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Diversity — an issue of insiders and outsiders, consultant says

Keynote speaker at GBC diversity summit takes novel approach to framing the issue

Steve Robbins

“Every diversity issue is an insider or outsider issue,” consultant Steve Robbins told an audience at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit on Monday. (The Daily Record/Tim Curtis)

Corporations should think about the business case for inclusion and diversity, including the potential of lost worker productivity, Steve Robbins told Baltimore business leaders as the keynote speaker at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit.

Robbins takes a science-based approach to diversity and inclusion and uses neuroscience to demonstrate how biases form and how to overcome those biases.

“I’ve been doing this work a long time. I still have the gut reaction. I can’t stop it,” he said. “What I can do, and what I have trained myself to do is this: Pause. Pause before I let the gut reaction take control of my next set of words or reactions.”

Robbins is a former professor at Michigan State University who has built a business as an expert on building diversity and inclusion at firms including Coca-Cola, Disney and Walmart.

He approached the audience Monday by seeking to break down inclusion — not along racial lines or gender lines, but along the lines of insiders and outsiders.

Our brains have evolved naturally to prefer insiders, people who are like us, to outsiders, people who are different from us, he said. 

“Every diversity issue is an insider or outsider issue. And if you start to use the terms insider and outsider, it actually makes the conversation a little easier,” Robbins said. “All of us has experience with both conditions. Each one of us knows what it’s like to be an insider and each one of us knows what it’s like to be an outsider.”

Sometimes that can cause rejection of outsiders for no reason other than that they are different, whether it be skin color or tattoos. 

But as organizations build diverse workforces, it is important to be inclusive, Robbins said, because the pain of social rejection and exclusion has a cost.

Multitasking does not exist, Robbins said. Instead the brain switches rapidly between activities, but it is also less efficient when it does this. 

The pain of social exclusion and rejection is another task that the brain cannot ignore, and it can make workers less effective by about 20-30%.

“It’s a lot of money, but none of my clients have the social pain of outsider-ness as a line item on the expense side of the ledger,” Robbins said.

Robbins was the keynote speaker for a day that also included smaller sessions on building diversity.

“I think a key ingredient for success and one of the key issues people need to be paying attention to in the corporate world deals with diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. “I think that that’s a central element of what all corporate leaders need to be working towards to improve and all of us in our personal lives. By doing this, we highlight a number of issues, and they are important for the business community.”

This was the Greater Baltimore Committee’s first summit on diversity, but the organization hopes to do more on the issue moving forward, Fry said. 

It has used its Bridging the Gap awards to recognize businesses and leaders that foster minority- and women-owned businesses. 

Fry said that when he was in the state legislature, he learned from colleagues Elijah Cummings and Pete Rawlings that business diversity should be built through the private sector.

“When I was in the legislature, I learned a lesson from some of my colleagues that if you really want to create wealth in the minority and women business community, it needs to be done in the private sector,” Fry said.

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