S 4 E12

April 22nd, 2021

EPISODE 12: The Neuroscience of Increasing Equity

In this episode of Your Brain at Work we continue our discussion of equity. This time, we explore what’s happening in our brains when we’re at an advantage, at a disadvantage, and when we seek to restore equity to a situation (or don’t). NLI Senior Client Advisor Janet Stovall  is joined by Senior Researcher, Dr. Michaela Simpson; and University of Pennsylvania Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Brad Mattan. Together, they discuss the neuroscience of power, inclusion, perspective taking, empathy, and allyship. The panel sheds light on the skills employees need to increase equity, and how organizations can leverage science to build them.

Episode Transcript





[00:00:06] GB: How much power do you have? And perhaps more importantly, how do you use it? Power is defined as control over valued resources. Resources can be money, people’s attention, the agenda of a meeting, or the remote control to your TV. Maybe at home you have a lot of power over things like who does the dishes and what movie to watch. You may even have a lot of power at your organization. Maybe you lead a team or oversee an important project. But when called in your boss’s office, you probably feel utterly powerless. The bottom line is that in life, power is relative. We may have a lot of power in one situation but relatively little in another. What’s interesting is that any amount of power, even just a little, can seriously change your brain, and it can change how you interact with other people. This is important to understand when talking about equity. 


The good news is that when leaders model better behaviors, that is when they wield their power for good, they can drive immense change in seemingly small ways. Join our experts as they unpack the neuroscience of power, inclusion, perspective taking, empathy, allyship, and equity. I’m Gabriel Berezin, and you’re listening to Your Brain At Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday. This week, our panel consists of NLI’s Senior Client Advisor, Janet Stovall, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Brad Mattan, and NLI Senior Researcher, Dr. Michaela Simpson. Enjoy. 




[00:01:45] FEMALE: At NLI, we were founded over two decades ago and have grown into a powerhouse in that time, working all across the world and partnering with over half of the Fortune 100. We start with our research and science and anchor on that to help with our clients. We’ve asked organizations what their biggest challenges are, and a lot have come up to say that they want to mitigate bias, talk about inclusion, and speaking up. That’s moved us into our D&I work, and we published eight journals on the topic. Now, as existence, we found that there’s a gap between the science and what organizations actually do, so we’re working to close that gap, and that science is what brings us here today; allyship and equity. 


Today is part two of a three-part series on the topic, and I’m sure you guys are ready to hear all about the neuroscience of increasing equity. Janet, all you. 


[00:02:33] JS: Thank you! Well, for those of you who joined last week, you heard us talk about allyship, and we presented NLI’s definition of that, so let’s start with that. Let’s lay the groundwork. We define allyship as when someone is aware of and uses, uses, that’s the operative word, their advantage position or power to actively support people in less advantaged positions. When you tie that to equity though, it’s about how allyship leverages advantage intentionally to advance equity. It’s all about doing this with intention. We’re going to talk about that today and we’re going to do that. We’re going to frame it with one big question. What actually motivates people to become allies and what are the sticking points that hold people back? 


If you think about it, allyship is not necessarily natural to people on the surface because you’re asking yourself to take your advantage and use it in somebody else’s behalf. What is it that actually motivates people to do that and what might stop people from doing it? That’s what we’re going to talk about today, and we’re going to do that by examining three questions; how and why humans form social hierarchies, how the brain processes inequity in hierarchical societies. I’m going to stumble on that word today, sorry, and which strategies you can use to mitigate that. 


I’d like to start and toss it over to Michaela and ask her to tell us a little bit about how NLI is dealing with this, how we’re talking about it, and what the research is we’re going to talk about today. 


[00:04:02] MS: Great. Thanks so much, Janet. When we went down the path of thinking about the science underlying allyship, one of the things that comes up for us is like what actually gets in the way of allyship. We wouldn’t even really have to be talking about it if allyship were everywhere. We’re looking at human behavior at the individual level and at the group level. I just want to bring us back, again, to allyship and kind of what is at the core of allyship. I think what’s at the core of allyship is equity. It’s about working towards equity achieving equity. Just to give a little placement on the difference between equality and equity, equality is basically assuming everybody starts off with the same advantages and opportunities. Equity recognizes, acknowledges that people have different lived experiences, and people start at different levels. What equity does is it’s distributing resources accordingly to bring people up to an equal level. 


When we think about that and we think about unequal situations in terms of groups, we have that scale where there’s one group at a disadvantage and one group at an advantage. Those groups that are at an advantage tend to control valuable resources. Actually, that’s one of the definitions of power, the asymmetric control over valued resources. That could be money. It could be natural resources. It could be information. When you have a group that’s advantage and controls valued resources, basically they have power. Guess what? They also have the power to distribute those resources. They’re the ones who decide how to allocate those resources. We tend to find that they allocate resources towards their own group. They might allocate towards other groups but they have kind of this stronghold. 


