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The science behind why we exclude people

When people come together to talk diversity and inclusion, really we’re talking about science; tribal behaviour, bias as a survival mechanism, why we fear difficult conversations, why status subconsciously rules much of our behaviour, and why we innately choose people who look, sound and think like us. They are complex conversations and I often tell my audience there will be more questions than answers, that this work is a willingness to jump into ambiguity, to hold the space between opposing views, to sit in the grey because the dogmatic black and white world we live in isn’t proving helpful in terms of increasing equity or, in fact, solving any of the great dilemmas we have as a 21st century cohort of students.

Belonging to a group was ancestrally safer than facing the world alone and these drivers, although historic, run deep. Eons ago, people who looked different to ourselves had to be assessed as to whether they might kill us or steal our resources, deep down, we still carry some of these reptilian survival drivers. When we shake someone's hand our chemicals are subconsciously assessing their chemicals to understand if this person is friend, foe or potential mate. As well as looking at their clothing, the car they drive, or dog they're walking to draw on embedded information sets which help us assess whether this person is a threat. Depending on the level of exposure we have to people who are different to us, or on the media we absorb, these information sets can feed into negative stereotypes which cause an irrational fear/mistrust and ensuing avoidance or exclusion. Or in the case of American police undertaking online critical situation simulations, more likely to shoot Black crime victims than white perpetrators. Or New Zealand doctors whose affinity bias causes them to spend fewer minutes per consultation with brown skinned patients than white. Unconscious bias is everywhere; useful in many circumstances but plays a significant role in the diminished life outcomes for diverse groups.

One of the key themes that emerges when I do cultural reviews into companies is one of ‘us and them’. Operational versus office staff, management versus everyone else, experienced staff versus younger staff, shift workers versus non shift workers, and in schools; non teaching versus teaching, English versus Art, so on and so forth. Sometimes these factions are formed by gender and ethnicity; a Filipino or female corner in a lunchroom. Within one company I worked with I repeatedly heard ‘oh we don’t really talk to the people on the second floor’. People who worked for the same employer, were delivering on the same operational purpose, agreed upon the same values, parked in the same carpark, were paid by the same finance team and sat through the same fireside chats by the CEO. It’s only when they said it out loud that they became aware of the oddness of adults choosing not to speak to other adults simply based on their perception of what they do on the second floor.

The sub conscious love of a group is helpful in many respects, it can allow for innovation, collaboration, safety and fun. It can also exclude people who don’t look, sound and think like us, as affinity bias draws us towards similar people; our survival drivers assuming they are less likely to kill us or steal our resources. It also makes it difficult to speak up against a member of the group in case we are ousted. Most companies aim for a culture in which people feel psychologically safe enough to put an idea on the table in a meeting, however having a quiet word with a team mate whose banter is from the 1970s is a lot harder. As a young guy once said to me ‘I hate the way they talk but they’re my team and work would be pretty bad if they turn against me’. Speaking up engages our sympathetic nervous system; the faster heart rate, clammy palms and hot face that signals a flight, fight or freeze response internally. It takes real effort to choose an uncomfortable feeling if you don't have to, as well as face the risk of unpopularity. Being an ally means stepping into discomfort and overcoming our physiological quest for an easy life.

The key solution to overcoming some of the challenges mentioned above is connection. Once humans have laughed together (which allows our threat system to happily put away its sword) and experienced vulnerability through conversation or telling their own story (which builds trust), they feel connected. I often get people to talk to each other about challenging parts of their childhoods; almost all humans feel empathy when someone is vulnerable with them. And where siloes, unhelpful competition or a lack of psychological safety pervade an organisation, the sharing of laughter and vulnerability goes a long way towards breaking down these issues. An investment in connection between people is almost always going to produce dividends for a company. One client I worked with had a strong us versus them culture; having brought them all together to talk about their strengths, purpose, and what kept them awake at night, the feel of the place improved very quickly. Those who felt they were bottom of the hierarchical ladder felt more confident saying good morning to their colleagues, the siloed departments became more collaborative, and they were simply kinder to one another. Almost all humans want to be kind, we sometimes just need opportunities to get to know another which enables empathy, trust and a more willing smile. Of course it takes more work to overcome innate biases to ensure all voices and ideas are equally welcomed and heard around the business table, but hearing one another's stories makes for a damned good start.

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