The cognitive illusion of debias training with Neil Lewis Jr.

PodcastApril 11, 2022

What are you losing by taking that approach? How long do you plan to be around? If the world is changing, the composition of the world is changing, your customer base is changing, the governments and other clients you're working with are changing and you are not keeping up, how long do you plan to be in business?

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Intro

In this episode of the podcast, Brooke is joined by Neil Lewis Jr., behavioral scientist and assistant professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University. Drawing from his research, as well as his vast experience advising organizations, Neil offers fascinating insights into how employees and managers can drive more equitable outcomes in their organizations, and why it makes good business sense to do so. 

Some of the topics discussed include:

  • The persistence of so-called ‘invisible segregation’ in society and steps we can take to recognize it.
  • The ways organizations typically go about debiasing, and how they can be more effective.
  • The importance of employee buy-in, incentive alignment, and the structure of organizational processes to support the pursuit of equitable outcomes.
  • Common challenges in diversity strategies and ways to overcome them.
  • How to address inequality in your organization and why it makes good commercial sense to do so.

The conversation continues

TDL is a socially conscious consulting firm. Our mission is to translate insights from behavioral research into practical, scalable solutions—ones that create better outcomes for everyone.

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Sneak Peek

Recognizing patterns of inequality

“You just go through life on sort of autopilot and you don't really think about these things, these patterns. There are these patterns in society that our minds get used to. And we just don't think very much about them. And then of course there are also legal efforts to maintain them, the zoning ordinances we set, the fees we charge, the dress codes we set for different organizations, all of those things together end up sort of maintaining these patterns of segregation, which then have vast implications for all kinds of disparities.”

The social psychology behind cognitive bias

“The reason people have those biases in the first place, it's because of what we were just talking about: they're living in these societies and working in organizations whose day-to-day operations reinforced those biases in many ways. And so their minds didn't pick up those biases out of thin air, the mind observes what's happening in society and learns from it. So if all you're doing is having people come in for an afternoon session at lunch or whatever to do their debias training, and then they just go back to life as normal, then of course the training isn't going to last very long. You're asking an afternoon session to undo 30 or 40 or 50 years of life, that's an unreasonable expectation.”

On the longevity of debias training impact

“It's not useless, but it's not a silver bullet for solving your problems either. Some of the research on this has shown that if all you're doing is debias training, you can expect the effects of that to last about 24 hours.”

The road to failure is paved with good intentions

“We think about the intentionality a lot. And that you only punish people with bad intentions. If the intentions were good, then all is fine. And that's of course not the way that things work, lots of bad outcomes come from good intentions. And so it's not just the intentions that we have to think about.”

Tailoring solutions to the problem they’re addressing

“Organizations can have disparate outcomes for all sorts of reasons. If the issue is in your hiring protocol, that requires a different approach than if the issue is in your compensation and promotion outcomes and processes, and that'll require a different approach than if the issue is about the culture and climate on the teams in your organization. Use the information that you have to figure out where the problems are and then tailor your strategies accordingly.”

Aligning incentives and fighting burnout

“It's everyone's job in the organization to work on this, but who are we actually going to reward for doing this work or not, or punish for doing this work. If we see people in the organization sort of advocating for these changes, are we saying, "Well, that's taking away from the main thing that I'm paying you to do." Or are we saying, "No, actually this is an important part of our growth as an organization, so we actually want you to spend some time on that."

Why there’s no point closing the barn door after the horse has bolted

“If you wait until something bad happens and then you want to respond, no one believes that you're serious. And so it's hard to get anyone to do the work that's necessary. If you're in that situation, then you have to do the work to restore that trust first before you can do anything else and that can take some time.”

Transcript

Brooke: Hello everyone. And welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I'll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Neil Lewis Jr., behavioral scientist, and assistant professor at Cornell University. In today's episode, we'll be talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, debiasing organizations to debias outcomes. Neil, thanks for joining us.

Neill: Thanks so much for having me.

Brooke: You published an article last summer with FiveThirtyEight. And in that article you noted that racial segregation and disparities are in a certain sense, invisible to a lot of people. Could you tell us what you meant by that?

Neil: Yeah, absolutely. There are a few things going on here that I talked about in the article and sort of expanded on in some other academic papers as well. Some of the issue is sociological, some of it is psychological and some of it, frankly, is due to our laws and other policies that govern and regulate our social lives. And so I'll say a bit more about what I mean by that. First of all, we sort of live, play and work in these often segregated places, but we don't really notice that unless someone or something prompts us to think about it, right?

In day to day life you get up, you go to work, you interact with the same set of people and you just sort of live your life. You get into your routine and in some sense, sort of go on autopilot unless someone foresees stopping and thinking about it, perhaps by asking you something like, "Hey, why is it that everyone that works here got their degrees from the same school?" Or you're driving home to your neighborhood and you notice there's a new black family moving in and that's the first time you stop and think, "Huh, we haven't had one of those before."

You just go through life on sort of autopilot and you don't really think about these things, these patterns. There are these patterns in society that our minds sort of get used to. And we just don't think very much about them. And then of course there are also legal efforts to maintain them, the zoning ordinances we set, the fees we charge, the dress codes we set for different organizations, all of those things together end up sort of maintaining these patterns of segregation, which then have vast implications for all kinds of disparities.

