Trigger warning: This podcast episode contains discussion of suicidal ideation.
In Episode 76 (recorded live), Dr. Vivienne Ming, Founder, and CEO of Socos Labs, joins Melinda to discuss her new research on the neuroscience of trust in the workplace. They explore why we tend to feel an innate sense of trust in certain people over others, how we can overcome these biases to strengthen the trust on our teams, and how working remotely can shift how we build trust and psychological safety.
- Learn more about Dr. Vivienne Ming.
- Learn more about Socos research.
- Subscribe to Socos Labs.
- Learn more about The Neuroscience of Trust.
- Read more about How to include people with disabilities.
- Listen to LEA Episode 27: “How To Make Disability Accommodation And Inclusion The New Working Norm.”
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
This episode is sponsored by First Tech Federal Credit Union, a member-owned financial institution that is powered by a people-before-profit philosophy. Learn more at First Tech Federal Credit Union.
- “Incentives, team structure, and engagement – These are the three things we saw consistently increased trust throughout organizations for everyone.”
- “If you want to really think about how do I break through some of the limitations in trust-building within my organization and really counteract what our brains are doing naturally, then engineer it. Think in terms of teams instead of in terms of individuals. That’s the right way to think about collective intelligence anyway, the way the team interacts means so much more than the average skill level of the team members. The diversity of the team is crucially important, and trust, psychological safety is a huge predictor of team performance.”
- “If you’re in the HR world, there are probably 30 hiring managers that are screaming at you every day to fill roles. And some jerk like me comes along and says, ‘You know, you should slow down. Take time, build relationships with the candidates, put them in your pocket. Maybe there’s a right moment in the future.’ And you’re like, ‘If I don’t fill roles today, right now, first qualified person through the door, then I lose my job.’ If I hire some amazing diamond in the rough that someday ends up becoming an SVP, no one’s going to remember 15 years from now that I was the one that hired them. But I can get in trouble today for taking a risk on someone and it doesn’t pay off. So, we have all of these stressors competing for the same normal resources.”
- “…Then, we tried one last grouping, which we call complementary diversity…. We’re matching people that share some similarities but also have differences that effectively they can learn from one another. And differences can be different skills, different psychology… differences in race, gender, socio-economic status. Every one of those differences ended up being important. When you bring ten students together that have some shared core but also explicit differences, they outperform all the other groups. So, complementary diversity. And given everything I said, maybe you begin to see why that works so well. By sharing something, you at least had a toehold on trust. Psychological safety being one version of that, while also having all of those differences to learn from.”
Dr. Vivienne Ming
Founder, CEO at Socos Labs
Dr. Vivienne Ming explores maximizing human capacity as a theoretical neuroscientist, delusional inventor, and demented author. Over her career she’s founded 6 startups, been chief scientist at 2 others, and launched the “mad science incubator”, Socos Labs, where she explores seemingly intractable problems—from a lone child’s disability to global economic inclusion—for free. Vivienne’s other companies apply machine learning to lessen the corrosive health effects of chronic stress in communities, fight bias in hiring and promotion, develop neurotechnologies to treat dementia and TBI, and promote learning at home and in school. As a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, she pursued her research in cognitive neuroprosthetics.
In her free time, Vivienne designs AI systems to treat her son’s diabetes, predict manic episodes in bipolar sufferers, and reunite orphan refugees with extended family members. For relaxation, she writes science fiction and spends time with her wife and children. Vivienne was named one of “10 Women to Watch in Tech” by Inc. Magazine and one of the BBC’s 100 Women in 2017. She is featured frequently for her research and inventions in The Financial Times, The Atlantic, Quartz Magazine and the New York Times.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right, let’s dive in.
MELINDA: So, welcome everyone. Happy Women’s History Month. And just a quick reminder to focus on women’s history on your work this month through an intersectional lens, really taking allyship actions first and foremost for the most systemically marginalized women.
And lastly, before I introduce our guest, I want to just recognize that it’s been a rough couple of weeks or a few weeks with the war in Ukraine. New research is showing the devastating inequities of climate change and also continued anti-trans legislation and also anti-Asian violence. There are so many things happening right now. It’s a lot. So, sending a lot of love to everybody who’s hurting. And please take care of yourselves and take care of each other.
So today, we have with us Dr. Vivienne Ming, founder and CEO of Socos Labs. We will be discussing her new research on trust in the workplace, why we tend to trust some people over others, the disparities in who we trust or don’t trust, and how working remotely impacts our ability to build trust. And then, we’ll also discuss how this relates to psychological safety, which I know is really important to a lot of folks as they’re working on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
So hello, Vivienne. I’m so excited about this conversation with you.
