Inclusion and the Brain: Building Trust Across Differences

Mary E. Casey, 
Principal & Co-Founder,
BrainSkills@Work, LLC

Shannon Murphy Robinson, 
Principal & Co-Founder,
BrainSkills@Works, LLC

It is now an undeniable fact that the diversity within organizations will increase significantly over the next 10 years1 . Whether these differences are related to multiethnic, multi-generational, cross-cultural, gender identity, religion, race, or other identity factors, organizations are now faced with building a workforce that is able to listen and communicate effectively with others who are very different from themselves – and who are often outside of their comfort zones. In a recent report on global workforce trends, the authors stress that for organizations to benefit from this growing diversity, they need a workforce that is highly skilled in “building relationships and working effectively across differences.” Interestingly, towards the end of the report, one of the authors laments that, “We certainly all have the mental capacities to envision this possibility, but do we have the brains that can actually carry it out?”2 Indeed.

Dr. Srini Pillay, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School Professor, in his book, The Brain and Business, presents hundreds of neuroscience-based studies validating the effectiveness of a neurosciencebased approach to leadership effectiveness.3 Interestingly, many of these studies also provide key links between neuroscience and how to develop inclusion skills and abilities. For example, we now know that the brain either helps us engage in inclusive perspectives and behaviors, or it directly interferes with our ability to do so. One main way this happens is through the brain’s built-in threat response. According to Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, within each of our brains is a deeply embedded survival-based threat response that impacts our behavior on a daily basis, yet operates mostly outside the radar of our conscious awareness. Dr. Hallowell states: “There may not be lions or bears roaming the halls of your organization, but people’s brains are oriented to perceive threats.”

Moreover, the brain does not differentiate between threats to our physical safety and threats to our social need for inclusion, belonging and social connection. In fact, some neuroscientists now question the validity of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, explaining that in order to survive and develop properly, the brain must first experience belonging and the safety that comes from being accepted into a social group.5 From a neuroscience perspective, inclusion is a primary need that must be met for the brain to develop properly, and is not considered a third level need as in Maslow’s Hierarchy.

By understanding a few of the underlying brain dynamics that govern our human need for inclusion and social belonging, we gain new appreciation for the very personal and negative impact of microinequities and other messages of exclusion and marginalization in the workplace. This also helps us understand that no matter how strong, professional or mature someone appears, when they experience comments and behaviors that question their value and importance to the team, it can trigger a deeply embedded threat response, thus upending their ability to be positive, focused and performing to their highest level.

Dr. Matthew Lieberman, Director of the UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab, makes clear in his book, The Social Brain, that in order to effectively build a sense of belonging and trust with others, we need to understand the role of oxytocin in the brain.6 Often referred to as the “love hormone” or the “moral molecule,” oxytocin in the brain determines whether we will feel motivated, willing, and able to actively engage in building trust with others.7 The ability to develop trusting relationships with others is crucial to create psychological safety within organizations and leverage the strengths diversity brings to drive performance, innovation and creativity. A number of interesting studies demonstrate this fact with astonishing clarity.

In one study establishing trust with others,8 the levels of oxytocin in the participants’ blood was measured directly before and after they made the decision to send or to receive money from someone else. To ensure the participants would not consciously try to influence their own levels of oxytocin, they were not told that their oxytocin levels were being measured when their blood was being drawn. At the end of the study, researchers found that the amount of oxytocin recipients produced when they decided to receive money completely predicted how likely they were to demonstrate trustworthiness toward someone else and send the money going forward.Concerned that this might be more of a correlation than a “cause” of trustworthiness, the researchers then decided to test their findings using a more direct and irrefutable means – that is, by providing small doses of synthetic oxytocin to participants’ via a nasal spray. Comparing participants who received a real dose of oxytocin with those who received a placebo, the researchers found that giving people 24 IU of synthetic oxytocin more than doubled the amount of money they sent to a stranger. According to the researchers, “oxytocin appeared to do one thing—reduce the fear of trusting a stranger.”

In working effectively across differences, it is vitally important to keep oxytocin available in the brain, and yet this is easier said than done. When the brain perceives a threat in the environment, (real or perceived) this activates the fear / threat circuitry in the brain. When this happens, it creates a compounding problem. Once the fear circuitry is activated, the brain can no longer produce oxytocin, and our ability to create trusting relationships is significantly impaired – and if it is a very strong threat response – may even be impossible. Adding to this challenge is that our workplaces can also contribute to the threat response being activated. Unmanaged stress, pressure, urgency, uncertainty, being on the receiving end of microinequities, or feeling excluded, can all activate the threat response in the brain and take oxytocin offline, which negatively impacts levels of trust within organizations. As we can see, these brain dynamics happen mostly outside of our conscious awareness, and directly impact our ability to build trusting relationships across differences.

Another underlying brain dynamic interfering with our natural ability to be inclusive is the brain’s unconscious preference for similarities – and the speed with which it happens in the brain. Studies show, for example, that young children, even infants, recognize faces of their own race more quickly than those of different races.9 Significantly, this built-in bias of the brain towards familiar faces also extends into adulthood. For adults, it takes only 200 milliseconds to unconsciously register whether a face is familiar or not, and this means we process familiar faces with almost double the efficiency than unfamiliar faces.10 The brain clearly responds more quickly to those faces it recognizes as more familiar, and it this determination entirely on its own, with no conscious participation on our part. If we don’t learn how to override these tendencies, we will continue to be unconsciously drawn to those who are most similar to ourselves, and not even see opportunities to intentionally move toward someone who is different from ourselves, let alone build trust with them.

