Neuroscience Helps Foster Diversity in the Workplace

Today’s tech-savvy children will grow up to expect a workplace that’s more representative of their peer population. Research proves this is a smart move for companies too.

There’s no “I” in team, but it turns out, there is a team IQ — one that rises when the team embraces workplace diversity.

“Demographically diverse groups make better decisions and produce more innovations, because they bring in different perspectives,” said Katherine Phillips, co-author of the research and senior vice dean and professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School.

New research from Phillips’ team concluded that diversity sparks greater creativity and encourages complex thinking. This promotes higher quality decision making among groups striving for positive economic or social impact.

Dr. David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, brings neuroscientists and leadership experts together to create science-backed approaches to creating diverse workplaces. Rock helped design Intel’s GROW program, which aims to bring diverse, inclusive approaches to teamwork across the company.

Neuroscience studies the human brain and nervous system. By learning how the brain works — studying everything from cognitive science and brain chemistry to philosophy and psychology — neuroscientists delve deep into human behavior.

“When scientists study smarter teams, what they find is that it’s not the IQ of the individual team members, it’s actually the average social intelligence of the team members that matters,” said Rock.

Social intelligence, a collection of aptitudes more closely associated with women, deals with things like being a good listener, taking turns, sharing and being inclusive. Rock said inclusivity is one of the most important considerations when building a smart team.

“If you have a diverse team that is also inclusive, you actually make better decisions, you’re more creative and you find more errors,” said Rock. “The fundamental reason is because you’re mitigating a whole lot of biases through completely different perspectives.”


He said teams have a relatively fixed intelligence that remains static across tasks and time, so smarter teams will continually out-perform homogenous ones. His research shows a group with different ages, races, gender identities and religions, for example, is more likely to develop the next technological breakthrough, than one composed of members from an identical demographic.

Even with a diverse group, Rock explained, certain people can dominate the team and obliterate the benefits of diversity.

“You need an inclusive environment as well, where people feel that they have a voice and are able to contribute,” he said.

Building Better Teams

Putting this plan into action creates a new set of obstacles, particularly for managers and people who question the need to change the status quo. Impending deadlines may also drive some to rely on the efficiency and speed of a familiar, homogenous team.

“The counter-intuitive issue is that, for the manager, it probably feels better in a non-diverse, non-inclusive team,” Rock said. “In a homogeneous team, the manager can plow through and drive a process without involving people. That manager probably feels more in control, like they’re moving faster.”


People often report working on diverse teams is more difficult, confirmed Rock, but it’s worth the effort to create a smarter team. Still, unconscious social or cultural biases can create roadblocks.

“You really need to put processes in place that mitigate bias at the source,” he said.

For Intel’s GROW initiative, a year-long campaign for all of the company’s 107,000 employees that includes practice tools, webinars, videos and ongoing research, Rock used neuroscience research and data to people develop new habits and overcome biases. One element encourages employees to try something new, to push themselves out of their comfort zones. He said this exercise can open up people’s minds.

The Future of Smart Teamwork

By focusing on developing diverse and inclusive teams, companies that institute programs like GROW position themselves to have a competitive advantage.

“As good engineers, we did research on what we had to do to relate better with one another,” said Danielle Brown, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Intel.

She said the company realized it needed to improve its diversity efforts if it was to remain a tech industry leader. The GROW program helps accomplish this goal.


“If you look at companies that have missed major innovations, many of them had a very fixed mindset, very homogeneous of leadership teams,” Rock said. “If employees have smart ideas, they should be heard. I think we need to mitigate the biases that we have more effectively and actually allow for different voices and different people to succeed.”

The good news is that younger generations are poised to advance these objectives. According to Rock, kids nowadays are more technologically connected and generally grow up in more diverse environments than their parents. When they grow up, he said, they’ll come to expect that same level of inclusion in the workplace.

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