- VIVIENNE MING: I’m thrilled to be here. Actually, I love the introduction reading through all of the slides. My wife has hearing loss and not to dive right into everything, but as someone that does a lot of work in artificial intelligence, so many technologies, we wish for flying cars and transporter beams, the fact that she can get real-time transcription for a one-time ever conversation is one of those things that makes me proud to have contributed to work like that, while also recognizing, wow, there are still so many problems that (1) can’t get solved and (2) AI can introduce. But just those little things when you’ve got a household that has insulin pumps, hearing aids, and little autism, you know, it’s surprising having gone to gender transition and having a multiracial family. It’s actually the disability stuff that makes it the hardest to get through society, to be perfectly honest.
Getting people to understand and make trivial allowances is surprisingly difficult. And for that reason, it’s actually unsurprising to me that in a lot of my research, where we’re looking at different ethnic and racial groups and gender disparities and so forth, two groups are incredibly hard to get information on. And that’s disability and refugee status. And it’s because people, for obvious reasons, you know, you don’t want that to be front and center on your resume because, despite all the legislation, people still make it very hard to move through the world if it’s a little harder moving through the world. Unsolicited comments, but I just loved the opening here where we read through everything.
MELINDA: Awesome. Yeah, it’s really it’s important to me, and it’s something that we’ve talked quite a bit about in different episodes too. And so, if anybody is interested, we’ll link in the show notes to more information too about accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities and the barriers that people with disabilities do face.
Many thanks to First Tech Federal Credit Union for sponsoring this episode today.
So, let’s start with your story, which you started a little bit. Where did you grow up? And how did you end up doing the work that you do now?
- VIVIENNE MING: Oh, my goodness. Well, this could be a long story. Sometimes people ask me to give keynotes 20 minutes long. That’s how long it takes me to just say my name, right.
Boy, it’s worth saying that I grew up in The Pastures of Heaven. That’s not my opinion. That’s the title of the John Steinbeck book that’s literally about the little valley that I grew up in. It’s also noteworthy that that valley is west of the East of Eden. So obviously, I grew up in John Steinbeck’s hometown, Salinas, California. I had a great life by every measure. My dad was a doctor. My mom was a teacher. I live in coastal California. You have a lot of advantages, much like Steinbeck but with a very different population. We saw families very different than ours going out, you know, spending 16 hours a day spent over in the field, but that was my life. I was supposed to win a Nobel Prize. The more I tried to be that person, the worse everything got. And not for lack of love. Just if that was my reason to be, it just didn’t get me out of bed. And unfortunately, when I was young, I didn’t fully understand what that meant.
And to make a very long story short, I ended up homeless after flunking out of university. I had a number of hard years where I really didn’t know where my next meal was coming from. And then, I had a really hard night with a gun and decision about whether I should even exist. And I came up with a reason. It sounds like an absurd reason. I totally recognize it. But every decision I made in my life made everything worse. Why don’t you just try something completely different? Live a life that makes other people’s lives better.
Step one, it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t a magical mantra that suddenly changed everything in my life. It took ten years to climb out of that hole. Step one was just, tell my parents who had been homeless, then you know, get a job at a convenience store. My dream back then was to get a job in a bookstore. If I could spend the rest of my life reading books and paying my own rent, I just thought that would be amazing.
And then, a few years later, I had the money to go back to school. And suddenly, everything was easy. I did my whole undergraduate degree in a single year. I got perfect grades in every class. I got introduced to machine learning, the field of artificial intelligence. Though in my case, it was to study the brain.
And so then when I got a Ph.D. in psychology, and then computational neuroscience, and I built algorithms that learn how to hear and see. I met my wife during that time, and when we came here to the Bay Area, I now live in Berkeley, we were a faculty at Cal, and we have the Terrible idea of starting a company together. Because if you really want to get a venture capitalist to give you $10 million, go through gender transition, and show up two women that have never done a company before. They loved our AI, hated the idea of investing in me. But we were able to push through that, not like it was easy. It was not at all.
Found some success, started another education company, then a workforce company, and then healthcare. So, I’ve started six companies. I’ve been the chief scientist at two or three others who had some fancy-schmancy accomplishments along the way. But this is very much the latter third of my life that there are some pretty amazing and sometimes hard stories along the way. But when I learned that lesson that it wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t about whether I was happy or not. What do you know, I got to be happy. Well, not for the last few years, but it’s actually started up again, flying around the world and helping people solve problems for free.
So that’s how I spend most of my time today. People bring me problems from “Dr. Ming, my daughter has 500 seizures a day. Please save her life.” to “Our country doesn’t know what to do about AI or education.” And if I think my team and I can make a meaningful difference, I pay for everything. We give away whatever we invent.
MELINDA: Wow. Wow. When I asked you what you really want to talk about today, you said the neuroscience of trust. Why? Why is that so important to you? Why? What’s going on?
- VIVIENNE MING: To be perfectly honest, you mentioned this in the introduction for reasons that actually, surprisingly, have nothing to do with my personal life. I just sort of walked backward into them. I found a lot of people bringing problems to me that were about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity.
