Real Leaders

COVID-19 Is Hurting ‘Brain Diversity’ at Work — and That Should Worry Leaders

The COVID-19 pandemic is poised to change work culture and practices forever. But are business leaders paying attention? They have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create profound change or, otherwise, sleepwalk into the future. A critical issue to consider is harnessing what I call “brain diversity.” 

Modern neuroscience tells us that the human brain can power us to move through and beyond COVID-19. One shining example is the global scientific community, which models how to collaborate, share knowledge, think diversely, act with utmost agility, and balance caution and boldness. At its best, science is both blind and clear-sighted: blind to gender, color, and background, yet clear-sighted that diversity of thinking is essential to success. 

Now, let’s turn to the business world, where conversely, we see some dangerous patterns emerging. A new study by Qualtrics and theBoardlist finds that, among other groups, working during the pandemic is disproportionately affecting the careers of women. For instance, 57% of men say that working from home during the pandemic has positively impacted their career, while only 29% of women say the same. In addition, 34% of men with children at home say they’ve received a promotion while working remotely, compared to a scant 9% of women with children at home. Moreover, twice as many working fathers say they received a pay raise while working remotely than working mothers. 

No wonder, then, women are exiting the labor force en masse. (And as Time magazine reports, “That’s bad for everyone.”) In September alone, of the 1.1 million workers ages 20 and over who dropped out of the U.S. labor force, a whopping 865,000 — four in five — were women, according to a National Women’s Law Center analysis of the September jobs report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Meanwhile, one in four women are considering reducing work hours, moving to part-time roles, switching to less demanding jobs, taking leaves of absence from work, or stepping away from the workforce altogether, according to an annual Women in the Workplace study published in September by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In. “If we had a panic button, we’d be hitting it,” says Rachel Thomas, CEO of Lean In, a gender equity advocacy group co-founded by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. “We have never seen numbers like these.”

Business leaders who allow this pattern to take hold do so at their peril: Without brain diversity, which leverages the significant, synergistic differences between the male and female brains, the future of work is at risk. 

A Neurobiological Reality

There are differences in how the male and female brain listen, process information, and solve problems. Now, to be clear, such differences are not binary. They are, however, a neurobiological reality. And at this moment, amid COVID-19 and a resulting recession (or “she-cession”), it is vitally important for business leaders to have the best of all brains at their disposal. Additionally, there is no time to lose. Starting at the very top, leaders must take three clear-cut actions — simple steps that nevertheless won’t come easy. 

First, they must demand deliberate diversity — and settle for nothing less. To start, they should consider their current team and then ask themselves, who do I have at the table? If more than half of the team look or think like them, they’re in the danger zone. 

Second, they must commit to ensuring absolute trust in the room, recognizing, too, that trust is a fragile thing — hard to earn and easy to lose. This is the only way to access optimal brain performance and diverse, next-level thinking for all present. 

And third, they must get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable as they inclusively tackle significant, weighty issues. While some may be good at hiring diversity, most fall short in genuinely including their contributions. 

So why won’t these actions come easy? Much of the answer lies in the ancient brain. Fundamentally, ancient brain chemistry can limit today’s leaders in three ways. 

1. Othering

The brain elicits a pre-conscious response to who is in our “in-group” and, in contrast, who is in our “out-group.” Likewise, brain research shows that most of us aren’t even aware of when we are othering people and, as a result, jump to wrong or dangerous conclusions. (The renowned American neuroscientist David Eagleman, a Guggenheim Fellow and the creator of the critically acclaimed international television documentary series The Brain with David Eagleman has done some captivatingly brilliant research on this topic.) Now, as COVID-19 is driving a hybrid work model, a two-tier workforce is emerging, where the in-group can make it into the office and, through no fault of their own, the out-group can’t. This has several perilous gender and social-group implications, most of which will inherently affect women more than men. 

2. Old habits

Under stress, the brain reverts to habit. This saves energy, which, in a crisis, can be helpful. Today, however, amid a deadly pandemic and Depression-era levels of joblessness and economic despair, many business leaders are reverting to old habits — and not in a beneficial way. The best solutions lie not in old patterns but new ways of thinking. The good news is that the brain is adept at adapting. And leaders who choose to adapt and capture diversity of thought will survive these times and thrive in the future. This requires deliberately bringing about brain diversity and a work culture that accesses those brain differences, including the power of the female brain

3. Self-soothing

We get what we focus on. That is the way the human brain and nervous system work. Yet when leaders focus on “the way it was” before COVID-19, they’re merely self-soothing. And that, to be sure, is a losing proposition. Focusing on the past won’t work today, let alone tomorrow. Smart leaders will take the pandemic as a wake-up call to thinking, acting, and behaving differently — and diversely.

Finally, business leaders should consider the current conditions as an opportunity to seize — not a problem to solve. And this will require brain diversity across the organization and deep within the work culture. It may be at risk now, but it’s nothing that great leadership can’t change.

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