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Brain Hacks 4 Leadership

Aug 21, 2018

Do you care about getting more engagement from you team?  Do you want to know how you can create an environment where your team works collaboratively, reduces conflict and supports each other and your organization?  Are you focused on retaining and attracting talent? 

Are you struggling to build more inclusive teams?  If so, this is the podcast for you. 

My guest,  Jay Van Bavel, will highlight the importance of group identity in building high performing teams and share simple things that you can do right away to get your team moving in the right direction.

Jay Van Bavel is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neural Science with an affiliation at the Stern School of Business in Management and Organizations at New York University where he teaches one of the largest courses in the university. Jay completed his PhD at the University of Toronto.

Jay conducts award-winning research on how collective concerns—group identities, moral values, and political beliefs—shape the brain and behavior. He has published over 60 academic papers on implicit bias, diversity and inclusion, group identity, team formation, cooperation, motivation, and the social brain.

Jay has written about his research for the public in the Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Scientific American. He has appeared on Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman and NBC News, been interviewed on WNYC, Bloomberg News, and NPR, had his work profiled in international media and been cited in the US Supreme Court.

Jay has given a TEDx talk at the Skoll World Forum as well as invited talks at many of the top Psychology Departments and Business Schools in the world (Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Oxford, Stanford). He has also given featured talks at international conferences and numerous organizations (e.g., Uber, Amazon, Reed Smith, Canadian Space Agency).

Podcast Recap:

Human nature makes it easy for us to identify with groups.  Go to any culture in the world and people form groups.  It is a human universal.  Jay’s research looks at how you activate that in people’s minds -   how you change that way their brain processes information once you put them in a team.

Researchers have found it as simple as flipping a coin and putting people on the red team or the blue team.  This gets them to automatically and quickly identify with their group.  They are willing to give more to their group, engage with their group more and show them more trust.  So, the first step in creating a good team is creating an ‘us’ an a ‘them’.  The hard part is identifying the right ‘them’. You don’t want people to be competing with other members of other groups within the organization or you can get sabotage or conflict, people retreating to silos, lack of collaboration and cooperation.  There is certainly an art to it and identifying the right ‘out group’ is often a key element.

The other element that is key is creating an element of a distinctive group.  The groups that are stickiest, that they identify with the most, are ones that fulfill a sense of belonging, that make them feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves and at the same time creating a sense of distinctiveness.  That they feel that there is something special about being in this group, that is hard to get into and different from other groups.  This is referred to as the Velvet Robe Effect.  If you run a club and there is a long line outside and a velvet rope with a bouncer, even if you get inside and no one is there, you feel from the outside looking into it that it a special club, something hard to get into …..or as Groucho Marx famously said, he would never want to be part of a club that was willing to admit him!

We like to be a part of groups that are exclusive and distinctive.  This is why fraternities and sororities have initiation rituals and why big corporations like Apple are able to hack the psychology.  If you walk down anywhere in Manhattan and you walk by a coffee shop, 90% of the people have their MAC books open or their iPhone open, and yet most of these people feel that they are unique, and that their MAC is part of their unique distinctive identity.  The reason for this is Apple has been triggering the psychology in people for decades.  It started in the most famous commercial of all times in 1984 during the Superbowl, they aired an ad of someone speaking as if they were the famous book 1984, droning on and people were blindly watching it.  Then this woman representing Apple came and smashed it and so the message is that you are anti-authority and anti-big brother if you use Apple.  Another example with Apple is when Steve Jobs came back and started the Think Different campaign, which was about all these scientists and leaders, from Einstein to Gandhi, throughout history who stood out and were different and challenged convention.  Apple is now more conventional and one of the world’s most recognized brand in the world, but now when you have one, because of all the advertising over the years, it creates a feeling among it’s users that there is something special or distinctive about them. 

So, leaders who can create this within their groups that you are part of ‘us’ and we are different, are the ones who are able to create the most distinctive, compelling and sticky group identities.  This can directly correlate to higher engagement and discretionary effort given to the leader and the team.

If you care about engagement or care about reducing absenteeism or presenteeism, this is a good strategy.  When people are engaged and committed to their group, they don’t want to let their team down.  They don’t want to fail because they actually care about the group and it’s success.  This is useful if you want to retain your best talent or recruit other talent to your team, to give them a sense that there is something special about them, is one powerful way of triggering this very basic psychology in the mind.

As a CEO or senior leader, what should you be thinking about?  One is to create a shared vision and/or common goal.  Another thing that you can do is create a sense of history, and this is where distinctiveness can really be articulated.  If you have this very unique story or history that everybody knows, they feel part of that connection and they feel like they are part of something bigger than them.  Leaders could do more to articulate and remind people where they have come from, what their story is and finally where they are going.  Finally, another thing is, and this turns out to be key to getting people to contribute, is making everybody feel like they have an important role to play, even if it is a little one, and that their role is essential.  Letting them know that we can’t succeed unless you do this little thing.  That is something that really increases engagement and is a very helpful way to deal with diversity in teams.  The teams that feel like everyone contributes are more likely to be inclusive and will choose to solicit the input and support of other team members and so you actually create the kind of situation that promotes the success of diverse groups and diverse organizations.