I’m a hard number scientist, so particularly issues of inclusive economies. What does it mean for people to be able to fully participate, not just as a job, but the chance to invent, to create, to make your community, your city, your country, the world a better place? It’s something I can measure and understand. But it really came backward. Again, I was the chief scientist of one of the first companies doing AI in hiring.
I suddenly found myself with a data set of 122 million working professionals. I got to build models that said, “All right. Well, what about these people?” It doesn’t predict whether they get a job. That’s easy. What’s your name, your school, and your last job? What predicts you’ll be good at the job? And there are a lot of things that are not about individuals. Are you part of a team? Are you an inclusive team, all these sorts of things?
But about the individuals, it wasn’t the name of your school or your last job. It was whether you were resilient. It was whether you were adaptive, creative, have strong social skills. So, we found all these really interesting things, and suddenly, people started asking me about, “Well, how can we make a change, say in hiring or promotions or public policy?”
Well, I guess for ten years now or more, people have been inviting me to come to talk to their boards about the business case for diversity. And boy, there’s an easy business case there, like the numbers are strongly in one direction. You’re diversifying boards. I was on the advisory committee for Credit Suisse when they released a report showing that just having one woman on your board increases returns to shareholders by 3%. Having three or more women increase it by 5%. It didn’t matter what region of the world we were talking about. You can look at boards, and we can march all the way down through executive teams and elite scientific and industrial collaborations, all the way down to the lab itself.
What predicts collective intelligence and creative problem-solving experiments? One of the number one predictors is the diversity of a team. Mostly because people think they’ve thought of everything, and we never have. We’re not even close. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. You truly don’t have an appreciation for the real-world complexity of a problem. It’s been easy to go out and build this case. We invent more. We generate more economic activity. We learn so much more about each other. There are all these reasons. There are these business cases for diversity.
And then the next year, I get invited to make the same case. And the next year, the same case. Year after year for ten years, it’s not that the culture of, let’s say, the US hasn’t at all advanced or changed, but I’m still making the same argument. Two years ago, obviously, the world changed a lot. And two very large companies, Amazon and Facebook, came to me and said, “We’ve never sent all of our employees home before. What do we do?” Yeah. I mean, how do we do the basics? But also, what do innovation and inclusion look like in remote work? I thought I would just be able to dig up some research papers. My favorite projects are the ones where I don’t actually have to do anything. I just dig some things up to send them back to them.
We’re not consultants. I thought it was a worthwhile question to answer, and I’d be happy to do it for them, as long as I have a chance to share it with everyone else, but there was nothing. There was very little on remote work itself, just as a basic idea in terms of actual research. But inclusion, nothing. Innovation, it was like the story was you cannot innovate.
MELINDA: You can’t do it.
- VIVIENNE MING: The only way you can do it is to get a whole bunch of smart people together and smash them into one another and just cross your fingers. Right? The way we wrote it is there’s this idea that the only equation that’s meaningful in innovation is that density equals serendipity. Just how many people you can cram into the water cooler at any given time.
So, okay. I somewhat critically call myself a mad scientist. And so, sometimes you have to appreciate. Even when things are terrible, it gives you a new view of the world. And initially, some people come to really love remote work. Initially, it was seen as pretty terrible, but it had a truly special thing for us. All of our social lives were going to cameras. And we’re being tracked by zoom and Meet and Teams. And boy, I pity you if it was WebEx, but I’m sure there are some people still using the old stuff. So, I get to measure everything.
For more than a year, we got to run experiments and do measurements and found some truly fascinating things about innovation. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about was, even when it was clearly in people’s self-interest, even when over overwhelmingly, innovation was advanced by having more diverse teams. And here, I’m going to be expansive. We should absolutely never lose track of ethnic and racial diversity, gender diversity, particularly in the American and the UK experience, and so forth. But it turns out socio-economic diversity, cultural diversity, psychological diversity, like all of these things really matter.
What we found over and over again and was found previously in the psychological literature is we have this huge preference to spend time with people that are like ourselves. But here, I get to measure it to the minute, and you could see this incredible tendency to people for homophilia, as it’s called, to be with people that are like you. This is fascinating, even in experiments where you set it up. So they would clearly benefit from spending time with diverse participants. They can intellectually explain to you the value that figured out the game. “I need to talk to these people.” They still choose not to do it. And maybe “choose” is a little finger quality. But nonetheless, you see that in people’s behavior is, they knowingly harm themselves and the very things they’re trying to accomplish by spending time only with people that are more similar to them. So yeah, mashup.
MELINDA: I’m just imagining middle school and high school lunch. We’re still like that, right? We haven’t evolved. Right?
