Small Nudges Help Organizations Achieve Diversity

Small interventions can have a large impact on changing institutional culture.
Small Nudges Help Organizations Achieve Diversity

It’s easy to think that business schools or other organizations can achieve true diversity and inclusion only through large sweeping initiatives. But that’s a myth, say Tinna Nielsen of Move the Elephant for Inclusiveness and Lisa Kepinski of the Inclusion Initiative. The pair emphasize that small interventions implemented in systemic ways can have the greatest impact on creating more inclusive cultures.

In 2013, Nielsen and Kepinski teamed up to found Inclusion Nudges, an online community dedicated to sharing best practices related to increasing diversity in business. As part of the initiative, they release annual editions of the Inclusion Nudges Guidebook. The 2016 edition includes more than 70 examples of nudges, shared by practitioners in a range of industries, to help people overcome unconscious bias against underrepresented groups.

Implementing just one nudge can make a difference, says Kepinski. But when companies implement multiple small nudges in mission-critical areas of their operations, they can transform their cultures.

The guidebook offers these three categories of nudges:

Feel-the-need nudges. These link directly to people’s emotions and desire to do what’s right by bringing their attention to unconscious biases that they can immediately see as unfair. For example, the guidebook mentions a company that wanted to start a sponsorship program for its female senior executives, but faced resistance from executives who believed they already treated men and women fairly. So, these executives were brought together and shown a photo of the 130 male and female employees who would be at the sponsorship level. They were asked, how many did they know? They responded with the names of many of the people pictured. Then, they were shown a photo that pictured only the women. The comparatively silent room inspired greater support for the program.

Other feel-the-need nudges might involve showing employees pictures of their organization’s executive committee or partners to highlight a lack of diversity. Or, individuals might be asked to list all the famous leaders they can think of, as a way to see if their lists are diverse or if they reflect a limited worldview. “These nudges reveal to leaders hidden patterns where bias can crop up and interfere with their objectives for fairness and equity,” Kepinski explains.

Process nudges. These focus on people’s decision making. In another example from the guidebook, a company’s leaders wanted to increase women’s representation in its workforce. For their process nudge, they distributed paper glasses, or “gender lenses,” to the members of its hiring committee. The prop served as a physical reminder for the committee members to be aware of any gender bias that might arise during their evaluations of candidates.

Another process nudge could be to remove identifying information regarding a job applicant’s name and gender until later in the interviewing process. Yet another is to provide employees with ongoing real-time performance feedback rather than to conduct annual performance reviews—this nudge helps avoid “recency bias,” in which supervisors take into account only their employees’ most recent work.

Framing nudges. These encourage people to reframe the way they look at the world by changing the language they use. For example, Kepinski explains that an organization might face more opposition than it expects if it asks its staff to “increase diversity,” especially among those who find that the phrase implies a preference for hiring women and minorities, rather than a desire to equalize the playing field. That kind of resistance was clearly illustrated in the now-infamous online post written by Google engineer James Damore, which came to light in August. In it, Damore rails against the company’s diversity policy as misguided and preferential.

While companies always will face some opposition to their diversity-driven initiatives, they can reframe those initiatives in ways that better highlight the benefits of diversity and inspire greater buy-in. For instance, instead of setting goals to “increase diversity,” a company might set goals to “decrease homogeneity” or “increase performance by including more diverse perspectives.”

Nielsen points to another example of a framing nudge from the guidebook called “flipping the default.” One place where this nudge works is within committees deciding which employees in an organization deserve promotion. “Instead of making a list of candidates ‘who are ready’ and discussing why the committee thinks so, committees can choose the default stance that that ‘all are ready’ and then discuss why each candidate is not,” Nielsen says. This simple switch in mindset removes at least some bias from the process because it ensures that everyone is considered for advancement, not just a select few.

Nielsen and Kepinski would like all organizations—business schools included—to invest the time to apply inclusion nudges to their operations, and more generally, to learn more about the insights about bias coming from the behavioral and social sciences. “Too often people tend to think there is a quick fix—a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to mitigate bias and increase inclusiveness,” says Nielsen. “There is not!”

Designing inclusive organizations is a basic competency that leaders must learn, say Nielsen and Kepinski. They believe that business schools are in a great position to teach that vital 21st-century skill.

The 2016 edition of the 262-page Inclusion Nudges Guidebook is available for £22.99 (approximately US$30), and the 2017 edition is scheduled for release in March 2018, at the same price. All proceeds go to support the Inclusion Nudges initiative. A shorter 40-page overview of the guidebook is available for free download. For information about the initiative and guidebook, visit

To read more about mitigating bias in organizations, see “Breaking Through Bias.” 

This article originally appeared in BizEd's November/December 2017 print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].