We Need to Bring Diversity to the Idea of Diversity

A dialogue with Dr. Uma Gupta by Selena Templeton


Selena Templeton: Why don't you start by telling us a little bit about who you are and how you became interested in diversity and the brain.

Dr. Uma Gupta: My name is Uma Gupta and I am a Professor of Business at the State University of New York at Buffalo State. I am also an entrepreneur and have started two businesses: one is a for-profit, which I sold, and the other is a non-profit called STEM-SMART which focuses on how to get more students interested in science and technology, and also how to fill the pipeline with more diverse candidates. I'm also an author and I've written three textbooks on information systems, and edited a book on artificial intelligence, which was my dissertation. I am a keynote speaker and I conduct workshops on how we can lead more enriching lives, both personally and professionally, if we are able to understand how the human brain works and why we make the decisions that we do.

What led me up to this path was the fact that I'm an immigrant. I came to this country about 25 years ago, and when I look at my experiences, I think they’ve been amazing and extraordinary. Then I listen to friends and colleagues who say how miserable they are and how terrible the American work environment is. I got very curious about this because I couldn't have simply been lucky for all these years. Both of our experiences are true and authentic, so I started to dig more deeply into the subject of diversity. That's what led me down the neuroscience path, which has been an extraordinary place of discovery for me because the research that is coming out of neuroscience today is extremely meaningful and extremely practical for our everyday lives.

The second thing was that during the quarter century that I’ve been in the U.S., we've been talking about diversity for so long in so many forums, through committees and reports and white papers and webinars and conferences – and yet the needle has barely budged. That got me really thinking that if we continue to do the same stuff that we've done for the last 25 years, that may not produce the results we all seem to be craving. That's a very, very long answer to your question, but that's the context that led to the work that I do today.


ST: The word diversity seems to have become synonymous with gender primarily, but of course it's about so much more. How would you define diversity?

UG: I define diversity as an openness, a willingness, a yearning, a seeking for anything that is different from our regular routines, whether it’s the way we think, the kind of people we interact with, our ideas or our experiences. Whether it’s our everyday living, the music that we listen to, the food that we eat, the conversations that we have or the auto-responses that we have to all this. I use the word yearning because it has to become ingrained in us that we have a high level of awareness about being on auto-pilot and doing the same thing.


ST: At the RSA seminar where I first saw you speak, you said that the human brain actually thrives on diversity, and yet so many of us have become creatures of habit. Can you explain a little bit about what actually happens in the brain when we feed it a steady diet of diverse activities or thoughts, as opposed to when we just get stuck on auto-pilot?

UG: There are two parts to this question. One is the human brain, and I would refer somebody who's interested in this subject to Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow, which won the Nobel Prize. He talks about how we have two parts of the brain, and he’s not referring to right brain and left brain.

What he's referring to is that one part of the brain is the thinking-fast part, which he refers to as system one, and one part is the thinking-slow part, which is system two. When you look at the human brain and how we live our everyday lives, the fast-thinking brain simply looks at an environment, looks at a situation, looks at the idea of food choices or whatever it may be, and quickly jumps to conclusions. This is essential because suppose we have somebody who's coming at us with a knife? We want the fast-thinking part of our brain to immediately tell us what we need to do to survive. We don't want to go to our garage every morning and look at our car with great wonder and say, "Now, what do I do with this object here?" We need that fast-thinking part of our brain in order to do well on a daily basis.

The slow-thinking part of our brain is where we say, "Okay, here is a problem. It's not something that I'm familiar with.” or “Here is a situation. I really need to apply my brain to think through this." Unfortunately, what happens is that the fast brain is like a speeding train. It goes down the path of drawing conclusions very quickly because it knows that we’ve been in this situation before and so it assumes that it knows the answer or solution. Or we look at somebody and we say, "Oh, yeah. I know exactly who this person is or what their background is." We jump to conclusions.

The human brain is inherently what we call a lazy brain. In other words, system two, or the slow-thinking brain, is only triggered into action if we pause and say, "Okay, you know what? I think I need to slow down on this. I need to think through this more carefully." That's why paper and pen can be an extraordinarily useful tool because it allows us to think through something. And yet, as I mentioned, the brain actually doesn’t want to do that because the brain is lazy. It says, "I know this. I've seen this. I want to come to a conclusion." So there's a conflict. The brain doesn't want diversity because that's more work.

