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The Neuroscience of Inclusion


Cups of coffee on a round table in various shades due to creamer.

The world is more interconnected and global than we could ever imagine. From a meat processing plant manager in Kansas working with Somali and Salvadoran factory workers to a high-flying executive leading a cross-cultural team in Hong Kong, London, and Seattle: global is the new local. Furthermore, technological advances allow for teams to work virtually in a seemingly borderless world. Subsequently, it behooves all of us from the individual to the corporate entity to recognize the immense value of creating a globally minded inclusive workforce. The facts are in; data analytics, studies, and reports verify that organizations and businesses that are diverse are more successful, profitable, innovative, and resilient.


The State of Inclusion Now

For decades businesses have been trying to increase their diversity with Employee Resource Groups, affinity groups, and initiatives throughout their organization. Sadly, the reality remains that in 2018 minority gains and representation are “still disappointing across industries.

Moreover, herein lies the unfortunate disconnect: non-whites will be the majority in both the USA and Europe by 2050.  A shortage of skilled workers affecting 25 major economies (the US, Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, and India to name a few)  is a potential $10 trillion risk by 2030. Experts are debating viable solutions.  One posited is a change in immigration policy and talent mobility practices. From reimagining a more efficient workforce to buttressing a diminishing one, the status quo is no longer viable.

Diversity and inclusion, cross-cultural communication, cultural agility, and a global mindset are vital elements to foster and cultivate in organizations, leaders, and teams alike. Working adeptly across cultural barriers and incorporating not only a diversity of gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicities but also a diversity of thought is paramount to success.

How do we bridge this gap and produce a sustainable, inclusive workplace that is safe for talented individuals of all differences to flourish and thrive genuinely? Well, one compelling place is the “neuroscience of inclusion.” According to organization expert, executive coach, and CAI cultural facilitator Shannon Murphy Robinson, our brains are one place we should turn to understand culture and inclusion.


The Science Behind Inclusion 

Person looking at a brilliant nigh sky as stars dance in color.Robinson describes how advances in neuroscience and technology now provide unparalleled access and insight into the wiring of our minds. These studies allow us to discern our brains in novel ways offering a more dynamic, complex layer of culture and inclusion.

Modern-day science further reveals that we have a conscious brain that is cognizant of the importance of diversity and inclusion and an unconsciousness brain that quickly categorizes input (over 11 million bits per second) to avoid mindful thinking to save energy and increase efficiency. Furthermore, this is where the “us versus them” stereotype is deeply embedded and engrained through bio-evolutionary processes that allow us to conserve energy, act, and react speedily.

The brain evolved to prefer the familiar and the known. Moreover, it favors homogeneity meaning that every one of us has an unconscious bias to prefer individuals who look, act, and sound like us observable as early as six months in infants. No matter how intentionally we proclaim to be inclusive, tolerant, and open to all, our minds are conditioned to categorize others so robotically that those who do not look like us register as a threat.This judgment occurs in 200 milliseconds.These embodied unconscious biases while beneficial to our ancestral survival and  still have favorable outcomes limit our ability to empathize with “the other.”



Explanation of the brain.

As Robinson so eloquently explicates in her latest work The Neuroscience of Inclusion, our brains principally function in three brain states that relate to three sections. Our prefrontal cortex where higher-level thinking and conscious thought occur, our reptilian brain, or neocortex, where the fight-flight-freeze response comes from and has allowed humankind to evolve, and the central limbic system where autopilot thinking originates. Of course, tomes exist about our brains, but the complexities continue to amaze scientist and laypeople alike.

Inclusion In Business

What’s particularly interesting for businesses is that many leaders operate from within the limbic system meaning that they make many crucial decisions unconsciously. These decisions reverberate throughout the entire structure of the organization and tremendously impact perhaps unwittingly diversity and inclusion practices.

Group of multicultural hands in a fist bump.We are not, however, hopeless. This latest information is, in fact, inspiring because it confirms that with self-awareness and curiosity we can counter the pre-encoded conditions of our brains. By leaning into uncomfortable situations and challenging our predispositions, we can create new neural pathways. With consistent practice, we can learn to appreciate these inherent differences instead of registering them as threats. Of course, this is easier said than done but it is not impossible.

Robinson prescribes two critical components: recognize which brain state we are in and consciously shift brain states using the three A’s. Acknowledgment, Appreciation, and Adventure. Acknowledge the brain state we might be in, appreciate it, and brave the adventure to shift our brain state. Even if it is uncomfortable at first, this self-awareness leads to transformative thinking and ultimately behaviors.

About CAI


Cultural Awareness International, Inc. (CAI) has close to three decades of remarkable history working with HR and Business Leaders to create unique, personalized solutions that develop their employee talent to perform skillfully in the global marketplace. A woman and minority, privately owned and operated company, we holistically address organizational needs for global competency development, diversity and inclusion training, intercultural communication and global leadership with flexibility and innovation.  Additionally, we provide comprehensive destination services that assist both assignees and their families in relocating to a new home and settling into their new community. Our experience collaborating with global companies across all industries and scope gives us invaluable insight to anticipate and address our clients’ needs. Our solutions target not only the needs of globally mobile individuals and their families but also that of teams and senior leadership.CAI’s expertise, creativity, and agility deliver the best sustainable solutions to hone and enhance the skills of your globally mobile talent. Find out more here.