- VIVIENNE MING: This is not a shocking observation, but I think we tell ourselves something like, “I’m a professional. I’m a grown-up now. This is not the Middle School cafeteria.” Qhat I always hear from people whenever I visit with them, and I’m not a big finger pointer. I mean, the truth does enough. I walk in, and I’m looking at their entire investment team for some giant bank. And it’s all straight White guys. They say, “God, we’d love to have a woman or Black guy on the team, but we hire the best, and these are the best people. We manage billion-dollar funds. We don’t make mistakes. These are the best people.”
When you have that kind of a conversation, where you can clearly see that they’re speaking through their distorted lens, it’s their biases. I mean, my response to that particular actual instance is, “The one thing I can tell you is that that’s not true.” And in fact, you probably have a question that you ask when people interview that’s filtering everyone out that isn’t like you, but you don’t even realize that you’re asking the question. And that case, by the way, it was, do you manage a billion-dollar fund? That was one of their requirements for even getting an interview to be on their team? Well, guess what, in that year, which was a while ago, there was not a single woman in the world that managed a billion-dollar fund, and there was one Black man in the whole world, and he built a fund himself, He wasn’t going to leave it to go work for a bank. So you just said you wouldn’t even interview anyone that doesn’t like you. You didn’t mean it. But you came up with a test that made certain homophilia dominant. So okay, I mean, again, it’s not a shock. But I think sometimes people are surprised that maybe it doesn’t matter how professional, how rational you see yourself. You’re still human.
Again, I’m not here to fingerprint. My story is not one of the villains. There are plenty of villains in this world. Your introduction to our conversation calls some villainy out, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who think they’re doing the right thing. Even if sometimes, the right thing to their eyes is something that’s a little ugly, but they still think they’re doing the right thing. And yet, it is actively harming them and their companies. I wanted to understand what was going on. I’ve gotten tired of over and over again having to remake the business case for diversity. There’s something else that’s holding us back, something that goes deeper than our rational ability to run our companies or run our hiring systems. And I happen to be a neuroscientist. So I was a little suspicious that it might be our brains.
As you can tell, I’m a wonderful radio interview. I only give the briefest, most concise answers. But that’s why I wanted to talk about the neuroscience of trust, because all of this work a whole year of essentially doing social network analysis on millions and millions of people and their entire lives, knowing everyone they interacted with, told us that something in our brains was staring us away from diversity, even as diversity becomes the principal predictor of innovation within high-performance teams.
MELINDA: Yeah. So what is that? What is holding us back from trusting each other from developing those relationships that lead to innovation ultimately?
- VIVIENNE MING: There are all sorts of psychological literature we could go through here, but I want to get right into the neuroscience, but we do see for years and years that, for example, men treat women in a variety of circumstances, including one of my favorite studies looking at the US Senate. Men treat women with greater skepticism. They ask them tougher questions. An analysis was done of economists and found that in every major economics conference, women are treated with more skepticism for similar quality of work, more skepticism, harder questions, and we’re less likely to get the chance to get cited and collaborate.
Again, we see this. It’s called the diversity innovation paradox. Those same women, we’re actually publishing more novel, more impactful papers in terms of the idea space, but we’re getting less credit for it. And again, if it’s not true villainy, what’s really going on? So there are these funny things going on inside our heads.
Trust isn’t just one thing. It’s two things. We have these circuits in our minds. They involve a whole bunch of different local parts of our brain, such as the medial prefrontal cortex, which is a lot of where our sense of our emotional selves are and our executive control. Our amygdala, which sometimes we think of as an emotion center or fear center in our brain, and all sorts of reward circuits from dopamine, the kind of reward in our brain that just gets us to do a thing over again. And also what are called endogenous opioids. So these are things that actually make us feel good.
And so, it’s interesting. There’s purely a little neuroscience nerdery. It’s interesting that the reward to get us to do things again and the reward to get us to feel good are actually two different rewards. Our brain deals with those differently. But what’s most fascinating about this big complex circuit is that it does two completely different things depending on who’s in front of us.
Let’s assume someone is very much like us. Now, obviously, someone who’s already a close friend that we trust, but even someone who’s a stranger, but part of what we’re going to call ours in the group. So, racially similar, psychologically similar, similar gender with real biases in favor of whatever the dominant social group is of your culture. So in America, White men get a lot of what I’m going to describe here, kind of for free from a lot of different groups. So, what happens? But here’s one of my favorites is not just that. Do you smell more similar to one another? That actually evokes a certain kind of response in these trust circuits. Is my intestinal flora and fauna more similar to you? I know we like to think that we’re something special. But in fact, we’re all just a bunch of terrestrial spaceships being flown around by protozoa that are kind of horny and want to get it on, just like us with bugs that are similar to them.
