Blog / 30 April 2018

How to hack diversity – according to Behavioural Economics

We know diversity is more than gender and that other areas require focus to reach a more equal and inclusive work/life, so we have started another initiative to disrupt the norm and actively challenge stereotyping.

Each week two Freeformers will pair up with someone of the opposite sex that they wouldn’t usually work with or sit next to, to come up with an idea on how to challenge stereotypes.

First up is Learning and Impact Designer, Emma Ruskuc and Software Developer, Ian Anderson who consulted behavioural economics for practical solutions.

What does behavioural economics have to say about diversity?

In conversations about diversity and creating a more inclusive workplace, we often talk about what we want to achieve, but much less about how. So, we looked to behavioural economics for tips.

Most articles we read agree that diversity is great for innovation, for growth, for ROI. But most of them focus on discussing the “what” – what should we change – and not enough time thinking about the “how”. Ian and I looked to behavioural economics to see how we could make the workplace more inclusive. Then, we tried it. And now, we’ll tell you what happened.

Much of our behaviour is guided by social norms, which fall into two types: descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive norms are the things that most people do; prescriptive norms are what most people think they should do. Over time, descriptive norms (like nobody wearing trainers to work) become prescriptive ones (like a no-trainer rule).

Creating a diverse workplace is all about changing prescriptive norms. People need to understand what inclusive behaviour looks like (not talking over women, for example) and feel they should be behaving that way. We looked to behavioural economics, to understand how prescriptive norms could be changed.

The answer is this: you can turn descriptive norms into prescriptive ones simply by commenting on them. If everyone comments on how nobody wears trainers to work, it eventually becomes prescriptive. If all we ever comment on is exclusionary behaviour, this gradually becomes reinforced into a workplace norm. Comment on the good things and they will become the norm.

So, what did we do?

We were surprised that only calling out exclusionary or divisive behaviour could have the opposite effect from what was intended. According to behavioural economics, we should also be calling in behaviour that we consider to be inclusive. A quick disclaimer though: nobody’s suggesting that we never comment on behaviour that makes us uncomfortable – that’s still important.

We looked for a way to quietly and subtly call out the good, and we thought: what better way than to harness the digital tools we already use? So we uploaded a custom emoji on Slack which could be used to quietly celebrate our “diverse moments” – times when a positive conversation was started about inclusion.

We also encouraged our colleagues to adopt the principle of ‘calling out the good’ in their interactions, as part of a quick presentation to the whole company. The reception was great – but behavioural economics also teaches us that attitudes only rarely translate into behaviour. So, the proof would be in the pudding.

How did it go?

First of all, a note-to-self: I want to spend more time working with people who think differently from me. I hadn’t even heard of behavioural economics before Ian shared an article about it with me.

We felt nervous presenting our idea to the company. It felt like our idea was a green-card to shower people with praise for tiny acts of human decency. Either that, or a call to complacency rather than a call to action.

On the other hand, so many diversity initiatives (rightly or wrongly) cause people to feel guilty, and we don’t believe that guilt inspires positive action. Our idea, on the other hand, was designed to inspire positive emotions, which are more closely linked to behaviour and attitude change.

And indeed – within the first few days after us pitching our idea, people had started to adopt it and ‘call out the good’ – both using our emoji on Slack and by talking to each other about it.

One colleague shared a story with us: a teammate stepping in, in response to a microaggression. “He didn’t have to do that”. It’s not earth-shattering, but a conversation has been started.

So our call to action? Don’t just call out the bad, remember to call in the good.

Despite my scepticism at showering acts of human decency with praise, it seems, a more positive approach to diversity can get people talking. Equipped with behavioural economics and a simple digital tool, we started some conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

More than this, we managed to move beyond the “what” and create an actionable, measurable “how” – a way to change behaviour in the office – at least in the short term. The psychologist in me finds that exciting.

#SpeakUp #NoStereotypes

By Emma Ruskuc, Learning and Impact Designer and Ian Anderson, Software Developer