They also create what are called legitimizing myths that will basically justify and perpetuate institutionalized inequalities. Basically, this is getting to what social scientists call social dominance theory. But one of the reasons why you brought Brad in is because another core part of human behavior and possibly more fundamental is around social hierarchies. I would love to invite Brad to share with us more about social hierarchies and basically how and why do humans form social hierarchies. 


[00:06:23] BM: Thanks so much, Michaela. This is a super important question. To start off, I want to just cover a few definitions. First, social hierarchy, which I define as a coherent and generally agreed upon ranking of a group of individuals along one or more dimensions bearing some relevance to that group. Now, this is a lot of jargon, but that is to say that you have a group of people, and folks are ranked along some dimension that’s important to the group. If you’re a hunter-gatherer society, it may be hunting, for example. Who’s the best hunter? Who’s the second best hunter, so on and so forth? I mention this because this is part of our evolutionary heritage. It’s something that’s shared by non-human primates and other life-forms within the animal kingdom. So this is really a constraint that we need to take into account when we’re talking about equity and inclusion within organizations. 


Now, related to social hierarchy is social status, and this is more specific to an individual rather than a collection of individuals, so it’s the relative rank of that individual along one or more social dimensions within a given hierarchy. There are a couple of principles here when we’re talking about social status and how we approach it in research. There are pathways. How do you get status? How do you attain status and achieve it and maintain it? There are a couple of key ways people do this. One is through sort of a dominance pathway, so who can use aggression or manipulation and fear to get to the top and stay at the top. Then another pathway that can also get you to higher status is through something we call prestige. Based on your skills and abilities and even generosity, willingness to help others, you can also make your way to the top. Both of these are ways of navigating social hierarchies, and they have different consequences, of course, for how you get there and stay there. 


Another side of this though is how we perceive social status in others and within organizational contexts. This is an important concept that I want to invite you to consider is status dimensions. What is it that constitutes status? In my example earlier, I mentioned sort of hunting ability, but that’s maybe not so relevant to the present context. For example, it may be education level or income or even outside of those. Those are kind of the typical ones. You might talk about something like ability. If you’re in martial arts as I do, you might find somebody who has a black belt compared to a white belt, and that’s a form of rank as well. There are various dimensions of social status to consider. 


Now, one thing that’s important is how do we pick up on social status and others. This is something too that’s very challenging because we tend to do this relatively easily and quickly from minimal cues, even from facial expressions. People have sort of a more positive emotional expression on their face to tend to be inferred to have higher status. We infer status from the way people speak, which is not necessarily a very accurate way of inferring it. We infer it from clothing. That’s why the way we dress does matter. We can also infer it from knowledge that we have about people. These are all important things to consider when we’re evaluating other people, whether it’s in job interviews or exchanges with colleagues. 


Now, related to kind of the dimension of status that we’re thinking about, whether it’s education, income, or even something like ability is status level. Once you’ve – Thinking about a dimension in question, how high or low do we rank on that dimension? Of course, relative importance, this last principle, is whether the dimension we’re talking about is even important. If we’re in the boardroom and somebody’s like, “Oh, I’m a black belt,” then maybe that’s not super important. But if you have a lot of experience and prestige, that’s going to be more important. It’s important to consider all of these different dimensions contribute to where we stand in the hierarchy, but some are perhaps more important than others depending on the context. 


[00:10:03] JS: Well, Brad, thank you for that, and you mentioned – You joked and you said that maybe hunting isn’t an issue as much in corporate America. I might argue that maybe there are some aspects of that that still exists, but you’re right. Where do you see some of these issues of social hierarchy showing up in the workplace? Where have you seen it, some of these aspects of it? How do you see it? Where does it show up in the workplace and what do you experience?


[00:10:27] MS: I was thinking about the value of the dimensions that you were talking about. What do we have? I’ll put that out there to Brad and to Janet when we have a clash of whether it’s either cultures or generations where in one group something is of high value and another one it’s not. How do we reconcile those in a world and cultures that are very hierarchical but they might be hierarchical on different levels? It really does depend on the negotiation of what is considered important in the company or culture. If people can have explicit conversations about this and that’s where you can play around with that dimension I was talking about the relative importance. If you can get everyone on board that some things are more important than others, then great. You have sort of the foundation for a more equitable workplace or differentiation of hierarchy, but that does require intentionality and effort. 


[00:11:19] MS: Well, it’s interesting because one of the things when I talk about inclusion, people always say, “Well, that’s the one thing we can’t measure. We can measure diversity. We can’t measure inclusion and exclusion.” One of the things that I always say is, yeah, it seems subjective, but part of what you start off when you measure when you think about doing this work in organizations is you have to decide what you’re solving for. To your point, Brad, what constitutes as status in one organization is different than what constitutes a status in another organization. When you start talking about inclusion and measuring and making sure there’s equity, you really have to understand what status means in your organization because that’s the only way you can talk about balancing it. Who’s got status and who doesn’t?


