Diversity is good for business. Fortune 500 invest billions into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, and are reaping the benefits of expanded customer base and talent acquisition. Although there are some great outcomes happening, executive and board membership largely remain homogenous and generally lacking in melanin and estrogen. Changing the status quo is extremely difficult, even if everyone seems to be on board. In order for initiatives to have real impact, we need to understand why this is so. Understanding how our brains receive information can provide some very helpful insights.
Meet Your Brain Animals
A pea-sized part of your brain whose job is to watch for threats. Imagine an old, anxious, chihuahua on overdrive. Lots of barking, some biting. The amygdala makes the stress hormone cortisol, and manages your sympathetic nervous system, and is the center for stress responses such as fight, flight, and freeze.
Calm, rational, a good boss and decision maker. This wise owl manages healing hormones, and the parasympathetic nervous system; the center for rest and regeneration.
These two parts of the brain can not be in charge at the same time. So if your stress is activated, your healing cannot be.
New Learning Activates the Chihuahua
Our brains are naturally inclined to respond more strongly to unpleasant stimuli than to pleasant, as it primes to take action in the face of potential threats. Our brains get hijacked in the face of difficult stimuli - we lose the abilities to listen and to make careful choices. It’s natural to feel skeptical or negative about shifting established habits and beliefs. It’s fair to say that we can expect to feel resistant to some of the learning around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Diversity education can activate this little guy:
The Trauma Bias Connection
Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual's ability to cope. Chronic trauma is repeated and prolonged such as domestic violence or abuse, perpetuated through generations. Complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, of an invasive, interpersonal nature. For example, pervasive value systems that tie worth to wealth when people who look like you consistently make less money for the same work. As Indian poet Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It’s no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”
Research shows that trauma affects the bully, the victim, and bystanders. When we inflict pain on others, it feels like release but it spreads and perpetuates trauma response in our bodies. Trauma is contagious. Our cultural systems are traumatic for everyone.
Part of the reason I believe that there is so much resistance to Diversity initiatives is that because of constant stress and trauma, our inner chihuahuas are constantly barking and it’s more difficult to acknowledge another person’s pain when we feel our own pain/trauma/threats are not acknowledged.
Bias is a shortcut the brain uses to save energy. We tend to assume good qualities in people we perceive are like us, and assume bad qualities in people we perceive as not like us. Many times we are not even aware that we’re doing this, and without this awareness, all the diversity training in the world is not going to yield results. Studies show that we are more likely to rely on bias when we are tired, stressed, hungry, etc. Most of us are dealing with at least one of those issues at any given moment.
Mindfulness Calms our Inner Chihuahua
Mindfulness practices such as meditation, focus on breathing, yoga, and gratitude work reduce stress and help heal the effects of trauma that keep us biased and resistant to change. These habits create the necessary space to identify our privilege and others’ oppression. Mindfulness builds on itself (like other medication) so consistency is key. When practiced regularly, studies show:
We’re less likely to take things (like our privilege) for granted
It reinforces generous behavior
Directs our focus to experiences (vs. things)
Makes us feel more secure and connected
Reduces stress and depression
Serotonin, oxytocin (happy chemicals) surge and last longer
Activates prefrontal cortex / wise owl brain
Self awareness, trauma healing, and self compassion are key to creating space for other people, making mindfulness tools extremely beneficial to reducing bias and improving our abilities to include. Like any investment, it makes sense to choose diversity training companies that provide tools for overcoming the underlying issues that have historically prevented progress.
Teresa Cruz Foley is a diversity trainer at www.bravespaceconsulting.com