Award-winning journalist, celebrated entrepreneur, and bestselling author, Shane Snow, joins the program to discuss how leaders can foster an environment that allows diverse teams to perform at a high level. Shane reveals how the brain categorizes people, and the problem this can create when it comes to creating diverse teams. He also shares the environmental factors that allow companies and teams to innovate, and the importance for leaders of listening deeply to employees’ stories.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Shane’s diversity story of growing up as a Mormon in Idaho (2:15)
- The two competing needs to belong and be distinct (8:15)
- How our brains categorize people and the problem that creates for D&I (10:45)
- The danger of developing teams that lack diversity (19:30)
- A shared fear that people in positions of power and marginalized communities share (26:30)
- The type of environment that allow companies to innovate (33:00)
- How successful teams can challenge leaders to grow (39:00)
- What causes diverse talent to “cover” at work (43:00)
- The importance for leaders of getting to know employee’s stories (54:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Shane, welcome to The Will to Change.
SHANE SNOW: Thank you for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: We met through another Will to Change podcast guest named Bob Gower.
SHANE SNOW: That’s right. Who I met in an elevator. It was a very fortuitous elevator meeting that has led to years of great connections like this.
JENNIFER BROWN: He’s incredible. Both of you have given me a lot of faith.
SHANE SNOW: That’s nice of you to say.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, you’re really enlightened individuals. You’re really trying, you are examining your masculinity and your role as leaders and colleagues. And in your case, co-founder, owner of your company, and we’ll talk about that in a moment and what you’ve learned about your own leadership in that context, which is always interesting.
Shane is the author of a book called Dream Teams. I loved it. It was like a Malcolm Gladwell book. It’s huge, broad, and engages all parts of your imagination, the data, the storytelling – everything. So, we’ll get into a little bit more about the book, too.
But I want to know, first, like we always do want to know on The Will to Change, what is your diversity story, Shane?
SHANE SNOW: So, I’ll start by saying that setting me up with flattery is the best way to start a podcast.
JENNIFER BROWN: It helps. (Laughter.)
SHANE SNOW: My diversity story. So, when I think about diversity, I think that the term itself is so problematic in American culture because we immediately skip to what it’s usually a euphemism for, which is things that we’re afraid to talk about often, especially those in the majority race and gender, but I think what you’re getting at, my diversity story, so I’m a white man, which means that I’m in the majority in American business culture, but there are things that are different about me, right?
So, I grew up in a small town in Idaho. I don’t know what the population is now, but actually the town – I grew up in a county in Idaho.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness.
SHANE SNOW: Bonneville County. And my family are Mormons, so my parents are Mormon. My dad works in nuclear engineering, my mom works with the deaf, and we grew up in kind of this middle-of-nowhere sort of place, this rural environment. So, I decided that I wanted to be a writer. And I was really interested in science and engineering, like my dad, and I decided that I kind of – this is me sort of applying this now.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right, hindsight.
SHANE SNOW: Hindsight to it. But I wanted to take things apart. I learned how to take apart car engines with my dad, I wanted to take apart things in the world, and then learn about them, write about them, and teach people about them.
And there is not a lot of opportunity to do that in Idaho. I also got to a point where I was sort of rethinking my religious upbringing and spiritualism and all that.
I left Idaho and I moved to Hawaii because why not?
JENNIFER BROWN: As one does. (Laughter.) Jealous.
SHANE SNOW: I can be poor in Idaho or poor in Hawaii was basically the calculation. And when I was there, I realized that if I could do that, I could do anything I wanted, including be a writer, be this thing that I had in my head that I couldn’t actually do. And so I ended up making my way to New York to go to journalism school to become a journalist.
I think there’s a couple of things there that are unique about my story, at least in terms of where I am and my peers here in New York City, which is that I come from a part of the country with a lot of conservative values and conservative politics, and I understand it, and I have a lot of respect for it, and I have a lot of love for the environment that I grew up. Also, I grew up in a place that was very mono-cultural. I feel like I have a lot of blind spots. I showed up to Hawaii and then I showed to New York with all of these questions, all this naiveté around different kinds of people and this fascinating. I’m a curious person, I like to take things apart, I wanted to understand people.
A lot of my friends in New York are very progressive politics, very socially liberal, and I hear them say the same things that I hear people back home say about them, which is, “I can’t believe that a human being would think that.” And hearing both sides of that and living on both sides I think sets me up for a bit of a unique perspective, a little bit of anxiety.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, in this time and age, yes.
SHANE SNOW: But between that and growing up very religious in sort of a fundamentalist way, and understanding the – I don’t know what the right term is – why that can be okay for some people, and why that’s not okay for me.
It was also difficult and anxiety provoking, but I think that’s something where my struggle with that is different and not as sever as many people’s struggle, but I can identify feeling rejected for what I believe or who I am or who I want to be, and I can identify with feeling lonely or left out, and that’s something that I think a lot of people who have very different situations that are maybe more fraught or more scary can also relate to. And so I think in that way, there’s at least some emotions that I can identify with that help me to connect with people who have a diversity story that is very different than mine, and maybe one that isn’t laden with privilege, which I do have just based on how I look. The corridors are paved a little bit in my favor.
The system is set up for me to have an easier time, which actually makes me feel like I have a bit of a responsibility. So, when you say “enlightened,” I don’t think that that’s the case. I feel like I have this drive to become enlightened and I’m on a road there, but I think my story lends me to appreciate that I have a responsibility to be on that path to enlightenment because of what I’ve been given, and also because I can identify in some ways to some of the struggles that other people have.
