MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & AllyShip. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Empovia, formally Change Catalyst. I’m also the author of How to Be an Ally, and your host for this show.
What is allyship? Allyship is empathy in action. We learn what people are uniquely experiencing, we show empathy for their experience, and we take action. As a part of that process, we learn and unlearn and relearn. We work to avoid unintentionally harming people with our words and actions. We advocate for people, and we lead the change on our teams, in our organizations, and across our communities.
In this episode, you’ll learn tangible actionable steps that you can take to lead the change to be a more inclusive leader, no matter what your role is. Want to learn more? Visit Empovia.co to check out more of my work.
All right, let’s get started.
Today, our guest is Ellen Petry Leanse, Author, Speaker, and Podcast Host of The Brain and Beyond. She is an acclaimed Silicon Valley innovator, former Stanford University instructor, TEDx speaker, and author of The Happiness Hack, which is a neuroscience-based guide for life satisfaction, and she has many other things as well as a friend.
So we’ll be talking today about the neuroscience of ethical leadership, why sameness limits cognitive potential, and how we get to radical equality and belonging as leaders.
ELLEN: Thank you, Melinda. That sounded great. It’s really nice to hear the words “radical equality” coming from as many miles as possible. So thank you.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. We always like to start with learning a little bit more about our guests, about you. Can you share a bit about your story, where you grew up, and the road that it took to get to where you are now?
ELLEN: Yeah. Well, I’m a Midwestern girl. I was born in Ohio, a long, long time ago. When I was three years old, my father, who had been in the service, and had fallen in love with San Francisco when he visited after he got out of the armed forces, well, he had vowed to move his family to California at some point, and at three, he made that happen. So I still remember the plane flight. I remember growing up in an orchard neighborhood of San Jose, California, long before it was Silicon Valley, and having the sort of childhood I’d wish on any kid today, which included a lot of freedom, a lot of nature, a lot of time to be “bored,” I’m doing huge air quotes here, which meant unstructured time, which was always my gift. Because it let me look at things closely and explore things that felt interesting to me, and do a lot of doodling and drawing and arty things.
So I think I grew up with a very right hemispheric view of the world. By right hemispheric, I mean right brain hemisphere. There were a lot of unanswered questions, there was a lot of curiosity, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of structure. When I went to school, I do remember sometimes bristling against some of the more structured things, like being the first in your class to shoot up your hand with the right answer of when a certain event happened. I was scrambling an egg yesterday, and I remembered just thinking about this podcast, and thinking about the brain because that’s kind of what I do, how we had to memorize all of the parts of an egg in fourth grade: the yolk of course, the albumin, the name of the lining on the inside of the shell, whatever, and then all these other names. I remember thinking, the list of names does not equate to what an egg actually is, and being really confused by that. An egg is something that life can hatch from, that gives us nourishment. I knew because I loved birds, there are many dozens of colors of shells an egg could be. None of that was in those classes.
So I navigated life with a sense of confusion, like, why did they talk about all of the facts and not about the really interesting things that actually make them worthwhile? I didn’t know it at the time. But that was sort of the battle between my two hemispheres trying to figure each other out. I’m sure we’ll touch on that later.
School led me to all kinds of things including college. I mean, so much to say about that. But when I graduated from college, I was planning to work for a year in Brazil doing an internship, and four days before my trip, I was hit by a car. I was riding my bike, big accident. Once I recovered from my injury on my parents’ sofa in San Jose, California, the last place I wanted to be, I began applying for jobs. I like to say, I sent out a hundred offer-like letters inquiring about jobs, to receive back a thousand rejection letters. One of my rejection letters was from a little company I knew nothing about called Apple Computer in Cupertino, California. When I saw that beautiful six-colored Apple logo, I thought: Oh my gosh, they get it! Art and business, the balance. This better not be a rejection letter.” It was. But it had a phone number on it. The long story is, I called that phone number, and I told the recruiter I thought they had made a terrible mistake, which was so unlike me. I ended up working at Apple for 10 years and learning a tremendous amount about the industry that would become the personal computer industry.
