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Non-Threatening By Design

Innovative speaker, coach and consultant Melissa Majors will facilitate the IAEE Leadership Institute this July. Here, she shares how she conquers the natural defensive responses DEI education can trigger in order to empower participants to lead today’s evolving business environment.

By Melissa Majors, CEO, Melissa Majors Consulting

Originally posted at

Have you ever anticipated being in a situation where you would have to defend yourself or your beliefs? What did you do? Likely, you avoided the situation or prepared to rumble.

Friends, many people avoid DEI courses because they anticipate feeling attacked.

Being an inclusive leadership speaker, I have to frequently navigate this natural human response as many people believe they need to avoid DEI-related education because it feels like a psychological threat.

Check out this video for an example of how a recent student expected a threat but quickly became open-minded instead.

Feeling defensive is a natural response to perceived threats. Inclusion is an especially high-charged topic today for a myriad of sociopolitical reasons. So, let’s turn to neuroscience to understand this common reaction and mindfully mitigate it from deterring us from vital insight into evolved leadership practices.

When we feel defensive, our brain’s amygdala, an almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain’s temporal lobe, activates the fight-or-flight response. This response is an innate, automatic reaction that prepares our bodies to either defend ourselves or flee from danger. It triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which increase our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.

At the same time, the amygdala communicates with the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and rational thinking. The prefrontal cortex tries to understand the situation and determine the best course of action. However, when we’re feeling defensive, the prefrontal cortex is often overridden by the amygdala’s intense emotional response, leading us to act impulsively rather than rationally.

This can result in many defensive behaviors, such as denial, rationalization, anger, and withdrawal. As it relates to DEI education, many learners feel so overwhelmed by the potential psychological threats associated with this topic that they avoid it altogether. This reaction is their way of protecting themselves from further perceived threats.

In other words, if an actual or perceived negative experience shapes someone’s sentiments about DEI-related education, their defensiveness will kick in, and they will not attend or engage.

Some students have revealed that even listening to DEI-related talks feels like an affront to their political affiliation due to increased scrutiny of the topic. They’re interested but feel disloyal by even attending these types of sessions.

For these reasons and more, I intentionally reframe the topic of inclusion in a more positive light, focusing on opportunities for business growth and better leadership practices. One of the first things I do in my workshops is to establish the ground rule of “No shame. No blame.”

As I define in my book, inclusive leadership is behaving in a manner that involves others equally, which leads to higher profitability, engagement, morale, better decisions, and lower turnover. These are all irrefutable outcomes needed to thrive in today’s work environment. And, because achieving outcomes is my priority, I’m unapologetic about intentionally designing psychologically safe learning environments.

Want to evolve and learn how to lead in a way where all people thrive, yet anticipate anxiety about the learning experience? You’re not alone, and you’ve come to safe place. I look forward to seeing you in a workshop, keynote, or coaching session soon.

Thank you in advance for choosing to become a leader that empowers all people to thrive.

The IAEE Leadership Institute is a two-day, immersive advancement program designed specifically for IAEE members that will develop your leadership competencies, skills and broad industry knowledge while creating a close network among participants through applied learning concepts, shared discussions and self-reflection.


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