We are want to be included, to belong to the tribe. Our brains are constantly scanning our environment and our interactions to determine if we “fit in” or not. That’s why the “like me” bias is so prevalent—because we feel most comfortable (most safety and belonging) with people that are similar to us.
Who’s Special–And Thus Included?
I’m not going to talk about diversity here, as I’ve done so before. Instead, I want to urge you to look at your organization, and to notice who is being excluded and why. Sometimes it’s easiest to first look at who is included, or who’s in the “in group” (yes, just like in High School!). Ask yourself:
- Who receives the high profile assignments/projects?
- Who receives frequent public praise/is held up as an example of positive performance, attitude, etc?
- Who receives promotions?
- Who has lunch/is invited to play golf with the key leaders?
Chances are really good that you thought of a smallish group of people. And I’ll bet they all have things in common with the leaders that offer them the above benefits. We’ll call them the “in group”. That’s the “like me” cognitive bias at work, and beneath it, we’re subconsciously just trying to mitigate risk. Everyone else is the “out-group”.
Your brain has three to four times as much real estate devoted to identifying threats versus identifying opportunities and rewards. Since we are all naturally biased, there’s no need to feel ashamed of it. However, there’s a very profound business case for becoming more aware of exclusion and how it damages our performance, emotional engagement, health and happiness at work and in life overall.
Your Brain On Exclusion
You’ve been left out of a group before (think back to Junior High or High School, or the last round of promotions you weren’t part of or the special meeting/project you weren’t included in, you get the idea). You know how emotionally painful it feels. Our belonging is threatened when we are ostracized or excluded, and we dive into Critter State (fight, flight, freeze). Now our brain literally cannot function the way it does when it feels safe and is in Smart State.
When we’re excluded, our brain will release an enzyme that attacks the hippocampus, which is responsible for regulating synapses. As a result, our brain does the following:
- Reduces the field of view and focuses only on a narrow span of what it must do to survive. Myelin sheathing increases on existing neural pathways, and we are less likely to consider or try new solutions.
- Shrinks its working memory, so that it is not distracted by other ideas, bits of information, or stray thoughts. This means we can’t problem solve optimally. Think of students panicked by a pop quiz: the information is there, but they cannot access it.
- Is less creative. With less gray matter and modified synapses, we experience fewer ideas, thoughts, and information available to “bump into each other,” so our capacity to create is reduced.
- Increases cell density in the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for fear processing and threat perception, making us more likely to be reactive rather than self-controlled.
- Is less likely to connect with others. Fight, flight, freeze, or faint is not a “sharing” type of activity. When the synapses have been modified in this way, we appear grumpy and unsociable.
Bring The “Out” Group “In”
As leaders, we must promote everyone’s Smart State by not just hiring diverse team members but including them. If your not-like-you team members don’t feel included, they’ll end up in Critter State, where no one wins.
- The brain is profoundly impacted when a person feels excluded—and the person, their performance, their emotional engagement, and the organization overall suffers as a result
- Leaders must raise their awareness to identify who’s being excluded and why—then include them
Christine Comaford is a leadership and culture coach who helps businesses achieve growth. Learn more at SmartTribes Institute and see Power Your Tribe: Create Resilient Teams in Turbulent Times and SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together.