From these brain dynamics we can see how conflicts, misunderstandings and exclusionary behaviors easily occur and create distrust across differences. These dynamics also help us understand why conversations to resolve them are often difficult and even at times unhelpful. These brain dynamics are no small event, as they make building trust virtually impossible for the brain, and quickly erode any pre-existing trust within a relationship.

The Good News

The good news is, however, that there are other brain dynamics and mechanisms that work for us in building inclusion skills. We can learn brain-based strategies and tools to consciously and intentionally work with the brain to increase inclusion skills and build more inclusive work environments.

One important area of the brain that supports our ability to be inclusive is the prefrontal cortex (also called the higher brain). It is considered the seat of our executive functioning in the brain,11 and it is what gives us the ability to access higher levels of thinking, see new possibilities, make conscious choices, and successfully integrate longterm behaviors changes. From the prefrontal cortex, we have access to the highest levels of self-awareness, the greatest ability to consciously manage discomfort with differences, as well as the ability to engage empathy, and consciously show appreciation towards others’ needs, beliefs and perspectives. (Note: It is also true that the prefrontal cortex is easily destabilized by the brain’s threat response, requiring other brain-based skills not addressed in this article.) Overall, it is from the prefrontal cortex overall that we have the capacity to effectively and more consistently override unconscious biases, choose behaviors of respect and inclusion, and build trust with others.

Dr. David Amodio, Associate Professor of Psychology & Neural Science at NYU, studies the neural and psychological mechanisms underlying our social behavior, particularly in the context of intergroup relations, prejudice and stereotyping. His research shows that while it may be impossible to eradicate our biases, the brain is thoroughly equipped and capable of overriding them.12 He explains that we can learn to work with the brain to build and strengthen our capacity for connecting, collaborating and building trust across differences. Dr. Amodio identifies the role of the higher brain in the process and that in order to become more egalitarian and successfully override biases and prejudices in the brain, “we need to train ourselves to help the neocortex do its job.

A main brain-based strategy for increasing the capacity of inclusion in the brain is to engage the power of appreciation and other positive feeling states. Historically, studies on emotions focused on negative emotions because of their demonstrated detrimental effect on health and wellbeing. In the past fifteen years, however, there has been a growing trend to research positive emotions, and the discovery that positive emotions have incredibly positive and beneficial effects on health and wellbeing. Research shows for example, that appreciation and positive feeling states increase the brain’s capacity for connection with others.14 Positive emotions also increase attention and broaden thinking, while also causing us to consider and pursue a wider, more creative range of ideas and possibilities.15 Additionally, studies show that positive emotions and positive feeling states help stabilize the prefrontal cortex where our greatest capacity for inclusion lies.

The new findings on positive feelings also show that positive feeling states are available to us whenever we choose to activate and experience them.16 It is now well understood that by consciously activating positive feeling states we can bring oxytocin online, and with it, the motivation and ability to engage in attitudes and behaviors that demonstrate an authentic concern for others. And just like in the trust study mentioned earlier, when we receive trust from others it increases oxytocin in our own brains, and thereby increasing the amount of trust we are willing to give back (as demonstrated in the study when subjects received more money, they gave more money back.) We call this creating an upward spiral of trust.

Working With the Brain for Inclusion Success

Science now provides a new way to advance inclusion skills by building an upward spiral of trust and increasing the possibility for a new level of success. Using a brainbased approach to developing inclusion skills, we can build on the many ways the brain can work for us in creating opportunities for cooperation, connection and compassion across differences – while minimizing the brain’s counter-productive tendencies. It is through brainbased tools, strategies and skills, that we can significantly improve our inclusion capabilities, and create work places where people – regardless of their differences – feel heard, validated, and safe to share who they are, what they really think, and fully contribute to the success of the organization.

1 Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report for 2019. Retrieved from https://www.
2 Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy. (2010). Shaping the future: Solving social problems through business strategy. Pathways to Sustainable Value Creation in 2020. Retrieved from pdf ?redirect=no.
3 Pillay, Srini (2011) Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education

4 Hallowell, E., MD (2007) Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life, New York, New York: Ballantine Books
5 Rutledge, Pamela B Ph.D (2011 November) Social Networks: What Maslow Misses, retrieved from social-networks-what-maslow-misses-0

6 Lieberman, M. (2013) Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press
7 Kosfeld M., Heinrichs M. (2005, June 2). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. NCBI Resources. Retrieved from
8 Zac, Paul J. (2017, January-February) The Neuroscience of Trust, Harvard Business Review (pp.84–90). Retrieved from uploads/2017/03/hbr-neuroscience-of-trust.pdf.

9 University of Toronto (2017, April 11) Infants show racial bias toward members of own race and against those of other races. PHYS ORG. Retrieved from news/2017-04-infants-racial-bias-members.html
10 Pillay, S. (2014, March 13) How to Deal with Unfamiliar Situations. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

11 Hikaru Takeuchi et all (2013, July). Brain structures associated with executive functions during everyday events in a non-clinical sample. U.S. National Library of Medicine, NIH, Retrieved from PMC3695328/#CR78
12 Amodio, David (2010, August 31.), The egalitarian brain, Greater Good Science Center, Retrieved from|
13 Ibid

14 Bethany E. Kok et all (2013, May 6). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science. Retrieved from https://journals.
15 Fredrickson, B. L. (2009) Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals how to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive, New York: Crown
16 Positive Emotions Broaden the Scope of Attention and Thought-Action Repertoires