Dr. Steve Robbins Dr. Steve Robbins leads a workshop at The Coca‑Cola Company’s headquarters in Atlanta

Dr. Steve Robbins on the Power of Inclusion and Mindful Engagement in the Workplace

Breaking Bad Biases


Dr. Steve Robbins is widely known as a diversity expert, but the consultant, motivational speaker and author is not entirely comfortable with the title.

He considers himself more of an “experienced student of human behavior,” he says. His life experiences and academic background in communication science, social psychology and cognitive neuroscience serve as the foundation of his talks, writings and education and trainings on inclusion.

Dr. Robbins, who consults with multinational companies and organizations around the world on diversity and inclusion-related topics, spoke with us before leading a workshop on “Breaking Bias” at The Coca‑Cola Company’s headquarters in Atlanta.

What is your definition of diversity and inclusion?

Diversity is when you have more than one person in the room. Inclusion is the condition where “insider-ness” is maximized and “outsider-ness” is minimized. Inclusion is not the absence of exclusion; it is the intentional and deliberate acts undertaken to ensure others have a sense of belonging.

Here at Coca‑Cola, gender diversity and women’s empowerment are key business priorities. And we know that in order to continue improving in these areas, we need to foster an environment where everybody feels included. What are some tangible steps each of us can take to be more mindful and intentional about inclusion and valuing others?

Few people wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “I hope I get the chance to exclude somebody today.” For most people, it’s very unintentional and mindless. So to battle that mindless type of unintentional intolerance, you have to become more mindful.

'Diversity is when you have more than one person in the room. Inclusion is the condition where insider-ness is maximized and outsider-ness is minimized. Inclusion is not the absence of exclusion; it is the intentional and deliberate acts undertaken to ensure others have a sense of belonging.'

There are three R’s of Mindful Engagement. The first is Recognition, which is the practice of self-awareness. Are you even aware of your own thoughts or your own emotions when you encounter somebody or some idea? Because whether you’re aware of them or not, they influence what you say and do next. So if somebody says something you don’t like, and you get angry but you don’t recognize your anger, you still act out of anger. If you don’t have good self- awareness, you will have a low emotional intelligence quotient.

The second is Reflection. Do you pause to reflect? When pausing, do you think about your options for action there? If you don’t pause, your ancient brain would only give you one option based on what it did last time. But if you pause, your modern brain can come online and say, “I have option one, but I also have two and three that might work.” It doesn’t guarantee that you choose the right option, but at least you give yourself more options. So it’s the practice of pausing to give your modern brain the chance to get online. As I like to say, think of your ancient brain as the Hulk. And your modern brain is Dr. Banner.

The third R is Response. The practice of responding from a positive stance, with positive intent. Here’s the key: Does your response elevate the group and not just yourself? The brain has an uncanny ability to be selfish. It takes effort to think of the group rather than yourself. You may have to sacrifice self-gratification for group health. The best leaders will not take credit for what the group did.

In your sessions, you talk about ancient brain vs. modern brain. Can you explain the concept?

Our “ancient brain” is mindless and reactionary; it was designed for its own set of purposes. Once your brain finds a pattern, it locks in and stops thinking critically. When you use your ancient brain, which typically kicks in immediately, you are much more mindless and end up taking shortcuts to conserve energy. We spend about 70 to 80% of our time each day in our ancient brain. This isn’t necessarily bad because your ancient brain can do lots of things that help you to be efficient. But nowadays, we live in a very modern world where our society asks us to use our “modern brain” more. Our modern brain is much more mindful and thoughtful and was designed to think through and analyze things.

Why do you think gender bias is so hard to identify and prevent?

Because insiders tend to believe everything is fair and equal. They don’t consider what it’s like to be an outsider... because they don’t have to. Insider privilege is whenever we’re the home team, so to speak. When you have privilege, you don’t recognize what outsiders face. You think they face the same things you do, or you don’t put much thought into it. The example I give that’s kind of innocuous is that in our world, right-handers are the insiders. If you’re right handed, everything is kind of built for you. Until we’re put in a position to consider what it’s like to be left-handed, we don’t consider what left-handers go through. So all the things that make our lives easier as right-handers make other people’s lives harder as left-handers. We don’t think of that. We are not cognizant. And that’s how privilege works.