JENNIFER BROWN: What you’re talking about is not falling prey to the – as Kenji Yoshino and other guests on The Will to Change – call the “pain Olympics, the oppression Olympics.”
SHANE SNOW: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: He says, “That’s pointless, we’re going to go in circles if we do that.” And we’re not really focusing on what matters, which is our uniqueness, which we want to be able to bring, and also our sharing and what’s common between us, the two apparently opposing dynamics, but actually I think it’s this beautiful concept.
You call it “optimal distinctiveness.” I think you had Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant writing in the end of your book, and that stuck out to me because it felt like the most elegant definition of belonging that I’ve heard. So, can you say a little bit more about optimal distinctiveness?
SHANE SNOW: Yes. So, there are two competing things in our brains. One is that we want to belong to a group. This is part of just human nature, it’s part of how our brains are wired. In part, that’s how we survived, right? We’re not bigger than a lot of the animals out there, right? But when we band together, when we collaborate, we can build tools and villages and we can make fire and all that. And so we survived because we stuck together.
We have this natural inclination, this drive to belong. And this drives a lot of our behavior in organizations today and just in the world today. We want to be part of something, and we fear being kicked out of the group or the tribe, we don’t want to have to fight the saber-toothed tiger alone, right?
So that’s one thing. The need to belong. And this is always present subconsciously. But then we have this competing motivation which is our need to be unique and to be distinct. And, you know, evolutionary biologists will theorize that part of this is because if you are part of the group and part of the tribe, if you’re not useful, then maybe you’re also liable to get kicked out. So if you have a unique skill, you know, you know how to cut meat or something and no one else does, then that’s great, you have this distinctiveness that’s optimal, but you’re still part of the group.
And so there’s this sort of tension between those two things. And you see it in teenagers all the time. You want to belong and you want to have friends and be part of the clique, but you also want to be different and rebellious. Actually a lot of teenagers, I think I fell in this category for a period of high school, where your rebellion and trying to be unique is actually how you belong with the other misfits, right? You are actually finding this group, this tribe through this rebellion.
Those two things are a balance, actually, that has helped us to survive, but that’s sort of hard to deal with. I think especially as the world gets smaller, there’s more of us and we’re all on top of each other, the psychology that underpins that is really interesting. And we’ve talked about this. I’m sure you’ve talked about this on the podcast, but in-group/out-group psychology is one of the underlying theories of psychology that sort of drives the discussion of group behavior and groups dynamics.
Basically, it’s that any person that you encounter, your brain is going to automatically put them into one of two categories, your in group, which means this person is safe, I can turn my back on them, they’re from my tribe, they’re not going to stab me. Or out group, which is like a big question mark. And back when we were surviving in tribes, this was really useful because if someone’s approaching you and you don’t know them, you look for cues to say, “Can I trust them? Are they going to work with me? Are they going to try and kill me?” And those cues are, “Do they look like me? Do they sound like me? Do they think like me? Do they behave like me or my tribe?” All of those are built into our mental wiring still, and this is explains xenophobia, the natural fear of strangers, which is built into all of us.
We have modern brains that can override that if we’re conscious of it, but all of that plays into this idea that we want to belong to this tribe and we want people to be like us because that makes them safer and all of that, but we also want to be different so that we can be useful, but then being different actually makes us scary to other people. Finding that balance or even recognizing that it’s a thing helps to operate from a higher level. That optimal distinctiveness plays out a lot at work, which is where Sheryl and Adam were talking about it.
It’s tricky to lead an organization where you need everyone to be pulling together towards some common thing, but then if you recognize the truth, which is that people’s differences are what are going to help them to be better than any one member, then you suddenly have to find that balance between distinctiveness and uniformity and belonging.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. I get asked all the time about diversity networks that are predicated on identity. Aren’t we being exclusive to be inclusive? Isn’t that a flaw somehow? People try to create “gotcha” moments all the time for people like me. Why are we doing this when really, we are sending this message?
I’m a real believer for groups for safety and belonging because we are so fragmented and isolated from each other when we’re in the minority in the workplace. That’s a fact.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: We can’t find each other. And then to find community and be able to breathe and have that primal need to belong and know that we can trust each other in a room with the good closed, when you consider half of LGBTQ people are still closeted in the workplace. I always use that as an example to the leaders who are challenging the whole exclusion/inclusion thing to say, “Can you imagine half of a population is completely lying about who they are at work every day because they don’t feel safe.”
SHANE SNOW: They don’t feel safe.
JENNIFER BROWN: How are we going to remedy that? Are you just going to throw them into the deep end and say, “You need to learn how to survive and not build special things about that unique identity,” in order that people can follow the light and find each other and then I see it as a strengthening process. Once you do find each other, you gain pride, right? We use pride a lot, but pride is belief in yourself and kind of putting yourself together again from a very broken set of messages that you get as a member of this very stigmatized community, right? And we walk around with those, it hurts our productivity, it hurts our sense of self, our ability to shine.
Colleagues will say, “I don’t really know that person, I don’t get a feeling for them.” Do you know why? Because they’re closeted and they’re totally making up a narrative to make you comfortable with who they are because they’re assuming you’re not going to be comfortable with who they are.
SHANE SNOW: Right. And that’s protecting them.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
SHANE SNOW: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s so crazy. We do it to ourselves a lot, this stuff, too, and that’s another callout I try to really teach to leaders to really say, “Now is your time to be unique and claim your spot,” because companies need you, they need your insights, and they need what you know about sales and marketing to your community and making money on your community, absolutely. It’s a good time, but the fear is so deep.
