s celebrate these different cultures, but it ends up creating out groups. There’s kind of three really intuitive logical decisions that feel like they’re right. It ends up being really wrong. I think overall, what needs to happen is more of the science, informing the strategies. John?
[00:27:49] JH: Well, yeah. But if you look at all of this from just a basic social psych perspective about groups and intergroup relationships, humans are really good at doing this recursive relationship thing, which is, we will focus on whatever identity is relevant for the level of conflict that’s made salient. To extent that it’s conflict between our military and other military, well then it’s primarily — to extent our company versus another company, then it’s primarily that. But to the extent that you are emphasizing conflicts within the company, that is going to tend to backfire. Of course, I’m not saying you need to pay for over real conflicts. Of course, you need to do things about it. But the general approach that we began taking universities of bringing in 18-year-old kids and saying, now, your main identity, you should be thinking in terms of your whiteness or something like that. These are for kids who never maybe thought of themselves as white. They thought of themselves as Italian or Jewish or something like that. But no, white, you should think this is white.
Again, there’s no evidence that this helps and there’s a lot of reasons to think that emphasizing sub identities tends to have bad effects. I think that’s consistent with what you found in your paper. Actually, David, I would love to know, are there any real success stories out there that is — are there any medium or large companies that have really done a good job, both on representation and on internal climate? Do you know of any companies that we can really hold up as examples and say, “What was their DEI policy?”?
[00:29:07] DR: Well, there are. I think we should go and study them together.
[00:29:10] JH: Like what? Do you know any?
[00:29:11] DR: Yeah, absolutely. I think the top of mind, Splunk technology company, really interesting organization, huge commitment to DEI that’s gone all the way down into the organization. You see people — let’s go and study them. I’ll talk to them and see if we can collect some data, because we do see change. The place to see the change, the kind of leading indicators are the day-to-day, week-to-week habits that people are applying, like how they actually being inclusive or non-inclusive as they gather for example. I think we see real change in the habits that people take up.
The actual diversity metrics and these kinds of things are moving far too slowly. But when you look at the sense of inclusion, you look at people’s feelings about being able to speak up, you look at people actually tackling systemic bias. We do see some really interesting movement there and we’ve been wanting to get in and study some of that more deeply. That’s one example. I think Microsoft for all the noise you hear in the media has actually done a really good job in many ways, in particular investing in allyship and really supporting their organization to recognize and encourage, helping of others. Although that’s a contentious area we can debate. There are definitely are some firms. I think we should go and study some together and see what’s really working.
[00:30:18] JH: That would be great. Because from the academic side, this has been one of the major topics of research for 30 or 40 years now. It’s an intergroup relationship, especially around racism and sexism. I was on a call. We had a session at Heterodox Academy with some of the leading researchers on diversity and inclusion. Basically, the message is, we’ve got nothing for you. Thirty, 40 years of research, we can’t really say, “Here! This will work.”
[00:30:39] DR: We’ve got something. I mean, it’s early. We’re five years in, but the bias framework that we built gets used by people to directly address bias most weeks. Like most people most weeks now do something about bias that they see in front of them in a system or a process. We’ve got data from 11,000 people so far on that. There’s some promising early data that we’ll get in and we’ll get in and look at it and take it apart together. This is showing up in the research. It’s also, how do we get people to be more like those younger generations today? How do we influence the other generations to be more like the younger generations who are kind of more open-minded and more able to see the gray? Should we just give up on those older generations?
[00:31:15] JH: [Inaudible 00:31:15]. Hold on. What makes you think that? They are extremely tolerant on race, gender LGBTQ stuff. But what makes you think they see shades of grey?
[00:31:25] DR: Interesting. I generalized. Guilty as judged.
