Disrupting Diversity + Inclusion: The Promise of Behavioural Design
Updated: Feb 25
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. When the folks interviewing her said Stephanie wasn’t technical enough despite honing her web developer skills since 15, they recommended a marketing role. Rejected from the job, she 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 their biases in the hiring process.
Stephanie’s story shows us that despite the commitment and intentions of leading companies like Google, current efforts to build diverse and inclusive workplaces are falling short. Unintended biases and stereotypes are creeping into important recruitment and talent decisions, causing us to overlook the amazing potential right in front of us. Today, Stephanie is on the Forbes 40 Under 40 list for her role as the CEO of her tech company removing bias in hiring – and Google is a main client.
What is it going to take to do better?
Companies must treat workplace inclusion as any other innovation challenge.
First, we need to recognize workplace diversity and inclusion for what it is. It’s a wicked problem: a social or cultural challenge that is difficult to solve, deeply interconnected with other complex social issues, and wrought with systemic and individual biases.
The glacially slow progress indicates that our current approaches are simply not working. In Canada, less than one-fifth of all leadership roles are held by women. Women’s representation on company boards is still very low, changing at 1-2% per year and not fast enough to reach long-term targets. Other underrepresented groups’ experience can be even worse, from consistently lower wages for immigrant workers to nearly half the employment rate for people with disabilities.
It’s no wonder we’ve made such slow progress. We shy away from overly complex, ambiguous problems, especially ones like inclusion which can feel threatening. It’s easier to implement “best practice” programs and policies, like awareness-based training, but it backfires, can reduce manager representation, and doesn’t engage the folks we need. These programs aren’t backed by high-quality evidence, but they tick a box and give us the feeling of making progress. One-off programs are easy; the status quo is too comfortable.
The world is quickly changing; sticking to what we’ve always done is harming us more than it helps. Global movements such as #MeToo, climate strikes, and #BlackLivesMatter are fiercely challenging power imbalances and demanding action. Organizations shouldn’t ignore these forces, but they are stumped on how to change. Diversity is now dinner-table conversation. Employees are protesting their company’s actions in the streets. Migration, globalization, power shifts, and technological advancements are bringing up fears about safety and difference. We gravitate towards people like us, and our modern-day world doesn’t match how our brains developed thousands of years ago. Keeping the status quo is more comfortable than changing. But it’s no longer working.
Given that change is so hard, how do we make it easier?
First, let’s stop trying to change beliefs.
Focus on behaviour, not mindsets.
Current approaches to building inclusion think that awareness, education, and changing mindsets are the best way 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 off in 15 seconds of an interview is nearly the same as the final decision – even to a well-trained interviewer’s eye. People who are tall, white and male are seen as leader-like more than the rest of the population. The gender, ethnicity, and age of an applicant influences whether they are selected for an interview or given a promotion. 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 on beliefs is not working and must stop if we’re serious about creating faster progress towards diverse and inclusive workplaces. Who thinks gender parity by 2227 – 208 years from now - is acceptable? 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 bring an understanding of how people actually behave to our solutions?
We’d like to think we’re rational decision makers; in fact, we’re not. There are over 150 cognitive biases that fly under our conscious awareness and affect our ability to make objective decisions. There is little we can do, as one person in the moment, to mitigate these biases.
We must let go of the naïve belief that people will have an epiphany and then 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 us a promising approach. Becoming more popular over the last decade, the use of behavioural science for worldwide challenges accelerated since Richard Thaler, the University of Chicago professor and author of the best-selling book Nudge, won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2017. Some of the most challenging social problems are being solved through a behavioural lens. For example, people are helping citizens make healthier food choices, decrease littering, conserve energy, and save more for retirement.
It’s time to make it easier to be inclusive.
Design Behavioural Nudges
A science-based approach brings the study of human behaviour to prompt – or nudge – people towards more inclusive actions. The Jasmar Group does just this — we identify 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 better engage people to build belonging, culture, and performance. It’s much more effective than our current approaches that try to change mindsets and attitudes.
Behavioural design is all about “Thinking Small”. Small, cost-effective, behavioural changes can solve some of D+I’s stickiest problems. Let’s see how:
➞ Behavioural Insight: We like to compare ourselves to 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.
Design for Inclusion: Sharing the number of applicants on your job posting can motivate underrepresented groups to apply.
➞ Behavioural Insight: The first piece of information anchors us to that reference point.
Design for Inclusion: Remove school names from applications to broaden your talent search. This simple change resulted in 10% more recruits from state schools at EY. Try removing the interviewer and using one-way video interviews; this helped Unilever hire 16% more from underrepresented groups.
➞ 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 into 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. By making small changes in our talent systems, we can interrupt bias and make it easier for people to align their intentions with their 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. Fortunately, we can nudge ourselves to help us act inclusively. But it’s hard to remember this every time; we need a way to make inclusive behaviour automatic. Evidence suggests that helping people build habits is the most effective way to make individual behaviour change stick. Habits are fast and powerful associations we make by practicing the same behaviours over and over. By thinking small and practicing tiny habits every day, we can make sustainable change happen.
At The Jasmar Group, we focus on building inclusive habits at the team level. When team members build habits to support each others’ psychological needs (belonging, autonomy, mastery – what we call BAM needs), we create momentum across the organization and amplify 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:
- Set reminders to behave inclusively
- Get an accountability partner and set an appointment with them
Building inclusive workplaces is a complex, challenging problem that needs bold thinking and commitment to using an innovative approach.
The time is now. 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.
Let’s Make Inclusion Stick!
By Sylvia Apostolidis, President and Natasha Ouslis, Principal Behavioural Scientist at The Jasmar Group, a behaviour change consultancy that helps organizations build team belonging, culture and performance.
Interested in a new approach to building a diverse and inclusive workplace? Book HERE for a free consultation with Sylvia Apostolidis.