​OSU Ross ​Center for Brain Health and Performance

The Social Brain

​Can’t We All Just Get Along? Time for Inclusion & Diversity

​Why we struggle to learn from each other, and new approaches to change that

Posted Mar 14, 2018


By Janet B. Reid, Ph.D., and Vincent R. Brown

Part One of a Five-Part Series on Inclusion & Diversity

We are biologically wired to reach out and connect with others. Even when we’re resting between cognitive tasks, our brains are oriented to socializing; we fall into a state researchers call the default mode. Scientists have developed a picture of what this mode looks like neurologically, and it’s remarkably similar to imaging of our brain when we’re using it for social thinking, trying to figure other people out.

But in our field of inclusion and diversity, we’ve noticed that while people seem to easily connect with those who are like them, relating to those who are different comes less naturally. Why?

The need to connect through differences: our changing society

One reason is that we also create some of our brain’s wiring. In one study, infants as young as nine months exhibited what researchers call the other race effect, where people have a hard time distinguishing between faces of those from different racial backgrounds. Other studies show that very small children can display a preference for people who are members of an “in group”—those who are similar to them—over members of an “out group.”  

And us-them classifications continue to divide us as we grow. Much of our social discourse encourages us to feel threatened by and defensive towards those who are different. At the same time, our society is becoming more diverse than ever. Fifty years ago non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. outnumbered all other minorities combined two to one. But half of the babies born here last year were from racial or ethnic minorities, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2044 whites will cease to be the majority group in our country.

There has never been a more important time to tap into the benefits created by our increasingly diverse society. In our decades of work with organizations to increase inclusion and diversity, we’ve learned some interesting things about this subject.

Why inclusion and diversity matter

Some think diversity is only about differences. But as the term is applied in workplaces and social contexts, diversity refers to both the differences that help us see each other as distinct individuals and the similarities that help to connect us. These differences and similarities can be characteristics such as age, race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic background and physical ability. But diversity also encompasses other aspects of our identitygender identity and expression, core values, cultural norms and the ways we process information and approach problems.

The goal of increasing diversity in our workplaces has been around for a long time— significant historical milestones include women entering the workforce in large numbers during World Wars I and II, the integration of the U.S. military in 1948 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over time, these events, laws and rulings have contributed to an increased awareness and acceptance of differences.

Of course, organizations quickly discover that it’s not enough to simply put disparate people together. That’s why the concept of inclusion, or creating an atmosphere that values, respects and intentionally engages differences, is so essential. An inclusive culture is one in which people feel comfortable, connected and supported with individuals who are similar, and also with those who are different. They are free to express their opinions and disagree because there’s a high level of trust among all group members.

Studies have shown that building diverse teams in inclusive settings can substantially improve problem-solving and increase employee innovation and engagement.

Inclusion and diversity as a conscious choice

Many organizations already devote significant time and money to inclusion and diversity, and in our work, we have seen some progress from these efforts. For example, entry to mid-level management is much more heterogeneous than it was 20 years ago. However, the ranks of senior leadership are still predominately homogenous. For example, in 2017 only 6.4 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs were women and fewer than 4 percent were people of color. At the next level down, within the C-suite, the numbers are 20 percent for women and 26 percent for people of color.

This continues to be true despite many research studies that correlate increased diversity in the C-suite and on executive boards with increased financial performance. One of the most comprehensive is the McKinsey "Delivering Through Diversity" report which, among other findings, shows that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams are 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. For ethnic and cultural diversity, the figure is 33 percent. Given these data, why are the top levels of most public corporations composed of people who are similar?            

A major contributor is likely the conscious and unconscious biases we all have. And if our leadership remains so homogenous, it follows that executives likely will mentor and promote future leaders who are like them, impacting the inclusiveness of the culture. How can we improve this situation so that our companies are stronger performers?

In this series of articles, we will discuss ways to foster inclusion and diversity using internal motivators, not external pressures. By identifying individuals who are naturally more inclusive, analyzing what’s made them that way, and learning how to help foster these characteristics in others, we can transform how our organizations operate. And because we are always learning more about how our brains work, we are better positioned than ever to harness that knowledge to foster inclusion and diversity.

Next in this series: What can we learn from the latest research on inclusion and diversity?

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Janet B. Reid, Ph.D., is CEO of BRBS World Consulting, LLC and Vincent R. Brown is President and CEO of V. Randolph Brown Consulting.  They are co-authors of “The Phoenix Principles: Leveraging Inclusion to Transform Your Company.”