DEI Club

Behavioral science

Why DEI change is hard – a behavioral science perspective

DEI Club spoke with Sally Khallash, founder and CEO of Behavioral Strategy and behavioral science expert, about how companies can bring about the behavior change necessary for creating a truly inclusive environment

Designing sustainable DEI behavior change is one of the most difficult challenges individuals and corporations face as we are up against basic human instincts favoring status quo and avoiding excessive use of our limited cognitive resources. Behavior change is complicated and complex as it requires a person to disrupt embedded habits while simultaneously fostering a new set of actions. 

As I see it there are two things at stake: the first is that behavior is difficult to change, period. I’ll give you an example; even dealing with a change as banal as having your trash can moved from the right side of your desk to the left is difficult to cope with for most humans. 
For a while most of us will habitually keep throwing waste to the right, because this habit is embedded in our brain and body.  

Thus, this seemingly small change – the move of the trash can - will induce annoyance because it requires cognitive resources. Our brains instinct is to preserve energy and it is hardwired to find laziness attractive. Per default it dislikes changes that requires continuous effort – which behavior change does. That’s why is so hard to change hardwired habits and why we prefer to maintain things as they are. So, that’s the dynamic we are up against when we want people to become more inclusive – that it requires continuous effort and cognitive resources, which most of us have a shortage of. 

DEI change must be emotionally driven

That leads me to my second point; to be able to carry through a change, we must be emotionally driven. As all DEI practitioners know, there are two systems in our brains – a rational one and an emotional one – which to many of us are conceptualized as the elephant and the rider or system 1 and system 2 thinking. 

However, when we communicate about business strategies and the necessary changes, we often forget to address the elephant. We use rational arguments, logic, and data to convince people that change is required – i.e., diversity stats, engagement numbers, etc. But we forget that rational arguments do not motivate the elephant. The elephant is motivated by emotions. Therefore, we need to tap into an emotional universe in addition to the fact based by creating narratives that evoke emotions. If we don’t, the feeling of annoyance from having to change behavior will continue to dominate and be a barrier for change to happen. 

Sense of personal connection 

Thus, we can’t rely on numbers only. I bet that many DEI Club members will recognize this from their work. – That the greatest champions of inclusion have an emotional connection to the topic – commonly due to personal circumstances such as having a teenage daughter, a non-binary child, a loved one who is part of an underrepresented group or having experiences with exclusion or inequitable treatment personally. 

Suppose there is an emotional connection and motivation to become more inclusive - how would you explain that most people still struggle to consistently perform inclusive behaviors? 

 Well, again I will highlight two factors. One is that definitions of inclusion are often quite vague and high-level – which leaves people uncertain of what they are supposed to do and unable to link certain behaviors to the change. Therefore, we need to break change down into smaller steps that when made continuously over a period of time will have a compounding effect. 

Changing through many small steps

The way that we look at and communicate the small steps is important for motivation. As an analogy let’s think of a debtor who is on a repayment plan. The debtor owes 50,000 USD and pays off 100 dollars per month. When looking at the total debt each month the debtor gets discouraged by the very slow progress – the number is hardly moving. But suppose the debtor instead broke down the total debt into debits – then suddenly some of them disappear. Although the monthly deposit is the same, the fact that a particular debit is visibly gone contributes to an experience of progression. – And progression is something we humans are highly motivated by. 

So, back to DEI – an important task for DEI practitioners is therefore to communicate continuously and consistently about the small steps indicating progress. That will give people the impression that their efforts are in fact worthwhile, and that progress is happening. One way to do that is to set SMART goals, act on them and show people how their actions is moving the company further towards their goals. 

Stop telling people they need to change

My second message is: Stop telling people that they need to change. DEI is about systems and systemic injustice – which impacts everyone. Nobody wants inherently inequitable systems. People are biased because systems are biased. Equity is not personal. Therefore, it’s the systems, not people that DEI should target. 

By taking this approach we remove criticism and blame game which is unfruitful. It’s nobody’s fault. But it’s everybody’s responsibility. If we change the systems, we change behavior – and don’t need to rely on people’s good intentions.

Agreed – we must target the systems to reduce bias. But we still need people to follow the new systems and processes – and then we are back to new habits and behavior?

Yes, and that’s an ongoing challenge. People don’t resist new systems and processes because they are ill-intended. A lot of us struggle to accept that we are all biased in our judgements. Restricting people’s autonomy by changing systems and processes, for example by implementing new standards in people assessment situations, is not likely to evoke positive emotions and motivation – quite the contrary. 

So, we need to consider how we can simultaneously increase their autonomy in some areas to compensate for the reduction of autonomy in other areas and make it more tolerable – for instance by involving people in the redesign of systems and processes.

Zoom in on a few priorities at a time

Another thing to be aware of is the common strategy implementation pitfall of overcommitment and wanting to implement too many things at the same time. It’s tempting wanting to fix everything at once, but DEI work requires patience. So, my advice is to select 2-3 key priorities, make them achievable and celebrate your successes. Change takes focus and effort. Once a goal has been achieved you can move on to the next.

That’s the sustainable way to change behavior and ultimately culture.