When it comes to gender, we males go, “Everything’s fair, right? Those women just have to work as hard as I do”. We don’t consider that there are other obstacles and hurdles women face. That we, with the power and ability to create the environment we want to operate in, didn’t build hurdles for ourselves. Insiders generally don’t do that.

What do you think is the inflection point to move faster on gender diversity?

The inflection point is when a critical mass of men or people with power recognize that there is an issue. And then, do they make it personal? When they see gender inequality or gender imbalance, do they think of their wife, girlfriend or daughter? Because until you put a face on inequality and injustice, you’re only in it for so long. You get passionate about it when it becomes personal and there is that emotional connection.

You’ve said that people have a hardwired bias to be cautious and skeptical about people, places and things with which we are unfamiliar. Is that true for everyone?
It is built-in, but you can overcome it. Your brain hates uncertainty. Your brain hates ambiguity. Because uncertainty and ambiguity raise the probability that something bad will happen. You don’t know what’s going to happen, so your brain is always trying to find patterns and fill in the blanks. It’s hard-wired in us...it has allowed us to stay alive. And it’s still in us.

What are our most basic human needs, and what happens when these needs are not met? How does this translate to the workplace?
Belonging and psychological safety are our greatest needs. The brain is hard-wired to belong. Research has shown that when someone feels excluded or isolated, their brain’s physical pain receptors actually light up, and that sets off alarms in your brain and parts of your body. You don’t experience it like being slapped, but the same circuitry lights up. An inclusive workplace frees people’s cognitive resources and energy to put into the skills they have. Otherwise, we’re using up a lot of that energy dealing with being outsiders, and we have less energy to do the work we already know how to do.

Can you explain the ‘insider vs. outsider’ lens?

An outsider longs to be part of a group, or is supposed to be part of a group, but the group doesn’t let them in physically, psychologically... or both. Insider versus outsider is the root of every diversity problem. All of us have experienced both conditions. Each one of us knows what it’s like to be an insider, and each one of us knows what it’s like to be an outsider. From a neuroscience perspective, insider versus outsider is the first judgement your brain makes about a person when you encounter them. Is she inside or outside? Is she part of my tribe or not? That first initial decision – which your ancient brain makes – has a huge impact on the subsequent ways you think about that person. Insiders and outsiders can do the same things, but we have the great tendency to give the insider the benefit of the doubt while we criticize the outsider. We have a positive bias towards the insider.

What steps can those who feel like outsiders on their own teams take?

Find an insider who is sympathetic to their situation and create a relationship with them. Because realistically, it’s the insiders who make the final decision whether or not to let you in. You can’t force yourself in. So find someone who will vouch for you and say, “I know this person. Let’s invite them and at least give them a chance.”

You teach the unique concept of ‘unintentional intolerance’. What is it, and how does it work?

We live life rather mindlessly – 78% of our working days. Our awake time is rather mindless. The patterns we follow generally end up benefitting us. But often times, the things that benefit us insiders don’t benefit the outsiders. Most people we meet are very nice. They don’t intend to treat people poorly, but their actions can lead to a bad outcome for other people. I like to say that the word “nice” is an acronym for Not Inclined to Critically Examine. We don’t critically examine what’s in our head, our environment, people in our environment. We tend to do things that are natural to us that may have negative effects on other people.

How we can practice open-mindedness?

Be really present and pay close attention to other people when they are talking. When you encounter someone who has different ideas, thoughts and beliefs than you, ask yourself: “What journey do they walk? What journey do I walk? And why am I so certain that I’m right?” It’s just a practice that leads to better understanding. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. You just have to try to understand where they are coming from. You have to step out of your comfort zone. That’s vulnerability. Another big piece leaders don’t talk about is humility. Humility sounds like a weakness, but it’s actually a strength. Let’s say you have two leaders who deliver the exact same types of results. Would you rather follow one who’s arrogant, or one who’s humble? The humble leader! Because around a humble leader, you feel valued.

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