Imagine if you have to engage with people who are from an entirely different cultural background, for example. When we are listening to somebody whose accent is different and a little harder to understand, we will quickly tune out because it takes more effort to really listen and understand. There's this struggle in the brain that on one hand is saying, "Hey, I don't want to do difficult things.”

But on the other hand, the brain is a rich, complicated, intense, intricate set of neuro-connections and circuits. And when we do the same things over and over again, that circuit in our brain looks like a well-trod path. That's why when we we don't actively seek different experiences, the power of our brain and our ability to think decreases. For people who absolutely don't do anything different from their everyday schedule, who live only within their comfort zone, we find that, like a dying plant, the other parts of the brain actually start to fade and slowly die.


ST: That is quite eye opening when you look at diversity like that. As a matter of fact, after I heard you speak at RSA where you mentioned doing different things or seeking different experiences, I made it a goal to very consciously do something different to get out of my own comfort zone at least once a week. A couple weeks ago I actually went to Madame Tussaud's wax museum in Hollywood. It's not something that particularly interests me, but I'd never been there before and so I just decided to go. But I watched myself get really uncomfortable about getting out of my comfort zone even on a trek as simple as this.

UG: That's terrific that you did that! And you bring up a very good point because in the beginning we notice that we feel the discomfort because we are stepping outside our comfort zone. The brain will also trick you into thinking, "Well, you really don't need to do this. Why should I do something that I'm not interested in? Why am I wasting my time doing this?" The brain will repeatedly send those messages. All that we can do is to recognize that message and say, "I understand."

The brain is really like a little chimpanzee, right? It's going to jump from tree to tree, it's going to do little monkey tricks, and we just have to step back and say, "Okay, I see this. I see what you're telling me. I see that you're uncomfortable and that's okay." It's almost like you have to talk to your brain like it’s a toddler.

I've started to listen to music that is completely out of my genre. In the beginning it was so jarring to me. It was hurting my ears and I thought, "I can't stand it." Now that I've stuck with it, what I'm noticing is that that level of jarring feeling that you have, it slowly comes down.


ST: I’m glad to hear you say that, because each week my still brain tries to convince me that I don't need to do something different. I haven't felt more comfortable doing these new things yet, but I do recognize the whole song and dance routine that I have to go through to do it, and I know that I always feel better afterwards which is what keeps me going. So eventually your brain will get tired of trying to talk you out of experiencing new things?

UG: Yes, it's very, very true. Think about it like an openness index on a scale of one to ten where ten is just completely open to all experiences. Let's say you're at six right now. The more you do these things, the more that needle slowly shifts from six to seven to eight.

It's not that every experience immediately translates into an ah-ha moment, but what we do know is that a collective set of experiences eventually connects the neurons and the circuits in a different way and unknowingly, not always consciously, we also become better at pattern recognition. And because of that, we are able to be more creative.

Because you went to the wax museum, your brain noticed something different, saw some new things, experienced new things, and in ways that you won't even notice. But when you are writing or figuring something out, those patterns or connections that formed from the observations that you made will kick in and you will come up with some creative solutions.

When we walk to artists, and that could be design or marketing or music, we ask them, "What is the source of your creativity?" Most of them will never be able to say what it is. They will say, "I don’t know, it just comes to me. It comes from some deep internal fountain that I cannot even put my finger on." Of course, some people are more creative than others, but it's that allowing the fountain to rise that increases our creativity.

There is a direct relationship between diversity and the probability of getting dementia or Alzheimer's or any of the mental illnesses that strike us at a later age. While the research may not be compelling, this is the direction in which they are pushing more seniors. They are saying, "You absolutely need to get out of your comfort zone. You need to try new things," because the more active the circuit of the brain is, the less the chances of getting any of these serious life-debilitating illnesses.


ST: So regularly stimulating the brain encourages more creative thinking, or you could say more diverse thinking, and this makes it easier to see things that you wouldn't have seen or see them from a different point of view. So when it comes to the lack of diversity that's fairly rampant in many environments, of course, but specifically in the tech industry, are you saying that if I get Joe Blow from work to, say, eat lunch at a different time with different people or rearrange his desk or office, then he'll stop mansplaining simple concepts to the female engineer or start hiring more minorities? I mean, is it as simple as that to encourage diversity in the workplace?