So since 1981, at least some of my career has always been in tech. Yet, more and more, it’s been in how neuroscience applies not only to the work we do, but to the lives we lead, and how to integrate neuroscience into all that we do as humans in our professional and our personal lives and beyond, so that we can lead more satisfying, meaningful, and values-driven lives.
MELINDA: Excellent, amazing! Thank you for sharing that. You’ll have to help me. Sometimes, I tend to get really excited about the science, and I forget about the other, the creativity. I have both, for sure, in my brain. I went to art school. But I’d often, in the technical, the neuroscience and the science of it, and I get lost in it.
ELLEN: Well, firstly, I get lost in it too. Let me just say, because there’s so much misunderstanding about the hemispheres of the brain. So let’s make it super simple. Simply because they roll you into an fMRI machine, which is, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and watch which part of the brain lights up when you’re doing mathy things or artsy things, that doesn’t mean that’s what the brain does. It’s just the signal that’s firing in the brain at the moment that the fMRI is tracking it. So let’s make it really simple. Left hemisphere is about linear pursuit. It’s about getting from here to there. If there’s a question, it wants to find an answer. If there is a Point A, it wants to get to Point B. So it’s about, if I were to say to you right now: Melinda, what’s 10 times 10?
ELLEN: Yeah, your left hemisphere knew that. It didn’t have to ask any questions. Now if I asked you, think of a child you really love, someone really special in your world, and come up with how you would explain to them what 10 times 10 means. So I bet your eyes sort of went offline as you did that; you were switching gears, you were coming over to the right. This is linear pursuit, and we need it. This is limitless potential, and we need it. But linear pursuit is really good at shutting limitless potential down, especially because this is the area that I mentioned, raise your hand fast. This is the area that gets validated more in our culture, and in global culture right now, because of, well, many things. So linear pursuit, I’m touching my head right now for those who are listening. Linear pursuit, that’s the left hemisphere. Limitless potential, that’s the right hemisphere. They are meant to work together. They are radically equal, they are both needed, and linear pursuit has, I believe, way too strong a voice in the world right now.
MELINDA: I think of the tech industry, and I think of how much it dominates the tech industry.
ELLEN: Snap snap.
MELINDA: Yeah. Well, thank you. I was going to ask you about the hemispheres. Beautiful. So let’s go into ethical leadership and neuroscience, and how they are interrelated. One of the things that you told me is, you told me one of the first things we need to do is move beyond the binary. Can you talk about what you mean by that?
ELLEN: Yeah, I’d love to. So let’s think of that left hemisphere and the linear pursuit. So one of the things that is necessary in our world, this is a very important part of human cognition, and we do need to do it, yet the left hemisphere loves to categorize and classify. It loves to make order out of the world by identifying what things are; assigning names, terms, or concepts to them. So this is its way of making sense of the world. It’s following a very important map that is necessary to human survival. By the way, that’s been going on for a very, very long time. Really, it’s part of our long-term evolutionary biology and the way we came to be humans. Yet, in the last 4,000 years, as we’ve moved increasingly, and in degrees and with accelerating pace, into the realm of left hemispheric thinking, linear pursuit thinking, one of the things we use categorizing and classifying for is to say what is and what isn’t, so that we can judge what’s better and what’s worse, what’s this and what’s that?
Now I spend a lot of my time geeking out on ethnography, the study of cultures. If we look at global cultures that have survived, since the dawn of human existence, since the dawn of sapiens and even before. So let’s just say we’re only talking about sapiens sapiens, as we kind of know, anatomically modern humans, as we know ourselves today. We had about 195,000 years of living one way, until Western civilization came on and pivoted us to living another way. Moving from the life of two systemic integrations with the known and natural world, into the life of the mind; knowledge, the pursuit of knowledge, materialistic and mechanistic ways of thinking. Materialist and mechanistic ways of thinking thrive on identification, they thrive on categorization and classification. Yet, we lived, for most, almost all of our human history, without doing that the way we do it now.
One of the things that’s really important in categorization and classification is knowing what we are relative to others, so we can judge ourselves or posture ourselves as better or worse. So look at all the words we use in the world: black or white, tall or short. I’m not using these words as judgmental labels, just what comes up. Nice or mean, good or bad, boss or subordinate. All of these words, these are left hemispheric identifications that allow us to categorize and classify in a way that is actually quite new to our way of being human.
