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Have you ever wondered what the number ONE priority of your brain is?

When I’ve asked people, they suggest it’s to think, learn, reason and regulate physiological systems like heart rhythm, blood circulation and your respiratory system, to name just some of that. And all that is correct, of course. I’ve worked in education and development for more than 24 years now and it was only when I studied neuroscience that I got really clear on the answer to that question. The design of the brain is such that the amygdala can override the function of every other part of your Brain in order to maintain your SURVIVAL. To protect you.

To keep you alive and safe from danger and threat.

The focus of my speciality as a Coach and Consultant is in the neuroscience of TRUST – a fundamental human need - and a body of work called Conversational Intelligence. It reveals fascinating facts about how the brain actually works. And this has given me huge insight into the fundamental human drives for love, belonging, purpose and value.

But how does the brain ensure our survival? Think about the billions of bytes of data it receives through all your senses in every second from colours and texture of you clothing and your seat, to the lighting in the room, the movement around you, to temperature of your body and your environment, the foreground and background sounds around you, your brain is receiving an overload of data in every second.

To make any meaning of your situation, to select what to respond to and HOW to respond - It must filter this data overload. And it has a beautiful system to do just that – the Reticular Activating System (RAS).

If the room starts to warm up, your brain will tell your body to sweat as a cooling response. If we smelled some smoke and someone shouts FIRE, you’ll immediately jump from your seat and run from the room. Your brain doesn’t need to see the fire to sound your internal alarm.

The primary function of your brain is to keep you safe!

The brain’s design is to help you survive the dangerous world you were born into. So in this scenario, you’ll get a surge of adrenaline and cortisol that boosts you into protective action. An act of SURVIVAL.

But there’s a catch to the RAS: there’s so much information, it needs to simplify it by setting it into categories, detecting patterns, drawing broad based conclusions. And this is where we develop an unavoidable human failing: we develop unconscious bias.

We cannot talk about Diversity of any kind without confronting that every single one of us, by virtue of our brain’s design, is prone to a range of bias.

An Unavoidable Human Failing

As South Africans, our history has left us deeply biased on many levels. And because memory and beliefs are embedded in our emotional experience, much of our bias is deeply embedded

in our psyche and will take deliberate conscious practice to override.

I share my journey to a heightened awareness of my own bias and the unintended impact thereof, and how that awareness now informs my work with people and organisations as an Inclusion Specialist. I do this so you can locate your own bias and bring into the foreground so that together, we can co-create a culture of consciousness and choice around us that is a celebration of our shared humanity and inherent dignity…

As I remember, it’s my first year of Big School – called Sub A in those days. I take home a form my parents must sign. The page has lots of words swimming on them as I hold it out to my dad.

“Daddy, my teacher said you must say what race I am: white, coloured, black or Indian,” I chant out, feeling clever and big.

I watch his face go red with rage before he thunders, “Tell your teacher you’re none of those things. You belong to the Human race and that’s all!” He huffs and storms out of the room.

I look at my mum uncertain about what I’ve done wrong.

“We don’t use those ugly labels, darling,” my mum soothed. “They’re not our words.”

So began my resistance to the Apartheid system I grew up in. As I grew, I read and as I read, I raged. At high school I witnessed courageous teachers held in detention for articles they had written or for speaking out at public meetings. I saw my cousin exiled after being put on watch list by the South African Police. I became ever more passionate about the dismantling of a system of unspeakable oppression. I don’t have to describe this to you. And I certainly don’t claim to have experienced the worst of it. Apartheid was a hierarchical structure after all. While all people of colour were disenfranchised, restrictions of movement and the lowest quality of education and housing was particularly reserved for black people.

But as a youth, growing up in a ‘coloured’ community, these hostile and often violent experiences fuelled my dream of a Free South Africa and inspired my whole outlook on life: to break the ceiling imposed, we needed to educate, empower, uplift – first ourselves and then others. With that aim I protested. I rallied for an alternative education, for freedom of expression and the right to choose our leaders. I toi-toi-ed serving the student movement during the 1980s.

Later I trained in teaching English to speakers of other languages. In this field I continued the work of creating bridges between people of diverse languages within our communities and abroad. I held language and literacy classes in Gugulethu and Nyanga and I also taught English to foreign visitors to our country – refugees and tourists alike. Along this path I applied to lead an Academic team at the largest Women’s University in the World – a part of the world notorious for its oppression of women. I was going to live a long held dream – Educate! Empower! Uplift!

To obtain the post however, I needed to qualify as an International Examiner.

The pass requirement? 100%! I’d been pretty comfortable being a steady 80 percenter for most of my school days and by university that dropped to an easy 60. So I knew 100% would be a stretch. For a universal standard, there was no margin for error. 100% or Fail.

The email with results was brief:

Writing: Pass 100% - Certificate included

Listening: Fail 90%

You are allowed to re-sit this exam only once

Ninety Percent!!!

That means out of 10 people I had assessed, I had scored one incorrectly. But which one? As I retook the exam a week later, my head throbbed with self-doubt and speculation…was the Italian, the Chinese, the Brazilian…? I recalled their heavy accents, their limited vocabulary

but couldn’t be sure.

And my inner critic was running wild: “Don’t stuff this up again, Hani! You need to get this post. Use the bloody guidelines!”