UG: Well, it's not always a linear relationship. The way to look at this is, suppose the size of your world is two feet by two feet, and if you expand that to six feet by six feet, then what you are likely to see is different. Or, if you're standing on a small hill versus on a mountain, what you see is different.

So it's not that Joe Blow is bad and he doesn't get it. There is some truth to that, but as organizations go it's not just about “Can I get more women in here, can I get more minorities in here?” It’s more about: when you promote diversity in all forms in the organization, then the creativity of your employees goes up, their problem-solving abilities go up, they see the world differently, and therefore they are able to come up with better products and services. Their understanding of their customers is enhanced, they are able to offer better customer service, they're able to see the trends that others may miss, they're able to get a deeper insight into the industry, they are able to do cross thinking because they won't be just grounded in what the industry says and wants, and they will be able to make connections from other experiences that they can bring into the workplace.

What I'm saying is that we have looked at diversity for the last 25 years as simply bringing in people who look different into the workplace, whether it's women or minorities. If an organization does that, then they say, "Okay, wow, we are so great." You're not. What we really need to do is, from a leader’s point of view, start with the people that you already have in the organization, just as an experiment, and see how much you know about them and what experiences they’ve had that they could bring into their work. If we don't do that, then to simply assume that if I hire a woman or an African American or a Hispanic, then somehow my diversity quota is met and therefore I'm a better organization or that I'm deriving the full benefit of having such diverse thinking in my organization. That is simply not true.


ST: That's a really good point because a lot of people are focusing on simply bringing in diverse people and assuming, and I think probably correctly assuming at least to a certain extent, that if you bring in different people you will get different points of view. But it has to go deeper than that, doesn't it?

UG: You bring up a very good point. Because when you bring in people to the workplace who look different or who have some sort of visible diversity stamp on their forehead, their first thought or obligation is that they need to fit in to succeed. They want to blend in rather than be different.

This happened to me in the early years when I first came to this country. My thing was, "Okay, here I am with people who are from a very different culture, who look very different from me, who speak very differently from me. What can I do to look and speak and act just like them as quickly as I can?" We all do this. From school to the workplace, we are looking to see what is the culture of this workplace and how can I adapt? How can I change my habits so that I don't stick out?

There's a great deal of work that has been done that ties in with organizational culture. It's called the micro aggressions, or micro factors, by which people learn, "Okay, this is how I'm supposed to behave in a meeting. This is where I fit, this is when I can talk. This is why I go in the evening to the same bar with the same people." Many people are afraid to say, "Look, this is your workplace culture. You hired me because of my diversity background and this is what I'm observing about your workplace culture," because many fields, and many managers, don't want to hear any of that. They are saying, "Okay, look, we hired you because you fit our diversity bill. Now come in here, blend, and behave exactly the way that we do."


ST: You've said that the conversation about diversity needs to change before the lack of diversity can actually change, because we've been talking about it for several decades now and yet really not much is different. How does the conversation about diversity need to change so that it will actually be effective?

UG: When I said that we have to change the conversation, I think, at least for me, that a key thing is the framework for the conversation right now is: there's a victim and there's a perpetrator. Somebody who walks into this conversation about diversity is either going to classify themselves as a victim or a perpetrator. Or they are an observer. And as long as somebody is classified or self-classifies as a victim or somebody thinks about themselves as a perpetrator, then there's a very accusatory tone that is going around the conversation of diversity.

And anybody who is accused of something, the chances that they are going to listen openly, the chances that they are going to come to the table with ideas, the chances that they are going to tell you why they behaved the way that they do, the chances of them reforming their behavior are very, very slim. So when I say change the conversation, this is what I mean. What can we do differently? Number one, we have to teach our girls, our teenagers, and those who are entering the IT workforce, what it means to have strength, to have resilience, to have professionalism, and to be able to fight the battles that need to be fought in a sophisticated way.

