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How Your Brain Helps You Handle Disagreements

The human brain is constantly helping us navigate social diversity so we can understand one another and work together in harmony, according to neuroscientists.getty In today’s workplace where employees sometimes disagree and socially diverse populations work together, communication is essential, requiring the regulation of prejudices and stereotypes and a degree of well-tuned synchrony. It’s commonly […]

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Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash
Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash

The human brain is constantly helping us navigate social diversity so we can understand one another and work together in harmony, according to neuroscientists.getty

In today’s workplace where employees sometimes disagree and socially diverse populations work together, communication is essential, requiring the regulation of prejudices and stereotypes and a degree of well-tuned synchrony. It’s commonly agreed that differences of opinion and diversity are core components of an optimal workforce that brings value to stockholders as well as employees and that many viewpoints give organizations a competitive advantage. Yet Gallup research shows that 45% of American workers experienced some form of discrimination or harassment in a given year. Companies sometimes take a narrowed look when analyzing the population for potential hires which can hinder employing the best talent.

A long-standing body of research shows that socioeconomic status (based on family income and education level) impacts our perspective, attitudes and social interactions. The serious divide in this country among different beliefs and racial and income groups has spilled over into the streets in the form of racial unrest. As the workplace becomes more diverse, it doesn’t necessarily become less prejudiced and discriminating and more harmonious. No one should be expected to work in an atmosphere that implies they don’t belong, their ideas are not acceptable or they are psychologically and physically unsafe.

This topic is important for diversity management to prevent workplace prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination and bring employees with diverse opinions from diverse backgrounds into work teams. Everyday in workplaces across the county, populations from diverse cultures interact with one another. Diverse cultures have implicit biases, perspectives and prejudices that naturally impose challenges to connections and collegiality. The human brain is constantly helping us navigate social diversity so we can understand one another and work together in harmony, according to neuroscientists.

The Neuroscience of Disagreement And Diversity

Yale neuroscientists have developed an innovative technique called functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) that allows them to observe the neural activity in the brain when two people are having a face-to-face conversation. Their findings indicate that when two colleagues, for example, disagree or have diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, brain scans reveal different patterns. One finding, published in January, 2021, shows when you disagree with someone you’re talking to, you have greater activity in the front of your brain—the prefrontal cortex (or “thinking brain”) which helps you debate your side of the argument. In contrast, when you’re engaged in agreement, you have less cognitive activity and greater activity in the social and attention networks in the brain, signaling synchronization and harmony with the other person. But when you disagree, there is less neural activity, and the synchrony morphs into disconnection.

In another study published last September, Yale scientists reported a parallel finding in brain activity during social interactions between people of different cultures and backgrounds. The Yale scientists discovered that your brain also acts differently when you talk with someone of a different socioeconomic background from your own. They detected a higher activity level in the prefrontal cortex, which is also responsible for self-regulation, bias avoidance and collaboration with your limbic system (or emotional brain) to help you understand the world. Your prefrontal cortex is the decider of whether or not you do what your impulsive, lightning-fast emotional brain wants to do. The Yale scientists concluded that, despite our implicit biases and prejudices, the human brain’s frontal lobe activates during conversations among employees from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to assist in navigating social diverse attitudes and communication barriers.

Creating A Diverse Culture In The Workplace

From the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements and racial and political dissent, diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of workplace dialogue in 2021. The findings on face-to-face brain synchronization could be an argument on the importance of empathy in the workplace. Empathy is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership tool in today’s global market. Why? It’s simple science. Empathy neutralizes conflict. When you can walk in someone else’s shoes for a while (without agreement with their attitudes or customs), it fosters synchronization: understanding, communication and equality among diverse populations and colleagues who disagree. When you’re frustrated, angry or dissatisfied with a co-worker, your ability to temporarily take that person’s perspective and see his or her point of view softens your opposing emotional reactions. Empathy synchronizes two different brains, clears the way for a meeting of the minds (or brains), leading to clearer communication and equitable solutions to settle differences.

An empathy study by Businessolver found that nine out of 10 employees believe empathy is important to an organization. Fully 90% of employees said an employer who recognizes the importance of mental health is more likely to retain employees. Employees believed when organizations provide mental health benefits or programs it can amp up productivity (48%) and motivation (42%), reduce turnover (39%) and create a sense of belonging in the organization (36%).

According to Gallup, policies don’t change unless the culture changes. “Diversity is about who you hire. Inclusion is about the respect and acceptance people feel,” and an inclusive workplace culture has three requirements:

  1. Everyone treats everyone else with respect
  2. Managers appreciate the unique characteristics of everyone on their teams
  3. Leaders take the right action

I spoke with Anthony Goonetilleke, Group President at Amdocs, about how a diverse workforce can contribute to overall organizational success. “Understanding that diversity drives business success is foundational to building a great organization,” he said. “Executives do not have many organizational levers that contribute these types of returns. Although there is nothing wrong with focusing on diversity as an element of ongoing business operations, the moment executives realize that real results are attributable to a diverse organization, it starts to become a key pillar of company strategy rather than an operational objective.”

As organizations move to more digital environments, the required skill sets of employees constantly change. While this ongoing change creates opportunities, it also requires the workforce to change mindsets and adopt an outlook of continuous learning. Goonetilleke says, “Learning is no longer boxed to a specific growth band in one’s lifetime. This shift isn’t a challenge for just employees, but for the organization to provide the right tools and managerial support, adopting the latest learning platforms and creating an environment that nurtures change. The most valuable investment an individual can make is in themselves, and we’d each be wise to consider how much of the day is spent growing in some aspect of our personal or professional life . . . This change—for schools and businesses alike—is not just the adoption of new technology around the edges but multi-faceted consideration for the way human minds absorb and grow today.”

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