[00:12:03] MS: Right. I mean, I’m hearing a lot about norms when we talk about organizations and their cultures. It’s like what kind of norms are they setting. Are they setting norms that really create these stratified ranking? Even the furniture in the office, the higher up you are a lot of times, the nicer the furniture and where you actually even get to sit in a meeting. I mean, kind of going back to the science, Brad, like what is – We’re in modern times now. We’re not necessarily foraging. Sometimes people can choose to forage. But where are those like inclinations coming from that still persist? Even though each organization will kind of have its own unique culture, what is it about us that we still organize in certain ways?


[00:12:46] MS: Let me add on to your question because if you think about it in later generations, the millennial generation, Gen Z, whatever, there’s been this sort of move to egalitarianism where cubicle walls came down. Everybody kind of sits in a big area, and so there’s sort of that desire to almost offset that. But why is it, I mean? Let’s – If you’re ready to move ahead, we can talk about that a little bit because I think the question that we’re posing here is how does the brain actually process this inequity. I’d be interested to hear what you think about that. 


[00:13:19] BM: Before I dive into that, I do just want to follow up on one thing. It’s this idea of kind of our evolutionary heritage. If you look at hunter-gatherer societies, they do tend to be more egalitarian. So kind of some consensus has risen sort of around the idea that steep hierarchies sort of evolved to help us manage the complexities of very large societies. Once groups of people went up to 100, 500, thousands of people, we had to find some way of organizing our interactions with each other and kind of structuring society. That’s where some of the more unfortunate aspects of hierarchy started to emerge. At least that’s sort of the thinking on this. 


Now, our brains which I want to talk about, I’ve done some work on impression formation, so how we form impressions of people based on visible traits that convey social status. I found that the higher the status of the person, we tend to recruit more reward-related regions. I’ve also found in studies on implicit bias that higher status people tend to have this more positive association when we’re perceiving them. We also know that higher status folks, they get more attention, more speaking time, and people remember them better and what they have to say. This means that higher status leaders can play an important role in modeling behaviors that are central to allyship. For example, checking in on employees from racialized groups targeted by violence as highlighted by some recent media reports. 


In the case of race, we know there’s relationships between race and social status in people’s perceptions. Research suggests that people without much background knowledge or experience as an ally might start to regulate themselves and shut down out of a fear of coming across as racist. In these cases, we see greater involvement of brain regions that are involved in fear, vigilance, and self-regulation, as well as a tendency and social interactions to ignore race when forming impressions or even just in conversation. Now, at first glance, not focusing on race might seem like a way to avoid being discriminatory, but research suggests that racialized people readily pick up on this hesitance to recognize race, and thus feel pressured to adapt their self-expression and avoid further awkwardness. This really underscores the importance of ensuring that one’s work environment is an identity-affirming space. 


[00:15:31] JS: I just never thought about the fact that somebody might then try to become colorless. I usually do just the opposite personally, so I’m not really sure. That’s an interesting way of looking at it because I can understand that. I mean, we talk often about how and not just race but gender ability, everything. When you have a standard, there is a need to feel like you have to assimilate. When we talk about inclusion and equity, that’s really one of the first things I think within organizations we have to look at. Inclusion does not mean assimilation, and so that’s interesting to look at the science behind why people respond the way they do because that explains a lot as to why that’s so hard to unentrench. 


[00:16:14] MS: One of the things that’s coming up for me as we’re talking is about the threat people can experience. For those of you who know or familiar with NLI, we talk a lot about threat and reward and what happens when people feel they’re – When they have a threat response basically, they’re not as able to – We’re not – They’re not having the resources going to the prefrontal cortex when we think of the executive functioning where we reason and we think analytically. So when we’re in a threat state, we’re less likely to be able to solve problems, to collaborate, to think creatively. 


I’m just seeing these different areas where Brad’s talking about and, Janet, what you’re bringing up of different people being in threat states in their own situations. White males are feeling threatened by changes happening in the workplace maybe because they’re going to lose their status, and people of color might be sensing somebody’s trying to control their discomfort around somebody, but they’re picking up on something, and they’re feeling uncomfortable and kind of feeling threatened. I’m just seeing there’s a space where so many people are feeling threatened for different reasons, and that’s not conducive for cohesion or inclusion. How do we kind of flip that, if you will? We will get to mitigating inequity. I don’t want to jump ahead, but these are just some of the thoughts that are coming to mind for me. What else is coming up for you?


[00:17:36] BM: There’s not a whole lot of research on this just yet, but there’s a lot of great journalistic content on what’s called code switching, so this idea of people changing the way they speak or act to assimilate into different work contexts. This is psychologically difficult. It leads to burnout and it’s something I think that needs a lot more attention. You’re saying too that you intend to do the opposite. It is an individual difference. Some people do it more than others, and it kind of depends on a lot of different factors. But, yeah, it’s a really important thing to pay attention to. 