Look at any indigenous culture, and by indigenous, I mean long-surviving. There are so many definitions of indigenous right now. But people who held a place in the world where they stayed for a very long time, they did not have the binaries that we live with today. It’s served that way of living for, we can say 200,000 years, because there definitely are people who have not been unduly influenced by Western culture, who are living in very non-binary and very spectrum ways right now. There’s a group in the Wahaca area of Mexico, that identifies four separate genders, I think five actually now that I’m remembering. They have five separate genders, one of them is: don’t know, figuring it out. In many Papua New Guinea and other sorts of cultures, Micronesian cultures, a gender is not, I don’t want to say assigned, it’s too strong a word, given to a child until they enter adolescence. They are a child, and there is no gender specification for that child. But once they get to be an adolescent and they’re starting to play a more adult role in society, they are pointed toward a direction of what their “gender” would be. But it may be something other than male or female. So we even look at native cultures and the beautiful concept of the Two Spirit: a person who is blessed, literally blessed with the ability to access one side or the other of the Yin Yang, or gender divide, or whatever you want to call it. So there are many ways of dealing with non-binarism, that have served our human legacy up until the last X-1000 years.
By the way, oh boy does the left hemisphere love it a good binary, because then it knows how to pin the tail on what that thing is, in a linear pursuit categorize-and-classify way. So I love when we think of being full-brained, spanning the hemispheres and drawing from both, we can move beyond the binary, and into a much more open and promising field of what is possible, in a connection with a person, way of living, and a contribution to the world.
MELINDA: Yeah. I’m thinking about biases and how we default to biases, especially when we’re trying to get from Point A to Point B, or we’re trying to move fast, when we’re stressed out, when we’re hitting a deadline or something. That’s when we default to our biases often, most frequently. It seems like that might play a role here, am I right?
ELLEN: I mean, you’re a neuroscientist, you named it perfectly. So let’s come back to stress and deadlines after this. But let’s just say, I sit here, and I’m only able to survive in this world because of my biases. I have shortcuts that allow me to harness what my brain has already learned and say this is the way the world makes sense. In fact, we could go way back and say, the way we perceive the world is shaped by our “biases.” There are things that people have tried to figure out that says how big the brain would be if it didn’t run on these shortcuts. Put it this way, we’d have to make all of our doors a whole lot wider so we could get through. I don’t think there’s any way for us to say: “Oh, we’d need a brain that’s three feet wide or something.” There’s really no way to know. The brain couldn’t survive without biases; we must run our shortcuts in order to move through the world. That is a fact of life. This is how we learn. This is how we respond in an emergency.
If we look at the earliest emotional signals, it was move toward, move away from. There’s sort of three feeling tones, to use the Buddhist term, and that is: positive, negative, or neutral. But survival depended on us being able to recognize very quickly on a cognitive level, what was good to move toward, what was good to move away from, so we survived. These are the root system of biases. The invitation and the opportunity that we humans have, thanks to the grace of this highly human part of our brain, the most recently evolved part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, is that we have moments where we can realize that the thought we’re having is the product of bias, that we don’t have to listen to it, and that we can make a different choice that is more whole-brained, not reactive but responsive, and move toward the way we want to be present in the world.
MELINDA: Yeah, there’s so much in that, so many different directions we could go from there.
ELLEN: Each of these concepts is a whole podcast, right?
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. I’m thinking of the episode with Dr. Vivian Ming, where we talked about the neuroscience of trust. One of the things that she’s found in her research in the tech industry, is that we tend to trust people who are more like us, and we tend to distrust people who are less like us. That affinity bias is kind of playing a role there, that we’re defaulting to that affinity, the bias towards somebody that we like, and as a result, we tend to trust them more. That these shortcuts, they’re built upon one another, and change how we make decisions, change how we lead teams, change who gets to lead and who gets to speak, and how projects are designed, and so on.
