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How to Use Neuroscience to Frame Your Company’s Response to the Election

Your employees may be feeling traumatized. Here are three ways to restore their trust and tolerance.

Business leaders have a choice during the next few months in the way they speak publicly about political affairs. The Brexit referendum, the U.S. presidential election, and the growing support for nationalism in many countries have all made it impossible to ignore politics — because every aspect of major businesses is affected by globalization. Top business leaders are reacting to these developments in a variety of ways: They are intrigued by the business opportunities or the presumed reduction in taxes; concerned about the impact on diversity; uncertain about the effect this will have on their access to global markets; disheartened or pleased personally. No matter what their perspective, they may be inclined to share their views openly or they may be tempted to remain silent. Either choice could make things better or worse within their companies. It all depends on how they do it, and how well they understand the personal responses triggered by these political events at levels below explicit consciousness.

For example, many organizational leaders have worked hard in recent years to develop more inclusive cultures; they recognize that people need to feel that they’re part of the same group to collaborate, especially across national boundaries. But the elections of 2016, and the associated public displays of nationalism, ethnic isolationism, and suspicion of outsiders, have reinforced deeply ingrained biases in people’s brains. No matter how inclusive your organization may be, and no matter what your employees’ political perspectives, you will probably see an increase in “us-versus-them” antagonism, and a corresponding reduction in trust, collaboration, and creativity. Just when companies need to innovate faster than ever to compete globally, they face the daunting prospect that millions of employees will work alongside colleagues whose presence subconsciously agitates them.

At the NeuroLeadership Institute, where we study the neuroscience underlying successful leadership, we have concluded that the approach one takes to engaging employees on this issue can matter a great deal. What you do in coming days and weeks can make or break your organization’s spirit for years to come. Here is a way of framing your outreach efforts more effectively, to make the most of your company’s talent, and of people’s commitment, in these times of uncertainty.

Start by recognizing the effect of these elections on attitudes, particularly those embedded below the level of conscious attention. One of the most prevalent is known as similarity bias. The brain quickly and automatically classifies almost every new person as friend or foe largely according to the degree to which they outwardly seem like us. Every day, based on surface appearances, we unconsciously classify some people into an implicit in-group (composed of people we trust and want to collaborate with) and others into an out-group (composed of people we feel we need to be careful of). The criteria we use can be based on national, ethnic, or religious background, but they can also be ideological. For example, one study shows people are more opposed to having family members marry someone from an opposing political party (pdf) than they are someone of another race.

The brain classifies almost every new person as friend or foe based on the degree to which they seem like us.

When a foe from an out-group is detected in our environment, we experience a threat response: We are alerted to potential dangers, our amygdala becomes more active, and we have fewer mental resources available for executive brain functions, such as long-term planning, impulse control, reasoning, and cognitive flexibility. Under greater threat, our prefrontal cortex shuts down, which means we have less ability to process complex issues; we become less creative and less collaborative.

We generally tend to feel less empathy with out-group members (pdf). For example, when watching a sporting event, if someone on the opposing team gets hurt, we may experience pleasurable sensations in the brain (pdf). Other cognitive processes make it relatively difficult for someone to understand what an out-group member might be thinking or feeling. We have tendencies to misread social cues and to hoard information. In one study (pdf), people reported liking out-group members less, as a whole, than in-group members. These factors all reduce our ability to collaborate effectively with people we perceive as different, and to increase the likelihood of conflict.

Globally, there will probably be more politically charged incidents in everyday life, similar to the November 11, 2016, confrontation on a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. An argument over the presidential election between two passengers — one a white male, the other a woman of color — persisted until the pilot defused the situation over the intercom by asking for “the common decency to respect each other’s decisions.” The pilot’s action inspired a round of applause from other passengers. And open conflict may similarly subside in most places. But the general level of suspicion and resentment of other groups will remain higher than it was before 2016.

This trend poses a major problem for leaders. It’s an even bigger problem for the women and minority employees —people of color, LGBT individuals, and those with diverse ethnic backgrounds — whom companies seek to recruit. Although some public discourse renounces diversity efforts as “politically correct,” most large organizations are championing fundamental changes in their human capital practices so that people with a broader range of identities and perspectives will be recruited, paid equitably, and promoted to leadership roles.