[00:31:28] JH: Some politics, they’re not. It’s like what we used to say, the Benetton approach to diversity. Everybody should look different, but behave the same. Whatever problems we’ve been talking about, I think they’re going to get much, much worse as Gen Z becomes a larger part of the workforce. Alison was talking about how they’re very tolerant on all of these issues, but they do insist on expressing their political and moral values and they increasingly insist that the company should express them. There was an amazing essay in HBR. It was a Gen Zier’s open letter to his future employers. This is a young Gen Z, a recent Yale grad. Basically, his attitude is — I’ll quote. “For sake and for ours, let me clue you into our decision process.” I mean, he’s got this attitude. “Let me tell you what you need to do to attract us. Basically, you have to not just let us express our values, but you have to share our values. If you care about your employees, you care about what they care about.” Really?
It’s going to get a lot tougher as a generation that wants to bring its values to work and insist that the company share their values. How can you have a diverse workforce if you insist on that?
[00:32:34] DR: I think it’s a great segue to the third conversation we wanted to have. Alison, one for you. You have put together a center for really the study of ethics in organizations and complex systems overall. Talk to us about the role of ethics in organizations and systems and a little bit about the center that you’ve developed there and how important is it for particularly for organizations to have a clear foot in ethics and what kinds of ethics and all that. Tell us about your thinking.
[00:33:00] AT: Yeah. I’m doing research for this book right now and I’m doing a lot of interviews. What’s quite interesting is that people who have spent their entire careers, working on business ethics tend to kick off these interviews by saying, “I really don’t like that word. I try to avoid using that word.” We don’t like the idea of thinking about business ethics and to the degree that we do have functions that we call business ethics in organizations. I would argue they have very little to do with ethics per se and they have again everything to do with creating a shield or a defense around the company to deflect either regulatory risk, regulatory incursions, legal oversight or reputation risk.
We can even think about the corporate social responsibility and ESG department as being kind of like the paramilitary wing of the marketing department. It is all about. “Look at all the marvelous social and environmental things we’re doing. Here’s a glossy report. Here are a lot of smiling children. We have argued and this goes back to Milton Friedman again, that as long as a company is making a decision to maximize profit and benefit its shareholders, anything that it does is by definition ethically neutral, as long as it doesn’t break the law.
That construct has completely broken down and the result is, we’re seeing companies really marvelous struggle with trying to figure out what should our position be on race, or climate change, or inequality, or women’s rights or whatever it is. So, we’ve lost that ability to say. “We’re just going to focus on profit. Politics have nothing to do with us. We don’t at the moment really have good now guidelines on how to make decisions and how to figure out what to get involved in.”
One of the other consequences I think of this is that we haven’t been able to meaningfully tackle the really, really big dilemmas facing companies. Can you be an ethical business in a corrupt environment? What should you do about human rights? A lot of these issues are coming to a head now. A lot of these issues are becoming regulated. The point I made earlier, I would repeat. We have had this position, the environmental and social impacts pollution waste, et cetera and nothing to do with the company because those cost are paid by society.
Now, those impacts because of social media and because of more activism. Much, much likely to kickback and have a direct impact on profit. That has led our shareholders to even say, “We would like you to stop prioritizing the profit motive and start factoring in some of these big tragedies of the comments that every has experienced. But of course, it doesn’t make sense to respond every time random people are yelling at you on Twitter. It doesn’t make sense to treat this as a performance or a PR effort. But we do need some way to make decisions and prioritize.
I tend to think that companies should focus on good jobs and paying their taxes, and responsible lobbying. That would be a really, really good proxy for a lot of this other noise. There’s a study out yesterday quite interesting showing that the companies that get the highest ESG scores are also the companies with the lowest effective tax rate, the dirty secret of ESG, is that it prioritizes tech companies and will also prioritize automation, because companies with few employees that don’t have many human beings, they don’t have lawsuits, and diversity, and equity, and inclusion problems, and health and safety issues, and all this kind of stuff.