Brooke: Right. I guess part of what you're saying is that we don't see what we don't see. What's in front of us we're aware of, but we're not aware of something in virtue of its absence until all of a sudden it shows up on the scene.

Neil: Yeah, exactly. Right. It's just what's in front of you is normal. If you happen to go somewhere else and then you notice that things are different, then you sort of start noticing those differences. But without that exposure to other ways of being other ways of other people, you just aren't going to think about it that much.

Brooke: Yeah. And a second part of what you said is that a lot of the mechanisms by which this segregation is entrenched, they're really subtle, they're really tacit. They're not things that look like racist policies on the surface. They don't have a warning label on them.

Neil: Yeah. There's the sense of neutrality in at least a lot of modern policies. But given the unequal nature of society to begin with, you can see that many things that are on their face ‘race neutral’ might end up having disparate impacts anyway. And so I'll use an example.There's this recent paper by a set of business school professors, they were looking at golf courses and tennis clubs in the United States.

And it was really interesting to see how as neighborhoods were integrating,people started increasing the fees to use those tennis courts and golf clubs and the like, and on one hand you can say, "Well, there's nothing inherently racist about that. We just are increasing the prices to be able to pay for upgrades or whatever." But when you think about sort of the underlying racial wealth gap, by putting in those higher fees, you are starting to change who can afford to access those places or not. And so it's subtle sometimes, but it still has these disparate impacts.

Brooke: Right. And a lot of organizations, especially in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and that super intense summer of critical reflection and conversations about race, a lot of organizations, public and private, have made pledges to address these issues to say like, "Even if we are not intentionally putting in place racist policies and racist practices, we recognize that these can have disparate outcomes anyway. And so we're committing ourselves to kind of figuring out what's driving this and starting to rectify that problem.”

Some of those pledges, of course, are just window dressing. There's a lot that happens when people just get caught up in the momentum of a public conversation and they feel like they need to be kind of showing that they're going along with the movement. But aside from that, there also appears to be a decent amount of genuine commitment that's expressed in those pledges. And a lot of what those organizations turn to is debias training as the solution to this problem. How effective is debias training in closing these gaps and getting us to where we want to go?

Neil: Yeah. Debias trainings, everyone's favorite tool these days. Let's get into it. I guess I'll start off by saying, it's not useless, but it's not a silver bullet for solving your problems either. Some of the research on this has shown that if all you're doing is debias training, you can expect the effects of that to last about 24 hours. Now, when I tell people that they're often shocked, but what you have to remember is that what happens before and after the training also matters.

The reason people have those biases in the first place, it's because of what we were just talking about. They're living in these societies and working in organizations whose day-to-day operations reinforced those biases in many ways. And so their minds didn't pick up those biases out of thin air, the mind observes what's happening in society and learns from it. So if all you're doing is having people come in for an afternoon session at lunch or whatever to do their debias training, and then they just go back to life as normal, then of course the training isn't going to last very long. You're asking an afternoon session to undo 30 or 40 or 50 years of life, that's an unreasonable expectation.

Brooke: Yeah. One of the parallels that I find really kind of eye opening in this respect is to think about social biases, similar to the way that we think about cognitive biases. If you see the Müller-Lyer illusion, which is really famous, it's a visual thing. But even when I describe it orally people will be able to visualize in their head because they've seen it so many times. These two lines, where one has arrowheads facing in and the other has arrowheads facing out. The first time you see that, your eyes play a trick on you. It seems like one of those lines is clearly longer than the others.

And then you take out a ruler and measure them and you're shocked to realize that in fact they're the same length, right? When you are exposed to that and when you have that ‘aha’ moment, that shock, that actually my eyes were playing a trick on me. First of all, you don't stop seeing it. But second of all, if you only see it once you can be fooled by it again. This I think is the parallel that I want to draw to the debias training that you're talking about. It's like you've got a whole head of steam behind you, all this momentum from decades of your life where you've lived in a society where these kinds of biases are present and normalized.

And you're just kind of passively ingesting that. And that happens with all kinds of social expectations, social norms. Now you sit down in this training and you are exposed to this ‘aha’ moment where you start to see these problems and you're given some tools to try to help yourself recognize when you're doing it and to understand what to do instead. The parallel to the Müller-Lyer illusion is you learn to pick up a ruler. But if you only see that thing once, then if you see that pair of lines a month later, you might not remember, you've kind of had this little blip on the radar like, "Oh, okay. I need to remember not to trust it." But unless it's constantly refreshed, it goes away pretty quickly.

Neil: Yeah, I love that comparison. And it makes me think of some of this other work on prejudice reduction. One of my favorite models for thinking about how to create lots of changes is this model that came out of Patricia Devine's lab. They have this sort of model that they talk about as the prejudice habits model. And I think it's a useful way to think about what we're talking about here, that because of all of these experiences in life, we have become sort of habituated to these biases, to these prejudices. And to change habits, it's a lot of work. You don't just do one quick thing once, you have to keep working at it.

