Why your diversity and inclusion scheme is failing and what behavioural science can do about it
By Shelley Hoppe, Agency Director at Spoon London
Diversity and inclusion is more than just a laudable aim for your business – research has demonstrated time and again that gender and ethnic diversity makes businesses more profitable.
But, despite having such a huge effect on bottom line, the harsh truth is that many of us are still failing to improve diversity and inclusivity in our organisations.
Let’s take a look at eight problems organisations typically encounter when trying to improve diversity – and the behavioural science research that can help you defeat them for good.
‘Stereotype threats’ to certain demographics
‘Stereotype threat’ is a phenomenon where people of a particular background feel as though they may end up conforming to the perceived expectations of their social group.
So if the stereotype among certain groups of people is not be in high-powered positions, we need to actively fight that stereotype for people from that background to see there’s a pathway for them.
Provide opportunities for people to show what they’re capable of – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Apprenticeships are one way to do this effectively. ‘Learning and earning’ models allow young people to pursue careers that might otherwise require a university degree. By removing the need to choose between either going to university or earning a salary, the social norms around who ‘should’ be in corporate positions can be redefined, and with them, the opportunities afforded to people from wider backgrounds.
School role models are another avenue. Work hand-in-hand with the education system to introduce young people to people from your business with similar backgrounds to them. ‘Messenger effects’ suggest young people will be far more receptive to hearing wisdom from people like them than from almost anyone else.
We tend to hire and promote based on our biases
Being human means gut instincts can easily take over when hiring. We can be guided by a number of biases which are reflected in our decisions, including the affinity bias where we tend to select only people who are similar to us, and the familiarity bias, which means we select only candidates that resemble the person that has been holding the position to date.
This perpetual confirmation bias is a big part of the reason we see people with the same backgrounds in management positions, for example.
When deciding who to hire (or promote), you can enhance inclusivity by actively noticing and pushing back against your biases. One way to do this is to redefine what ‘good looks like’.
Will Bentinck from Maker’s Academy also suggests that when writing job descriptions, to do what they say on the tin and describe the job, not the person who’ll do it. You’ll find it really changes who feels they’re best placed to fill that role.
Teams have a tendency to ‘groupthink’
Groupthink is the psychological phenomenon within a group where everyone agreeing with each other to avoid conflict results in irrational – or even dysfunctional – decision-making.
Combat it by asking people to come up with ideas alone, and then sharing their ideas with the rest of the group. It’s likely to surface many more innovative ideas.
Brainstorming can also mute minority opinions because some employees are uncomfortable bringing new perspectives to the table. Take a breather between brainstorming and decision-making sessions to give yourselves time to consult the minority view. You may find you reach more innovative, breakthrough decisions that way.
Everyone needs to be involved in inclusivity
And yet they’re not! While it may seem obvious that the process of change within an organisation needs to involve everyone, that’s actually rarely the case.
Encourage people to attend talks and meetings organised by less represented groups – particularly those from groups they themselves don’t necessarily identify with. For instance, it might be helpful for a heterosexual colleague to attend an educational LGBTQ+ event so they have the opportunity to learn the subtleties of the subject from those who know it better than anyone.
The environment may not be right
While we like to think we’re totally in control of choices and actions, many of our behaviours are actually a response to various cues in our environment that are often processed unconsciously.
More than that, we can respond completely differently to the same stimulus in another situation. For diversity and inclusion, that may mean that messages and campaigns that feel as though they should work, may not. And may not translate across international audiences either.
Adopt an experimental ‘A/B-test’ mindset to unearth which messages have a positive effect. It’ll be different in different locations without doubt, so it won’t be an overnight fix. However, this will be the best way to iteratively progress towards the kind of working environment that welcomes all.
Rewards and salaries focus on individual performance
Competitive reward and salary structures can be great. But they can also encourage individualistic behaviours which can crowd out opportunities for others.
Rethinking rewards to include bonuses linked to overall teamwork can encourage teams to be more inclusive and work together towards a goal. Consider tying bonuses to inclusivity to reward people who have worked towards making your company more diverse.
Different working styles may not be catered for
Allowing for a variety of working styles will naturally enhance productivity and wellbeing. Your organisation may have adopted more flexible working practices in the wake of Covid-19 for example, but often there’s more ways organisations can support their staff.
Make your working environment more accommodating to different working styles and employees’ domestic needs, via flexible hours and job shares, to being understanding of individual circumstances.
It’ll really help avoid burnout, boost productivity, and revitalise your people’s careers.
The benefits of inclusivity aren’t measured
While you may be investing in making your organisation inclusive, it can be difficult to quantify the impact of the measures you’re taking on the bottom line.
Link inclusivity to traditional business outcomes using metrics that give insights into how diversity is actively boosting the business financially.
When you provide credible statistics around inclusivity’s links to business outcomes, the success stories create a kind of ‘virtuous escalator’ of more inclusive actions. And each one is likely to positively impact your business’ reputation, how attractive your employee brand is, and your bottom line.
Inclusivity is now not a ‘nice to have’, but a ‘need to have’ if you want to be successful. The more behavioural science we can use to identify and then tackle the biases that can hold us back from creating a more inclusive workforce, the better off all of us will be.