SHANE SNOW: Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, that we should cut everyone a little bit of slack on this front because this is a product of the way that our brains are built. And I think as long as you’re trying and as long as you’re trying to become aware, then that’s good. I hate hearing that people are trying to play “gotcha” with you. Whose team are they on? Are we on the same team or not?
JENNIFER BROWN: Right? I know. I know.
SHANE SNOW: Are they trying to take away your power? Are they trying to foil you? And why would they do that? What kind of threat are you? I hate hearing that.
At the same time, they’re operating probably from a place of fear, which is part of the human brain’s way of trying to survive as well, and so there’s something – I would say there’s not a lot of consciousness going on with that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, yes.
SHANE SNOW: I hate hearing about that. Along with optimal distinctiveness, I wrote in the book about the robber’s cave experiment, which is when they got all the little Boy Scouts and performed all these tricky experiments on them. They took them to camp and they made two groups and they helped them develop these strong identities in these groups of Boy Scouts. They were the Rattlers and the Eagles I think was what they named themselves. Then they made them aware of each other and they sort of fostered this hatred for each other essentially.
It was one of those classic psychology experiments where they showed just how easy it is or us to form an identity and then to sort of work against other identity groups.
But then they did all these experiments to try and bring the boys together. So, they sabotaged the water supply, and none of them could drink unless the water supply was fixed, so they had to work together on it. And then the truck with the food, quote/unquote, broke down, and they had to pull it with the tug-of-war rope. It was all fake, and they didn’t have enough money to rent the movie Treasure Island so they could watch it, and all the boys really wanted to watch it, so they had to chip in. They did these things to help them collaborate.
One of the things that came out of this experiment was, one, how easy it is, actually, to get people to see everyone as part of the same superordinate group, is what they call it, the same team of humans, if there’s the right motivation and the right shared goals.
What they did – this is the 1950s they did this experiment, and we’ve learned so much since then that it actually upsets me that we’re still so behind.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, we are.
SHANE SNOW: But they learned to do this thing where as they realized that there were goals that they all cared about that were above their group goals, above the Eagles’ goal of foiling the Rattlers was getting food, basically. And they all wanted that. It’s as if the aliens come to destroy the earth, and we then forget about the borders between our countries because we care about humans surviving more.
That idea, basically what they learned to do was this mutual differentiation thing, which is they gained appreciation for the differences that each group could bring towards that goal.
I’m trying to remember exactly about this experiment, but it’s dumb Scout camp stuff, but there’s the kid who knows all the songs, all the fun camp songs, they learn to appreciate, “Hey, even though he’s part of the Rattlers, he can teach us the fun camp songs.” There’s the other kid that’s good at tying rope knots or whatever, and they’re like, “Well, even though he’s part of the Eagles, he can teach us the rope knot thing.” And they learned to appreciate and respect the fact that they could bring different things.
Even though you’re still part of the Eagles, you’re also now part of the whole Scout group that can help you solve problems. What I’m getting at with this is that I think we need to shift the way that we think about this stuff. It’s not an us-versus-them thing where we’re talking about identity groups, but “us-with-them.” This identity group and with their strong identity can bring something that can help us to accomplish our goals, too, if we invite it. Why are we trying to squash it or tell this group that they shouldn’t have a club? Getting at that optimal distinction once again, that can actually be advantageous and powerful if you let it and you don’t see it as a threat.
Again, this gets back to who are we blaming? We’re blaming the way our brains were naturally wired to work, but that we can override. We’re afraid of scarcity. If the food runs out because the other group takes it all, then maybe the solution is to kill the other group. We’re at a point now where actually the other group can help us to make more food for everyone. That’s where we’re at.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right.
SHANE SNOW: It’s tough if we don’t think of it in those terms.
JENNIFER BROWN: You open your book with a story about female and male police officers and problem solving or heuristics around the different things that each of us can bring to the party. And women having had to adapt because of certain things that we don’t have, like upper-body strength, for example. So, we can’t solve a problem with a break-in of knocking down the door, so we’re going to have to find another way to solve a problem. Actually, those ways that we solve problems, for example, may result in less violence, less unintended consequences.
But then you make the point, okay, so now we should just hire all women, then, for police forces. No, that’s not the answer either.
SHANE SNOW: Bad idea.
JENNIFER BROWN: Because we need both, which speaks to what you were just saying. Is that a proper characterization of that story? And what does that team us, then, about valuing each other, like you were just talking about in the workplace?
SHANE SNOW: There are a couple of things that come out of that. That’s the groundwork that I lay. The whole premise of the book is that amazing teams are teams that add up to more than the sum of their parts, but usually that doesn’t happen. Two heads are usually not better than one, they can only be better than one if they think differently. Then the question is: What is it that leads for us to be able to guess that someone thinks differently? Is that actually true and all of that?
With police officers, what was interesting to me is that police work is all about problem solving. It’s not about shooting people, it’s about solving problems, right? And so what’s the optimal makeup of a police partnership to solve problems the best? It turns out that research and statistics show that more different the police officers are at viewing a problem and approaching problems, the more likely they can combine their different ways of approaching problems and find a better solution.
So, with what you’re getting that, in general, if we’re talking about broad populations, men and women grow up differently and biologically are different, and upper-body strength is one of those differences. If by middle school you realize, because you’re a young woman, that you’re not going to win the arm-wrestling match against all of your male peers, then you learn to develop strategies for certain situations that are different. If you can’t fight your way out of a situation in middle school, you’re more likely to learn negotiation or communication skills.