And so I think that is absolutely right, that's the way that we should be thinking about that. And in some ways I think employees kind of know this, and this is part of why there's sometimes frustrations and sometimes even backlash responses to these quick trainings. People can sometimes feel like you're taking a very serious issue and diminishing its importance by just boiling it down to a quick afternoon session to check a box. When these trainings come across in that way, people might not engage with them seriously, they're not going to take you seriously. And so that's another way in which they have limited effects.

Brooke: That's interesting. You've noted that there can be a backlash, but in some of your work you've also talked about those debiased trainings actually back firing and making the problem worse, not just this perception that like this action or offering you bias training or this kind of thing, not just the backlash, but that's insufficient, but that actually the action itself can make the problem worse.

Neil: Yeah. There's this interesting work on sort of framing how do you talk about the reason for biases in societies. In at least the US context, over the past decade or so there's a lot of discussion about implicit versus explicit biases. And there's some interesting work that's been done by some psychologists and some collaborators and others, showing that when you say, "Well, the problem is implicit bias." One of the ways that people make sense of that is, “Oh, well, I can't really do anything about that.” And so there's this lowered accountability as well, that can sort of undermine your efforts to make changes. That the way that we think about biases that are explicit versus implicit changes are perceptions of whether people should be held accountable. That's another way that we have to think really critically about how we do these things.

Brooke: Right. If I understand you correctly, there's a bit of moral licensing that's going on there. When I learn that it's not my kind of explicit intention to do this thing, it's just something that's deeply rooted in my cognitive system, not because I was born that way, but because I grew up in the society that I did, then that lets me feel like somehow I'm off the hook.

Neil: Yeah, absolutely. We think about the intentionality a lot. And that you only punish people with bad intentions. If the intentions were good, then all is fine. And that's of course not the way that things work, lots of bad outcomes come from good intentions. And so it's not just the intentions that we have to think about.

Brooke: That's really interesting, what you said there, I want to pick up on that. This idea that we only punish people who have bad intentions. I think that that's really a locus that we need to tease out there. Who is being punished by debiased training?

Neil: Yeah. Well, I think this is an interesting point that comes up into discourse around these trainings and why there's sometimes these sort of negative feelings about them. And some of the backlash responses is like there are some members of the organization, of the majority group members, who feel like the act of implementing training in the first place is insinuating that they are bad people. And that somehow they're being punished for all the wrongs in society. That is one of the ways that people make sense of what's happening in the situation, which is one set of negative emotions that you really have to be ready to respond to as you are doing these things. I think that's part of the psychology underlying the reactions and the strengths.

Brooke: Yeah, that's interesting. It's not about punishment and it's not about saying like, "You are the reason, you individually are a reason this is happening." The intention is just to make the world more fair.

Neil: Yeah. And to the world, the organization, the lives of the people that you're interacting with.

Brooke: Yeah. I want to pivot for a moment to someone else that we might think of as potentially being punished by this. Because I think there's a lot of discourse around the as well. The classic kind of argument that comes up is like, “Well, if you have a better qualified white candidate and a less qualified black candidate, aren't you punishing the white candidate by choosing the black candidate?”

Neil: Yeah. Oh boy, that comes up so much. There's so many directions we can go with this. One is how do you think about those qualifications in the first place? What counts as a qualified candidate, if you have people with the same skills, the same experiences. Is the white candidate more qualified because they went to the same school as you or something else like that you share some other characteristic, like unpack what you mean by more qualified. That narrative is used a lot. And then you ask people to explain what they mean and they sort of freeze up or just gets frustrated by you asking that question in the first place.

Brooke: Yeah. All right. Let's take this in a slightly different direction away from the individual level and more towards systems levels. In your research, you've noted that deeper transformations within organizations are often necessary in order to actually tackle those racial disparities. One of the things about debias training is that it has this implicit assumption baked into it that all the stuff, the mechanism through which bias is being expressed is all at the individual level. And that's an assumption that we don't need to get on board with. And I think there are really good reasons not to.

And maybe that's a way to kind of counter that kind of challenge as well. We talked about this awkwardness of like, "Well, what do you mean by a qualified candidates?" One of the things about good organizations and when I mean good organizations, I mean ones that are really on top of understanding what makes the organization function and how they create value and how they deliver value and that kind of thing, is that generally they have a much crisper answer at the tip of their fingers about what makes a good candidate. Whereas organizations that are a little bit less reflective, they just kind of have been going along with the flow and they're like, "Well, a good candidate is…

Neil: …the people we've hired before.”

Brooke: Exactly. Yeah. In those instances it can be really uncomfortable to be challenged with this idea that like, “Well, you're claiming that you're hiring someone because they're more qualified, but you haven't really thought about what qualifications are important.” That can be a really kind of destabilizing recognition. Let's get beyond debias training here. What else is needed to think about more kind of systematic transformations within organizations?

Neil: Yeah, that's a really good question. Whenever I talk about the limitations of debias training, the immediate question is always, "Well, what's the one thing that we should do." And set that. And sorry to be the bear of bad news, but one thing probably is not enough, again, due to how deep these problems are. We have to think really systemically about all of these broader forces that we've been talking about throughout our conversation because that's not only affecting the individuals, which is often what we want to focus on, but other aspects of the organization as well.

