Why behavioural science should be in your DE&I strategy

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2 min read

May 23, 2023

The article was originally published in MindGym on September 2, 2021: https://themindgym.com/resources/articles/behavioural-science-dei-strategy

Successful Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiatives require participants to think and, ultimately, behave differently.

Changing thought so that it influences behaviour is almost certain to fail without the use of proven behavioural science techniques.

Before we begin, it is important to emphasise that introducing behavioural science into your DE&I initiatives does not require you to be a behavioural scientist. An appreciation of the human need to feel unique and experience a sense of belonging to a larger group is a powerful starting point.

Without this foundation, it is easy for learning opportunities to be missed and perceived attacks on an individual’s uniqueness to surface in the form of ‘identity threats’1, the most common forms being:

  • Categorisation – When someone is pigeon-holed into a certain demographic with an identity assigned to them rather than being able to choose their own
  • Distinctiveness – When the uniqueness of a person or group is undermined by dominant cultural or corporate norms
  • Value– When a person’s or group’s capability is questioned because of their social identity
  • Acceptance – When someone’s position within a group is undermined or denied because of an overriding corporate ideology.

When we feel that our identity is threatened, our mind plays tricks on us2, 3, 4 ,5, 6. We become defensive and negative towards other groups7. We find it harder to learn new things8. And our wellbeing and, ultimately, performance suffers too.9

By recognising where these ‘identity threats’ exist, we can apply behavioural science techniques to counteract them. This involves a combination of spotting the tricks our own minds play on us, recognising that we’re all different but that some differences have bigger impacts than others, an appreciation of the distinction between misbehave and misstep, and taking personal responsibility for making workplaces inclusive.

Applying behavioural science in practice

Unfortunately, attempts to influence the crucial ingredient of individual behaviour too often fall flat and fail to offer a return on investment. The science shows that people need the capability, opportunity, and motivation to change their behaviour. They don’t necessarily need consecutive days at a time out for training, at huge cost to the business.

It’s vital to be aware that our assumptions about learning too often prevent behaviour change. Some common misconceptions are:

  • Longer training sessions are better
  • A training event itself is the hero rather than the focus being on helping people to solve problems in the real world
  • That only the learner should be targeted instead of managers, peers, leaders, and culture
  • Everyone should be treated the same rather than giving individuals a unique learning journey that’s tailored to their schedule.

The truth is that ‘little and often’ outperforms ‘a lot in one go’. Think gym vs health farm or, technically, ‘distributed’ vs ‘massed’ practice:

So, for example:

  • A day’s course re-designed with the same content, so it is run in short chunks over a longer period improves performance by half a standard deviation on the mean
  • A 90-minute workshop can have greater impact than a traditional day long course
  • A distributed programme with high impact bite-size chunks can improve performance by 17% while taking up the same amount of employees’ time (the largest cost in most initiatives) and with only minimal disruption to daily workflow
  • The most cost and time-effective way to change behaviour is to follow a continuous cycle, usually best achieved as a combination of live, one-to-ones and digital interactive screen time.

Ultimately, applying behavioural science to your organisation’s DE&I toolkit is about more than creating a happier, more inclusive workplace, it is about measurably improving business performance.