What happens when you become a police officer is there are situations where negotiating, communicating, and having different ways to approach that negotiation are going to be a better solution to the problem than fighting, punching, or shooting. What happens is when you have a group of people that are demographically similar, you tend to have this thing that they call “group think” which is basically people start to assume that there’s one right way or one best way to solve a problem.
So, you approach a confrontation, if it’s a group of male officers, they’re all going to tend to, for that group pressure reason, be more likely to approach the problem from a bullets and muscle kind of way – this is just generalizing – than if you have a mixed group, which is going to not have the initial assumption that, “Hey, we all know the way that we’re going to solve this problem.”
But there is also, underneath that, this pragmatic woman who’s grown up learning different negotiation tactics to work around the fact that she can’t punch someone to solve a problem is going to bring something different than a man who can kick down the door or that maybe has learned other heuristics for solving problems because of the way he grew up as a man. All of that combines to become really interesting, but it basically is an example of how the identity and physical differences that we have actually lead us to think differently about solving problems.
And so, you know, one of the things that I was cognizant of is all of this basically says that cognitive differences, cognitive diversity, when you add it together, can allow a group to be smarter, better, and to see further. But what I didn’t want is for people to take that and jump to the conclusion of, “Oh, hey, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
SHANE SNOW: So, therefore, we shouldn’t care about someone’s sexual orientation, we shouldn’t care about someone’s gender or someone’s skin color, because it turns out that all of those things lead you to navigate life differently, when then actually shape the way you think. So, gender is a very obvious one, and which is why I wanted to start with that because you could say, “Well, hey, if what’s on the inside is what counts and the way we think, who’s to say that men are smarter than women or women are smarter than men?” It’s not to say that at all. But it’s to say that if you’ve lived life one way because of the way people have looked at you, because of the way they’ve treated you, or maybe your physical body or emotional inclinations, all of those things lead you to develop different ways of approaching the world. When you combine those, that’s powerful.
It’s basically to say, if you look at statistics, women shoot fewer people than men do as police officers, law enforcement agents, so why don’t we make all police officers women? Well, that would be a problem, too, because then we have a group of people who are all thinking generally similar a well.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
SHANE SNOW: I’m totally rambling.
JENNIFER BROWN: No, it’s a really good story. I thought it was really interesting. There is resistance to diversity as “taking my medicine” or, “What’s in it for me?” The things I hear are deeply cynical.
Everyone in my field struggles with making the case for it. We laugh a little and groan at the same time and roll our eyes when we think, “We have to make the business case over and over and over again and show the bottom-line impact of having diverse teams, how they’re more productive, and one plus one equals three.” You feel like you can never rely on empathy because it’s not respected.
SHANE SNOW: Interesting.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re circling this big, gaping hole of empathy. I feel compelling to have this very data-based, rational, left-brain conversation with leaders who are a certain demographic, as you said earlier. I struggle to even be authentic in that conversation as well because I relate to the things I’m trying to teach. I’m a woman, I’m an LGBTQ person, and I know what it feels like to struggle with confidence and the belief that I belong there and that I won’t be literally not just judged, but not safe. Literally, I sometimes look out at a sea of men in an audience and I think to myself, “I’m a vulnerable woman right now.” I’m powerful, but the primitive part of my brain is saying, “I must get out of here right now. Anything could happen.” I’m looking at the stage and I’m not plotting my exit, but it does occur to me, that feeling of safety.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s really interesting. Where I end up with it all is asking, “Why don’t we have more meaningful engagement on the part of those in power?” Is it because we’ve structured diversity and inclusion as an “us and them” dynamic? Is it because we’ve left certain people out in building community and in making ourselves feel special that we are unique, we are to be celebrated? Have we not been celebrating the uniqueness and the stories of the majority population? How could they connect into this not in a cynical way, or in a way to make more money or hit HR goals? That’s what I hear. What is a more profound way of being inclusive of people who have power? I’d like to think people want to be a part of a positive arc of history.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’d like to think they want to leave a legacy as a leader of saying, “That person was an inclusive leader. I wanted to work with him. He valued me. He saw me. He supported me.” Why wouldn’t that be enough? It’s not getting through.
SHANE SNOW: There are a lot of forces and pressures, right? I think that very few people want to be known as bad people. Very few people are comfortable with the idea that they’re a jerk, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Of course.
SHANE SNOW: And so I think starting with that, and also starting with just because you are in a position of power doesn’t mean you’re not scared of having your power taken away. So, it’s actually a very shared fear that if you’re in a minoritized group or a group that doesn’t have power, you are afraid of not having power, not having opportunities, or not being safe, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Sure.
SHANE SNOW: If you’re in a position of power, you can still be afraid of having your power taken away, and I think that’s something that’s sort of at the root of the question that you’re asking, the “us versus them,” or even if you’re not thinking of it consciously, there is a sort of threat, and I think this is where the backlash and the griping about reverse discrimination and that sort of thing comes from is this fear of your power being taken away, which I think is at the root of any kind of discrimination that is appalling is taking people’s power away.
So, starting when you talk about this gaping hole of empathy, it needs to be shared on both sides. And, unfortunately, the more motivated parties in this equation are the groups that don’t have as much power. There’s more motivation there than if you’re in power and the system is set up in your favor.
Unfortunately, that group needs to understand that there’s a pragmatic case for having empathy for those in power and their fear, starting there. It’s unfair because it’s been unfair for so long, so there’s something weird about that.
