We (Americans and many diverse people in organizations) have borne witness to this moment before: there was a terrible event, we were outraged, we reacted, then it went away. Yet systemic racism hasn’t changed. How can leaders meaningfully respond to racial tragedies? This was the subject of a webinar and Forbes article by the Neuroleadership Institute. To move forward first requires recognition that people are in different places. Then, three critical steps – in this specific order – are necessary to create positive change (relevant to organizations, teams and families):

(1) Listen Deeply:
Listen so that people feel deeply heard (like they have never felt before): listen to understand (not to respond, to defend, to countermand – or pretending to listen while really just waiting for your turn to talk). At a minimum this means removing obstacles and distractions to listening to others. Even on Zoom, people know when you are listening deeply and when you are not. It is difficult to listen as a leader when you are also feeling anxious and having your own brain’s threat response. Moreover, listening to people with strong emotions can be very uncomfortable (and cause you to feel strong emotions, which means you as the listener need to be mindful and place your brain in a low threat state). We also have a tremendous number of built-in biases that are very difficult to mitigate. Many of them cannot be mitigated. One of them is Experience Bias, which can be reduced by truly hearing diverse perspectives (sitting in someone else’s world. This is very effortful). Another form of distraction is relating so closely to the experience of the speaker that it causes a “me too” reaction and focus on your own story. To really listen and be there in the moment can be draining, but the science reinforces that you must do this well and focus in on the speaker. This means, as a leader, taking care of yourself better than ever so that you can put yourself in the right mental framework to look out for others. On the other side: the experience of being heard is one of the few things that really calms a stressed state of mind. Most of the time we are not tuned in to what others are experiencing in their daily lives.

(2) Unite Widely: But step one isn’t enough. If leaders stop at step one, we will keep having the same conversations and conflicts over and over. For solutions to happen, people need to feel they are on the same team. A deeply rooted process in the brain plays out when humans interact: it is a fairly binary categorization known as “in-group” or “out-group.” The science of this is kind of scary: with every human we encounter, we decide if they are in-group (like us / aligned goals) or out-group (different from us / competing goals). We tend to default to the latter. When someone is an out-group member, we tend to process any information from them in a shallow way. But any information from an in-group member, is processed into thinking your own thoughts – as if you are talking to yourself. Even physical movement of someone in-group or out-group is processed differently (e.g. Black man reaching for cell phone processed by White police officer as reaching for gun). Secondly, we have very little empathy for people in our out-group. This makes us capable of doing very bad things to people who have different goals from us. Another factor is motivation: we are invested in seeing in-group members win; but this is reversed with out-group members. Even when out-group members tell us a positive story, we don’t feel the triumph for them that we do with in-group members. Inclusion means proactively including everybody. The good news is that it doesn’t take much to create an in-group among very diverse people – but the key is identifying a common goal

What are the mechanics of inclusion? We introduce Dr. David Rock’s SCARF model, which summarizes the neuroscience observation that the brain treats social threats and rewards with the same intensity that it treats physical threats and rewards. The SCARF model accounts for five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. These domains also serve as 5 strong threats that the brain tracks over time. When threatened, each one activates the pain center of the brain. So, if you have multiple SCARF factors causing threat, as in the George Floyd tragedy (an accumulation of widespread, systemic SCARF threats over an extended period of time), the situation is explosive. But these same factors also can also be used to unite widely.

Take away: leaders need to find shared goals in an organization, team, or family. When we do that, our differences become diversity mechanisms that help us reach our shared goal. Until we unite around shared goals, we remain in the in-group / out-group paradigm and our differences continue to divide us.

(3) Act Boldly: Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare (as Khalil Smith’s father used to say). We’ve been here before. Why didn’t things change? (1) False promises and failed expectations when an expectation was created to do “big things.” (2) We remained stuck in story-telling, and systemic habits did not change. No big change happens in an announcement. An announcement is a start. But if it doesn’t scare you a little (“we’ve never done that before”), it isn’t truly bold. Bold action is messy, difficult, and resource consuming. But normalcy must be refuted. As Dante Alighieri wrote: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crises, maintain their neutrality.”

What are some examples of what organizations can do that is “really bold” (beyond writing a check): (1) Provide free de-escalation training to all law enforcement (The Neuroleadership Institute is doing this); (2) Local governments retraining law enforcement standards and practices for peaceable protests and crowd control; (3) Meaningfully reviewing your organization’s culture for allowing employees a voice, and then improving and building on that; (4) Check your Diversity Training – it might be making people MORE biased, especially if it’s mandatory. (5) Change habits (individually and organizationally). This means, first, figuring out which ones matter; then, following up with a practical plan and working collectively in a way that is impactful to reshape them.

On a parting note: imagine the systemic impact of matriculating a generation of leaders from a young age, who are able to adopt and act upon these principles. Peer mediation in schools is one way to develop a generation of thoughtful listeners and impactful peacemakers who become paradigm shifting leaders.