This isn’t a partisan issue. Research clearly indicates that diverse and inclusive teams and organizations are more successful. Already, Microsoft president Brad Smith, outgoing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, and other prominent business leaders have come out saying the political climate will not shift their resolve to build diverse and inclusive cultures. Leaders clearly need to make these statements in a way that furthers the success of their enterprise, helps them recruit highly skilled people from all backgrounds, and enables everyone in the organization to work together productively.

In the past, similar post-election tensions have dissipated rapidly on their own. That is unlikely this time; the tensions reflect an extreme similarity bias and other deeply held attitudes. For example, the election of Donald Trump (along with movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter and the Bernie Sanders campaign) may spur a generation of activists on the left to coalesce, similar to leftists in the 1960s. Meanwhile, many people on the right are already coalescing, excited about having top government leaders espouse points of view that reflect their own and recognizing how many people quietly agree with them.

Each party can’t understand what’s wrong with the other group, or why they can’t see “the truth.” This reflects another type of ingrained bias known as experience bias (or naive realism [pdf]), which causes people to discount evidence that contradicts their point of view. Because we feel we see the world accurately, we assume that contradictory evidence can’t be true. This bias is a particularly challenging problem when people have competing world views and identities. Instead of listening to their friends, family members,  or coworkers, they assume automatically that other points of view are wrong. One recent research project found that subjects with any point of view felt morally superior to others who disagreed.

Suspicion and resentment of other groups will remain higher than it was before 2016.

It could be tempting for a CEO to decide the safest route is to ask people to suppress their emotions and limit their conversations about politics. This could backfire as well. Several studies show that suppressing emotions tends to intensify them and reduces the cognitive resources needed for other tasks. It appears that people keep talking just as much — only inside their head — if they are stopped from vocalizing their thoughts.

What happens when a single workplace is home to a variety of people, some feeling upbeat and vindicated, others feeling deeply disturbed, threatened, and angry? What if both parties feel passionately self-righteous, and are subconsciously inclined to dismiss the feelings on the other side as invalid? If some employees feel their CEO (or any other boss) shares their position, they might assume they won’t be penalized for behavior (like subtle workplace bullying) that they might have suppressed in the past. Others will feel more at risk. The CEO who ignores this dynamic may find simmering tensions rising to a boiling point far too quickly.

Here are three steps you can take that may help. In line with research on neuroscience and leadership, they play to people’s cognitive biases while also enabling them to tolerate one another’s disparate points of view.

1. Acknowledge there is a problem. The emotions that people in the U.S. felt in response to the 2016 presidential election results are likely to be some of the strongest experienced for a long time. The “SCARF” model of brain activity states that five experiences tend to provoke intense “fight-or-flight”-style reactions. These are sudden gains or (especially) losses in status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Both Democratic and Republican voters in the U.S. were profoundly affected by the election in this way, more than they probably realized.

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The Democrats, like the “remain” voters in the Brexit election, experienced a negative jolt: a sudden, severe loss in all five SCARF domains. Members of groups that felt targeted by Trump supporters — which included many women, immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, people of color, Jews, members of the LGBT community, and those with disabilities — had to cope with strong negative feelings, including feelings of being vulnerable to threat. In organizations where these individuals were disproportionately rare, they already may have felt that they were being treated unfairly. Now those feelings have been intensified.

Negative emotions, such as fear, anger, worry, and suspicion, tend to be felt more intensely than their positive counterparts. Moreover, unexpected traumas are felt more intensely than expected ones, and collective or shared emotions are stronger as well. All of these factors have led to severe, almost physical pain in large portions of the population. Although they have gotten used to the election results, some individuals are still not sleeping well; they can’t quite think as clearly as before, and they may still be operating at diminished capacity.