So, we have this incredible connection, this ingroup connection. What’s going on there? When I see someone who’s like me, first off, what we call automaticity, these complex frontal circuits that are ready and capable of exerting huge effort to create trust. I don’t need them at all. All of the circuitry just kind of comes on for free. It’s easy, and trust is shared with that effort. I get the rewards for trusting someone before the trust is paid off. So when someone’s very similar to me, my circuits come on with automaticity, automatically without effort, and the little bit of dopamine, and even a little bit of an opioid. I get that, at the very moment, my brain sees, “Oh, there’s someone like me. This is going to pay off.” It actually gives me the reward before the outcome. I know we think we’re super special, exactly what we see in rats. If I took a rat, and I train it to solve a maze, and at the very middle, you know, there’s some cheese, once the rat has been trained, trained, trained, trained, trained, and I set it in front of the maze. In its brain, it gets a little reward before it even enters the maze because it already thinks it’s going to get the cheese.
So when we see someone who’s like us, we’re like that rat. We know this maze. This is going to pay off. I’m going to get the cheese at the end. We probably don’t think how much of that is simply driven by this person is a lot like me. So, what if they’re different? If they’re in an outgroup? I bet you can guess where I’m going to go with this. But first off, you don’t get those rewards automatically. You only get the reward signal after the trust has paid off. So, you have to get all the way to the center of the maze. You got to get the cheese. If you’re collaborating with someone, not only do you have to collaborate with them, that collaboration has to pay off whatever you’re trying to accomplish, that project at work. Your brain doesn’t give you a reward signal until someone is very different than you until that collaboration is truly paid off. So, how do you build trust when it doesn’t come for free? It’s effort. Those frontal regions cycle up. You look like someone that’s solving complex problems. You’ll look like someone that’s about to go on stage to give a talk, which is commonly used by psychologists to freak people out.
If you’ve done it a little while, you get pretty used to it. But it’s the way we stress people in these experiments. That’s what your brain looks like when you’re beginning to trust a person that is very different from you. You have to put an enormous amount of effort in. That’s problematic. Not because we shouldn’t try to trust one another. It’s problematic because, as I just implied, these are the same neural resources we’re using to get our job done. Your boss is breathing down your neck to deliver a project to make sales, hit your quota. If you’re in the HR world, there are probably 30 hiring managers that are screaming at you every day to fill roles. And some jerk like me comes along and says, “You know, you should slow down. Take time, build relationships with the candidates, put them in your pocket. Maybe there’s a right moment in the future.” And you’re like, “If I don’t fill roles today, right now, first qualified person through the door, then I lose my job.” If I hire some amazing diamond in the rough that someday ends up becoming an SVP, no one’s going to remember 15 years from now that I was the one that hired them. But I can get in trouble today for taking a risk on someone, and it doesn’t pay off. So, we have all of these stressors competing for the same normal resources.
The reason I believe that this diversity-innovation paradox persists, the reason every year we have to keep making the same transparently obvious argument for the business case for diversity, is because intellectually, you can understand and believe everything I’m saying. And as soon as I put you under stress, suddenly, your brain can’t see the value and the out-groups as easily as it can see them in the in groups. And without realizing it, suddenly, you’re treating people differently. When if there wasn’t distress, you wouldn’t do it. So that’s what we found. It took an enormous amount of work to put all the neuroscience together and the social network analysis, and the terrible circumstances of the last two years. But the wonderful thing about all of this work is we also found the things that actually help build trust to literally retrain our brains into sharing trust more readily with people that are different. It isn’t just a story of, oh, well, we’re human, and we’ll never be perfect. That’s true. But it turns out we can be more perfect, and we can be less perfect, and there are choices we can make as a set of norms and culture within a company as individuals that can actually drive that forward.
MELINDA: Awesome. Wow. I have so many questions. That brings on a lot of questions for me. Let’s talk, though, about those solutions because I think that’s why a lot of folks are here wanting to create change individually in themselves and also in their companies and across their teams as well. And I will also say for anybody who has questions, if you could put them in the Q&A function, we will answer questions shortly. So, let’s talk about those solutions. What have you found?
- VIVIENNE MING: Let me pick out two in particular. I’m going to preface all of this by saying there isn’t an easy answer for that. If you’re looking for, “Hey, what are the three quick, easy things I can do today that will completely change my company?” I’m never going to have that kind of answer for you. Not here, not in any other problem spaces I work in. There are only ever messy human problems. They only ever have messy human solutions. You need to get comfortable with that.
But here are two very concrete things we found. There’s actually been a great deal of research looking about what drives inclusion within organizations, and we try a number of things, and they can have an impact. But one fascinating meta-analysis looked at all of these different kinds of workplace programs and found one in particular not only had an impact at the moment, but the changes have produced sustained through a year later. And it has a very wonky name, but it’s actually fairly straightforward. It’s called stereotypical counter exemplars.