What is going on in the brain that is causing this connection?  The moment we flip a coin and put you on a team, your brain starts to process how you see in group and out group team members differently.  You automatically start seeing people of your own group more positively.  This activates early brain circuits like the amygdala and also changing the visual system, so it also suggests that the way you are seeing faces is changing in real time.  You are starting to see people that are part of your team more as individuals and you are more likely to remember who they were.  Basically, this is engaging a more careful attention and concern about who is with you.  It does this amazing this because if you care about your identity, this group you belong to, and you see other in-group members get a reward, the same parts of the brain that respond when you are getting a reward get triggered.  So, it is almost as if you were getting a pay increase or benefit.  That is only for people who care about the group, otherwise you can get jealousy and conflict if you see others get what you wish to have.  Identify solves that problem and it can reduce jealousy and conflict over things like that.  This is also what is known as basking in the reflective glory.  For example, this is when you go on social media and brag about a friend of yours or a colleague winning an award and you say that you are really proud of them.  This means that your bragging on their behalf.  You are getting part of the joy that they are getting because you care about them and feel you have a shared purpose with them.  We have also found that pattern of activation in the brain when people are thinking about in-group members who are getting a reward.  They don’t show that same pattern when an out-group member gets a reward.

Jay personally applies this to the team he leads at his research lab at NYU.  Their lab is over 30 people who range from first year student volunteers to people who are post-doc and already have their PhD and are top researchers from other countries, so he cares a ton about identify.  Every year he gives a talk to the whole lab about the vision, goals and their past. This meeting marks their progress and he shows graphs showing how many publications they have had over the years, and how it has grown, so they can see that they are getting better and stronger over time -- they are part of that.  He also points out all the accomplishments of all the people in that lab that year – people who have graduated or won awards, became professors or had a break through with a method in the lab.  He makes sure to call out all of them in front of everybody so that there is a shared identify that if you contribute to the team you are going to be celebrated as part of the team in this annual  state of the union.

Another thing Jay does is creating symbols of identity, doing little things like creating coffee mugs with the lab logo on them and once you start doing research with the lab you are part of the in-group and you get a mug.  This year he is taking images of everyone’s brain and will be creating pop-art, Andy Warhol type of art in the brain.  He plans to frame it and put it around the lab – highlighting all the students who got their PhD in the lab.    This is the highest and hardest level of accomplishment.

He is finding ways to constantly remind them that they have a shared identity, showing a sense of history and highlighting all the individuals who came before them who have been part of this culture.  The other thing is I get my student’s advice before I hire anybody so they all have a voice in insuring they have a culture of people who care about the group and are cooperators who aren’t just self-interested people. I take that as seriously as somebody’s credentials when I am deciding who to bring into the group.  I care about who is going to be a good group member.  That  doesn’t mean just blindly going along with me or the other people.  In fact, often during his meetings, when they have presentations, he tries not to speak too quickly because he doesn’t want to create group-think where everyone has to agree with him.  He is very conscious of not creating the negative parts of groups like group-think because there is a pathology that comes if you mis-manage a group with a strong identify.  So that is also part of it, giving your team a voice so they have a feeling of commitment and shared ownership over where the group is going.

What is one thing I can do right away to get the group dynamic right?  The simplest thing is creating a shared vision, but I would go one step further because most people know that.  First of all, your shared vision needs to be simple and you have to be able to say it all the time, so everybody knows what it is, but the second thing and the trickier thing is connecting it to your history.  Showing where you came from and where you are going has everyone under the shared vision but also creates a sense of distinctiveness, so there is something special and unique about this group and about your organization.

Jill works with a lot of leaders and finds that communicating a compelling vision is a challenge and often find that they don’t talk about it enough to their team and their organization.  They feel that everybody understands it when often that is not the case.  Connecting the history is great because you will always have people coming in and out of your organization.  This allows them to feel like they are joining something that is bigger than them, reminds them and keeps it fresh for them.

One last thing, if you think of a team as a delicate ecosystem - if you add in one or two bad elements the team can unravel.  I like the philosophy  of the New Zealand men’s Rugby team as they are the most successful team in any sport.  They have a number of rules, but the most important rule is a simple one.  They have a policy of No Dick Heads!    When you think of the world’s best team you think of the best talent. When you think of the best talent often you think of prima donnas, and that this is what the best talent looks like.  They say no…no one is above the team and no one can put their interests above the team.  As they leave the field at the end of each game, they all help to clean up the mess at the bench.  They act like no one is above the team and that is the single sentence that describes the model.   It helps them create a sense of tribe, family and friendship and nothing supersedes that.  One of the keys to creating a good team is also not allowing anyone to put themselves above it.  As leaders that rule starts with you!

I hope that you have enjoyed this and can start using some of these great techniques to create more cohesive teams.  Make sure to subscribe to be alerted to ongoing podcasts. I work with leaders and their teams to apply these concepts, grow themselves, their teams and their business.  Schedule a free 30 minute consultation here to see if I can help you, your team or your organization.  You can reach me, Jill Windelspecht, directly by email at and visit my website at