[00:18:06] MS: That’s a lot of energy. That takes a lot of cognitive energy, and it’s emotionally taxing. Whether it’s the code switching or – I’m kind of going into another area. But when people from traditionally marginalized groups like in the workplace are confronted with behaviors, say, that are non-verbal or statements that are off-putting, again, that is really off-putting, and it can really detract them from the work that they’re trying to do. So it kind of creates this negative cycle. Again, it’s really important, especially for leaders, to realize this and to understand that we already have an equity there because there’s certain people who don’t really have to deal with these stings and these bumps that people get. Again, how do we create more equitable environments so that everybody can come in ideally, granted we have the stresses of life, but where there’s not these added stressors and added threats that certain people have to bring in.


[00:19:01] JS: When we talk about the awkwardness of it, I just never think about. I never thought about the fact that you would be in a situation, and it would be obvious to you that people were avoiding having this conversation. The awkwardness to do that and the response would be to yourself to try to conform to that. But if you think about it, that is what code switching is. That’s just in sort of the very quick way of doing it, but it just kind of rattled me in the moment to think about that. Because me personally, if I sense that, I tend to lean in on it. But that’s, of course, because I do this work in the space. 


For me, that’s a teaching moment. If I feel people are trying to avoid an issue, it’s obvious to me because usually it happens and it’s not quite that obvious. So the awkwardness in my experience doesn’t kick in so much. But when it’s obvious, for me the solutions lean in. So that’s why it was sort of something we think about. I guess really most people, a lot of people would just switch and just go into that or try to ease. Maybe the thing is you try to ease the awkwardness in the room. 


Let’s keep this conversation going a little bit. We now understand what’s going on in the brain. What exactly then outside the brain internally, externally within ourselves, within the world around us? Brad, talk to us a little bit about some of the things then that would make it difficult for us to step into being allies?


[00:20:25] BM: Yeah, certainly. So the first thing that comes to mind for me when I think about this is just how little we know about inequity, just in the kind of lay people’s terms. There’s some work done by Michael Norton at the Harvard Business School on just how wildly inaccurate our perceptions of inequality are. Now, if you ask people to estimate this, people tend to guess around 79%. The figure is 95%. If you take that same 40% in a perfect world, how much of the wealth would you say that they should have?


In the research that Dr. Norton did, it found that it was around in an ideal world 53% of wealth. Now, that’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer. That’s just what they found in their research. This suggests in general people want there to be more equity. They’re okay with a little bit of inequity but they wanted things to be a little more equal, and generally people just don’t know how unequal things are. This is at the scale of the United States as a whole but think about this too within organizations. I suspect people might be a little more accurate based on their familiarity, but oftentimes salaries can be secret, and we really just don’t know. So having this knowledge can help make things change. 


This is highlighted actually in some recent research by Dr. Cydney Dupree at the Yale School of Management showing that when people do explicitly acknowledge, so this case is racial inequity, when they explicitly acknowledge the existence of racial inequity in the United States, they’re less likely to show discriminatory hiring preferences. Having that explicit knowledge about the existence of inequity that a lot of times sort of society and upbringing kind of clouds our judgment about knowing that it exists is a first step anyway to making a change. 


[00:22:10] ANNOUNCER: Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” We’re inclined to agree. If you’re listening to this podcast, we bet you do too. That’s why we think you’ll be interested in NLI’s public education programs. Whether you want to improve a team’s performance, help others grow, transform an organization’s strategy, drive a merger or acquisition, change how a leadership team functions, or simply improve your own effectiveness, NLI’s education offerings can give you the tools and knowledge to become a better leader, manager, coach, and learner. To explore NLI’s education programs and to make an investment in yourself, visit individuals.neuroleadership.com. 


[00:22:52] BM: Now, for this second point, I’m going to toss it over to Janet. She’s got some great ideas about this that are tied up in the TED Talk that she did. I’d love to hear a bit more about your thoughts here. 


[00:23:02] JS: Sure. With my TED Talk, one of the things that was my premise of that and I firmly believe is that business is best. The business and world of business is most suited to dismantle racism, and the reason I say that is for exactly the point that we’re talking about here, the lack of relationships. We can live our lives should we choose, without ever having to interact very much outside of work with anybody who’s different from us. Churches are highly segregated. You can pick a school where you are a racial majority, and there’s not too much diversity there. You can choose organizations. A lot of people could and a lot of people do. You pick neighborhoods. You live your life in a segregated space, and you’re never around anybody who’s different from you racially, not necessarily by gender, just different. 


