Tinna Nielsen, founder, Move the Elephant for Inclusiveness

Anthropologist Tinna Nielsen is the founder of the non-profit organisation Move the Elephant for Inclusiveness, based in Denmark. Together with Lisa Kepinski, she co-founded the Inclusion Nudges global initiative and co-authors the annual Inclusion Nudges Guidebook, with examples of applied behavioural science to influence the unconscious mind for inclusiveness.

Global statistics, collected by global analytics group Gallup, say that only 13% of people worldwide are engaged in their jobs, that the majority of people who resign from their position do so because they don’t feel their skills are required and used, and only 2% feel like their workplace supports them. We have two or three decades of research showing that if groups apply diverse perspectives, knowledge and insights to a challenge, then those groups always outperform the other groups. But we’re not doing it. Right now, the majority of organisations worldwide are acting as if they strategically prefer to miss out on the majority of their people’s potential and skills. That norm is excluding ideas that are not familiar to us, excluding new knowledge because it doesn’t resonate in our minds, and excluding a brilliant idea because it comes from somebody we don’t like, don’t trust or who is not from our own tribe.

Behavioural insights

Behavioural insights have proven over and over again that we are not operating according to standard economic models that state we have a lot of willpower to change our behaviour if we just understand things, and that we will change our behaviour in accordance with that rational understanding. When we look at the results coming out of behavioural science, we are highly irrational, we have hardly any willpower to change behaviour, and when we use willpower to change behaviour, we use so much energy that we actually underperform on work-related tasks. Standard economic models say that we are driven by very selfish desires, but again, behavioural science actually shows that we will do a lot for others. So if you design a system or an intervention to trigger specific behavioural drivers, you can actually get people to do something in accordance with their good intentions.

When, with the best of intentions, we talk about diversity, we can actually trigger fear in the unconscious mind. The whole societal discourse of using fear in relation to diversity triggers division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and so if we keep talking a lot about diversity and differences, we are going to have a backlash. You can’t talk to people about diversity and expect behavioural change because you’re talking to the wrong brain system. The rational mind you’re talking to controls 1-10% of your decision-making and behaviour. The rest happens in the unconscious mind and that unconscious mind couldn’t care less about rationalising. You have to make people feel it, and make it easy for them to do the right thing and difficult for them to do the wrong thing.

Making it easy to do the right thing

There are many ways in which you can do this. For example, if you know that we’re biased in recruitment situations, then anonymise candidates when you screen them, so that you’re making it difficult for people to be influenced by bias and easy for people to focus on the performance, skills and potential. If you really want to rate people on their skills, don’t do a job interview. Give people a task and make them solve it. Instead of having them for a second interview, invite them in for a second task where you have them perform that task together and see how they collaborate with each other. Now we can see if they are ‘givers’ or ‘takers’, which is hugely important for an organisation. Givers work for the greater good of all, whereas takers work for their own benefit, which is not good for a company in the long run.

When it comes to meetings, we have research showing that women are interrupted 2.8 times more than men (according to researchers at George Washington University, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology), but it’s only the women who experience it that can see and feel it. It’s very easy for the most dominant voice to influence the perspectives of all the other people in the group. But you can’t avoid groupthink, you can’t avoid group conformity, you can’t stop people from interrupting unless you change the way you facilitate. A very easy way to do this is to say, ‘Before we start discussing this, I am going to split you up into three small groups and present the same issue in three different ways to each group. Before you start discussing it in the small groups, I’d like you to write down your own perspectives on a piece of paper, and start sharing.’ And then afterwards, the three groups share their solutions and their suggestions and now we have more diversity to apply to the decision-making process.

One of the insights of behavioural science is that the messenger is crucial for the kind of behavioural change you get. For example, if human resources keeps being the messenger of the importance of diversity, equal opportunities and inclusion, the leaders and employees are not very likely to take ownership − nobody wants to do things for HR because it’s a support function. That is a huge mistake. But HR does have an absolutely critical role to play as the change agent, because HR professionals have access to make systemic changes in so many human resource concepts, like talent management, rewarding, appraisal interview, recruitment. They are concept-owners, so they have a huge opening to redesign cross-organisational processes to help people be inclusive. They don’t have to talk about it all the time or initiate big diversity programmes. What’s crucial is the way they engage the business and the leaders in driving this.

What can the legal team do?

The legal department can participate in screening a lot of the processes to ensure non- discrimination and equal opportunities. I think that legal should have the mandate and the responsibility to do that and I think they should be held accountable, and that other concept-owners should have a joint responsibility to work with legal, to make sure that discriminatory practices are not built into the concepts, policies and processes. I also think that legal has a responsibility for not making inclusion and diversity a compliance issue, because when it’s being framed as somebody pointing fingers at you, saying ‘You have to comply’, it actually just triggers a Romeo and Juliet effect − because people hate being told what to do.

Even though people can be highly engaged and may have experienced how powerful it is to change behaviour like this, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they do completely change their behaviour, if organisational processes aren’t redesigned to make inclusion a norm and not an add-on.