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Thoughts From Our Director

The Role of Neuroscience in the Workplace

There is a lot of attention on diversity and inclusion in our workplace today.  The idea is that many perspectives (diversity) and making people feel an important part of the team (inclusion) pay dividends for today’s business.  One of the reasons these concepts are becoming popular can be found in a relatively new field of study, neuroscience.

New research in how our brains work shows we are, as humans, hard wired to connect with others.  Since the dawn of time, we lived in small communities or tribes and connecting to one another or supporting each other was important to our survival. People within the tribe had an allegiance to one another.  Outsiders could pose a threat to the tribe’s survival and were treated with suspicion. Our brains are programmed to be on the lookout for danger.  We are constantly scanning the environment, and our brain is always on alert.

Fast forward to our modern world, and our brain is still operating much like our early ancestors – setting off a chain reaction of chemicals in our bodies when we sense danger.  Think of the similarities between a tribe or village and today’s work environment.  Your business is like that tribe.   Everyone in the tribe had certain job responsibilities to make life work and keep members of the tribe alive.  The leaders were responsible for guidance and oversight. They had to make sure the tribe was kept safe, so it could continue.

Today, we look to the leaders of the business for that same kind of protection. Typically, we don’t face the same threats in our lives as we did when we were living in small groups on the plains or in the forest, but our brain doesn’t see the difference.  It’s called the flight or fight response.  At the first sign of a threat, our brain shifts into action and all kinds of chemical reactions take place to be sure we can move to safety (flight) or defend ourselves (flee). The biological response to snarled traffic and nasty customers is same as a wild animal running toward us or a neighboring tribe invading our village.  Threats can come from inside the group as well.

Imagine you’ve hired someone to assist you in running your business.  Maybe they worked for a competitor or are new to the industry (it doesn’t really matter).  They could be perceived as a threat by members of your team. Again, we can look to how the brain works to explain what may happened if we don’t take steps to be sure the new person is included and their perspectives are valued.

Think of two common expressions:  that’s the way it works around here and we’ve always done it that way. Both ideas speak to the values and traditions of the business with the second expression pointing to the fact that change is scary.  Values and traditions are an important part of any group, especially a business.  Traditions are simple things – how the phone is answered, the paperwork completed in the sales process,  how you find a new vendor, how people get notified of information, how meetings are run, all the day-to-day interactions that take place somewhat automatically.  All of these systems and processes were developed from the beginning of the business.  People within the group (current employees) have an understanding that the new hire (outsider) doesn’t.  To make sure the new person is successful, it is important to have a plan for inclusion.

I’ll speak more about inclusion in my next blog post.  In the meantime, I’m curious to hear more about your experience with the flight or fight response.  In what ways do you see it in the workplace? Can you relate? Post your answer below.

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