But when you go to work in most organizations, it’s a little hard to avoid that. So for some people, that’s the only time they’re around anybody who’s different than they are. In the United States alone, over 160 million people are in the workforce, so where else are you going to have that sort of situation and that much of an opportunity to have intergroup contact. Businesses have a real good opportunity and I believe a responsibility to be intentional about how the intergroup contact occurs. They have the opportunity to create structures and to develop policies and procedures to inject equity into the way those groups work together. 


There’s no way that you can spend a third of your life at work, which is what we do. Third of our life is spent at work. Probably more now that we’re working virtually. There’s no way that you can do that and not have that contact. So the issue of whether or not you can change the way you think if it depends on intergroup contact, I think business is the best place in the world to do that. 


[00:25:06] BM: That’s great. Intergroup contact is essential, and we’ll touch on that too a little bit later on, talking about some of the research supporting that. I’m going to kind of gloss over a couple of these personal attributes next, so this idea. If you have a sense that you value egalitarianism, you’re more likely to notice things. Gender differences in speaking time, for example, that’s an important one. Individual differences in how humble or proud you are. If you can take a step back and say, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I don’t know everything about race or I don’t know everything about inequity and inequality,” that’s an invitation to sort of step back and learn a bit more. Having that as a personal trait is very important I think for kind of understanding that lack of knowledge that I mentioned first. 


[00:25:47] JS: One of the things that we talked about last week, part one of this, was we talked about the fact that allyship operates on a continuum because different people respond in different ways, different situations. It’s very context-oriented, and one of the things that people don’t think about as being allyship is just education. I mean, you would think that that’s sort of a prerequisite for it anyway, but that sometimes that is just allyship in itself, being willing to expand your own knowledge, so you can understand how somebody else thinks. We’re going to talk about that a little bit later in this discussion today, but that’s huge. So I just want to mention that because we did talk about that some last week. 


[00:26:27] MS: Right. I just wanted to add this on too because I think it does flow into the next section and what you both are speaking to as well is almost like before that part of educating yourself or maybe that’s part of educating yourself. But when at NLI talk about allyship, people first have to acknowledge that inequity exists. There are people who don’t believe that inequity exists and or that it needs addressing. So in order for people to be curious about allyship and to learn to become better allies, you actually have to acknowledge and recognize that inequity exists because if you don’t, if you’re like, “There’s no problem. What are you talking about? Everybody starts out fine,” then it’s almost kind of a non-starter. There are ways we can get around that, but I just want to acknowledge that it’s very key to be an ally. You first have to acknowledge that inequity exists. 


Yeah, I don’t. There’s not a lot that I know, even myself. So one of the ways we can go about that is to educate ourselves and to – What we say at NLI is embrace our discomfort because there’s going to be discomfort that comes up with that because we’re going to come up against our own advantages because we all have advantages and disadvantages. We might come up against our own, and it might feel really uncomfortable, and we want to move away but it’s – We talk about stay with it. Adopt a growth mindset. 


[00:27:45] BM: Yeah. That’s great. It’s so important that I’m glad that you both mentioned that. It’s a priority actually in our lab as we – I don’t know if people do things like sprints where they kind of list out a list of tasks they want to accomplish within the week, and we try to also include readings or resources that we want to learn more about inequity, sort of kind of reading works from scholars of color like Ibram Kendi or Kimberlé Crenshaw, for example, really first actively pursuing that work and engaging with it is incredibly important on to this final bullet point which is just self-interest. We alluded to this earlier, which is just this potential to lose your advantage. 


In some work that I’ve done, if you are watching interactions between two individuals and you have the opportunity to restore equity, people tend to do that without question. In fact, they try to do it in a way that privileges or favors somebody who’s at a disadvantage, if they’re being taken advantage of. But the flip side of that in a more recent unpublished work of mine is that if you are investing your own money in these exchanges, you actually tend to favor the higher status folks, reinforcing inequality. So really considering one’s role in reinforcing inequity is incredibly important and also considering the potential utility of having third-party arbiters to really help restore equity and justice. 


[00:28:59] JS: Thank you. What can we actually do? How do we actually show up? What is an ally to do, given everything that we’ve talked about so far today? What can an ally actually do? We, once again, are going to push to the science, and I’m going to turn it over to Michaela to answer that question. 


[00:29:15] MS: Okay, great. Thanks. Now, mind you, there are all kinds of strategies but there are two we’d like to highlight. One is perspective taking and one is intergroup contact and perspective taking. Now, what is that? Well, as you see on the slide, it’s a cognitive process that involves simulating another person’s thoughts and feelings or you focus on their viewpoint or to the best of your ability imagine yourself in their shoes. We’ve kind of limited our ability to do that but just understanding that people have an experience different from yours. There are individual differences in terms of how people perspective take. It’s a way of looking at things. 