And so we've looked in our work across literature and identified a few different things that together seem to help. And the first thing will sound boring and bureaucratic, but it's actually really important and that is you need a broader strategy. And this connects to the point that you're just making about thinking very clearly about what do you mean by things like qualification and how does that relate to your mission? I think it's important for organizations to think deeply about what are you trying to accomplish and how does tackling disparities or diversifying your organization fit into that broader mission?

If it's a standalone thing, it's probably not going to go very far. So you have to think about how these efforts are complimenting what you're trying to do as an organization. That's sort of one piece of the bureaucratic part of this. But another piece of that is who's responsible for making it happen. This is something we see over and over again, when there's no one accountable, nothing gets done, people sort of pass it on and go on to the other parts of their job that they're getting paid for and being evaluated on. You really have to think about that too, like building in some accountability structures.

But then a second piece is related to the point you were just making about, what makes good organizations or effective organizations? And that is to use your data to help you identify where the biggest issues are so that you can prioritize your efforts accordingly. Organizations can have disparate outcomes for all sorts of reasons. If the issue is in your hiring protocol, that requires a different approach than if the issue is in your compensation and promotion outcomes and processes, and that'll require a different approach than if the issue is about the culture and climate on the teams in your organization. Use the information that you have to figure out where the problems are and then tailor your strategies accordingly.

The nice thing about that is you can then also use those same database structures to evaluate whether what you end up doing actually work. And that's a really big thing that I really want to emphasize here. Don't just do stuff, but also measure whether or not it's actually working. But the third point I'll make is to make your commitments clear. If you're going to really transform the organization, you're going to need buy-in and to build goodwill among the various constituents who will be coming along with you on that transformation journey. Taking the time to talk with your employees, your managers, whoever, about what you're doing and why getting their input and incorporating them as you make those changes will be really critical for sustaining any changes that you have.

Brooke: There are a couple of points that you made there that I wanted to call out. The first is this idea that a lot of this stuff is boring and bureaucratic. That's exactly where implicit things always live. If we go back to the very beginning of the conversation, all these things around the way that seemingly boring and seemingly race neutral things have actually created these really unfair outcomes like, "Oh, well, you raised the membership fees at your tennis club." Okay. Well, in some sense that's like just above the layer of salesy junk mail that comes into your mailbox.

It's like, "Oh, okay, great.” When I renew my membership to some club this year, they're like, "Oh, well, it's going to be an extra $10.” I assume tennis clubs and golf clubs probably raise more than $10. But yeah, oh, okay, fees are going up this year, maybe it's a little bit more this year than the last year. Kind of chucking it into the recycling bin next to the offer of another credit card that I don't need kind of thing. But despite the fact that it's boring, that's where real power gets exerted.

Neil: Yeah. And I just might add quickly to that because the tennis club offers an example of one thing that sometimes feels on the more personal end. But on the job end there's other versions of this too, which is, in a US context, we only hire people from Ivy League institutions. Well, let's look at the makeup of those schools. If that's your decision, that's your policy that you only want to hire people from these kinds of schools. Well, you're making a decision about the demographics of your workforce.

Brooke: Yeah, let's push that even further. Because I think even that example, people can say like, "Oh, okay, well, sure. I just removed this thing around only hiring from Ivy League schools. But I want people whose references I trust." And there it's like, "Oh, okay, well, now it's not just the people who have gone to those schools, we are open to candidates who are coming from a little bit all over the place, but you better have a reference from somebody who works at one of those schools or went to one of those schools." The segregation runs so deep that like even if you try to lighten the load, so to speak, when you push it back one layer further, ultimately the impact of that can still be quite small.

Neil: Yeah. And so this is part of why that article we talked about, I started with that sort of broad picture, broad landscape, and then walked through all the ways that manifests. So your point there on, so you remove the restrictions of the schools, but now you're relying on the networks. Well, the networks are also segregated as you're pointing out. And so you have to think about that too. If we're requiring people to have references only from these places, the impact of that decision is still a disparate one. We really have to think through these decisions carefully as we're setting these policies.

Brooke: The other point that I wanted to open up a little bit is around accountability. When you said it needs to be somebody's job, my initial and very cynical response was, well, Neil it's everybody's job, just like innovation is everybody's job.

Neil: It is. Yeah. I agree with you. It is everyone's job and yet who is actually evaluated on that. Let's actually connect it back to the previous point. It's everyone's job in the organization to work on this, but who are we actually going to reward for doing this work or not, or punish for doing this work. If we see people in the organization sort of advocating for these changes, are we saying, "Well, that's taking away from the main thing that I'm paying you to do." Or are we saying, "No, actually this is an important part of our growth as an organization, so we actually want you to spend some time on that."

How are you accounting for that? If you are going to make it everyone's job, make it formally to everyone's job, but don't have it be the sort of extra job that isn't compensated, isn't rewarded and just adds these other layers of burden. Because when you do that, you get these other sorts of disparate impacts, which is the few people who really care about it will put in all this extra work to do it, get burnt out and not advance in their careers while others who don't really care as much will continue to do the things that are rewarded and not really make the broader changes in the organization.