ELLEN: You said it beautifully, and you’re right. Here’s what I would say. That’s an awesome thing, when we’re aware of it. So let’s say, Melinda, you, me, and a non-female-identified person with some attributes that’s really different than ours, are standing in a room together. Our bias, unconsciously, would probably tell us: “Oh, Melinda and I are alike in these ways that I’m making up, that are categorizations and classification. She’s the one I could connect with more.” We have the power as humans to say: “Oh, I heard my bias. But I don’t have to listen to it. How about the three of us start talking, and wouldn’t that be a richer conversation?” Once we’re willing to get out of bias, and the first step is recognizing and not pathologizing bias. It’s an essential part of our survival to run these shortcuts. Then go: “Oh, it’s just a bias. Actually, I’m really more interested in this person who’s really unlike me.” I say “unlike” because I know nothing about what’s on the beautiful, juicy inside of that person. That person might think about the world in very much the way I do. They might be a Buddhist neuroscience with a background in tech, who is an artist on the side. We have everything in common. This is the gift, my dear, of curiosity. Curiosity lifts us out of our bias, lets us respond rather than react, and allows us to expand our sense of trust.
MELINDA: I love that. Can you tell me about what you call the homogeneity hijack?
ELLEN: Oh, I’d love to. Actually, that bounces right off of what you said before, because you talked about how the biases kick in when we’re under a deadline and so forth. So first of all, let’s go back to early human survival and even before that. So imagine, I mean, we evolved in an environment that wanted us to act fast; there were dangers all around us. So when we were walking through the forest, spacing out, looking at the clouds, and all of a sudden, rawr! Out of nowhere, a saber-toothed tiger jumped out in our path. The brain wanted us to go fast, shut off our higher intelligence, and divert the energy that might be used in thinking, reflecting, and responding, rather than reacting, into the parts of our body that we needed to fight or flee. The way it did that was something called the amygdala hijack. The amygdala hijack happens in two little organelles in the brain, they’re very close to the emotional center, right in the heart of the brain. When the amygdala fires, it’s a very, very fast reaction, one of the fastest reactions in the body. It’s served as a chemical cocktail all through the bloodstream, that cuts off the blood supply to the prefrontal cortex, which is the highest level of cognition in the human brain. It’s our most evolved, and it’s the place where, it’s mood regulation, it’s on the other hand thinking, it’s intentionality. It’s all the good things. It’s really how we live our best self. It’s our intentional home base. But that gets shut off, because on a survival level, why would the brain want us to say, well, maybe it’s a friendly saber-toothed tiger. No, it just wants us to use every energy we have to fight or flee.
So the amygdala hijack is the fight-or-flight response, and let’s just say, it makes us reactive rather than responsive. By the way, we don’t have a lot of saber-toothed tigers walking around these days, I haven’t seen one in a while. However, we’ve all experienced this. When was the last time we ran around the house going: “Where are my keys, who put my keys where they’re not?” All of this, and then you look in your hand, and there they are. That’s an amygdala hijack. Or when we see someone walking toward us, that maybe doesn’t inspire the trusts that you mentioned, they’re different than we are, maybe we get a little scared; we’re at least partially amygdala hijacked.
It’s very important to know that the brain has not yet figured out, and may never figure out, the difference between a real threat to our survival, and a threat to our self-concept, or identity, or our ego. It treats them one and the same. So I think we can agree, the amygdala hijack cuts off our highest level human cognition, it turns us much more into reactive rather than responsive mode, and shortly put, it makes us make dumb decisions. It can make us make dumb decisions.
There is only one thing I’ve seen in my entire life that is as effective at dumbing us down as an amygdala hijack, and it is what I call the homogeneity hijack. It’s when we get into this sort of echo chamber, that’s sort of like an easy bias where I’m like: “Oh great, I’m in a room with everybody who thinks like I do, or I’m in a room where I get to do whatever I want to do and not care about other people’s opinion!” That actually, the prefrontal cortex, well, there’s really no need for it to do anything, and so the brain doesn’t activate it. Then we go into our bias run, routine thinking, that is not our highest level cognition. So my experience is, there are two things that are very effective at making us reactive rather than responsive, bias-based rather than curious, and kind of just checking it in rather than going what is possible in this moment. That is either the amygdala hijack, or the homogeneity hijack that we get by being in a setting that is too comfortable. Not safe, comfortable, big difference. Too comfortable for us to need to actually be our best selves.