I think about even growing up. I remember growing up in Idaho and people in my neighborhood worrying about, “Are we going to turn into a country where we speak Spanish,” worrying about Spanish being on the street signs and the restaurants, because there are a lot of Mexican immigrants working in agriculture in Idaho. It’s a double-digit percentage of Idaho now is Hispanic, which is awesome. I love it because I speak fluent Spanish, I spent a lot of years of my life in Latin America. I’m on board with that. But I just remember hearing these things. The underlying fear is, “I’m not going to be able to communicate. I’m not going to be able to speak, I will lose power if we’re suddenly no longer speaking English.”
And there is a slippery slope there. It’s not like Spanish becomes a second language in Idaho and suddenly English is gone, but that’s the fear. It’s this very primal far. Understanding that that’s the fear I think can lead to a conversation that is a little bit more mature about if there are more Spanish speakers in this neighborhood, what is the problem going to be? And how are we going to make it so that everyone feels safe and no one feels like their power is being taken away?
In reality, that’s an addition. Now we have two languages, we have more culture and more food we can appreciate and all that. But that’s not the way it’s framed. It’s framed as, “Oh, no, the food is going to be gone, we won’t be able to speak, and then we’re going to die.”
The question that you’re asking, though, what’s a better way for us to have this conversation in the workplace or in general between the majority in power and the minority not in power? There are two cases, I think. There’s the moral case, which if you’re at a certain point, it’s actually easy for me to make the moral case because my life is good and I don’t feel like I’m under threat. In my career, I’m also an independent worker, I started a company, I’m not financially stable, I have my own safety net. I don’t have anything to worry about, which is a huge position of privilege to be in. I think that gives me a little bit more — I’m not afraid of my power being taken away, like I think some people are.
But in general, I think some people are just naturally more inclined to the moral case for this. But then there’s the pragmatic case for it also when you’re talking about the business case or whatever. I think that’s in part what I wanted to do with Dream Teams is talking about good, moral reasons for all of this stuff, for including people, right? That’s good. But there’s also a very pragmatic case for you will do better if you bring other people who are not like you into your process, into your thinking process, into your work. And there’s a way to do that without it ruining your ability to succeed. It’s basically are we living in a zero-sum world or are we playing a game of “yes, and” like improv comedy.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that, yes.
SHANE SNOW: And I think starting with framing it that way, but actually making the case, and part of what I do is go through mathematical models that prove this out. But then part of the problem with saying, “Well, hey, math says that you have different people with different ways of thinking based on different backgrounds which are going to add up to more.” If you look at statistics and you look at people who use anecdotes to kill statistics, it actually is harder to work with people who are different. You brought up that people want to have their unique identity, and that can be uncomfortable for other people and it can be uncomfortable for them even. There is discomfort in our different ideas and ways of seeing and thinking smashing together. That’s precisely where the energy comes from.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
SHANE SNOW: The way that we handle it in the corporate setting, and even in government work settings is a little bit backwards. I talked to you about this a little bit before. There are two sets of statistics that I find intriguing and a little troubling. One is all of the stuff about how corporate boards that have men and women or that have racial diversity on them tend to make fewer dumb decisions and they grow faster and blah, blah, blah.
We have all of that data, people celebrate it, and it’s great. But then we put under the rug all of the studies that say, “Hey, at the employee level, having lots of demographic diversity actually leads to more turnover,” which is not what you want if you’re a leader. And that leads to more conflict, more confusion, and more communication problems in general.
There are statistics that show that actually more diversity at the lower levels actually creates more problems, even though diversity at the higher levels seems to create more innovation and all that.
Just ask any leader, the last thing they want are more problems in the ranks, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Sure.
SHANE SNOW: This is where the anecdotes also kill the enthusiasm for this. The thing that I’ve pulled out of these two competing narratives and sets of data is actually the thing is not just having the differences present. The analogy I’ve been using is if you want to make a cake, you’re not going to make a cake out of five different kinds of flour. Four is too similar, you’re not going to make cake out of it. So, that’s the silly of saying you need different people if you want to get something different together, but you’re also not going to make cake if you have flour, eggs, sugar, and milk sitting in bowls by themselves, or if you recruit the flour and eggs and milk and all that and then you say, “Hey, you all need to behave like flour.” Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s good. I like it. (Laughter.)
SHANE SNOW: Which is kind of what happens. But at a corporate board level, everyone sitting around that table is there to debate. They’re there to bring their perspective, and at least typically they have some measure of safety in being able to have the hard conversations to bring the unique thing that they’re bringing. Whereas at a lower level, there’s usually not that safety. It’s either explicit, “Hey, you need to get with the program and behave like flour,” or there’s an implicit fear of, “I’m going to get kicked out of the tribe if I don’t think, talk, or act this way, so I’m not going to speak up.”
I did this study as sort of a simple survey. I took companies that are known for innovation and are fast growing, Inc.-500-type companies, growing quickly, releasing new products, and companies that are not. And then surveyed employees and basically asked them, “Do you feel like you can be yourself at work? Do you feel like you’ll be punished if you speak out against the majority point of view?” Basically, there’s a huge correlation between innovative companies and their people being able to bring their unique points of view and to speak up and to actually mix, like you would at a board level in the lower ranks, no matter how demographically diverse those companies are, if people can’t speak up and can’t feel like they can do that without fear, then the company’s not going to be innovative.