Anyone within reason, I study people with neurodegenerative disease, so I always have to like qualify that, nearly anyone can learn to perspective take, but we do have to put in the effort. Because we love to talk about brains, just talk a little bit about the brain and what areas of the brain are activated. The main area is the medial prefrontal cortex. That area and along with other areas, I won’t give you all the names, they allow us to think about what others might do in the future, and it also helps us imagine ourselves in the future. It also helps us imagine ourselves in alternate contexts or alternative situations, so kind of this projection into the future. These areas of the brain are really important. Again, if you study people who have basically brain damage or damage to different regions of your brain is when you can see where they’re lacking in these abilities, but we won’t go down that path. 


What does it take to be able to perspective take? Janet and Brad, feel free to pop in here as well. One of them is you have to understand that others possess mental states. There’s another piece to this where there are some people who basically don’t think. Maybe, dare I say, certain people are deserving of what we enjoy. Basically, what I’m talking about is dehumanization. That’s a whole area of study in social psychology. It’s this perspective that people have that certain groups of people do not merit common compassionate behavior, so they’re less than human and they’re dehumanized. I can tell you all kinds of really, really heartbreaking research on this that actually applies to what happens in the real world, but we’re going to very fundamental. 


You also have to understand that other possessed mental states and whether you think they’re less than or otherwise, people do possess mental states. We are all humans. It’s also recognizing that others’ mental states are not identical to our own. We have this natural bias in ourselves and this cognitive bias that we see the world through our lens, but that’s just what happens. We see the world very subjectively and we kind of have to be very conscious. Somebody asked the question about mindfulness. This is an area where we’re mindful of like, “Oh, right. Certain people are not going to see the world the way that I do.” We just need to remind ourselves of that. 


In order to perspective take, we have to overcome our own self-focused biases, again, about our own perspectives because, of course, what I think and how I see the world is the best. I mean, that’s often the way we think. We might not say that out loud but we have to really acknowledge that. 


[00:32:34] JS: This is the question I’m going to throw out to both of you. One of the things we talk about at NLI, I’ve done presentations, and we have a couple of exercises that we use where you are perceiving the colors on something, and your brain tells you one thing. You really cannot look past it. Somebody told me on a call one day, “My brain’s broken. I can’t figure this out.” It was interesting to me because you knew intellectually. You knew. Somebody told you that what your eyes were seeing was not true, but your brain refuse to let you process that. How does that happen when we’re talking about dealing with people interpersonally? I mean, it’s one thing maybe playing a mind game. But if I’m looking at another person and I’m unable as much as I want to, how do I as an ally deal with that?


[00:33:18] BM: That’s a great question, and I think there’s a lot of different ways you can go with that. Part of it has to do with your own mental state presently. If you’re stressed out, you’re less likely to go outside of yourself and engage with others, and maybe that’s part of the mental block is you have your mind on too many other things focused on yourself for whatever reason. It’s very hard to connect with another person. It does require effort, especially if you’re not familiar with their background or lived experiences, and sometimes there are just differences in lived experience that one can never fully integrate or incorporate in their own understanding. Having that humility to accept that I think is also important. 


Now, assuming one is in sort of a not stressed out state, say, for example, they’re engaging in mindfulness training, that’s a great opportunity then to step back with a clear mind and be like, “There’s something I’m not getting.” You starting to be curious and asking questions in a respectful fashion I think can go a long way. But, yeah, I’d be curious, Michaela, if you have other thoughts. 


[00:34:15] MS: It’s about the conflict. This I think was kind of like on the race-based evaluation where people were trying not to appear racist, but they have these implicit biases in the brain itself that you see activation of the dorsal and anterior cingulate if that’s where it was. But there’s this conflict. There’s a conflict in the brain of like, “I don’t want to do this. I know I shouldn’t do this but I feel this way.” It’s like this struggle, and you actually see it happening in the brain. When we need to engage with our own behavior, it’s like what is our motivation, our willingness? Do we even have that awareness? It takes so much conscious effort. 


Brad, you had brought that up. You talked about people are kind of stressed and struggling and dealing with things, and it’s really hard. It’s really hard to perspective take. It’s really hard to have empathy for others. But when our cognitive capacity is taxed, the cognitive capacity is basically our ability to take in information, process information at any given point in time. If we have stressors or distractors, it’s really hard for us to focus on what we might need to be focused on. In the process, we might also be feeling threat in any given situation. 


Then we have our biases and the assumptions that we have, and this is not to beat ourselves up. Again, one of the things we had at NLI, although we talk about all these challenges, this is not just to berate ourselves and to shame and blame. It’s like, “Okay, this is how we are as humans. There are ways through. There are ways we can transform and work through this, and we can get better. We pick ourselves up again.” 


[00:35:48] JS: Given threat reward, it seems to me that reward has to be clear. We’re preparing for this. One of the things we talked about was the issue about how do you know when allyship? What’s a reward and what do we respond to and what is it, which goes back to the big question that we’re framing in the end of the day. If it’s threat reward, what motivates you to do this, I mean? Can we kind of deviate a little bit talk about that, I mean? How do we process what the reward is for allyship? What are some of the ways that we see that as a reward?


