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We used to shy away from talking about bias, certainly in business settings, because it’s such a controversial topic. But the truth is, we all have biases, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Sometimes biases come from places in ourselves we don’t understand. And sometimes they run counter to what we’d like to believe about ourselves.

The first step in understanding yourself is to peel away the layers and really take a good look at your biases. Are they helping you, or are they getting in the way of your success?

In my last post, we talked about how managers and leaders tend to hire people who are similar to them. No matter how hard we try to be methodical and rigorous about our hiring practices, in the end most people choose folks they’re comfortable with, people who are nonthreatening. Perhaps this isn’t always the right choice.

What are the unintended consequences that come from hiring people just like us? Well, for one thing, we don’t get innovative and diverse thinking. We get groupthink. In today’s global marketplace, where you’re competing with talent from all over the world, you can’t afford to fill your company with people just like yourself. You need people who think differently, act differently, look differently. You need people who are different.

I was privileged recently to talk with leading neuroscientist Dan Radecki on my VoiceAmerica radio show, iLead: The Leadership Connection. Dan is one of the founders of The Academy of Brain-based Leadership, an organization applying the latest discoveries in neuroscience to the field of leadership development.

Dan is particularly interested in how the brain reacts to people who are different than we are.

He told me about a recent brain imaging study that tested how people responded to videos of others receiving a painful stimulus. The study revealed that the empathy center in the brain registers less activity when the recipient of pain belongs to a different race or ethnic group than the observer, and more activity when they’re part of the same culture.

“These were highly educated students who reported no problems with biases or stereotypes,” Dan said. “In fact, when the researchers talked to them after the study and asked how much empathy they felt for the person in the video, they all reported very high empathic scores. But when these researchers looked at the brain data, it told a different story.

“It’s interesting because we’ve talked about biases and how insidious they are. That’s why building awareness is important.”

How we can change our biases

Given that we all have unconscious biases, how do we deal with them? “We’ve got some strategies that we think work,” Dan told me. “Probably one of the best we’ve discovered is brain training, or mindfulness training.

“The wonder of the brain is that we have built into it what we call a little break. It allows us to do uniquely human things. Like if we’re hungry and walk into a crowded restaurant and see a beautiful steak, we don’t just grab it and eat it. We have this break in our brain that says, ‘That doesn’t conform to my morals and standards. So I’m not going to take that food, even though my lower brain wants to.’ If a dog walked into a restaurant and smelled that steak, it would eat it. We have this higher brain that allows us to break our behaviors.

“If we can focus on building up and strengthening this breaking system, it can help us mitigate some of the biases that we naturally have.”

Dan’s research suggests that mindfulness training — learning how to be present in the moment and to still our internal dialogue — can improve this breaking system, which will allow us to better manage our lower brains.

“What we’re finding is that the ability to exercise emotional intelligence goes hand in hand with being able to manager that lower brain better. Which means you can be a more effective leader,” he said.

“Based on the feedback we get, I’d say probably 99 percent of people don’t consciously develop or understand the utility of their emotional intelligence.”

Exercises to train your brain

Fortunately, studies now show it’s possible to change the way our brains work, something called “self-directed neuroplasticity.”

“I know it sounds complicated,” Dan said, “but in essence it’s what we do every day. Our brains are constantly rewiring themselves to adapt to our environment.”

The Academy of Brain-Based Leadership has developed a number of games and exercises that strengthen certain neural networks that improve your memory and regulate emotions. “We’re getting some pretty encouraging results with this,” Dan said.
“It really comes into play effectively with kids, because that breaking system is a part of the brain that doesn’t fully develop in humans until their 20s. So for kids to be able to build up that part of the brain and manage their emotions is very useful.”

That breaking ability can also get fatigued, almost like a muscle, Dan added. “This higher brain, it’s a great feature, it’s truly unique to humans. However, it gets depleted very easily. It requires a lot of energy, and if you’re using it a lot during the day, if you’re under a lot of stress and trying to manage your emotions, it’s understandable that you might come home and lash out at people.”

The uses of mindfulness beyond the workplace

Changing your thinking has applications that go beyond the C-suite and extend to families, kids, and communities. This is an area that Dan has also been focusing on. “In the beginning, in our neuroscience leadership classes, we had your typical coaches and HR professionals,” he told me.

“But as each semester went on, it morphed into a wider and wider population. Before we knew it, we had elementary school teachers wanting to know about the neuroscience of leadership, we had yoga instructors, pilots, and policemen. Anyone who wanted to know more about how their brain drives their behavior and how to use that knowledge to manage their emotions and make better decisions.”

“I’ve given talks to six-year-olds on this topic, all the way up to CEOs and police officers trying to manage SWAT response teams,” he said. “The applications are really amazing.”

What works best, Dan said, is awareness. “The students we’ve put through the program have all been in situations where they’ve lost their cool. They’ve been stressed to the point where they can’t think straight. So they’re very motivated to understand how to manage the brain, because not only can they use this information in the corporate world, the leadership realm, but they can use it for their own personal development.

“You can write papers theorizing about how this works or why it would work, but we’ve gotten tangible results from people in multiple countries and multiple cultures. The beauty of this is that it works whether you’re in Asia or in the United States.”

The brain: The last frontier of medicine

We know a lot about the heart and the lungs and other systems in the body, but we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of how the brain works. Just as we now know how to detect heart disease and treat it proactively, Dan believes we’ll soon be able to anticipate cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“We’re also looking at the impact of mindset on brain functioning,” he said. “I think the idea of how our mind controls biological processes is fascinating. That’s going to be another frontier as well.”

Day by day, the world gets smaller. We’re going to have to work and live and interact with each other in ways we never thought possible 50 years ago, or even 20. Society is going to become less and less homogeneous. In the workplace, it’s happening already.

Being able to empathize, to understand your emotional triggers, and to exercise mindfulness in how you make decisions can only bring a higher order and purpose to you, your organization, and to the people you lead.

Don’t miss my radio discussion with Catherine Hambley, a senior consultant at the Academy of Brain-based Leadership, who will be talking about resilience, stress, and how to coach using a neuroscience-based approach.