MELINDA: So I’m thinking about a few things from that. One is, there’s a study a few years old now, that showed that 70% of White people in the United States only have White friends, and what that does to our ability to meet new people with diverse identities, and we potentially go into that homogeneity hijack. Then also, I’m thinking about where hiring managers and leaders often will say, they’re pattern matching to how their current team or how they think in particular, as they’re hiring, as they’re looking for who’s good leadership material. I’ll use the air quotes there too, who is “good” leadership material, who’s a good hiring decision. Leaders will often default to people who are like them, have similar educations, gain skills in a similar way, have similar ways of speaking and leading.
ELLEN: You’re right. Since you’re a neuroscientist, you’ve probably already been able to map that pattern recognition to the left hemisphere and the linear pursuit; checklist, checklist, category, whether it’s conscious or subconscious. So you’re right. I can’t add anything to what you said, because it’s not only my direct experience in watching. I’ve been a Chief People Officer of a technology company, a couple of other things. I’ve watched it again and again, and also, we feel it; we see it out there in the world in so many ways.
Two things come to mind, Melinda. One of them is, there’s a lot of talk about how so many people, when they’re asking a question, they’re just looking to have their answer confirmed, or they already have the answer and just asking the question with no curiosity. That happens a lot in the hiring process, doesn’t it?
MELINDA: Absolutely, that confirmation bias.
ELLEN: Then the other thing, I guess there would be two more things. The other thing is, let’s really remember the importance of values. People talk a lot about culture. In my opinion, I work with a lot of companies on culture and values, culture happens. Culture is emergent: it’s being co-created by all involved at any given moment. Culture is fluid: it responds to things happening in larger environments, both internal and external to the organization that holds the culture. So I think it’s really important for companies to remember that culture emerges from values, systems of values, which are kind of like first principles. Here is who we are, it’s a declaration of intent. It is a statement of identity. If we have values that we build our culture upon, any recruiter, any hiring manager, any employee, any candidate, should go into it not thinking about the culture, which is what’s manifested by the values, but really going in and looking at the values and seeing how do I align with these values? So I’m a big proponent of culture add and values fit. Now, if I meet someone who on all of the “checklist attributes” is very “unlike” me, yet they believe as much as I do in empowering each other, in speaking the truth, in creating safety, in being brave, in whatever these values are, if they can engage on that level, their differences are what are getting to add to the culture and make it better.
Now, I can’t say that without acknowledging my great teachers. So I have a coaching practice, I work as a leadership and executive coach. About a year into my practice, I made a commitment that said, at least 50% of my clients at any time will be from groups that are not of the prevailing usual suspects or whatever of the culture. I mean, I’m not going to put any labels on it, it’s not necessary. But I wanted a diverse array of clients across all of the vectors I could think of. Then to do that, I did some things mechanically to bring in more diversity. However, also, if I got to the point where, let’s say, I had X candidates who were straight, identified White, male-identified people, and I had, let’s say, X of all other categories that I was learning from and interacting with to expand my thinking and to elevate my game. If a new candidate from the straight White male community came to me, they had to help me bring someone else in, so that I could stay at 50-50. This way, I kept myself learning in ways that would not have been available to me. Those candidates have been my teachers in so many brilliant ways, or those clients, excuse me. I am really proud to say that today, the majority of my clients are people who would not map to me in the usual demographic checklist sorts of things. I don’t even notice it anymore. They’ve been my teachers, as I said.
I mean, I went off on a little bit of a ramble with that. But again, these are our biases running the show, and when we move into openness, curiosity, and radical equality, and I wrote this down, where we look at every other person as a fully deserving equal. May I repeat that, please? Fully deserving equal, who deserves nothing more or nothing less than any other fully deserving equal. By the way, this is true with my boss, a person who works for me. They are fully deserving equal, both of them. Anyone with any attribute that we love to categorize and classify, we’re all just fully deserving equals. When we embrace that, we are in a place of radical equality where we can truly learn and elevate together.
MELINDA: I’m thinking about how equity comes into play there. Because there is equality, and in order for it to be seen and valued and supported as a fully deserving equal, there is a level of equity that I think needs to come into play as well.
