NEWS | May 23, 2019

Leadership in a Diverse Environment: Dr. Steve Robbins

By By Edvin Hernandez, NSWCCD Public Affairs NSWC Carderock Division

Dr. Steve Robbins, an author and guest speaker at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division’s Leadership in a Diverse Environment II event, analyzed the behavioral science and neurological approach to understanding biases during a humorous, yet serious lecture on May 16. Robbins explained that a bias is a patterned behavior and cognitive shortcut that the brain takes to preserve energy. Before deeming a bias good or bad, it must first be attached to a goal.


“If your bias helps you achieve your goal, that’s a good bias, but if the bias prevents you from achieving your goal, then it’s a bad bias,” Robbins said. A bias in itself is fundamentally neutral, he explained, confirming that biases develop a negative reputation when improperly discussed. “When you study the brain, you learn that biases are neutral things and that’s how different perspectives approach different subjects when it comes to inclusion and diversity.” 


From a neuroscience perspective, Robbins highlighted that people tend to associate with others who are like them because it is easier.


“We like to hang out with people from our own tribe who have similar beliefs and similar attitudes,” he said. “So from a neuroscience point of view, we exclude people not because we necessarily hate them, but because we just don’t know that much about them. We stick with people who are like us.”


Robbins said humans actively use their “modern” and “ancient” brains. The “modern” brain participates in metacognition, which allows a person to analyze and reflect on his or her own thoughts. On the other hand, the “ancient brain” is not designed to analyze thoughts and, instead, reacts without thinking using developed heuristics.


People learn individual biases through their environments, where the repetition of inaccurate generalizations are engrained into people’s way of thinking. Robbins used the example of learning the lyrics to a new song to explain this process.


“When the words to a new song get stuck into your head it happens without you knowing from the music playing in the background, and your brain picks up the words for you,” he said.


Similarly, after learning this behavior, a person’s “ancient brain” will automatically trigger and assign close-minded stereotypes, even if it is involuntary.


“We don’t have to give our brains permission to create mental models and stereotypes,” Robbins said. “We use mental models to judge and evaluate things that we encounter. When you use your ancient brain to do that, your ancient brain doesn’t assess the information before it uses it; it just uses the stereotype-based information.”


Robbins believes diversity is not the problem and, in fact, shared that close-minded mentality inevitably leads to exclusion.


“For me, diversity is having more than one person in the room; we all bring diversity,” he said. “However, diversity and close-minded thinking leads to misunderstanding, miscommunication and conflict, but imagine having diversity and open-minded thinking. Now there is greater opportunity and possibility for inclusion.”


Robbins examined the way that some individuals perceive people with tattoos, for example, as an indication of the person with tattoos making poor life decisions.


“How many times have we heard, ‘People with tattoos make stupid decisions, probably did not do well in school, use drugs, ride motorcycles and beat people up,’ or messages similar to those with negatives connotations,” he asked.


In reality, however, the only thing anyone knows about people that have a tattoo is that they have a tattoo.


This “noise” produces a cognitive distraction and blurs reality. It can hide talent from people who are interviewing for a position, for instance. Likewise, an accent can also hide a lack of talent from unqualified candidates.


Exclusion then, naturally casts a division between insiders and outsiders. When someone makes a mistake, but pertains to an environment with similar beliefs, then the mistake is easily forgiven or excused. However, the same is not true about someone who shares no similarities with the judging group.


“Humans look for indicators that determine if an outsider is part of their tribe or not, and they do this for safety,” he said.


According to Robbins, individuals want to feel safe, and diversity is effective when people are all insiders. Expectations of experiencing fairness, belonging and authenticity contribute to feeling like an insider and promote inclusion.  


Robbins challenged the audience to keep an open mind and remember that everyone walks a different path. He encouraged taking a pause and finding ways to make employees feel welcomed in the workspace.


“The same way an athlete needs to be ready to take the field on game day, we as employees need to be mentally concentrated and comfortable in our workplace to perform our best,” he said.


Robbins chose his career path to honor his mother and sister after experiencing a childhood of poverty, discrimination and trauma. His approach to diversity and inclusion uses neuroscience and the science of human behavior to encourage individuals and organizations to value people for their unique gifts, abilities and experiences.