What does that mean if you unpack it? Spend time engaging in working with people to violate your stereotypes. If you actively want to change yourself, that is the most concrete and effective way of doing it. Essentially, pure role modeling in every direction. Now, obviously, in some ways, it’s hard for us to do this, right? I’m just telling you that you have a stereotype. And if you want to get beyond that, you have to actively engage with people that violated it. Well, it’s going to be hard to build trust. It’s not going to come for free. It will be effortful. So, the cost here is time. But the solution is pretty evident. In fact, this is what we found. And again, all of our lives going through cameras made this really easy. The number of minutes that people spent together on camera changed the way they would share trust with one another in really powerful ways. I am so confident that this happens on-site in person as well. But it might be a somewhat more subtle effect because we have all the literal traditional social cues and embodied cues. But when it goes to cameras, minutes of FaceTime, often, for example, between a direct report and their manager, becomes a huge predictor of whether that person gets new job assignments, promotions, and recognition. Just minutes of time when you control the quality of work and everything else.
So I just told you, we can clearly see. We have a preference to spend time with people that are similar to us. But one of the most effective ways to break our stereotypes is to not just spend time, actively and productively engage. Remember, you only get the reward when you find the cheats. So spending time together in the company loo out does not produce this effect. Then again, you may not want to put people together on a make-or-break company critical project. But surely there’s somewhere in between where you can bring together people that are different but can learn from one another and give them a real thing to work on. Think of Google’s 20% time projects, where there are some actual stakes. It’s not purely socializing, but it’s not necessarily always your day job. If it is, that’s even better if we can engineer those kinds of experiences.
In our work, we took it a step further. I did a big experiment, for example. This was prior to lockdown. Years ago, in fact. There is a giant MOOC that had 30,000 students on average in each class. This is one of the biggest nonprofit online education groups in the world. And the fascinating thing is, the students almost always did worse than they would have in person. And there’s a variety of reasons, but you can kind of control for those. And there’s really good reason to think despite all the promises of these massive classes, you know, there are 30,000 students, I can ask questions. I have so many minds together. Surely, this makes us more intelligent. It turns out it doesn’t. One of the predictors we found in doing our social network analysis is small teams are one of the biggest predictors of innovation. So are flat hierarchies.
So, in this case, though, we did three simple little experiments. One is we broke up those 30,000 students into roughly groups of 10—completely random. In other words, you also have the same lectures. But when you went online to the class social network, it was as though there were only ten other students there with you. And even though there are fewer students to learn from and the chance that you just happen to be in the class with a genius drops to zero, every student did better, meaningfully better. All right, can we do better than random? What if we match people together by being similar? Well, that didn’t do slightly better than random, but not by very much. So then we tried one last grouping, which we call complementary diversity. Now it’s a little harder, but fancy-schmancy AI helps us out a lot here. We’re matching people that share some similarities but also have differences that effectively they can learn from one another. And differences can be different skills, different psychology, but again, differences in race, gender, socio-economic status. Every one of those differences ended up being important.
When you bring ten students together that have some shared core but also explicit differences, they outperform all the other groups. So, complementary diversity. And given everything I said, maybe you begin to see why that works so well. By sharing something, you at least had a toehold of trust. Psychological safety being one version of that, while also having all of those differences to learn from. So, that’s my next recommendation. If you want to really think about how do I break through some of the limitations and trust-building within my organization and really counteract what our brains are doing quite naturally, then engineer it. Think in terms of teams instead of in terms of individuals. That’s the right way to think about collective intelligence anyways. The way a team interacts means so much more than the average skill level of the team member. The diversity of the team is crucially important, and trust, psychological safety is a huge predictor of team performance. Because you can imagine, I kind of lead into this. One of the reasons why these diverse teams outperform is just they cover more of the possible space of solutions. But their diverse experiences just mean they literally and desirably think differently. But if I don’t have trust, I’m not going to listen to you. And if you don’t have trust, maybe you’re not going to say what you’re thinking. Why blow this great idea on someone who’s just going to ignore me?
And in fact, again, when we look at gender divides, we see that a lot. We see cases in which groups that have a majority male, and you only need to get like a majority of people to agree with you. They will often completely ignore the women in the group. The men only listen to themselves because that’s all they need to do to succeed. So this leads me to my last recommendation. It’s a little bit wonky, as you can tell, I like wonk. It goes by the name of minority opinion. It’s about incentives. We can give all sorts of incentives to the people that work for us. For example, if someone comes up with a good idea, we can just give them a fixed bonus or a pat on the back, whatever. Those are all incentives. Simple attention is a phenomenally powerful incentive. Human beings are so responsive simply to attention from people they respect that we should really lean into that as a tool. For example, you got a great idea, and it was part of a solution, you get a bonus. Maybe run a market incentive system. Whoever has good ideas, if their ideas succeed, they get a share and some bonus.