ELLEN: Melinda, I’ll tell you, I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, and it’s an area where I need to go deeper. It absolutely is. Though, a few days ago, I heard someone speak about it really well, and they spoke about the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. A mentor is someone that is like: “Oh yeah, I’ll be a good role model, and I’ll look at you as radically equal, and all of this stuff.” That’s good. But there’s a different skin in the game with a sponsor. A sponsor is about offering something beyond mentorship to really bring a person up, and this is where it gets really interesting, knowing that a rising tide lifts all boats, and both are going to benefit from that exchange. So I’d love your words on this, because it’s something I’m still shaping and doing. I think those of us who carry privilege, and definitely I think part of elderhood is acknowledging one’s privilege. Let’s go with the basics. “Damn, I’m here. I’m one of the lucky people who got to live, to be 65 years old. What, really?” I have many physical privileges; I’m a healthy person.
I don’t underestimate the fact that one of the reasons I got to make that phone call to Apple, 40 something years ago, is because of my skin color, the fact that I’m a native English speaker. The person on the phone didn’t know that. But at least subconsciously, I did. I could try because I had the privilege of doing that. We have a responsibility, those of us with privilege, to impart equal privileges on others. That does mean sponsorship and allyship in ways that I don’t even have full vocabulary for. I’ll tell you, again, I hope I’m living that way, and I am sure that unintentionally, I am running biases, shortcuts, that keep me from recognizing or acknowledging or investing in those opportunities. So heck yeah!
MELINDA: I think that’s a good example: mentorship versus sponsorships. In my mind, mentorship is focused on helping somebody grow in their career, to gain the skills that they need, to help navigate their career so that they can move up in their career. A sponsor is somebody that recognizes that person may already have the skills, that expertise, but need your privilege, your power, your influence, to open doors for them, to provide new opportunities for them, to allow them to step into those new opportunities with the skills that they have. So that’s recognizing that some people don’t have the same opportunities, and they need your influence in order to make those opportunities happen.
ELLEN: Beautifully said. One other thing. Also, in the moment, having the presence of the conviction to call out when we see a bias. Are we treating this person as a radical equal? Those might not be the words we use. But if so and so is fully deserving equal, and is not being acknowledged as such, what do we do about that? So you’re right, the awareness must lead to allyship and action.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Part of that is not making our assumptions about what somebody needs, not making assumptions if somebody needs mentorship; they might already have those skills. Thank you.
ELLEN: Now we’re back to curiosity, aren’t we? Beautiful.
MELINDA: Yeah. Can you just describe what ethical? I mean, you were kind of describing it along the way. But what does ethical leadership look like to you?
ELLEN: I don’t have a prepared answer or a quick response, I don’t have something set on that. But what came to mind for me is that an ethical leader is deeply grounded in values, that would be one. So there are some first principles that are really the root system of their actions and even the thoughts that lead to those actions. The other is all importance of curiosity, being present to what else they might not be seeing. I also think that an ethical leader never sees themselves as an expert, they see themselves as a learner. There’s some beautiful teaching out there about expertise, and one of the thing is, and so many sources we could call on it: “The minute you see yourself as an expert, the moment you see yourself as an expert is the moment you reveal yourself as a beginner.” Because expertise is an egoic construct. Especially in a left hemispheric world, it really rewards thoughts associated with categorization, classification, linear pursuit. Tada, I’ve arrived, now I know I’m an expert! What? But really, out there, to all of you listening, do you really want to be an expert? Think of something you love, let’s say cooking. Do you want to learn the next new technique, or maybe the way to work with a new flavor or a cultural cooking style, or something like that. So I’d say, let’s see, ethical leadership. I would say, values-based, curious, never being an expert, and realizing that leadership is not a privilege, it is responsibility.
MELINDA: Excellent. Can you share how all of this, and leading in a way that is keeping that neuroscience in mind that we’ve talked about, keeping in mind the ethical leadership points that you just made, how does all of this relate to belonging and how we create belonging on teams?