Even demographically more homogeneous companies with that ability to speak up actually do perform better. To me, that’s a case for, “Hey, get the diversity, and then also allow them to do that.” I’m totally monologuing at this point, but what this means, though, is that the job of leadership and management is actually a little bit different than it used to be, and this is something that there will be resistance, because change is hard. The job is actually to foster the environment where that discomfort doesn’t go too far and where you’re collecting people and putting them in roles where they can bring their differences, their different ways of thinking, and then you’re encouraging that to come out. You’re basically mediating when things go too far or when things get personal. Your job is to help people feel safe and to be able to engage in that intellectual conflict, which is a little bit different than our model for leadership and management before, where leadership is about making the inspiring decisions and being a hero, and where management is about telling people what to do and making sure that they do it the way that you tell them. Actually, it needs to be helping people have the freedom to do things the way that they want to do them in exchange for the accountability that they’re doing that to further the whole team. That’s a harder way to manage.
JENNIFER BROWN: Tricky.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a whole different leadership skill set.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m writing book number two, and I am saying leadership is being redefined. And inclusion, the ability to create inclusiveness around that diversity, and you just added another layer, which is not letting it go too far to the point where it becomes counterproductive. That’s the job of the leader.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: And every leader now and in the future needs to buckle down and learn about diversity, what makes us unique. If you’re a women of color or even just a woman in a team of men, to be a leader who is sensitive to the dynamics of gender that may be occurring — bases, unconscious, overt — and who is taking up space in the room. I love the “Mansplainer” app where it tracks the gender of the speaker in meetings and assigns a percentage to it.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Educating ourselves, if you are the leader, often the leader is still a straight, white man, because that is the majority. Someday that will change, but until then, don’t you want to be the kind of leader whether can navigate all of that, knows the pitfalls, and can predict if someone’s going to feel included or excluded. In order to do that, you need to know the back story of that person’s demographic. You need to know, “Wow, 50 percent of LGBT people cover or are closeted in the workplace.” If somebody doesn’t speak up a lot, I wonder whether that’s because of these environmental cues that they’re getting around openness and bringing your full self to not something that they are comfortable doing.
SHANE SNOW: Right. And it may not be along the dimension of sexual orientation, it may be anything, but just noticing that someone is holding back. Is it because they’re introverted? In which case, that’s actually another dimension of diversity. Or is it because they’re not feeling safe enough to bring some?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right.
SHANE SNOW: With that — I’m sorry, I totally just ran over what you were saying.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re fine, go ahead.
SHANE SNOW: I got excited. With that, there’s this thing we do where the people who climb the ranks and the people who are rewarded in business or even in society are the ones who have the right answers or who accomplish the things.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, totally.
SHANE SNOW: And I think that’s wrong because it reinforces that you shouldn’t speak up unless you’re right, which also reinforces that you shouldn’t speak up unless you’re going to be accepted by the majority, which the system is stacked in favor of a certain group.
We need to start rewarding people who speak up, even if they could be wrong, who are willing to say the hard things, basically people who push the discussion forward, push the whole group forward, no matter whether they are actually right.
As a leader, I’m a white man. The next thing I start, I will still be a white man. This is the body that I was given, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
SHANE SNOW: And the background I was given. But I want my next team to be smarter than me, to have more potential, to not hinge on my own potential. Which means I’m going to need people who can push me to think differently. That means that I need to gather people who are going to think differently, and I need to encourage them to do that and to bring it. And I need to invite that and to be open to that. That’s a very different way of thinking about leadership than I guess I thought about before, where it’s about finding the right answer, being right, need convincing people that I’m right, and then showing that so that I can climb.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
SHANE SNOW: Versus everyone else, because we’re all competing for these things. It’s easier to do if you’re starting from zero than if you’re trying to turn a big corporate ship around.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s true. That’s true.
SHANE SNOW: That’s where it becomes, again, a pragmatic thing to notice, “Who in this room is not participating and why?” Maybe don’t do it in front of everyone, but actually sit down and get to know the person and their story. They’re there so that they can push you, and if they’re not pushing you, then you want to understand why and help them to do that. That’s going to help them and also help you.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re in a 100-person company, right?
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: You and I talked about the angst in the workforce based on the times we’re living in. I’m really fascinated by leader communications in these times. How do you extend yourself as a comfort or to say, “I see you”? I can imagine that this is a difficult time for you. When I say “you,” I mean the “royal you,” the community. If we’ve been hearing about a lot of police violence in the headlines, and protests, and Charlottesville, the Pulse Night Club shooting, your employees are walking in the door completely distracted, totally despondent in some cases. You are a leader who often is not a part of these communities struggling to be heard and protect their rights who feel at risk spiritually in our society, “Do I matter? Do I matter less?” Imagine trying to come in and perform on a day or a lifetime when you are getting messages that you are less than. To me, talk about the hole of empathy. How can you think about that and not think to yourself, “As a leader and a colleague, I need to provide a particular kind of support and opportunity and listening and seeing so that that person can bring their full selves to work”? That is my whole job, honestly.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Like you just said, it’s not about me knowing the right answers, it’s about creating the environment where others can rise and articulate what is the instinctual response formed by their diversity, formed by the culture they grew up in, formed by the fact that maybe they didn’t come from your industry. Maybe they have an untraditional background. Those are our big problem solvers.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Those are the people who can see things in an untraditional way. But if they’re coping with this crazy world that we’re living in, when they come into the workplace, many people feel they have to shelve whatever is going on. Leaders don’t acknowledge it, and it’s like silence.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s not talked about. You shared a story about late 2016 and early 2017, there was a lot of angst, tears from my friends who run diversity in companies, they had lines out the door of people worried that the company was going to retreat or be scared into submission where they were a champion for inclusion, and now they’re losing their nerve. I think there was a lot of fear that that was going to happen.