Our metrics are not helpful. There’s still this obsession with kind of scores and reaction, but if we accept that we’re in a much more transparent, dynamic, angry world and that young people have expectations. I don’t think you can just put your hands over your ears and say. “La, la, la” or “I’m not going to listen and we’re just going to kind of go back to focusing on profit. I do think you’ve got to do something. I do think you’ve got to work to distinguish what are trends of the future that will help you innovate on how to adapt between what is unhelpful noise or issues that would be better dealt with by a functioning political system. Though sadly, we don’t seem to have one of those.
[00:37:28] DR: Thanks, Alison. John, do you want to comment on the role of ethics particularly in organizations? Should they be having ethical systems? What kind of ethical system should they have? Talk to us about that.
[00:37:38] JH: Yeah. I co-founded ethical systems precisely because the research on ethics in organizations was happening over in one place by professors who were trying to get publications, not trying to change companies. Then the community of thoughtful people and companies who are thinking about corporate culture and ethics we’re not either drawing from it or not able to access it or understand it. I do think that an empirical approach to getting an ethical culture is essential and is the best way forward. But I also — because I think and write about morality in my book, The Righteous Mind. I talked about how automatically create these moral matrices, like a matrix is a consensual hallucination. We moralize things, then we live in this matrix.
From within, everything makes sense to us and we see what’s good and bad. We can’t understand people in another matrix. Recently, as I’m watching so much of our society descend into anger, and in comprehension and lose touch with reality, I’m thinking increasingly that what we need to do is develop a skill of unmoralizing. That is we have to find a way to step back and say, you know what? People are acting for whatever reasons they’re acting for. Let’s try to understand them first before we get angry at them. This is what the ancients told us to do. This is what — this comes out of Stoicism, and Buddhism and the sermon on the mount. This is just ancient wisdom that to understand things, you can’t moralize them, you have to unmoralize them.
If we could unmoralize them and see companies as complex dynamical systems in which repeated patterns happen decade after decade and they’re changing also from decade to decade. I think morality actually gets in our way of understanding, but then you have to remoralize to create an ethical team with an ethical culture. I think we’re kind of letting morality use us to get us all angry about things and misperceive what’s actually happening. Then we’re sometimes afraid to impose our morality on someone else. I think we kind of have it exactly backwards, but I haven’t quite worked out how that is yet.
[00:39:38] DR: Deep thought. Anthropomorphism is the way we humanize every object. Is there a word for moralizing every action that’s like anthropomorphism? Do you want to invent one?
[00:39:52] JH: Let’s see. Yeah, I have — gosh! I have a whole set of notes. I don’t know if I can find it here, but on unmoralized research — well, anyway, Daryl Davis, this wonderful African American blues musician who has talked over a hundred Ku Klux Klan members out of their robes. He does it by listening and not judging them at first. So if you want to solve problems, you’re moralizing usually gets in the way.
[00:40:18] DR: Right. Yeah. A question for you, Alison, but I love your perspective on this. That the when we had Jason Mitchell a few weeks ago, he’s a neuroscientist from Harvard who does a lot of work on the building blocks of in-group and out-group in the brain and how it works. We were talking about kind of the way you actually create in-group and a lot of the moralizing and I think creates out-group. It’s something that goes on, but just to make a point, I think Jason agreed, there’s kind of a ladder of activities, but just spending time with people like this guy did with the Ku Klux Klan is an entry point to creating in-group and reducing bias. Doing things together is even stronger. Like literally doing tasks together. The very best activity is creating shared goals.
You had some hopeful comments before. Are you hopeful about being able to turn down the noise a little bit using shared goals in organizations or what else can organizations do to kind of turn down the noise a little bit?
[00:41:08] AT: Yeah. I am optimistic some days at least. Going back to our original topic of polarization, right? One of the things that’s happening in the U.S. as we all know is that people are geographically divided. Then there’s effective polarization, so we don’t just disagree. We, really hate each other. If we think about that environment in wider society, the workplace is one of the few remaining places where people with very, very different values and very, very different political beliefs can come together and work together.
