The Inclusive Power of Small Specific Improvements

Initiating concrete changes to mitigate unconscious biases and eventually make the most of differences. This summarises the ambition of many D&I practitioners. While it sounds easy, experience shows that the practicalities sometimes aren’t. ‘Inclusion Nudges’ are a collection of good practices how to steer behaviour away from bias and towards inclusion.

Can we overcome biases in an organisation or in ourselves, or should we first and foremost aim at mitigating unwanted effects – acknowledging that many aspects of bias are hardwired in our minds (or in the fabric of our organisations)? Experience and evidence suggest a twofold approach:

  • One that recognises and reflects biases so that the dynamics start and continue to change; an example for this is the latest self-learning book ‘Overcoming Bias’ by Jana/Freeman (read our review here)
  • One that changes relevant frameworks, rules or routines to navigate around biases; an example is the so-called ‘anonymised’ table-screening (as a first selection step in a recruiting process), which proved to reduce biases against several groups of applicants

Following the latter, more practical and concrete approach, the guidebook ‘Inclusion Nudges’ presents a set of successfully implemented practices from around the world. One of the co-authors, Lisa Kepinski, gave a workshop at the German Diversity Conference of Tagesspiegel and Charta der Vielfalt, where she explained the idea – and the power – of small yet targeted and well-designed changes in more depth.

Moving beyond bias awareness to become practical and concrete

While a number of interventions illustrating existing biases have been praised to the sky over the past couple of years, practical follow-up that resulted in concrete individual, process or cultural change was not common as a result of these awareness-raising tools or events (this article explores this aspect further). Also Lisa Kepinski included findings from researchers like Amy Cuddy, Daniel Kahneman and others her presentation of ‘Inclusion Nudges’ on. ‘How to steer the thinking to stated intention’ was her impact-focused credo when she described the four key principles for designing ‘Inclusion Nudges’ to 1) motivate both the brain’s automatic system and its reflected system, 2) target behavioural drivers, 3) not forbid or punish and 4) keep it simple. In their guidebook, Nielsen and Kepinski use Thaler and Sunstein’s definition of nudges as a base and relate it to D&I by talking about a relatively soft and non-intrusive mental push that helps people mitigate unchecked biases, take more fact-based decisions and change their behaviours to be more inclusive.

Good practices from around the world

Based on a large network and long experience, the authors have, over a couple of years, collected, evaluated and selected effective practices that qualify as an ‘Inclusion Nudge’ (as defined above). In her workshop, Lisa Kepinski’s first example illustrated the essence of the approach: A city council placed green footprints leading to trash cans on the sidewalks. This small intervention eventually led to a 46% decrease in littering. For it addressed subconscious parts of the brain helping people to choose not to drop their trash, but follow the (green) footprints. Another example talked about the placement of healthy and less healthy snacks at a self-service restaurant. When the unhealthy options where placed higher up, so that it would require extra effort to reach them, the consumption of the (easier to reach) healthier fruit and vegetables snacks went up by 13 and 23 percent respectively. Two examples from the guidebook may sound familiar to many D&I practitioners as they illustrate the power of the frame of reference used in a specific situation.

When building their pipeline for international assignments, companies might use standard questions in career planning like ‘Will you take an international assignment?’ or ‘Are you international mobile?’. The authors explain that men and women do not perceive these questions the same way and suggest to rephrase them, e.g., to ‘Will you consider an international assignment at some point in the future?”. They report that this nudge actually led, in one year, to a 25% increase of women saying they would consider an international assignment. A similarly strong impact can be reached by changing a 30% women in leadership target to a maximum 70% homogeneity target (by gender, generation, ethnicity or education). The ‘Inclusion Nudges’ guidebook has some 70 examples from various fields grouped into 3 types:

  • Feel the need nudges, focusing on motivation
  • Process nudges, focusing on ability and simplicity
  • Framing nudges focus on perception

As a (growing) collection, it offers a wealth of ideas and inspiration for interventions that fulfil relevant criteria relating to mitigating biases.

How to bring it all together: Business Case, Unconscious Bias, Inclusive Leadership and Nudging

The great potential of good practices can be, at the same time, their greatest enemy: When you admire a project for its success and want to replicate it in your own organisation. In the best case, you will be equally successful, but in many or most cases, the intervention will not work the same way. Also Lisa Kepinski stressed that the person who knows your organisation best is yourself – and you may want to add your D&I stakeholders – and that you could and should go and design your own nudges. Actually, you might have already implemented some, as part of your programmes. Looking ahead, the key to creating momentum and gaining traction on your D&I journey becomes visible when looking at the bigger picture. “The ability to understand what different audiences and entities are ready for – and what they need to move on – has become the most critical success factor in times of growing complexity”, explains D&I researcher and consultant, Michael Stuber. He looks at longer-term D&I journeys in a holistic way and identified a few learning points, including

  • The need to revisit the Business Case from different perspectives and break it down to organisational entities (e.g. business units or countries)
  • A structured approach to understand where unconscious biases get in the way of reaping benefits and making progress (including metrics or diagnostics as needed)
  • Designing and deploying changes, tools or programmes to address specific gaps or challenges, both on individual levels (starting with the respective leadership teams) and organisational levels (where an interlinked balance of leadership, process and cultural elements is needed).

‘Inclusion nudges’ are likely to be most valuable in the latter area, although some will also apply in the first two. The guidebook of Nielsen/Kepinski is a valuable resource in the orchestration of a powerful D&I development process, especially with regard to elements that get mainstreamed into existing processes or routines.

Some of the case studies on this portal  provide inspiration for the facilitation of D&I change processes.