We’ve just talked about a winner take all competition or market system. It turns out through a lot of very fancy work looking at game-theoretic models and then running experiments with people. Neither of those is the best way to give out incentives. If you want to maximize the collective intelligence of the community, not just how much reward every individual gets, but how much reward the entire community is able to receive. The best is the minority opinion. You only give rewards when someone was right when the majority was wrong. In which case, wow, suddenly the idea that you need people that are different becomes transparent. And back to that experiment involving men and women, even when women are the minority, as soon as you flip that around, the men actually ask tougher questions of each other, become more skeptical of each other, and spend more time listening to the women, because now they know, in essence, what their brains already knew, which was, they’re thinking a little bit differently and more likely to actually have this unique idea than I am because my thoughts are more like the majority of this room, which are guys like me.
So, here are three, hopefully, fairly concrete. You need engagement with people that are different than you—real working engagement to violate stereotypes and retrain that reward circuit in your brain. You need to think about how you build your teams and look explicitly for complimentary diversity where you’re trading off. Understanding trust and diversity are often at odds and really explicitly trying to balance them out.
And then lastly, think about how you incentivize things. Even that simple little pat on the back. Are you spreading it evenly across genuine and even attention across your team? But also, when people have a great idea, are you recognizing the outliers, the people that took a chance and turned out to be right, because I will tell you this was crystal clear in our evidence. When people are punished for taking a chance, right or not, they stop taking chances. That correlates so strongly with issues of diversity. It looked like they were taking a chance on you because they were thinking about the problem differently, and you punished them for being different. Again, people learn that lesson really clearly. So incentives, team structure, and engagement. These are the three things we saw consistently increased trust throughout organizations and really brought everyone into the fold of, you know, I’ve got a unique idea too and I need to think more for myself.
MELINDA: That’s fascinating. I want to jump into a couple of questions here from our audience. First, the effort to have trust. It doesn’t matter which party makes an effort. A distrustful person or person looking to have the trust, is it the same amount of effort, same timeline?
- VIVIENNE MING: Yeah, I sort of talked about this as though it’s all symmetric. And it is to a degree, but I also implied, for example, that culturally dominant in groups. For example, just a very recent study found that if I sent a single-question survey out to average Americans, and I suddenly indicated that it was from a White person versus a Black person. Every racial group, except for Blacks were less likely to answer a single question if it was implied that the asker was Black. So, that kind of infusion of a cultural norm where one group really does benefit strongly suggests, and I say this with sympathy. The White guys need to step up. And I’m sympathetic because I used to be one of you. I know, it’s not as easy as everyone seems to think. But you own so much of, you know, I’m going to skip the word privilege and just say, that voice, that assumption that things will go right for you, that knowledge that fair or not, you’re going to get a little bit extra in your paycheck than the people around you. It allows you to take risks that other people can. So use that Get Out of Jail Free card to really help develop the team as a whole. You’re the one that can more easily take risks, even if everyone around you is more obligated to take those risks.
I can’t speak to this from a data-driven standpoint, but I strongly suspect an asymmetry that really favors the cultural ingroup is probably what we need here, but it doesn’t have to rely on that. Obviously, people can step up from all these different directions. And so, the research, for example, about counterstereotypical exemplars has nothing to do with whether people are explicitly sharing trust or not. It is simply that they gauged together, and it paid off. If you can engineer those kinds of experiences, you can rewire people’s brains. And as spooky as that sounds coming from a mad scientist, honestly, that’s what we’re after here. We want people to have that automaticity of trust with everyone they are working with on the team, at least at an earned level. We want those rewards not to have to wait so long and take so much effort to achieve. We want them to come early. So, it isn’t required for people to make an explicit decision about I’m going to be trusting or not. But it is required for that engagement to pay off.
MELINDA: Emily asks. It’s related to how this applies to the remote environment. She says specifically that she had a colleague that she worked with in person for almost two years and felt closer to her after knowing what she smelled like. And so, just thinking about how these solutions relate to those virtual relationships.
- VIVIENNE MING: Yeah. A lot of this, obviously, in some ways, our lives go dark. We only have this very narrow view. I’ve got an off-camera life here that you all don’t get to participate in. For some people, I think they see that as a real positive. But the truth is, the majority of people feel they rely on the implicit structure of a workday a lot more than I think many of us appreciate it. You know, just that circadian rhythm of going into the office, of being present in the room where things are being discussed. Even just being in the office space and hearing that things are being discussed. We have always known that there are these biases so that people that are more immediate parts of your lives come more readily to mind, but it’s a fairly diffuse effect when you’re in the office together. When you’re online, it’s dominant. There’s a genuine degree of out-of-sight-out-of-mind, and certainly, out-of-smell-out-of-mind, and that we’re not hearing each other’s voices as much.