I would tend to argue that organizations really have a responsibility to grapple with these issues and make constructive efforts to tone down the level of polarization. Allstate Insurance is doing incredibly interesting work here on better conversations. They are a very, very good candidate for this work obviously, because their insurance professionals are throughout the country and have very, very different political views. An organization like a Walmart or a McDonald’s is going to have an equal interest in representing the spectrum. It might be different in Silicon Valley where people are very progressive and have certain points of view. It might be different if you’re a brand like Nike and there is a big commercial advantage to aligning yourself with Colin Kaepernick. But there are a ton of businesses for whom that is not the case. There, I think you do have to build this pluralistic collaborative environment.
Then going to our second topic, which is SDEI. John has already made this point in a very compelling way, right? But if we start to categorize people and explain who’s victimized, and who should feel guilty and we have these kinds of numbers, that doesn’t help and it doesn’t — I don’t think help women or people of color either. Something that we do tend to do in our diversity and inclusion efforts is put the burden on the diverse person. There’s no such thing. But the burden on the African-American or female employee to drive this change.
Not only do you have the result of the bias and being penalized and your character and way of thinking not be aligned with people in power, but you’ve also got to be the diversity rep and that’s a lot of burden and stops you getting on with your job. What we really need is allyship. We really need white men to help. We really need them to stick up for that allies. We need to do things about our hiring and promotions. What I see in the classroom at least at Stern, is people are ready to do this work. I get incredibly encouraged. I read these papers. From white men that work at Goldman Sacs that are very, very concerned and thoughtful about supporting their colleagues and that believe in these issues.
I think actually, that a lot of senior leadership teams could benefit by listening to some of these young people and taking their constructive advice on how to build this more pluralistic multicultural workforce. I’m not saying those are the only voices out there, but there are plenty of them. Then from senior leadership teams, boards, et cetera, I hear a lot of defensiveness. I hear a lot of fear. I hear a lot of concern about saying the wrong thing inadvertently. Perhaps, what we need is more reverse mentoring, more intergenerational collaboration to solve the problems facing our organizations today.
[00:44:36] DR: Intergenerational collaboration, that sounds great. I want to get your feedback on something that we’ve been thinking about and working with. I’m curious, we talked about it very briefly when we’re preparing. But allyship is an interesting word and we got into researching allyship about a year and a half ago when some clients said, “Can you help? Can you unpack what the critical habits are and how to teach them?” It’s a really difficult area. I took us like about a year and a half really to develop a point of view that we thought we could go to. We started developing some content and some other things. Literally, in the very first paragraph of kind of the solution we’re developing, I said to the team who said it to me, I said, “You’ve immediately lost me.” Sort of putting on my white male hat and sort of speaking for the voice of the close-minded white male, it’s all about privilege in the opening paragraph. You’ve got privilege and all this stuff.
There is good research showing that people who have some privilege, who are told they have privilege actually come up with all these great ways that they don’t and you end up in this whole kind of conflict. We were looking at how do we even have a conversation about allyship, where you don’t get basically a pushback straight away. In the research, what we found was the whole concept of variable advantage, which is different to privilege. People have all sorts of different advantages and it’s much more valuable and it’s much less threatening. We started talking about advantage rather than privilege. But then of course, you can be attacked saying that, “Well, you’re whitewashing something. Let’s just call it privilege. We’re kind of on the throws of thinking about really pushing into advantage as a framework for allyship.
The promising thing, we actually ran three pilots with some big companies and we found that teaching people some of the basic habits, not the politics and the other stuff, but the habits of allyship, we found 90 of close to 100 people actually started to do things differently every week and started to proactively be allies. We do think there’s a willingness, and a desire and a hunger, but we have to get the language right and also the habits right. It’s a fascinating area. Any points of view on kind of advantage versus privilege and this whole challenge around allyship? Alison first.
