DIVERSITY & Why Race Still Matteres in the Workplace #HarvardBusinessReview

Why Race Still Matters in the Workplace

“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” — Bertrand Russell, Nobel laureate

In the weeks since the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, the national uproar at the circumstances around the event has been profound. While the facts are still emerging, it seems clear that a heightened sense of threat and fear on the part of shooter George Zimmerman played a significant role in the tragedy. All this more than 60 years after the lynching of 14 yr old Emmett Till led to the growth of the American civil rights movement. Can the workings of the human brain help us understand and perhaps thwart this conundrum?

“A good place to start may be the sensitive neural circuitry dedicated to detecting and reacting to threat. One of these regions, the orbital frontal cortex (OFC), is responsible for integrating information from various brain areas, including visceral emotions, in an attempt to facilitate decision making… it’s probably the case that these error detection centers have developed to become acutely sensitive to possible threats in the environment….so much so that if in doubt, our brain will err on the side of caution. After all, it would have been safer for our ancestors to assume that the rustling in the bushes was a sabre-toothed tiger and react accordingly, as opposed to assuming it was a gust of wind, only to become a midday snack. The problem is that our society and lifestyles have evolved at a much faster pace than our brain. We still have that old evolutionary bias generating an intense fear of uncertainty, and react in a fight/flight response. While this may still be adaptive for us as a species, the strength of that response isn’t as critical in today’s society (sans the sabre-toothed tiger).

A study by Xu et al at MIT demonstrated the importance of perceived group affiliation on how we respond to others. Subjects had their brain imaged in an fMRI machine while viewing photos of people receiving either a painful stimuli (a pinprick on their face) or a neutral stimuli (cotton swap on the face). A consistent area of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), was activated when subjects viewed another person in pain, which was not surprising, since this area is thought to contribute to feelings of empathy.

However, the interesting finding in this study was that activation of the ACC was significantly decreased if the person in pain was a different race than the subject. In essence, they demonstrated evidence of an empathic bias toward racial in-group members, at the neuronal level. Now these weren’t radical, racist subjects in the fMRI machine; these subjects were educated, seemingly normal college students of various backgrounds. So if I perceive you as similar to me simply based on race, then my brain will react with more empathy or compassion than if you were of a different race, and this occurs without our even realizing it.”

Read more at … http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/06/why-race-still-matters-in-the/

David Rock is a consultant, cofounder of the Neuroleadership Institute, and author of Your Brain at Work. Dr. Dan Radecki is the Senior Director of Clinical Research and Development at Allergan and Lead Professor at the Neuroleadership Institute.