In the absence of confidence, I mustered every ounce of focus. And then I heard it: the 8th speaker…a heavy flat Afrikaaner accent talking about Rugby!!! And the automatic emphatic, dismissive voice in my head:

Reflex reaction. Immediate:

Dumb Boer!

I felt my tummy tighten in shock. My cheeks redden in silent humiliation.

I had caught myself out as a bigot! My racial bias was staring right at me!

In an instant I realised that I had stopped listening to this young man, merely because his accent reminded me so powerfully of the enemy of my angry youth.

I shot upright.

In the stillness of my mind now, I listened. And I heard his aspirations for the first time. I heard his rich vocabulary, his articulate clear expression and his passion for the sport he loved, his dream for a better future.

He was not the Botha or Verwoerd whose laws had thwarted my parents’ education. He was not the soldier who fired tear gas into the garden where 5 year old Hani was playing in 1976.

He was not the policeman who Sjambokked me and my friends. He was not the constable who arrested my cousin in 1986.

Outside of my bias, for the first time, I could see that:

This young man had a dream to travel on the merit of his skill – Just like me.

He was submitting to the process of an exam – Just like me.

He dreamed of a bright new future – Just like me.

He belonged to the Human Race – JUST LIKE ME.

But my past said we were different. My memories of people who sounded like him said he was a threat to me.

And in the blink of that thought, my bias almost sabotaged both our futures.

I would have failed him because of how he SOUNDED And in the process, I would fail as

an examiner.

I am grateful for the realisation in that exam-room. It opened up again, the possibility not only of getting beyond our differences, but acknowledging our shared humanity.

Because of my training as a coach, I recognised my bias…but only the second time around. It was that recognition that opened the door to an invaluable opportunity in Academics in the Middle East - another very different people and culture. A lesson that equipped me for encounters there.

But imagine that I was working with this person daily. Someone I subconsciously dismissed whenever they spoke. Someone I secretly feared and loathed. Someone I disregarded because I already believed we were just too different? After all “his people” had perpetrated unthinkable crimes against humanity. And I had all my historic evidence to show how right I was to think this way. Everyone who suffered with me would agree I’d be justified in my distance and disregard.

In that scenario, what kind of work environment would I create? What kind of culture would exist around me? What are the chances then of creating a world of understanding, peace and connection? What are the chances then that South Africa could ever be a Community of Contribution?

This may be a good moment to ask yourself:

What’s YOUR bias? Who do you see as OTHER? Who do you dismiss as irrelevant? Whose “OTHERNESS” do you see as a PROBLEM?

While it’s true that most of our workspaces are civil and even friendly, we need only look to the horrors of our news channels and the violence on every media platform to see how little we are actually embracing diversity.

We are quick to determine “otherness” -with those we meet and work, so we create circles of sameness around us. But what if we were seeking out COMMONALITIES instead of avoiding

difference? What if we uncovered the hidden similarities we share?

This is what inspired my children’s book Just Like Me about a little girl who sees how her apparently different friends all share her different likes and interests. This approach, also

informed by neuroscience, now feeds into my programs in companies and education institutions.

I believe that #thejustlikemeeffect is the starting point for bridging the divisions entrenched when we focus on Diversity. A space to transcend difference and find the common ground from which to start a conversation that’s invitational, interested, a discovery of what’s possible.

#thejustlikemeeffect doesn’t mean that we MUST ALL BE THE SAME!

What it does assert is that we are far more likely to work together effectively when we have identified our shared values, shared commitments, our shared hopes and aspirations as well as our shared fears and anxieties

Then perhaps despite our differences, we can truly hear each other.

Diversity Rocks but Inclusion Rules

In business in the era of artificial intelligence, the automation of the fourth industrial revolution and the volatile uncertainty of geo-politics, it is fundamental to humanise our economies by working in community and co-create inclusion.

Put differently, you could ask yourself:

What type of MD or CEO really annoys you?

What type of colleague are you clear you don’t want to work with?

What type of client do you dread and what type of person do you simply love

working with?

These answers tell you more about yourself than it does about the people who get to you. It reveals your prejudice, your intolerance, your bias and righteous thinking that limits your ability to embrace our shared humanity.

But in this expanded self-awareness, you can engage your various stakeholders from a compassionate place. After all, when we recognise our own failings, we can forgive the failings of others. As a business leader, you can co-create a culture of inclusion when you’ve done this inner work.

Inclusion is the necessary step to making diversity count. We want the gold that diversity offers, not just the perception of political correctness it offers on the surface. Inviting inclusion is very much about being willing to hear the concerns, aspirations, hopes and challenges each stakeholder is facing and asking, what do we have in common? Or asking how we can partner each other, despite our different contexts.

While embracing Diversity is about recognising and actively overriding our bias, inclusion is very much about asking different questions and then showing a willingness to truly listen.

In that process, we may well discover gifts beyond our imagination and grow a sense of sameness and connection that heals us all.

Embracing diversity is an invitation to shift from head to heart. From closed to open, from knowing to being curious. From fear to courage and from certainty to discovery.

Only together can we create an inclusive society of love and belonging. And I’m right here to help you make that happen…

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Satendra Dev Verma
Satendra Dev Verma
Dec 29, 2020

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