When I look at American history, whether it's civil rights or the women's movement, there are people who stood up and said, "This is not right. I'm not going to run away from it. This is how I'm going to change this conversation. This is what I will do." When we have these meetings, discussions, webinars and conferences, we need to come up with very practical ideas. We need to help women and other minorities deal with situations where there is an aggressor who is present. We need to help them deal with situations where there might be this pushback or they are not being treated fairly.

And it's not just a gender thing. I know women who personally are more terrible to work with than men. There are men who are saying, "I'm so sick of this because if I walk into a room and there's a diversity conversation I feel like somehow I'm just this horrible terrible person, which I'm not." There are many fields and many managers who are committed to advancing the role of women and minorities, so let's work with them. Let's not write another report, another white paper, another statistic, because we have enough statistics and it's the same statistics that go around and around, over and over again, and I don't think it is helping the conversation.


ST: There's something about quantum physics here, which is the idea that whatever you focus on tends to grow. By thinking the same things, you get more of the same things.

UG: Exactly.


ST: There are men who hear this conversation and immediately get pinpointed as a perpetrator if they're a guy, or white, or young. And when somebody's pointing a finger at you, as we all know in any kind of situation, you get very defensive rather than actually sitting there and being open and listening to what's being said. I do think a lot of these diversity conversations or workshops tend to be led by women and the audience is primarily women. I think that's the wrong audience. If you want to talk about diversity it has to actually be a more diverse audience, because otherwise you're just preaching to the choir, as they say.

UG: I think so. The point that you're making is very good because when you look at the RSA panel, for example, what thoughts did you leave with at the end? Did you feel energized? Did you say, "Okay, now I have some strategies to work with"? Here was a personal situation or something that many women in the workplace confront. But did we get a deeper understanding of how to work through that situation?

No. Instead, what we hear usually over and over again is “this is terrible, these are the facts, this is how you must do this,” but the conversation has become tired and weary. I'm a woman. I even fit the diversity background, the check mark, and I am so sick and tired of these conversations. I'm putting myself in the shoes of a white male and I'm going, "I will never come anywhere near the D word. I would run miles."


ST: I agree. I usually come away from these panels thinking, "Aside from a few anecdotal stories, I really haven't heard anything new here, I haven’t gotten any practical advice.” I will say, and it's not just because I have you on the phone here, but your session was one of the most inspiring I’ve heard in a while because you actually talked about something different and you went deep into the brain within the context of diversity. So we definitely need to get men and all sorts of people into this conversation in a way that's helpful to everybody and not, as you pointed out, all about victim and perpetrator.

Before we wrap up, is there anything you want to say about this idea of diversity and the brain and specifically when it comes to the workplace? Any last thoughts on that?

UG: I think the tagline should be: we need to bring diversity to the idea of diversity.


ST: Oh, I love that.

UG: We have been trampling the same path, so we definitely need to bring diversity to this subject and we need to change the conversation. That's what I'd like to do and I'd like your help because this is really very meaningful, purposeful work for me and I think it is for you as well. I think that should be our hashtag going forward: #ChangeTheConversation.

I have spoken to male CEOs who are afraid to speak up on any issue that concerns women or minorities so they have become so sanitized in their conversation. They want to help but they don't know how because even something that is said with good intentions can boomerang and people come after you like you just committed a crime.

We need to have an open mind, be willing to explore, dig deep, ask people where they are coming from, what their experiences are, and how they can contribute to this. I think we need to be generous in how we listen to people.


ST: I love that: be more generous in how we listen to people. That's fantastic. What a great way to end this conversation – for now. Thank you, Uma.

UG: Very good. Thank you for doing this. I appreciate it. It always helps me to bring my thoughts together and to think about it more holistically, so thank you.


Stay tuned for a series of articles from Dr. Uma Gupta as she explores these questions: What does it mean to change the conversation? Why is there this level of tiredness and exhaustion? Why is it that people who need to be at the table run away? And why we need to stop quoting these lack of diversity statistics and really bring a much richer conversation to the table.


About Dr. Uma Gupta

Dr. Uma Gupta is an entrepreneur, consultant, keynote speaker and Professor of Business at Buffalo State College, New York and specializes in technology, strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. She holds a PhD in industrial engineering, an MBA from the University of Central Florida, and a graduate degree in mathematics from Stella Maris College, India.

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