Disrupting diversity + inclusion: The promise of behavioural design

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By Sylvia Apostolidis, President, and Natasha Ouslis, Principal Behavioural Scientist, at The Jasmar Group, a behavioural change consultancy that helps organizations build team belonging, culture, and performance. Sylvia is also a speaker at The Conference Board of Canada’s upcoming Inclusive Workplaces Conference in Toronto.

Stephanie Lampkin was applying to a tech role at Google. With an engineering degree from Stanford and an MBA from MIT, she had a blend of technical and business skills that Google would appreciate—or so she thought. The folks interviewing her said she wasn’t technical enough, despite having honed her web developer skills since 15. They recommended a marketing role. Rejected from the job, Stephanie noticed that Google only had a handful of black women in technical roles out of their 55,000 employees. She could have added to that handful, if not for the biases in their hiring process.

Stephanie’s story shows us that, despite the best intentions, efforts to build diverse and inclusive workplaces are falling short. Unintended biases and stereotypes creep into important recruitment decisions, causing us to overlook the amazing potential right in front of us. Today, Stephanie is CEO of her own tech company that removes biases from hiring processes—and Google is a main client.

What will it take to do better?

Treat workplace inclusion as any other innovation challenge

We need to recognize workplace diversity and inclusion for what it is: a wicked problem. It is difficult to solve, deeply interconnected with other complex social issues, and wrought with systemic and individual biases.

The glacial progress indicates that our current approaches are not working. In Canada, less than one-fifth of all leadership roles are held by women. And women’s representation on company boards is also still low, changing at 1–2 per cent every year—not fast enough to reach long-term targets. Other under-represented groups’ experiences can be even worse, from consistently lower wages for immigrant workers to a dismal employment rate for people with disabilities.

We shy away from complex, ambiguous problems, especially ones that can feel threatening like inclusion. It’s easier to implement “best practice” programs and policies, like awareness-based training. These programs can also backfire, and they aren’t backed by high-quality evidence. But they do tick a box and give us the feeling of progress. The world is quickly changing, and sticking to what we’ve always done harms more than it helps. Global movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are fiercely challenging power imbalances and demanding action. Organizations shouldn’t ignore these forces, but they are stumped on how to change.

Focus on behaviour, not mindsets

Current approaches to inclusion tout awareness, education, and changing mindsets as the best ways to change behaviour. These approaches appeal to our rationality, but most of our decisions are not rational, or even intentional. For example, the first impression you give in 15 seconds of an interview is nearly the same as the final decision—even to a well-trained interviewer. Most people want to make fair and objective decisions, but our biases influence who we hire, promote, and spend time with. Stephanie’s experience is more common than we’d like to think.

We need new strategies to effectively bridge the “intention-action” gap. Trying to align people’s beliefs is not working and must stop if we’re serious about creating diverse and inclusive workplaces. Why are we still trying to “fix the women” or “change the men”? Leaders say they value diversity, but this isn’t translating to inclusive actions. We must do things differently.

Changing culture comes down to changing behaviours. But how can we expect to change behaviour if we don’t understand how people truly react to our solutions? We like to think we’re rational decision-makers. In fact, we’re not. There are over 150 cognitive biases that fly under our awareness and affect our ability to make objective decisions. There is little we can do, as one person in one moment, to mitigate these biases.

We must let go of the naïve belief that people will have an epiphany and change their behaviour. Instead, we must embrace the science of decision-making and motivation to design for better outcomes.

We must turn to behavioural science

Behavioural science offers a promising approach. Some of the most challenging social problems are being solved through a behavioural lens. For example, people are making healthier food choices, decreasing littering, conserving energy, and saving more for retirement.

It’s time to make it easier to be inclusive. (The Jasmar Group)

BEHAVIOUR Build habits SYSTEMS Design inclusive people processes CULTURE Inclusive social norms Habit mastery leadsto culture mastery Apply behavioural science for better decisions Small changes, big difference


Design behavioural nudges

The first step is to identify the critical decision points in talent processes and then apply behavioural insights to override biases and motivate people into action. By using the science of human behaviour, decision-making, and the brain, we can reduce bias in talent systems and help people to build belonging, culture, and performance.

Behavioural design is all about “thinking small.” Small, cost-effective behavioural changes can solve some of the stickiest diversity and inclusion problems.

Let’s see how:

Behavioural insight: We like to compare ourselves with others. Design for inclusion: Instead of reviewing resumes one at a time, compare two or more candidates’ side by side; this can reduce the gender evaluation and compensation gap.

Behavioural insight: Transparency drives fairness and motivates action. Design for inclusion: Sharing the number of applicants on your job posting can motivate under-represented groups to apply.

Behavioural insight: The first piece of information that we consume anchors us to that reference point. Design for inclusion: Remove school names from applications to increase recruits from less-known schools. This simple change resulted in 10 per cent more recruits from state schools at EY.

Behavioural insight: Defaults are powerful; they harness our tendency to go with the pre-set option. Design for inclusion: Change the default from requiring employees to opt in to a flexible job to making “all roles flex.” This led to higher promotion rates for women at Telstra.

Small changes. Big difference.

The context we work in shapes our behaviour more than we realize. Small changes in our talent systems can interrupt bias and make it easier for us to align our intentions with our actions. Behavioural design puts behaviour first and intentionally designs for inclusion.

Habit mastery leads to culture mastery

Sometimes, we need to change behaviour outside of a talent process. We can nudge ourselves to act inclusively, but it’s hard to remember this every time. We need a way to make inclusive behaviour automatic. Helping people build habits is the most effective way to make behaviour changes stick. Habits are fast and powerful associations we make by practising the same behaviours over and over. By thinking small and practising tiny habits every day, we can make sustainable change happen.

Building inclusive habits at the team level

When team members build habits to support each others’ psychological needs it creates momentum across the organization and amplifies everyone’s voice. When each of us speaks up, we get more innovation and better outcomes, for everyone.

Here’s how to use habits to make inclusion stick:

  • make an if-then plan to be more consistent when making decisions
  • set reminders to behave inclusively
  • get an accountability partner and set an appointment with them

In summary

Building inclusive workplaces is a complex problem that needs bold thinking and an innovative approach.

Organizations cannot wait any longer. We need to turn the status quo on its head and use new approaches to make faster progress. There is no simple answer to this problem. But we can all use innovative tools like behavioural design to create and sustain real change.

Sylvia Apostolidis

President, The Jasmar Group

Natasha Ouslis

Principal Behavioural Scientist, The Jasmar Group

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Related Research:

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