Brooke: Yeah. One of the things that I want to talk about in terms of accountability and especially around rewards and punishments. There's one sense in which there are tacit punishments that are muted out to people who rock boats in organizations. But there are also, let me say in air quotes, ‘well-meaning punishments’, which is like you could say that anyone who fails to respect diversity, equity and inclusion, that can be grounds for termination or something like that, which is very, very different from giving someone an incentive to do it well. What I want to draw out here is the difference between this kind of lower threshold that must be maintained below which you can be fired versus an active incentive to go out and do this well.

When I think for instance about some of the employment contracts that I've seen for public sector jobs, part of working for a government is often signing this kind of code of conduct, which is that I will represent the best interests of citizens in my work and if I fail to do that, I can be fired. But nobody gets promoted for doing it. They get promoted for towing the organizational line and for supporting the initiatives of people superior to them, even if they feel that those are flagrantly, not in the best interests of citizens.

It's like you can punish people really badly in an organization for rocking the boat, even when rocking the boat is technically part of a code of contact that they've signed. It's very, very different to say we actively want you to be pushing this forward as opposed to, if we find and can demonstrate and go to the effort of demonstrating that you've done it badly enough, then we can kick you out the door.

Neil: Yeah. And so I think that point is really interesting because it also connects back to the sort of letter of the law with the policies and the spirit of the loss. And there's so much work there in the organizational context, in political science, about how the implementation matters most for the outcomes that we see. In the same way that an organization can go to great lengths to find out, are you doing these things wrong to fire you. They can also use that effort to try and figure out like, well, what do we mean when we say we want to make a more inclusive organization and think through concretely, what does that mean for different kinds of employees and think about what would it mean to reward those efforts and put those kinds of things in place too.

We don't have to spend all of our time looking for punish employees, to punish people. We can spend our time thinking about ways to support the people who are doing the work that is moving the organization towards these mission statements that we outline and say that this is what we're trying to do. I think that's the broader point that I'd like to make. Really think concretely, what do you want people to be doing? And look at whether those desires are lined up with your incentive structures, otherwise it's not going to happen.

Brooke: And let's think once again about the fit between those incentives and what actually creates value for the business. I want to talk through very briefly an example that is very close to home for me here at TDL, when I think about the conversations we're having internally about the diversity of our writer base. The diversity of our writer base impacts the makeup of our reader base. When we start to talk about different kinds of problems and we take different kinds of perspectives on problems, all of a sudden our work can resonate with a bunch of readers who might have found our previous approach to be a little bit too narrow, a little bit too thin, kind of just not on the right wavelength for them.

And our reader base has a big impact on who it is that reaches out to us to do consulting projects. By changing the writers, we change the readers. By changing the readers, we change the clients. And those clients, if we're bringing in different sets of clients, they'll be bringing in different sets of concerns, they'll be asking us to do different kinds of things, which means that when we continue to pull that thread through, we change the services that we offer, we change what it is that we're delivering.

Lo and behold, at the end of the day, when we think about changing our writers, the long term impact of that is changing the business that we're in. That can feel pretty overwhelming. How do we scope our efforts to be ambitious enough to bring about that kind of substantive change without scaring people off by saying, "We're going to change absolutely everything about this organization. Nothing is going to be the same starting Monday morning."

Neil: Yeah. I think that point is super important and thanks for sharing that, because I think it is the kind of anxiety and often elephant in the room in many organizations right now and over the past two years as they think about these things. But it's pretty important to keep in mind that these decisions are going to affect who you are as organizations. And there is this risk of what social psychologists would call an identity threat that comes with contemplating these big changes. And so I think there are a few ways to deal with that.

First, I actually don't think it's a good idea for any organization to try and completely transform themselves overnight. To use an old Facebook mantra, if you move too fast, you will break things. And I say that to suggest setting reasonable, short, medium, and long term goals for what this change will look like, so that you can really work through all of those things you were just talking about. In one of the projects I'm working on right now, for instance, the conversation we're having is like, here's where we want to be in 2050, because we want to be ready for where the world will be at that point.

We know the world is changing, demographics are changing, there are all these things that are changing the world. We want to continue to be around and to be ready to respond to that world at that point in time. And so let's start with that big picture goal and then break it down into smaller trunks. This is like one of the big insights from the goal setting literature, I imagine you have talked about it on this podcast before. To hit that big goal, we're then breaking it down to, well, here's where we should be by the end of 2022. Here's where we should be five years from now and so on.

You can still have these ambitious goals, but then be really realistic about what it takes to achieve that ambition. And it doesn't all have to happen overnight. So you can take the time to sort of think through what it all means, and then implement some incremental steps along the way. But you do have to get started, if you never take the first step, you'll get nowhere. ou want to come up with some plan and execute it, but you have to be mindful of sort of the forces and counter forces out there that might affect your ability to achieve the goal.

Brooke: Yeah. One of the insights that I just want to share on that front very quickly is we tend to overestimate how much change is possible in the short term, but underestimate how much change is possible in the long term. My favorite example of this is like, remember that show, The Jetsons, George Jetson read a paper newspaper.

Neil: Yeah.

Brooke: We really didn't understand the extent to which technological change was going to change everything. It wasn't just like, oh, you had a car that ran on wheels, now you have a car that floats. It went way, way deeper than that.