I’m happy to say it actually hasn’t happened. Companies have been the savior of the whole inclusion conversation. I celebrate Marc Benioff at Salesforce.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: In your small company, I want people to understand that it’s not just the big companies that can make statements, who console some of us and say, “You’re valued here, I value you, you’re going through some big shit, and I want you to feel you can bring your full self to work.”
How do leaders resonate in crafting communications? When so many are listening to you as a senior person and so many want to ask, “Do you see me? Do you know what I’m going through? How are you acknowledging it? Do you value me, and can we be honest about what’s going on that is distracting in my world and hampering my ability to bring my full self to work?” Do you see that? Do you understand it? How are you going to support me in a unique way that I need right now? That’s true for a lot of versus talent across the board.
SHANE SNOW: Yes. So, there are a few things there. I’ll get to the story of what happened after the election. I’m convinced that the biggest way to build empathy for another person who is not like you is to learn their story. Storytelling is really powerful, I’ve written a lot about the neuroscience of stories. There’s a little molecule called oxytocin that our brains synthesize — and this is pretty new neuroscience, in the last five to ten years, we’ve learned a lot about this.
Oxytocin is one of the many neurochemicals in our brains. For years and years, the only thing we knew is that if you give birth to a child, your brain has a lot of oxytocin that it generates. You get a boost of it when you’re breast feeding, and that’s all that we knew. But we knew that it had something to do with this irrational desire to take care of this little thing that just screams and poops.
It turns out that oxytocin does more than that. As we’ve been able to measure its synthesis in the brain, we found that when someone gives you a hug, your brain generates a little bit of oxytocin. When someone shows you a kindness, you get a little bit of oxytocin and basically, it’s the empathy chemical, the underlying neurological process that helps our brains to decide, “You should care about this person.”
It turns out that when they do studies, and I’ve actually participated in some of these. They strap you up and they measure what’s going on in your brain. Say you’re shown two videos for a charity ad. One video is statistics about cancer in children, child leukemia or something. How many kids die every year and how awful it is, sad. And then they show you a story of a father talking about his kid who had leukemia, and then they ask you to donate to charity. The people who watched the story of the father talking about his kid will donate more to charity, and the people who watch the commercial with the statistics will donate less to charity. The difference in oxytocin levels in those two things is dramatic. A lot more oxytocin gets generated when you watch the story about the cancer kid than when you hear the statistics.
Following up on these studies, they put people in movie theaters and had them watch James Bond movies. They’ll show that when James Bond’s heart should be racing because he’s running away from the bad guys, your heart will be elevate, your palms will sweat, and this is empathy. You’re mirroring the emotional or physical state of someone who you should care about. The link to you caring about this person is oxytocin being generated in your brain when you see another human being who is in trouble or who you can relate to.
So they’ve done all these great studies. The summary is, the more you get to know someone’s story, the more oxytocin gets generated, and this helps your brain to develop this habit of having empathy.
They’ve done all these great studies with race of basically people who have a little bit of nervousness or xenophobia around people of another race, when they’re shown inspiring stories, humanizing stories of someone of that other race, their struggle, and overcoming it, they will then have less of that fear when they scan their brains.
All of this is to say that I’m a big believer in one-on-one conversations where you share stories with other human beings to get to know them. And this is actually what we do when we’re building relationships with people anyway, when you make a friend or when you’re dating someone. Sit down to coffee and you reenact the comedies and the dramas of your life, right?
What we do with families that sit down for dinner together, you ask, “How was your day?” Actually, I’ve been reading this book, A Book About Love, which is about the neuroscience of love that is amazing, and in this book, it goes through — one of the parts goes through this research on how families sitting down together for dinner is hugely correlated with kids’ success in social, their entrance to college, and all of that, even when you strip away economic factors and other sort of factors. Part of the theory is what you do when you sit down to dinner with each other is you share stories and you get to know each other. And you are sharing this sort of care and empathy, and this trains your brain to feel loved, secure, and all of that.
The story with the 2016 election, in New York a lot of people were upset because the candidate that was the favorite candidate lost. It also felt very much like it was a referendum on respect for women, and especially because Donald Trump had said a lot of awful things about women, and it was on the heels of the “grab them by the pussy” thing. It just felt like it was this blow to our respect for equality and difference. That’s how many people in my office felt.
I know in other parts of the country that wasn’t what the election was about. It wasn’t a referendum on that, but it very much felt like that here. And I can say that because my home state of Idaho voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, it’s a Republican state, interview fiscal stuff. And the business case and the economy was sort of more of a case. My father voted for Trump, and it wasn’t because he doesn’t respect women, but it was because of that other stuff.
I can get that, but it very much felt for a lot of the people in my office, me included, like it was a referendum on that, which sucked.
And, yet, there were people in my office who voted for Donald Trump. My partners and I, we gave some benefit of the doubt that, hey, you know, anyone who voted for the guy who I didn’t want to win the election, maybe they’re not sexist assholes and maybe they should get some benefit of the doubt, too. We don’t want them to feel unsafe, but at the same time, there’s a huge group of people in our office who are feeling very threatened.
In particular, there was a Muslim woman feeling particularly threatened because she had family that she was worried about. What’s going to happen? Are they going to be able to immigrate to the United States now? The Islamophobia, is that going to affect me in this country? Half of our employees are women, and there were tears in the office the day after. There were some people who were feeling uncomfortable with the tears because they were like, “Well, I don’t want to be seen as a bad person because I voted against this, and that’s not what it’s about.”