On the other side, many members of groups that support Trump have never felt better. This group includes Republicans; many white, working-class, middle-aged men and women; people living outside cities; and evangelical Christians. For years, many of them felt angry and resentful, ignored by the elites, and regarded as “deplorable.” Now, like their Brexit-supporting counterparts in the U.K. before them, they are experiencing the SCARF jackpot: higher status, more certainty, a greater feeling of control, a sense of connection to their leader, and a feeling that life finally got fair again after many unfair years. This sense of validation and reward can feel, in the brain, almost tangibly delicious; and yet, because of the intense reaction from the other side, some still feel unaccepted and scorned.

As an enterprise leader, you must recognize the intensity of emotion in both groups. It doesn’t matter which side is right or wrong, since in almost every case, your company needs to move beyond these issues to bring people together. You may wish you could ignore the conflict altogether, thinking it will subside in time. But you run the risk that people will interpret inaction as support for one side or the other, and thus associate their strong feelings with your company. People in a threat state can misread neutral and even positive cues as dangers. Employees might thus interpret your silence to mean you don’t care about them, or possibly that their jobs are in danger, and they will start to plan their exit.

In short, without supporting one side or the other, you can recognize in your own mind that post-election mistrust may be a lingering problem in your company, affecting the productivity and effectiveness of your workforce.

2. Label the experience for everyone. When you first speak publicly about the election results, label the emotions both sides are feeling. Let people know you sense their pain, or their excitement, and that you appreciate the strong feelings both sides have experienced. These feelings are psychologically real to employees.

A top executive who takes the time to explicitly talk about the intensity of an election’s impact (a process psychologists call labeling) will reduce the overall distraction happening in the firm. Furthermore, even-handed and calm leadership can be a relief for everyone, because people tend to take on the emotions of the dominant person in a group.

Labeling doesn’t have to be elaborate; it’s simply explicitly recognizing and giving a name (a label) to people’s experience. (“Of course many employees still have strong negative or positive feelings about the election results. But that hasn’t changed the way we feel about the opportunities in this company.”)

Many studies show that when people simply feel heard, strong emotions can subside. Showing people that you understand how strongly they feel makes a difference. Hostage negotiators do exactly this to bring people back from the brink.

3. Focus on common goals and values. Perhaps the most important thing a CEO can do is create common goals at an organizational level. Many studies show that creating and working on common goals has a dramatic effect on how people collaborate. When people share a common identity or purpose, primitive systems of the brain are triggered that can overcome other barriers (pdf). This can turn foes into friends, or at least collaborators. And it’s why George W. Bush’s approval ratings shot up dramatically after 9/11; he led the country against a common foe: Al Qaeda and the terrorism it sponsors.

The goals you set should be specific, actionable, and relevant to everyone in your company, spanning all political points of view. You could identify a competing organization as a common enemy. You could refocus on a key business initiative that requires deep collaboration, one that has a lot of downside if you fail, and a lot of upside if you win. Getting your people focused on difficult tasks that require collaboration will help focus people in the right direction. You could even take on the challenges raised by Brexit and the U.S. election: figuring out the next leap forward in logistics, investments, energy, or healthcare, navigating new uncertainties — in a way that involves everybody in finding the solution. If you can find a goal that inherently makes the world a better place, or frame your business objectives in such a way, the goals may be even more intrinsically rewarding.

This is also a time for you to refine and restate your organization’s values. Research suggests that thinking about one’s values — “how and why we do things the way we do” — creates strong positive emotions. Organizations espousing values such as acceptance, diversity, inclusion, or collaboration will be put to the test. People will be watching their leader. The wise leader will use this time of crisis not only to remind people what their corporate values are, but to demonstrate them clearly with visible, easy-to-interpret actions that create strong positive emotions. The key will be to focus on values without alienating any group.

Although the outside world might not give much credence to these efforts — they are relatively small efforts, focused on common goals and making a difference in small ways — these are the measures that will help us all get back to work. This will help give people a sense of purpose and meaning in a time of great uncertainty.

The best leaders will not just stand by and hope this crisis passes. They will use it to bring their people together even more than before. As you take this path, watch your own biases and responses. You may need to put aside your personal politics, and perhaps even some deep-seated biases, to help everyone rise above the noise. 

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