ELLEN: Thank you, I love the question. First, I want to call out, you said neuroscience, and then you said keeping in mind. I think it’s really important to remember, those are different things. The brain is an organ. It’s a three-pound gooey jello-like organ, that performs a biological function in our lived experience, our bodies. The brain and the mind are actually different things. I have no idea if the mind lives in the brain, or if the mind is something larger than the brain. I mean, I have really close friends in the field of neuroscience or in spirituality and all kinds of things, who believe one way or another. I don’t know, who am I to know? We don’t know. I can come up with perfectly plausible reasons why all of the mind lives in the brain that completely make sense, that we generate this concept of my mind. I can come up with perfectly good reasons why the mind is something beyond the brain, which is an interesting thing to explore, since I call my podcast The Brain and Beyond. But I don’t know, I’ll never know in my lifetime. I love not knowing. The field of not knowing is a really fun place to play in, it’s vast.
MELINDA: But how does this map out to belonging? I think belonging, there’s a very strong human desire. First of all, there’s a biological need for safety. I mean, even talking about these hijacks that the brain does, they’re all about our safety, whether it’s safety in a world that really threatened us on a physical basis as we walked along the path to do what we had to do, way, way, way back then. Or whether it’s our psychological safety as we navigate sometimes the equally treacherous playing fields of the world of business, the world of whatever else is out there. Gosh, the world of watching the darn news, which is why I don’t watch the darn news. But belonging is about, I don’t want to use the word comfort, because we can get comfortable with really icky things. There are things that should never happen, and we can become comfortable with them because we’re familiar. But if we think about creating a space of safety, and coming to a place where we can be present and feel courage to show up and be ourselves, then we belong.
ELLEN: Belonging, to me, begins with a preconceived notion: a bias. A good bias, that we’re better together. If I step into a room, and I look at all of the faces that are there sitting in chairs or gathered in a circle or out there on the Zoom screen or whatever, and my bias, there’s some beautiful biases, we have to come up with a good name for bias. But I believe that each of these people I’m looking at, each of these people gathered around, and this is true for everyone in the room, is they are specifically here to make me better, they are here to help me learn something I don’t already know, they are here to help me practice my presence. Then I feel like I belong, and it becomes my responsibility then to create the sort of space and the sort of openness which is very balance brained, very right and left hemispheric, that allows us all to be better together.
If I look at you, Melinda, as a missing puzzle piece, there’s something that is happening through our connection, whether it’s for a moment or for something longer, that is here to actually help me connect the dots and make the picture more comprehensible, I’m in a very different orientation than I would be if I walk into it and be like: “Okay, I’m the expert here who knows,” or whatever else my biases are running. So I guess that’s where I would weigh in on belonging. Did that make any sense?
MELINDA: It did. It made me think about the data that we have learned in our research around allyship, a couple of things. One is that when somebody has at least one ally in the workplace, they’re twice as likely to feel like they belong in that workplace. One, one ally, and that number grows the more allies that people have. So that is one. Then also, we tracked there are eight different indicators of the business case, that are the case for allyship on teams, I would say. The first one is higher engagement. That rises to the top, engagement. The second is increased happiness. The third is productivity, and a greater sense of belongingness is fourth. Then fifth is psychological safety. So all of these things we’re finding in our research around, somebody takes action as an ally, somebody is there in support of you, and it makes a huge difference in belonging, productivity, safety, engagement, and happiness. Also, I’m thinking about your book, The Happiness Hack, and wondering how happiness connects as well. I’m seeing this connection between allyship and happiness, and some of the things we’re talking about here.
ELLEN: You’re 100% right. When I listened to you, what came to mind for me was, that a person who does not feel psychologically safe is, almost by definition, even a little bit amygdala hijacked; there’s a little bit of a fear state all along. By the way, let’s not only assign or attribute this to the workplace. In the cultures we live, in the society we live, in the reality that we live in, I think we have to accept the fact that there’s a whole lot of trauma and fear and hijack out there, even without “manufacturing” it, as we do through drama and competitiveness, and all of the things that tend to show up in the workforce.
