Is you work life balance worn out?
August 28, 2018
8 reasons more women should be in senior positions
August 28, 2018

How an understanding of neuroscience can help create inclusion

[hhab-author] [hhab-social]

We recently conducted research with companies about their gender diversity and inclusion initiatives, virtually every senior HR person and business leader we spoke to said their priority was to create an inclusive culture. We wanted to understand how successful ‘lighthouse’ organizations were moving the dial on creating these cultures and whether an understanding of neuroscience helped explain the importance of the cultural change.


For the research we used a methodology which helps to identify the difference that makes a difference, the things which really work. Here we share a little of what we found and some of the neuroscience research which is relevant and backs up the successful activities.

Helping leaders to understand the science, reduces resistance to change and provides the ‘why’ to the advice HR professionals are giving.

Get the definition right

When we asked our research participants to define what they meant by inclusion many struggled to answer. It’s hard to know if you are doing the right thing if you can’ t define what it is you are trying to achieve.

Research by Catalystacross 250 organizations in six different countries (Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico, and the United States)found inclusion is a balance between having a sense of belonging and feeling unique.

Inclusion means people feel similar to colleagues andrecognised for their distinct qualities. Feeling included, is the fundamental drive to form and maintain lasting, positive, relationships with other people. These feelings can be extended to the organization and to the work itself.

Getting the balance right

In the Catalyst study, “uniqueness”accounted for 18%-24% ofan employee’sfeelings of inclusion, while “belongingness” accounted for 27%-35%. These findings may seem counterintuitive, but they’ve been found in other studies too: humans have these two apparently contradictory needs for belonging and individuality in group settings, and they are virtually universal.


Research by Jay van Beval found whenpeoplefeeltoomuch as though their identity has been lost in the group, they try to set themselves apart, to feel unique. They emphasise their differences from the rest of the group and this can set up tensions, competition and even result in exclusion. When people feel too different from other group members, they feel as if they don’t belong and try to minimise their distinctiveness in order to assimilate: to be part of what is termed the in-group. They emphasise similarity rather than difference.

These findingsindicatethatorganizations and their leaders,must value  both thediversityoftalents,experiencesandidentitiesthat employees bring, and at the same timecreate a sense of belonging. Focusing too much on diversity, having people purposefully challenge the group’s ideas for example, could lead employees to feel alienated or stereotyped. Focusing primarily on belonging can leaveemployeesreluctanttoshareviewsandideas thatmightsetthemapart,increasingthelikelihood of group-think.

The impact of exclusion

One powerful way to make the case for an inclusive culture is to look at the impact of exclusion. Studies by Naomi Eisenburger at UCLA found that being excluded activates our pain system, suggesting that it is a threat to our very survival. When we’re excluded from a meeting, when we don’t get invited to key meetings, when our ideas are ignored, the pain we feel is experienced in the same areas of the brain as physical pain.

The pain of rejection or humiliation is just as real as a stubbed toe. Whilst social pain may “feel” different (just as the pain of a stubbed toe feels different to stomach cramps), the networks processing it in the brain are the same.

We are first and foremost social

Human beings are social, and they are social in ways that no other animal is. Roy Baumeisterand Mark Leary reviewed extensive research findings for their article ‘The need to belong’, which showed that people are primarily guided by the drive to connect with others and that the majority of their thoughts, emotions, impulses and behaviours are at least indirectly the results of that drive. The way people think, act, feel and want are deeply linked to this drive to connect with others.

In that context, social exclusion is not simply a misfortune, it’s painful for someone. We tend to think of the pain of exclusion as somehow less impactful than physical pain. But the research suggests we should be more concerned about the potential pain generated by excluding others, especially when this is done inadvertently without the opportunity for amends.

In the late 1990s Baumeisterand his colleagues did a number of laboratory studies on the effects of social exclusion and rejection. They wanted to test their theory that belongingness is important, and social exclusion creates issues in several areas. Areas important to business and the quality of life generally. They found a number of behavioural impacts related to being excluded.

Overall the results showed that if inclusion is withheld, then people cease to self-regulate. They lose the willingness to make the efforts and sacrifices to alter their behaviour according to the norms of the group.

The impact on capability

Baumeisterand co also looked at intellectual performance. Social exclusion led to substantial drops in intellectual performance when the task required the individuals to actively guide or supervise their thinking process. For example, in logical reasoning, in making links between information, and in the ability to make inferences or draw conclusions from information.

These are just the types of intellectual processing we need in business. Excluding people may well be reducing the intellectual capacity of large groups of people in your workforce. In contrast, rote memory was unaffected, as was answering questions based on general knowledge.

In summary, we can expect exclusion to impact performance, intelligence, social control, self-awareness and wellbeing. Baumeister’s research shows exclusion leads people to be less helpful, lethargic and to have low self-esteem.

Focus on everyone

Our research suggests that creating a workplace that is good for everyone is more powerful than a focus on making one group, or even multiple targeted groups, feel included. And there is evidence that a focus on trying to change the culture for identified groups can create a backlash.

Research by Valarie Purdie-Vaughns, from Yale found that focusing on difference makes minorities uncomfortable, increasing rather than decreasing feelings of exclusion and inciting anger. Whilst people in the majority can feel resentful, confused and anxious, particularly if they are implicitly blamed for a lack of inclusive behaviour and when expectations about the “correct” behaviour are unclear, according to research by Victoria Plaut from Berkeley.

In our research, there was still a majority of companies which were focusing on minority groups and this may be one of the reasons we are seeing little progress on inclusion surveys and targets. The recent McKinsey/ research on ‘Women in the workplace 2017’ has found that organizations are making limited progress. They say initiatives have stalled because we have got used to the status quo. Most believe a leadership team of 10% women is a ‘success’ and many women even see this as acceptable.

Understanding behavioural change

The other area which was proving successful in lighthouse organizations was using an understanding of neuroscience and behavioural economics.

Some companies we talked to were beginning to use the ideas from Iris Bohnet’s book What Works: Gender Equality By Design,which recommends designing work practices to achieve the desired behaviour. We have been using the same approach in redesigning performance management and training strategies, and the UK government has used these strategies to improve outcomes in a wide range of areas from health to tax collection. 

The power of nudge

These strategies use nudges: designing practices and policies to influence attitudes and beliefs so that people will be inclined to do the right thing rather than being compelled to comply with a policy.

These practices signal what is the “right” behaviour and encourage individuals to notice and comply with the behaviours which are rewarded in a group. Following the rules of a desirable group is a very strong tendency in human behaviour: it keeps us in the “in-group” and makes us feel part of something beyond ourselves.

Encouraging this kind of socially acceptable behaviour has been very effective in persuading people to use fewer hotel towels, not drop litter and pay their taxes on time. Iris Bohnet suggests that the same kind of persuasiveness could be used to encourage action on gender inequality, making it a component in having a good reputation within the organization, a measure that’s considered for promotion, or abehaviour that’s publicly rebuked when it’s out of order.

Given that we’ve been trying to tackle gender inequality directly for around 40 years without notable success it may be time to try a subtler approach based on understanding the brain.

You can learn more about our inclusion assessment survey and leader’s self-assessment here.

Comments are closed.