Neil: Yeah. And I mean, even in the past two years, so there were lots of conversations about pivoting to a different role. Lots of conversations about hybrid or remote work options and companies being like, "Well, that's never going to happen. It's never going to work." And here we are! So change can happen, but you really have to think through how to make it work.

Brooke: Yeah. And actually that's a great example to illustrate your point of, you have to think through it in order to make it work. What exemplifies that better than so many organizations that do hybrid work so badly because we never really took the time to think about it. Now part of that is because the pandemic kind of sprung on us so quickly that we didn't have the time to think about it. But the other half of that is we spent so much time saying it's never going to happen. We didn't spend the time before the pandemic arose to think through what that might look.

Neil: Yeah, exactly.

Brooke: Let's go now towards broad-based corporate transformation. You mentioned this idea around identity threat and trying to establish effective milestones and this kind of thing. There isn't really a one size fits all formula to how change around diversity, equity and inclusion always moves forward. But perhaps there are a few patterns out there that you have noticed in your work that you could help us to identify. I'm going to imagine that in some organizations it's a grassroots push from employees. Whereas in others, there might be a senior executive or a small group of senior executives who say that they want to be the champions for this kind of initiative and they want to see it happen. They want to bring it to life.

Also another dimension for kind of how this can play out is sometimes the argument is framed as one of justice, whereas in other instances it's framed as being economically advantageous. Allll of the data that's out there that at this point seems pretty well received, thathaving more diverse organizations makes you more competitive against other people out there in the market. Can you describe a few of the patterns that you've noticed in your work, some of the kind of archetypes that listeners might recognize themselves in?

Neil: Yeah, sure. I've worked with different organizations over the years and it's always interesting to see some of these different patterns that you're just mentioning. One thing that's interesting to see is who in the organization reaches out. s it a request from a group of workers that want to see change or from HR or from the executive suites?hat's often telling. And then it's also always important to relearn why they're reaching out and wanting to change, that's really important.

One approach is what I think of as the publicity crisis approach. Someone in the organization said or did something insensitive creating this PR nightmare. And so they decide they need to do something to improve diversity to calm people down. This is my least favorite way to try and create change. And it makes it hard to get things done. And part of that is because it comes off to everyone, both internally and externally, as just being about money and image restoration. And so that makes it really difficult to build the buy-in needed to create lasting changes.

If you wait until something bad happens and then you want to respond, no one believes that you're serious. And so it's hard to get anyone to do the work that's necessary. If you're in that situation, then you have to do the work to restore that trust first, before you can do anything else and that can take some time. From the health side of my work, one of the ways we often talk about this is prevention is cheaper than treatment. Once you're in the treatment mode, it's much harder to make those changes.

That being said, if you really are serious andthe crisis did teach you something, then that's an opportunity to show that rather than just tell. You need to invest in the changes that the organization needs, do more than just put out a diversity statement or the afternoon training session, otherwise no one's going to take you seriously.

Brooke: What are some of those actions that organizations can take to actually rebuild that trust? You mentioned and intuitively I feel it in my gut, when you talk about it I'm like, "Oh yeah, I've seen a thousand times the organization that burned their hand and then said, "We have this new no hands by the stove policy." How do you build back that trust once it's been lost?

Neil: I mean, I think part of that goes back to one of the things I mentioned earlier about really taking the time to listen and hear what people have experienced in that place and what life has been like, to really understand the day to day experiences of the various members of the organization before trying to do something. If you're just quickly reacting, then you're not listening, you are just trying to react to the PR scandal. But really taking that time.It can be in town halls or have other kinds of listening sessions or surveys to really take in and make it very clear you're not going to punish people for telling you what their experience has been like in that organization. That can help. And then building sort of a plan around addressing those wrongs can go a long way. But just the gut level, quick response of, “Oh, we need to just put out a statement or something and that's all we're going to do”, that's not going to go anywhere.

Brooke: Okay. You've charted out this one model for us, the PR crisis mode. What else is out there?

Neil: A second approach that I like a lot is this more grassroots approach. When the employees get together and say, "We want our company to be better than this." And then request that their leadership do more. In the beginning of our conversation, I used the example of people going to the same school, because that's actually the example from a company I worked with. There's this company where there was this new cohort of hires, they were all fresh out of college. They got there and noticed that all the people in the prestigious well paying roles were white guys. And the handful of women that worked at this rather large company were all secretaries. They were really uncomfortable with that. It sort of felt wrong, unfair, unjust and so forth.

And so then we looked at their data, what are the recruitment and hiring practices at this company? How did it come to be this way, to try and figure out what's going on there? And then came up with a plan that they brought to their leadership to let them know that, "Look, the status quo is not acceptable. And if we're going to stay at this company long run then this has to change." And so leadership got behind them and they were able to put some things in place.

Now they haven't radically transformed the company, but in the past two years they have multiple women and people of color working in the organization now in those roles and they're on their way to making big changes. But that started from the sort of grassroots efforts of people looking around and saying, "This is not the kind of company that I ... the way things are, it's not the way that it should be and we want to make some changes." That's a second approach to this.

Brooke: That makes me think about the comment that I made before about how we expect more change than is usually reasonable in the short term, but we underestimate how much change is reasonable in the long term. I think a lot of the statements in the wake of George Floyd's murder were kind of like, "Oh, well, we're going to go from zero to a hundred between now and next summer."