[00:36:20] MS: So which direction. This can be bi-directional if you talk about two people. There could be somebody being an ally and what they’re getting and their process of like, say, speaking up or speaking out. Not speaking for but speaking up or speaking out or what we say extending equitable opportunities. By doing that, you can really get that ventral striatum and send these like rewards of like basically engaging in pro-social behavior. We know it triggers reward in people. There’s also that aspect of we talk about and people say you also want to make sure that especially if you’re speaking up for somebody or speaking out that are you doing it in a way that is welcome by that person, like say a coworker? If you’re on the receiving end – 


I’ve been in situations in the workplace where I’ve said something, and other people’s comments have been acknowledged, and mine just falls flat, and nothing happens. Then two minutes later, somebody else says the exact same thing I said. I’ve had a colleague who said, “Hey, I actually want to mention what Michaela said two minutes ago,” blah, blah, blah. “And I agree with that.” I contacted her later and I said, “Thank you. I don’t know whether you realize what you did, but you served as an ally for me, and I felt so seen and heard.” In that end, I received a reward. 


[00:37:38] BM: Yeah. It’s really terrific and thank you for sharing that story. I think that illustrates an excellent example of allyship and how it can really play out real world. Just adding to the discussion about reward, I think that was a great question. You kind of have to think about two different kinds of motivations, and this touches on that neuroimaging research, Michaela, you mentioned earlier. We’re seeing this conflict in the brain. It depends really what your motivations are. If you are internally motivated to respond without racial prejudice to act as an ally, doing so is a reward in and of itself, and I think that’s kind of what you are alluding to in your example. 


Alternatively, if your focus is really just on not being cancelled, worrying about that, that’s kind of a self-focused motivation. It’s good. You don’t want to respond in a racist fashion but really like you want to try to get to that internal motivation at the end of the day. Having a company culture that really promotes and values this in character development, whether it’s self-education, intergroup contact, these sorts of things can really help to make being an ally a reward in and of itself. On top of that though, I do recognize that there is value in things happening from the top down. If the company puts resources into these sorts of initiatives and self-trainings and that sort of thing, it can make a huge difference. I think it’s both an individual level action that could increase reward, as well as institutional effort. 


[00:38:59] MS: Strategies for perspective taking. We kind of just talked about that. Directly ask for others’ perspectives. As an ally, “Hey, I want to be a better ally. What are ways that I can go about doing that or how can I serve as an ally for you,” without putting all of the onus on the person to like help them solve your situation. But engage with people, and this is just actually generally about talking about perspective taking. Get other people’s perspectives. Consciously take the perspective of those you seek to understand. Set aside time for perspective taking. 


Again, we’re talking about conscious effortful thought processes. These are not things that are like automatic behaviors. Perspective taking is thoughtful. We need to be thoughtful about it. We have to slow down about it. We can think about, again, those rewards. What rewards can we reap when we create more perspective taking in organizations? As you see on the slide, we cultivate a trusting and honest work environment. Wow. Imagine what that must feel like. Some of you work in that already and some of you don’t or maybe some of you have it halfway. But to work in an honest and trusting environment, that actually would create what we call psychological safety for people. Basically, when you’re in a psychologically safe environment, you feel you can bring your whole authentic selves to work and that you can contribute. You can speak up without retribution, without punishment, without being shamed. 


In this process, when you create more perspective taking in organizations, you build more empathy and social bonds. You’re empathic with one another, you’re mindful of how others feel, and you create a more cohesive bond, which means you’re increasing collaboration. You’re finding increased performance and motivation. These are all from studies. These increased perspectives of taking, it benefits change and diversity efforts in organizations. Again, if we think about it, there’s actually a mindfulness to this, not just within individuals but within an organization. We have this priority and we’re setting habits to create more inclusive and equitable environments. 


[00:41:05] BM: This does build on the actions that you’re just outlining, Michaela. I think it’s really important to increase quality into group contact. As Janet mentioned earlier too and when talking about for ideas about increasing equity in the workplace through contact, the workplace really does present this great opportunity to leverage the power of intergroup contact for reducing inequity, and it kind of does complement the perspective taking practices that Michaela was talking about after all. If you, for example, have a meaningful conversation with minorities colleague, you’re going to find it easier later on down the road to take their perspectives and maybe intervene as an ally for that person. This intergroup contact piece is really important. 


Now, that being said, I do want to say that not any kind of contact will do. So superficial interactions such as passing by people on transit or making quick interactions at a store, these can actually backfire. They can promote prejudice and stereotypic views. There are some important factors to consider when thinking about ways to promote quality intergroup contacted work, and these are based on classic psychological theory and research. One thing if you’re going to try to develop a practice or way of increasing intergroup contact at work, you want to make sure that the people interacting are doing so across equal status lines. Members of the group should have to the extent possible similar backgrounds or qualities or characteristics so that one group doesn’t sort of emerge as more higher in status or more powerful than the other group, which would defeat the purpose of this equal intergroup contact. 