I want to be clear. The little pictures at the top of Zoom or Meet or something like that doesn’t count. We found it’s a number of minutes that a person was the dominant image in front of someone that really that was when the clock started ticking. And, you know, if we were to put it this way, the brain rewiring is happening. So we start really strong biases. Those happen in all of us. In fact, people that are fairly socially savvy, even if they don’t realize they’re doing it, they’ll often tend to sit on the strong side of a dominant person in the room.
So, you know, if I’m the CEO, and I have a bias towards my right side, people with strong social skills will pick up on that and start sitting on the right side. And as a result, we are slightly more likely to get called on for projects and just for them to get highlighted for their work. It’s not a huge effect, but it’s measurable. On a camera, it’s an enormous effect. And it’s something we, even outside of the neuroscience of trust, should be very thoughtful about how do we make certain that we’re actually spending enough time with one another, such that people aren’t an afterthought.
It’s tough when you don’t have the trust to build psychological safety, if you’re not in contact with one another. Interestingly, once you have it, once you get that trust for free, high-performance teams with high psychological safety actually often spend less time together than most other teams because they don’t need to go through a lot of the performative stuff anymore. They trust one another to get their own roles done.
But again, when our lives go to cameras, or I’m a big believer in asynchronous tools, you know, Google Docs, wikis, there’s something called Notion, not chats, and Slacks and stuff like that. But this stuff where multiple people are trying to come to an understanding, it just happens to be through a piece of technology. You’re not taking turns. You’re resolving your differences down into an explicit statement.
We clearly see value in that kind of tool being used in a remote work environment. One of the things that it does is surface your differences and obligates you to confront them and resolve them. You combine that with some engagement and some minority opinion incentives, and you find really powerful change happening within people.
MELINDA: We didn’t get to all the questions. I have two, actually, two quick questions for you. One is from Julie, which I had the question as well. Where can people learn more, I guess, is the question.
- VIVIENNE MING: Absolutely. So if you visit Socos.org, I write about this stuff. Some of it is hidden away, so it can’t be found. But we also have a list of all of the research that we cite and the various materials. You can sign up for our newsletter, which would allow you to get information about again what I’m reading, what I’m putting into my research, and the kinds of projects we’re working on.
Actually, I have literally opened right now a little new chapter of a book I’m working on. The chapter title is suspicious minds. I’ve had Elvis running through my head all day. I’m taking all this work that was originally part of a big essay I wrote called remote work and breaking out some of these pieces because it turns out the neuroscience of trust isn’t about remote work, even though that was the context in which we started this research. So visit Socos.org and sign up for things if you’re interested in doing that, and keep your eye open to articles like suspicious minds and others come out. And again, we have a specific site on our website that’s just research. Everything is shared openly so you can see all. If you’re a nerd and you actually want to read the science, you can see those papers as well.
MELINDA: Awesome. And now the last question is, we always end with a call to action. So, what action would you like people to take after listening or watching this episode?
- VIVIENNE MING: I think the thing that we all need to confront is something I’ve mentioned already that this won’t be easy. I think the idea of the business case for diversity is that if some very smart person would come along and tell executives that they’d make more money if they would just do X, it would solve all the problems. But it doesn’t because this isn’t a rational process. We’re holding ourselves up to a standard that I will tell you as an expert AIs can’t meet either.
Cognitive beings are fundamentally inescapably flawed. Let’s just accept that that’s true and move forward. At which point, we need to accept that a more diverse, inclusive, and eventually equitable workplace is one we have to work hard to achieve. Even specifically what I talked about—sharing trust with people that are different from you is literally effortful. It won’t come for free, no matter how good your intentions are. Put in that effort. And the cost is usually in time, but there are other ways that you could express that cost. Accept that that extra effort will come, and then it will pay off.
That’s now, I guess, where the business case for diversity is. In the long run, this will pay off. In the short run, we need a different principle. We need fairness first. We need to accept that this business case is true. Or maybe you just believe in it as a social endeavor. And we need to accept that and then set it aside and simply make a choice at the moment to put in the effort for a fairer society and a fairer workplace.
As scary as the world is, the only way that it changes is if we are the ones that are willing to go out and occasionally make a sacrifice. I know I’m asking a crowd here that probably feel like they’ve made a lot of them, but I guess that’s the story of my life. When I thought it was about me, everything got worse. I guess it all resolved down. It’s almost like a line, but I got about 9 trillion data points to back it up. That if you really want an amazing life, you have to give it to someone else.
MELINDA: Wow. I love that. I agree personally. That is very similar to how I kind of walk through this world. I think it has a lot to do with all the different things that are happening in the world. So really, thank you so much for this incredible conversation. Thank you for all the work you do. It really makes a big difference for those of us who are working on diversity, equity, and inclusion to really build and grow or impact, so we appreciate you.
- VIVIENNE MING: I’m thrilled I had a chance to be here. It’s always wonderful that my mania and soapboxing occasionally warm others.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalysts where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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