Anyway, it’s a very fraught situation. One of my business partners, who I have enormous respect for him as a person and just the way that he handles stuff like this. So, to rewind, a few years ago we were a company of maybe 20 people or something like that. He got called out by a woman in the office who I really respect her for doing this, because she was really young, bottom of the totem pole, and this is the co-founder of the company, a powerful dude, he’s got full sleeve tattoos, sort of an intimidating guy. And she called him out on I forget what exactly, but the offhanded way that he would refer either to her or women in the company. It wasn’t shitty, but to her it was, in a nuanced way, kind of offensive. She called him out.
I remember him kind of bristling at first, and then going to coffee with her and trying to understand, “What is it that this triggers in you and how can I do better?” With her, he started a group in the company called Ladies at Contently, which is basically that it’s not ladies exclusively, but it’s run by women in the company to talk about every issue from tampons in the bathrooms to how do we mentor women so that they can be on a path to leadership here and other companies.
He co-founded this group with her. I watched him become this amazing advocate. He was already a sensitive dude, otherwise he wouldn’t have sat down with her in the first place, but the way that he thought about the little things in the workplace that had to do with gender really changed. It was really positive.
Then the election happens, there are people crying in the office. He sends a note, which I forwarded to you. I wish I had asked his permission to read it aloud here, but it was a well-balance note that was basically saying, “This feels bad to many of you, it feels bad to me too, and it’s hard, but I want you to know that this is a safe place, we’re on your side, and we’re going to do everything that we can to basically fight the forces of evil.” He quoted Martin Luther King, “The moral arc of the universe is long.”
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that quote, yeah.
SHANE SNOW: And it was cool. I don’t think that would have occurred to him to send that note if he hadn’t been gently called out years before and if he hadn’t been thinking about that. Kudos to this woman for having the bravery to do that.
I think there are a lot of workplaces where it doesn’t feel safe to do that. It takes someone enormously courageous, or it takes an environment where it does feel like, “Hey, maybe I can go out on a limb and do that.” But that’s the kind of leader that I want. That’s who I want to work for, someone like my partner, Dave, who can have that kind of empathy.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
SHANE SNOW: I do think for us as founders, we try to spend one-on-one time with people. We take them to coffee, get out of the office, go to a place where it doesn’t feel like there’s a power dynamic, and get to know people, their story, where they’re from, and who they are. Makes it a lot easier to have those hard conversations to approach people. You don’t know what your blind spots are, because by definition they’re blind spots, but the more you get to know people — for example, the Muslim woman in the office, I think at the time she was the only one. I think we have a few more now. But I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what month Ramadan was, what that meant. I remember asking her, “Can I do it? Can I fast, too? Is that allowed if I’m not a Muslim, so that I can understand and sort of taste this way of living?” I guess that’s a bad pun.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right, exactly. Oops!
SHANE SNOW: But you don’t get that if you don’t get to know someone’s story. That’s incredibly important. And even if you can’t sit down with all 30,000 of your employees, if you make a habit of doing it three times a week with different people, that adds up to a lot of empathy.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’ll get closer. Great. I think this is a really good note for us. We’ve been arguing with the business case, which are the statistics about childhood cancer that you talked about, and we haven’t been emphasizing the power of storytelling to increase empathy, to engage people in a deeper way, and to generate that good feeling that this feels good, I want to do more of it. Versus the PowerPoint of the statistics. It just feels like in the business world, that tends to be what’s respected. We are undergoing so many changes and revisiting of the norms in business. Storytelling has always been kind of an undercurrent. We can all agree it’s great for business and sells more widgets, but in terms of building inclusiveness, I honestly think it’s something that’s been underinvested in.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Business leaders have said to us over and over again, “Well, show me the data. I’m only going to believe it if you can show me fiscal benefits.” You know, it feels like you’re being boxed in and disrespected.
SHANE SNOW: Yes. Turned into a dollar.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, turned into a dollar. And also, leaves out the whole emotional aspect of this, which I think people are probably afraid of. They hide within the data conversation, they hide in the business case on both sides.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: We want to show up as strategic. Those of us who are trying to make the case want to be respected, we want to get in the room. We don’t feel like our stories are legitimate enough. I think we’ve been told they don’t matter.
SHANE SNOW: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: To put storytelling at the core of the work is something I think a lot of us are trying to do. Some of the leading companies I work with are actually moving on from the business case and are centering their whole thing on storytelling. It’s going to go so much further. It’s going to have a deeper impact. It’s going to humanize us across difference, and I hope it will get more people involved who are in the majority. We are not making progress fast enough on any of this. My fear is more and more diverse talent are just going to keep leaking out of companies, which is what they’re doing now. The numbers aren’t getting any better. Tech is wringing its hands and saying, “We thought that being transparent about our diversity challenges was going to somehow fix it because we’re shining a light on it.” Guess what? Being well intentioned or transparent doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to actually change.
SHANE SNOW: Just because you want the cake to be cake doesn’t mean — yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Anyway. Shane, we’re out of time today, but I want to thank you for being aware of your own privilege, your maleness, your ethnicity, the responsibilities that you feel come along with the life that you’ve been given and the platform you have now to really use your voice. I really recommend Dream Teams. It has a forward and an after-forward from Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg, two of our favorite people on The Will to Change. Plus so many great stories that, indeed, we can use to make the case for why this is such an important topic.
SHANE SNOW: I’m hoping so. Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.