Neil: Not going to happen.

Brooke: Yeah, that's right. I mean, first of all, there's just a lot of exploration to be done to figure out how did we end up where we are now? How does normal functioning of the system systematically lead to this. Even just finding out what that is takes time. Then building up solutions and trying them out and implementing them and then waiting for them to actually start having effects, it's a very time consuming process. But also in the longer term, we also start to see things that we didn't know we were looking for. The way that conversations happen around a table is very different when you change who's at the table.

Neil: Yes. And for client facing companies, the kind of clients that you are attracting now might be different than the ones that you were attracting before, which creates new opportunities and so forth. So yeah, lots of things change. They will change probably in a slower way that you might think/ It's not going to happen overnight, but the change is possible and you can sustain some of it. And that I think sort of ties through this third approach that I often see, which people have mixed feelings about but  I'm positive towards it, but I'll sort of explain what it is and we can talk about it some more.

The  third approach ties back to the bureaucratic comment from earlier, but as the top down strategic plan championed by an executive office. The key to this one, I will note up front is you actually have to move beyond the plan, strategic plans are often places where ideas go to die. But the ones that actually get implemented can really change a place. So for that approach, doing a lot of things that we've talked about can be helpful, right? Getting different stakeholders to weigh in and have their input as you develop the plan and figure out where different elements might be implemented and how they'll be evaluated, that can work and do a lot in an organization.

What I really like about this approach is that it can allow the organization to set very concrete and measurable goals, which can serve as a roadmap for the feature as we were just talking about. And then if you're transparent about this process, every member of the organization can check whether or not you're actually meeting those milestones and hold the institution accountable. All of that is necessary to keep things moving along.

Brooke: In those instances, what are some of the challenges in getting action to follow from that strategy?

Neil: Yeah. Part of it ties back to the accountability point from earlier. So you have this big plan, it also connects to the goal setting point. You have this big,, big ambitious plan, but if you haven't figured out who's going to do what, and when are they going to do that? How does that fit into their workflow? For instance, tying back to the point of whose job is this actually, then it can be really hard to make progress. You really have to sit down and think concretely. If we want to be here in 2050, and these are all the things that we need to do, what percentage of people's time are they going to be spending on doing those things relative to other things. There's only so much time in a day. And so you really have to think concretely about how this is going to really fit into the flow of what the organization's doing. If you don't do that, then lots of things are just ambitions that never get implemented and you don't get anywhere.

Brooke: Right. And are there some opportunities that you've seen in the organizations that you've worked with? What are the approaches to work, or even just approaches to discourse that help to get that untracked and actually allow certain organizations to be really successful in getting that move.

Neil: Yeah. Again, going back to the boring and bureaucratic, one example is organizations that allocated explicitly, through work arrangements and contracts, part of people's time to work on these things. “You're going to spend 10% of your week, 20% of your week on this.” That's a concrete way of saying this is part of your job now. Another thing that some organizations do is hire additional supports to help. It looks differently in different kinds of organizations, but what is effective in the places that it is effective is really concretely thinking about how this fits into the flow of sort of the day to day business of the life of the organization and slotting in things where they need to go.

Brooke: Yeah. It makes me think about the remark you made much earlier in our conversation about burnout. That when you've got these plans and these great ambitions in a sufficiently large organization, there will be at least some people who take you at your word and really do want to move those things forward. And if there's no budget allocated to it or no time allocated to it, or just kind of drastically insufficient time or budget allocated to it. There are some people who just won't let it drop and will make it kind of their corner of the desk project. They will spend a lot of extra energy and try to move forward an initiative that as the executive of an organization, you have signaled you want to be moving forward. And then when they are responding to your signal and taking you seriously, they end up paying the price for that often personally, and that can bleed into professionally as well.

Neil: Yeah. It becomes their second job, right. It slowly burns them out over time. And that not only has negative effects on them, it often comes back to bite the organization, right. That those people they're not going to stay there very long.That someone else will recognize that talent of what they're doing and recruit them away. That's a big risk if you're not careful in the organization. That's one thing that can happen or they sort of eventually just burn out and stop not only doing that additional work, but do less of their other work too. If you feel like you're continuing to beat your head against the wall, there's only so long that you're going to do that. And so leaders really have to think about that and reward that work.

Brooke: Yeah. It makes me think also if the grassroots model that you talked about, kind of that second model, if there is that energy latent within the organization, and along with that energy a commitment and an expectation that things are going to happen, the executives of the organization need to respond carefully to that too by saying, "Okay, great. Well, we're so happy that you're doing this, more power to you, we're behind you." But there's no strategy, there's no coordination. There's no time or budget that's allocated to that.

Or that can lead to another situation where the similar kind of thing happens, that the work is getting done. It's either taking away immediately from other priorities or in this kind of longer term roundabout way, it's taking away from those other priorities as you mentioned. Or in another instance, you've got similarly this kind of grassroots energy and commitment to this and an executive group that doesn't respond that doesn't say yes, doesn't say no, just remainsis silent on the matter. What happens in those kinds of situations?