So if we think of your ally data. By the way, for all of you hiring managers, recruiters, other managers out there, remember that the four things that Melinda named, all tie in to retention, especially retention of the people you really want the most. So this is a very big investment to make in really creating that safety, and through allyship, and through really looking at connection and belonging. This brings up an inversion that’s really interesting, Melinda. In a world that does feel increasingly divided, I’m looking right now, I was going to reach down and grab my book to sort of show: “Whee, The Happiness Hack, the pretty yellow cover!” It’s about two feet from me on my bookcase. But there’s another book called I Never Thought of It That Way, and it’s by Mónica Guzmán. It’s a wonderful book, and it’s about people bridging divides between what seems like differences, to come to the connecting points that actually make people go: “Huh, I never thought of it that way,” in a mind-expanding way. This is how we build belonging.
I don’t want to be the broken record, yet I firmly believe that if we come back to this point that we are better together, and that every person around us is as deserving of the privileges and opportunities that we have as everyone else, nothing more nothing less, we can work together on allyship and also on the type of really sponsorship or mentorship that’s really about elevating people, so they too can be of full potential, interact with others, and navigate the workplace.
I’m listening to these words, and I’m like, these things are so hard to put into words, aren’t they? The words do give it form, give this concept form. Thank you, left hemisphere. Yet, all of us, I think in our deep knowing, know that the game we sometimes play of separation posturing and dividing, divide and conquer. I mean, really think about that. That’s so left hemispheric. Actually, I’m not really sure, if we think about what’s gotten us here will never get us there, I’ve got to tell you divide and conquer will never get us to any sort of there we want to be at. But coming back to that presence and inclusion, where the opportunity to work with, to be with people who are different than we are, really completes us in such an important way, and makes us all better together. That, to me, is really important, in not only the workplace, but the world.
MELINDA: Absolutely. We are winding down in terms of time.
ELLEN: Darn it!
MELINDA: I know, there’s so much more. Is there any last thing that you want to make sure that we discuss around this topic?
ELLEN: Yeah, there is. It has to do with happiness. We live in a world where we’re told that happiness feels a certain way, and it’s a high. All of the technology that we use, and trust me, I come from that realm, so I know it well. But the technology we use is really good at developing neuro-circuitry that gives us a dopamine surge or a dopamine jolt, and makes us feel like: “Wow, a certain type of happiness is the one to go after!” We kind of label some of this with terms like FoMO, or tech addiction, and all of this stuff. But I think we do have to remember that our sense of happiness has been hacked, not only by the rise of these very dopamine-driven technology cycles, but by really so many of the left hemisphere driven things that have arisen in the past hundreds and even thousands of years.
That the real source of human happiness is much deeper than that. It’s much more glow. It’s really the glow of belonging, the glow of being connected to values, the glow of being a learner, a curious learner, and then the glow of being on purpose, that we are living a life of meaning and purpose. So I guess what I’d want to offer to listeners, something that I will be exploring in my own work on the podcast as we go forward, is really the importance of disconnecting ourselves from the noise, and often the static that’s just perpetuated by the external world, and all of the things it says about, “We’re supposed to be this way, or learn this and you’re an expert, or I’m crushing it, or whatever!” Really coming back to this much more timeless way of being present as human, which is about being purpose-driven. By really living with a mission that is larger than ourselves, it’s bigger than anything we can accomplish on our own. That to me is the greatest statement of belonging and inclusion.
MELINDA: I love it. Last question is, the show was about allyship in action, taking action. In the end, what action would you like people to take coming away from our conversation together?
ELLEN: Thank you. Remember the difference between react and respond, know that react is the circuitry that your brain is going to be running all the time, and move to response with the power of one magical thing that you’ve done innumerable times since the moment you were born. That is, to breathe. In the pause of one breath, we bring oxygen to the brain and give ourselves the opportunity to move from react to respond. Cultivate in any moment of discomfort, one small action: a breath. Watch what happens as your world changes.
MELINDA: I love it! Thank you, Ellen. Thank you for this conversation. I love it, and really appreciative of you and all that you do and have brought to the world and this conversation.
ELLEN: Thank you, I loved it too! Thank you to everyone who helped make this possible, and certainly, to all of your listeners out there. Be sure to take a breath.
All right, everyone. Definitely take action, take that breath. Thank you for listening and watching, and we will see you next time.
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Allyship is empathy in action. So what action will you take today?