Another thing that can help is making sure that these intergroup contact groups have a common goal. They have a common outcome that they can work towards, and this really helps to blur those into group lines and make everyone feel like they’re part of the same team. Related to that, as they pursue these common goals, it’s really important to emphasize this intergroup cooperation. So you’re not going to have one group of folks from one background and a group of folks from another background kind of working in subgroups and then ultimately working towards this common goal. You really want to make sure everyone is working together without any sort of segregation. Then additionally, I touched on this earlier that you really want to have the support of authorities or law or customs, whatever it may be, whatever the culture is to really encourage this sort of interacting inequality in a group context. 


Then lastly and this is one that’s not so much from classic research, it’s more recent stuff, I’m talking about childhood contact. For listeners with kids, consider some of these factors from an early age. There’s some recent research from my colleagues, Dr. Jennifer Kubota and Jasmin Cloutier at the University of Delaware, suggesting that early childhood interracial contacts associated with reduced implicit bias and potentially more efficient neural processing of faces across interracial lines. In other words, starting early can help reap longer term rewards in terms of promoting allyship in the next generation. 


[00:43:51 JS: Well, that’s powerful. I mean, I think intellectually we know. Logically, we know that. But it’s great to know that the research support and the science supports that that you start them young. Turn them into allies young. 


[00:44:04] MS: Starting young, yeah, and the power of that, of the intergroup contact. I remember a question that was posed a few times, the same question about I think how do you deal with white men who are resistant and experiencing threat and around inequity. Sorry if I don’t have it exactly. But, yeah, how do you respond to white men who feel they are losing status to open the door to further dialogue. It just made me think of that intergroup contact. It might be that some of these men are not. They’re with people who are just like them and they don’t have that exposure. 


I remember reading about this one study that said that, since they’re college students, but when, say, there was a group of white students or white study participants. But one of the friends in the friend group had I think in this case like a black friend, and it was normalized between them. Then when they kind of went back and talked about their black friend to their white friends, the white friends were like, “Oh, you’ve got a black friend. Oh, they’re not so scary.” That created a more inclusive environment, but you kind of needed somebody from the core group to be like, “Hey, look. This is okay. This is normal.” Then they were more likely to be open, and it kind of reduced biases. I don’t know if they were measuring implicit or explicit bias, but that whole thing about intergroup contact and exposure, and even though, Janet, I know you wanted to say something so please. 


[00:45:25] JS: No. I was just going to say that’s great because what you’re saying is even if you don’t have that in a group contact, if you’re the one who sets the precedent, there’s power and you being the one who brings it. 


[00:45:35] MS: As an ally. 


[00:45:36] JS: Initiating. The ally, right. That’s one thing you can do on the continuum. 


[00:45:40] MS: Normalize rather than otherwise. Again, as an ally, you have that advantage. Whatever your advantage is and you may have in one of your identity domains, you can go to your group, people who might be a little bit resistant. They’re more likely to listen to you than other people saying, “Hey, there’s an equity here.” There are all kinds of studies in the organization of what happens when people speak up about inequity, and they’re the ones who are kind of on the receiving end of inequity. They actually get lower performance ratings and competence ratings. But when basically like in this one segment, like a white man does it, he actually gets higher rating. Again, there’s power in that voice there that you can take or he or whoever you are can take to your advantage group. They’re going to listen to you. They’re more likely to listen to you. 


[00:46:23] JS: This has been an incredible discussion. I hope everybody’s enjoyed it as much as we have enjoyed having it with each other. 


[00:46:30] SS: Thank you, Janet and Brad and Michaela. What amazing conversation, specifically around allyship and what we can do and how we can do that better. Some stuff that’s coming up on NLI, we wanted to share some quick programming notes. Right back here next Friday will be part three of our series on equity and allyship. Of course, you hear all the time. Subscribe to my podcast. But if you’ve been here today and you’ve enjoyed this conversation, we hope that you do actually subscribe. You can hear any of the past webinars on demand, so look for Your Brain At Work on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, wherever you enjoy listening to podcasts. 


Finally, please hold the date for this year’s summit in November, our biggest summit ever of our 20z-plus year history in 2020, which is my very first one. We’ll be going virtual again and are hoping to go hybrid as well in some locations. More information to follow but please make sure you save that date. Thank you again for joining us. Have a wonderful weekend and hopefully we will see you next week. Bye-bye, everyone. 




[00:47:34] GB: Your Brain At Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Cliff David, Matt Holodak, and Danielle Kirshenblat. Our executive producer is me, Gabriel Berezin. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Ketch Wear. We’ll see you next time. 



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