​OSU Ross ​Center for Brain Health and Performance

The Social Brain

A New Approach to Diversity and Inclusion

How to think and behave like inclusive people

Posted Sep 06, 2018

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

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

In our field of inclusion and diversity, we’re always learning more about how people make connections. As we discussed in part 1 and part 2 of this series, we’ve noticed that people are often most comfortable with those who are similar to them. Feeling a connection to those who are different comes less naturally. This may have to do with social conditioning as well as the way we’re wired—and in addition, research reveals that we have preferences for those who are most like us.  (In a previous article, we cited this study in which infants as young as nine months exhibited what is called the other race effect.)

But certain people we’ve met seem to be exceptions, and they have much to teach us.  Some of us seem to naturally be motivated to build relationships with people who are alike and different. We call these people “intrinsically inclusive.” Intrinsically inclusive people are naturally curious about others and want to learn more about them. They are not without biases—we all have them—but they are significantly less likely to make stereotypical judgments and more open to interacting with those who are different.

We believe intrinsically inclusive people have the power to deliver to their organizations and communities all of the advantages of diversity and inclusion.  Bringing more people with these qualities into leadership positions has the potential to transform our workplaces and our society.

Intrinsically inclusive people are motivated from within

So what do we know about intrinsically inclusive people? One of the most striking things we’ve observed is that they are internally motivated to connect. To provide some history, many of the strategies organizations have adopted to increase diversity are essentially external mandates. They provide numbers to meet, employ logical arguments about the benefits of diversity, or use techniques such as blind hiring (for example, removing identifying information from resumes before they are screened).  All of these ideas may increase the percentage of individuals who happen to be in the minority in a particular workplace (these might include women, people of color, or those with different religions, thinking styles, etc.) but do not address our tendency to have challenges relating to those who are different.    

In contrast, intrinsically inclusive people do not have to be convinced of the value of greater diversity and of inclusive practices. They are driven from within to experience new things and learn from them. They act for their own satisfaction, rather than to please others or conform to an external standard. At work, they often build highly effective diverse and inclusive teams—without being told to do so.

Intrinsically inclusive people are drawn to what is new and different

With the help of researchers in neuroscience and social psychology, we’re making real progress in understanding how intrinsically inclusive people think. In our last article, we mentioned the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of Intrinsic Motivation developed by University of Rochester researchers Edward Deci, Ph.D., and Richard Ryan, Ph.D. Deci and Ryan say we are born with the drive to explore the new and different. Intrinsically inclusive people seem to retain that tendency throughout their lives.

But SDT posits that most of us have the capacity to reawaken our attraction to experiences and people who are different. We need to have three needs met in order to be intrinsically motivated: the need for autonomy, the need for competence and the need for relatedness.

Autonomy occurs when we choose our own actions regardless of outside influences, and feel that we are making our own decisions. Competence means we believe our skills equip us to handle a task—for example, we might feel we have the ability to relate well to a wide variety of people.  And relatedness is about our wanting to do something without having to be convinced; intrinsically inclusive people, for instance, want to learn from others and experience new ways of thinking. Furthermore, Deci and Ryan note that intrinsic motivation thrives in conditions of  “…choice, acknowledgement of feelings, and opportunities for self-direction”—all elements that characterize more inclusive settings.

Intrinsically inclusive people seek to learn from experiences

Russell Fazio, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at The Ohio State University, and his colleagues conducted a study designed to measure how culturally transmitted prejudices (those handed down through generations) impact the attitudes we form. Study participants were given positive or negative reviews of foods and researchers observed their behavior.  For the most part, the people who saw positive reviews indicated that they were willing to try the product, and people who read negative reviews weren’t—no big surprise. But some people said they were willing to try all of the items, regardless of the reviews.

The study finding most relevant to intrinsic inclusion is this: researchers noted that the people who said they would be willing to sample the food, whether because it had positive reviews or because they had more curiosity to explore all the samples, learned something from the experience.  Their knowledge was enhanced because they could make independent judgments about whether the reviews they read were valid. Dr. Fazio observes, “When you approach or interact with something (or someone) new, you are in a learning state. Avoidance has real consequences. Prejudice limits you.  Beyond the fairness issues of diversity and inclusion, it can be very serious for companies learning to innovate.”

Using the inclusive mindset to create new attitudes and environments

Our next challenge is to figure out how we can best use this information: the power of internal motivation, the benefits we derive from the unfamiliar and the value of experiential learning.  Along with other research, these factors can help us encourage diversity and inclusion. In our next article, we’ll be discussing ways to provide motive and opportunity to “push pause” on our biases and work with our brains’ wiring to become more open to change. We’ll also discuss some strategies that might help others understand and tap into an inclusive way of thinking.   

Katharine Graham was a pioneer as the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, the Washington Post, in an era when women holding positions in top management was even more rare than it is today. In her autobiography she discusses her and her late husband Philip Graham’s philosophies of being “curious about people, not to assume things about them and their motives without getting to know them” and “not believing in stereotypes, not only because they don’t hold true to form but because you miss so much if you allow them to dominate your responses.”

That is the mindset of intrinsic inclusion. And practicing ways to operate from that mindset is the next step on a journey to formulate strategies, policies and trainings that support a different way of doing things.
Next in this series: How we can rewire our brains to become more inclusive

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.”