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​OSU Ross ​Center for Brain Health and Performance

The Potential of Intrinsic Inclusion

Learning more about our biases and how to transcend them.

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

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

When we first meet people, we immediately develop ideas about them. Without our consciously realizing it, we use these initial impressions to develop preferences towards those who are most like us. These preferences can form our beliefs and ultimately shape our behaviors.

In a previous article, we discussed how in our field of inclusion and diversity, we’ve noticed that while people often connect easily with those who are similar to them, relating to those who are different comes less naturally. We mentioned that scientific research in neuroscience and other fields shows that “hardwiring” in our brains programs us to be drawn to and to trust people with whom we share characteristics (these might include race or ethnic background, religion, gender orientation and expression, values, etc.). We noted that some studies show very young babies preferring faces of an “in-group” who resemble them, versus an “out group” of people who look different.

We’re often unaware of these instinctive preferences on a conscious level, yet they have far-reaching consequences for our society. For example, biases have likely been a major contributor to the homogeneity we see in the top executive ranks of corporate America, where women and people of color are barely represented.

The Influence of Implicit Bias

As we’re using the term here, a bias is simply a preference for, or aversion to, a person or group. Biases can be conscious—in other words, we can become aware of them through introspection, or if they are triggered by an event or memory—or unconscious. Unconscious biases may activate automatically when we first meet people and have developed from our own experiences and background.

Today we most often use the term implicit bias, which means to have a particular attitude toward people or groups or to associate them with stereotypes, without being aware of making such a judgment. Neuroscience teaches us that thinking the same thoughts over and over causes our brains to form neural pathways that become habitual. This tendency reinforces our biases and can make them even stronger.

Inclusion and diversity training programs have long sought to develop effective strategies for mitigating our implicit biases. Although studies overwhelmingly support the many advantages of encouraging diversity and inclusion—which include greater employee engagement, more innovative business practices and better financial performance—current training methods have yielded mixed results.

We believe that’s because the main idea of many training programs has been to externally incentivize people to act in a way that may be unfamiliar to them. Typically these programs either provide rewards or level penalties to make our workplaces more diverse and our teams more inclusive. The effects of this external pressure are limited. As we mentioned, we’ve failed to substantially increase diversity at the C-Suite level. And when incentives are withdrawn due to changes in leadership, funding restrictions, etc., progress often stalls even in the ranks of workers and mid-level management.

Our Motivation to Connect

Fortunately, we have other resources to harness as we seek to understand and better relate to each other. First, it’s important to recognize that our human drive to connect is at least as strong as our biases. Here’s one example: when we meet someone, we’ll often ask questions to learn more about them, trying to establish commonalities (“Oh, you’re an avid reader/went to college upstate/met your spouse at work, too!”). We search for things we can relate to, so that we can see someone as part of our “in group.” The fluid nature of “in” and “out” group designations is an important tool we use to relate to those who, on the surface, seem unlike us.

And additionally, it’s exciting to realize we have much to learn from those who are internally motivated to build relationships with people. In our work, we’ve identified many of these people, whom we call “intrinsically inclusive.” Intrinsically inclusive people have a natural curiosity to learn more about others. They exhibit less unjustified fear and negative stereotyping, and often build highly effective diverse and inclusive teams. They deliver to their organizations and communities all of the advantages of diversity and inclusion.

So what if we tried an additional approach to diversity and inclusion training? What if we learn more about what makes intrinsically inclusive people behave in the ways they do, and find ways to foster these characteristics in others?

Internal Versus External Motivators

A first step in this process is to consider how internal motivators—as opposed to external pressures—influence us. According to the Self-Determination Theory of Intrinsic Motivation developed by University of Rochester researchers Edward Deci, Ph.D., and Richard Ryan, Ph.D., humans perform best when they are doing something because they like it, rather than to achieve a reward or avoid a consequence. What we’ve noticed about intrinsically inclusive people is that they like to behave inclusively.

Self-determination theory also posits that we’re born with a drive to explore and learn about things that are new to us. For example, babies don’t need to be told to reach for a rattle or try to discover what’s in that kitchen cupboard. So perhaps, though we’re comfortable with those who are familiar, on another level we’re also fascinated by those who are different.

But there may be other factors, such as significant events or relationships, that have influenced the thinking of intrinsically inclusive people. After all, we assume that most of us formulate our world-views based on a combination of nature and nurture. If we could better understand these formative experiences and the insights they provide, we might be able to encourage intrinsically inclusive ways of thinking.

A New Challenge for Inclusion and Diversity

So a challenge in our field of inclusion and diversity is to learn even more about intrinsically inclusive people and the lessons they can teach us. With the help of researchers in areas such as neuroscience and social psychology, we’re making real progress in understanding how they think. In our next article, we’ll be discussing examples of this science in greater detail.

Psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., now based at Stanford University, is a leading researcher in human motivation and personality. Dweck’s research shows that the influence of “growth mindset,” a term she uses, is significant. Growth mindset involves the belief that we have the skills and capacity to learn new things—in other words, that training and effort make a difference. In Dweck’s TED talk, she notes the benefit of having an attitude–to paraphrase–that “I can’t do it yet.”

Our hope is that more of us adopt a growth mindset about inclusive practices in the workplace. We may “not yet” know the many ways we can influence our businesses and the way our own brains work. But by continuing to ask questions and try new approaches, we are well on our way to make different choices that effect real change in our organizations—and our larger world.

Next in this series: A new approach to diversity and inclusion.

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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.”

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About the Author

OSU Wexner Medical Center for Brain Health and Performance combines five neuroscience-related specialties into an integrated program, and has one of the country's largest neuromuscular clinical and research programs.