Neuroscience to Frame Your Company

Business leaders have a choice during the next few months in the way they speak publicly about political affairs. The Brexit referendum, the U.S. presidential election, and the growing support for nationalism in many countries have all made it impossible to ignore politics — because every aspect of major businesses is affected by globalization. Top business leaders are reacting to these developments in a variety of ways: They are intrigued by the business opportunities or the presumed reduction in taxes; concerned about the impact on diversity; uncertain about the effect this will have on their access to global markets; disheartened or pleased personally. No matter what their perspective, they may be inclined to share their views openly or they may be tempted to remain silent. Either choice could make things better or worse within their companies. It all depends on how they do it, and how well they understand the personal responses triggered by these political events at levels below explicit consciousness.

For example, many organizational leaders have worked hard in recent years to develop more inclusive cultures; they recognize that people need to feel that they’re part of the same group to collaborate, especially across national boundaries. But the elections of 2016, and the associated public displays of nationalism, ethnic isolationism, and suspicion of outsiders, have reinforced deeply ingrained biases in people’s brains. No matter how inclusive your organization may be, and no matter what your employees’ political perspectives, you will probably see an increase in “us-versus-them” antagonism, and a corresponding reduction in trust, collaboration, and creativity. Just when companies need to innovate faster than ever to compete globally, they face the daunting prospect that millions of employees will work alongside colleagues whose presence subconsciously agitates them.

At the NeuroLeadership Institute, where we study the neuroscience underlying successful leadership, we have concluded that the approach one takes to engaging employees on this issue can matter a great deal. What you do in coming days and weeks can make or break your organization’s spirit for years to come. Here is a way of framing your outreach efforts more effectively, to make the most of your company’s talent, and of people’s commitment, in these times of uncertainty.

Start by recognizing the effect of these elections on attitudes, particularly those embedded below the level of conscious attention. One of the most prevalent is known as similarity bias. The brain quickly and automatically classifies almost every new person as friend or foe largely according to the degree to which they outwardly seem like us. Every day, based on surface appearances, we unconsciously classify some people into an implicit in-group (composed of people we trust and want to collaborate with) and others into an out-group (composed of people we feel we need to be careful of). The criteria we use can be based on national, ethnic, or religious background, but they can also be ideological. For example, one study shows people are more opposed to having family members marry someone from an opposing political party (pdf) than they are someone of another race.