A Behavioural Scientist’s View on Diversity and Inclusion

As behavioural science continues to find application beyond psychology and economics, talent development and organisational culture management are increasingly finding a use for this approach.

This article has been adapted and updated from an interview by SAGEA with Development Beyond Learning’s Alice Hooper-Scott.

Behavioural science, in essence, uses evidence-based understanding of how human beings behave (as opposed to how we think they behave) to predict behaviour and to design programmes and interventions to change behaviour for the better.

Using an understanding of innate human biases to examine why people sometimes behave irrationally, and examining the data available about human behaviour, behavioural science adds enormous value to organisations who want to drive change in their culture. Diversity & Inclusion is one such critically important area.

There’s a plethora of evidence1 that truly diverse organisations – those that are not only representative of a diverse workforce but that have also achieved inclusion – have higher profits, better employee retention rates, better employee health, better productivity and better employee engagement. The key to these benefits is in getting diversity of thought into an organisation, because that’s how more creative thinking and better problem solving can be achieved. Diversity with inclusion avoids group think, and without diversity and inclusion fundamental issues and opportunities are more easily missed. For example, a number of organisations have failed to create facial-recognition capability that is equally good at recognising all faces, irrespective of their colour.

So, if the benefits of an inclusively diverse workforce are so overwhelming, why do organisations still struggle to get it right?

A lot of behavioural science is about understanding human biases. Human beings have evolved to be very focused on self-preservation, and a lot of what we do is about protecting ourselves. Many of these ingrained biases no longer serve us well, either as individuals or in society. Our bias towards avoiding people who are not like us is one example.

Historically, it made sense to avoid or even fear people who were different – members of a different clan or tribe, people who looked different or spoke a different language – because they were more likely to do us harm than members of our own tribe or clan. Of course, that’s no longer a useful way to look at the world. So, behavioural scientists work with companies and governments to find ways to overcome this evolutionary bias towards sameness, to encourage and drive diversity and inclusion.

Diversity targets, though necessary, have not turned out to be the whole answer. It is undeniably challenging, because globally the world of work has started off looking at metrics on diversity – targets for including women and ethnic minorities or historically marginalised communities – and we can see that these have made a positive difference. Without these targets, which serve to open opportunities for people who have traditionally been excluded, it is unlikely that change would happen.

However, while these metrics have changed the makeup of organisations, it has absolutely been proven that diversity without inclusion does more harm than good. Human beings desperately need to feel included. There are neuroscientific studies that show, through brain imaging, that the same neural pathways light up when we feel excluded as when we experience physical pain2. In other words, the experience of social pain manifests in the body the same way as physical pain.

Humans will unconsciously assess whether we will succeed in an environment by whether we feel like we will belong or not. People will opt out of environments where they feel like they won’t (or don’t) fit in. This is why diversity without inclusion leads to what is known as ‘the revolving door’. People come into an organisation but leave quickly, and so organisations end up spending a lot of money identifying and recruiting diverse talent but fail to retain them.

It is especially difficult in scarce skills areas like STEM, where the pool of diverse talent is smaller still to begin with. All the evidence shows that, when you don’t belong, you’re likely to experience ill health, physically and mentally. You’re also less likely to get promoted. So, pursuing diversity without pursuing inclusion is ineffective, and even counterproductive. Inclusion is necessary in order to support diversity.

This is where behavioural science comes in. Much progress has been made in helping companies create a sense of inclusion and belonging for diverse talent. Behavioural scientists develop strategies and programmes to help people spot micro-affirmations and micro-aggressions, identify biases in action and implement ways to reduce them. We also help organisations think about the whole journey – from hiring practices to onboarding, to performance management and promotion, as well as how people are treated when they leave. This all supports retention.

It is also important to consider our biases about how we define diversity, or a lack thereof. For example, an all-female team does not create a diverse environment, and these types of organisations and teams – although in a minority – are still not going to reap the full benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce.

In some ways it is easier to miss a lack of diversity in environments like this. But representation is not the same as diversity. And it doesn’t yield the same results. The aim of diversity at work is to benefit from diversity of thought, If the whole workforce shares the same point of view, even if that point of view is an historically marginalised one, you miss out on the most important positives that diversity has to offer.

The great thing about diversity and inclusion is that it’s the definition of a no-brainer for business: It’s the right thing to do commercially, and it’s the right thing to do for people. But there is no silver bullet. True diversity and inclusion is hard work and we have to keep working and reviewing our progress if we are to truly make a lasting and meaningful difference.


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Alice Hooper-Scott

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