Neil: In those kinds of situations people have their eye on the door. I mean, this is one of the realities of life is that we want our efforts to lead to something. Soif you're putting in the work and your executives are responsive, then that is intrinsically rewarding. People are seeing that it's important. They're trying to find ways to move it along. That gives you sort of the energy to keep going. If you're doing that and you get the opposite response, then you either sort of stop doing it and feel resentful, or you go somewhere else where that work will be rewarded.

That's something that I think a lot executives have to keep thinking about is that you have to remember that your organization is the people there. And how do they feel about working there? How do they feel about the kind of culture that you're creating? Is this aligned with their values and what they want to see happening in the world. If you're not cultivating those things that make your organization desirable to work for, then you are risking losing all that talent that you spent all that time and money trying to recruit, train, develop, and so forth.

Brooke: I want to come back to who the people are and to the original thread of this conversation about segregation. The kind of really uncharitable picture of this is the executive who just thinks, "Oh, okay, well, what do I care about a whole bunch of people who are not coming from the schools that I think produce the best talent? Am I really losing out on that much if I'm alienating them from my workforce?"

Neil: Yeah. I'm sure that there are people who think that way. And I think the question they have to ask themselves, and this will sound sort of more economics driven, but we do have to think about the economics in this someways. What are you losing by taking that approach? How long do you plan to be around? If the world is changing, the composition of the world is changing, your customer base is changing, the governments and other clients you're working with are changing and you are not keeping up, how long do you plan to be in business? At the end you have to think about that. You can resist forever and sure maybe you last another year or five years, if you're okay with that, that's fine. But if you want to be around in the long run and do meaningful work with the world as it changes, then I think you should periodically step back to ask, what are we doing now? And are we actually prepared? Otherwise it's sort of, you're engaging in planned obsolescence. 

Brooke: Yeah. Isn't that our favorite pastime? Okay, Ijust want to wrap this up with one question. For someone who's been listening to this and just drinking it all in and is like, "Oh my gosh, this so nicely captures the situation that I'm facing and it helps me ... you've supplied me with all this new language and terminology to understand what it is that I've been feeling for all this time." What is a practical thing that they can start doing Monday morning to start moving forward on this?

Neil: Yeah. Monday morning I think you can spend some time looking at whatever ... the broader point is looking at data, but I'll be more concrete about that. Looking at your organization, who is there, looking at your mission, what do you do? And really starting to think about, are we currently equipped and prepared to do the work that's necessary to achieve that mission? Maybe you're doing fine. That's a possibility. But as you look around, think about who's there, who's missing, and then really start walking through, why is that? Have a conversation with a colleague about this, have a conversation with HR about, how do we go about recruiting employees? What do we do in terms of our hiring? What does our interview protocol look like? And other processes.sk those questions and really get a sense of how does your organization work and is that way of operating, leading, setting up for success in the business and world you want to be in?

Brooke: Yeah, one of the things, so that's a question that I ask at the end of all the conversations, just to make sure that we're not creating all of this energy and giving people no way to actually convert energy into action. It's always on my radar as the conversation is going on. And one of the things that popped into my mind when you were talking about these three models, like the PR crisis model, the grassroots model and the C-suite champion model. One of the questions that came to my mind is to ask yourself, what would have to happen in my organization for change to be possible here? To be ready for that and to be able to then till the soil for that to say, "Okay, well, if I live and work in the kind of organization that only changes when there's a crisis, there are plenty of organizations like that."

Then the answer is to be prepared so that when a good crisis comes around, you don't miss it. You were talking about, for instance, the kind of scramble, panicked, statement that goes out. If you are someone in your organization who wants to see that kind of change, you can have more of an idea in mind of what an effective and appropriate response would be like. So that when that happens, you're ready to step forward and say, "Hey, you've got a problem, I've got a solution here. It's between two covers."

Neil: Yeah. That's certainly one thing that you can do. But I will also challenge any C-suite people who do less than this to think about what that would mean, if they are asking themselves a question. If your organization is only willing to change, if there's a crisis, what does that mean about the kind of organization you're running and what might you need to change in that organization?

Brooke: Yeah. All right. Neil, thank you so much for this. It's been great.

Neil: Thanks for having me. It's been fun having this conversation.

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About the Guest

Neil Lewis Jr.

Neil Lewis Jr.

Neil Lewis Jr. is a behavioral scientist who studies how social interventions and policies can change behaviors to promote equitable outcomes in society. Lewis is an assistant professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University, and assistant professor of communication research in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. He also co-directs Cornell’s Action Research Collaborative. 

Lewis’ research examines how people’s social contexts and identities influence how they make sense of the world around them, and the implications of those meaning-making processes for their motivation to pursue different goals in life. He is interested in the consequences of these processes not only for individuals, but also for the communities and societies those individuals are embedded in; he is particularly interested in the educational, health, and environmental consequences for individuals and societies.

Outside of academia, Lewis is a publicly engaged scholar and science communicator. He writes about the application of social and behavioral science research in policy and practice at FiveThirtyEight and other mass media outlets. He also works closely with policymakers on efforts to put science into practice to address pressing societal issues. Lewis’s work has been recognized by numerous awards and honors, including: the Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions from the Association for Psychological Science, the SAGE Young Scholar Early Career Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and Cornell’s Research and Extension Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Science and Public Policy.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Director, Research

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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