[00:46:39] AT: I used an article in class called Why Companies Should Add Class to Diversity Discussions? One of the reasons I use it is you tend to get a lot of reactions of, “Yeah, I grew up with no money. I’m being cast as a privileged white man. But I in fact don’t feel this way. I in fact don’t like being characterized as a white middle-aged woman. That doesn’t feel like me. It doesn’t feel like those categories describe me. I think what we have to do is to see the humanity in each other. If we’re putting people into categories, we’re missing a lot of stuff. We’re falling for the danger of the single story. This requires exploration, it requires conflict resolution, it requires having kind of deeper conversations, it requires acceptance that you can work successfully with people with very different values, and that these values are dear and closely held to people. But maybe we do need to put them aside in the workplace.
We should not necessarily assume that our organization is going to precisely reflect our personal values. Something John is very fond of saying is maybe don’t bring your whole self to work. I mean, one of the consequences of the pandemic right has been the complete disintegration of the boundary between the personal and the professional. We now see companies providing mental health services, et cetera. I think maybe, we need to draw some firmer boundaries around working life, around communication out of hours and kind of enable that space in the workplace to become what John would call demoralize, but that doesn’t mean not having ethics and values. It means I think working harder to develop the skills, to see the humanity in other people and move away from these rather unhelpful social identity categories.
[00:48:33] DR: Yeah. So more bringing people together, a little kinder, gentler intergenerational organization would be good and people listening to each other more and dividing less. Those are the themes I’m hearing. John, any closing comments?
[00:48:46] JH: Yeah. With all this attention to how should we have these conversations and decade after decade. no one’s found a way to have conversations that reliably makes things better. Maybe we should stop having conversations. What I mean is, I use the metaphor in my writing that the mind is divided into parts like a rider on an elephant. The rider is our conscious reason and the elephant is all the other automatic processes.
If talking, and talking, and talking about diversity inclusion conflict all sorts of things hasn’t yet produced good results, maybe it’s because we’re barking up the wrong tree and maybe we should be focusing on is again, the classic social psych research that you put people into groups that are diverse that have a challenge to face together. That actually is really powerful. I think we should put a lot less emphasis on talking because it doesn’t seem to be helping and a lot more emphasis on social dynamics, making sure that reward structures and incentive structures don’t put people against each other but make them feel more interdependent. I think that we’re not likely to make any much progress the next couple of years, but I think eventually, we’re going to change gears and try some other approaches.
[00:49:45] DR: I keep hearing shared goals. I keep hearing just the shared goals and finding meaningful shared goals for people. It sounds good when you say it too many times, but it’s such a deep, deep important —
[00:49:54] JH: I think it’s especially important for men. Men do things together. When men get together, it’s not to just talk and talk and talk. They do things together and that creates trust. I think we really do need to think. If men are thought to be the problem here, I think we really need to think how do you appeal to men.
[00:50:09] DR: Alison, any closing thoughts?
[00:50:10] AT: I was just reminded, John of your webinar with Peter Coleman. Peter Coleman is a conflict specialist at Columbia and he put together a lot of people having conversations around political divides. One of his findings was that it’s not enough just to put people together and have a conversation. It works if they do a shared task together, like gardening or weeding. Again, such an opportunity for business to actually do something constructive that our politicians and increasingly our communities are not able to do anymore.
[00:50:44] DR: Yeah. Shared time is great. Shared activity is better. Shared goals even best, really the best. That’s the cliff note there. John, Alison, thanks so much for your time today. Really appreciate your insights, some fantastic conversations, look forward to having you back in the future as well. Wish you all the best with everything you’re doing there I look forward to partnering more.
[00:51:02] JH: Thank you, David. Thank you for your work. Thank you for bringing us together.
[END OF EPISODE]
[00:51:10] SO: 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 Matt Holodak, Danielle Kirshenblat, Ted Bower and me, Shadé Olasimbo. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Katch Wehr. We’ll see you here next time.