How Processes Can Drive Behavioral Change in DE&I

May 26, 2023 Updated: September 28, 2023 6 min read

How Processes Can Drive Behavioral Change in DE&I | Hear What a Social Psychologist Has to Say

The reason companies have such a hard time making progress toward diversity, equity, and inclusion and getting those efforts to stick has to do with the fact that our organizations consist of individuals. DE&I centers on how we think about, interact with, and treat others, and these interactions happen on an interpersonal level. As a result, without behavioral change by individuals, organizational change isn’t possible.

Understanding social psychology and our brains – why they’re wired the way they’re wired – is crucial to driving behavioral change. Structure and processes work with our brains to help us consistently reduce subjectivity in our decisions.

Dr. Aaron Kay, Ph.D., Chief Science Advisor at TalVista, speaks to the research and science behind behavior change in a recent webcast, Structured Hiring is Inclusive Hiring. Catch some highlights below, or listen to the full recording here.

How does behavior change happen?

“Anything in management that you want your organization to do, it always requires process,” Kay begins. “Hiring is no exception. It’s even more important, in some ways, because this is a dimension that requires us to make inferences about others based on small amounts of information.”

Our brain uses shortcuts to help us quickly and efficiently make decisions. When it comes to hiring, Kay cautions, “there’s a lot of things that go into our decision that we’re not aware of, and the only way around that is, really, structure.”

Structure is about working with our brains. This happens by being aware that unconscious and automatic thinking can lead to suboptimal outcomes, and next, doing something about it. As Kay pointed out, “…situations drive behavior, and you as a manager need to put those situations in place that are going to drive the behavior you want.” Softening the effects of unconscious bias requires intention, and structure is a great way to drive results intentionally.

Structure and autonomy aren’t mutually exclusive

“What the research shows, and has shown for decades and decades, even outside of this context, is that people are far more influenced by immediate guides, structure than they would be by what you think is their personality [or] values.” Instead, “What you put in front of them and what you make a priority and what norms look like really dictate behavior far more than anything else.”

Why might some companies feel hesitant to introduce structure into their hiring and business practices?

Dr. Kay explained that “[Managers] might be a little concerned that as they put these processes into place, their employees are going to feel like, ‘where’s my autonomy and where did it all go?’, when in fact, the research shows that people actually really appreciate this.”

Kay describes how individuals can feel stressed or overwhelmed when faced with too much uncertainty. Guides serve to narrow the uncertainty and can help ease some of the complexity around a decision.

What is motivated reasoning?

Motivated reasoning is a “process by which our motives and the motives can be anything – to be liked, to feel safe, to feel like I’m a rational human being, whatever it is – enter into our decisions and help us resolve some sort of choice or some sort of evaluation in ways that are consistent with that motive. Now, what’s tricky about motivated reasoning is that this isn’t the motive that people think they are operating on at the moment.”

Kay uses the example of reviewing a resume of a candidate who has taken many risks over the course of their career. The same behavior might lead one reviewer to conclude that the candidate is adventurous and another to perceive them as foolhardy.

Though “you’re trying to make that decision based on what you think is accuracy, your brain might have other motives going.” Be it the candidate’s gender, that they went to the same school as you, or that they’re attractive or unattractive, these additional factors can unintentionally inform the meaning that you assign to a given behavior. “Because the hiring process is so subjective in what you decide a given behavior means in terms of a value or a trait or an ability, that’s where motivated reasoning will enter into your decision.”

What can we do about it?

Kay suggests, “As someone who’s aware that motivated reasoning exists, I should demand that all these things I get are blind; I don’t see the author of that paper. But we can’t train it out in the sense of I can decide to just stop doing it.” Though we can’t eliminate motivated reasoning any more than we can put a stop to unconscious bias, “by being aware of it, you can be more open to policies that will get rid of it.”

Your brain’s not broken

How do you introduce the idea of bias to people without making them feel like their brains are broken or something is wrong with them?

“Although [our brains] are miswired in a lot of ways, they’re still incredibly helpful for us in other ways. The same type of process when it comes to inanimate objects, for example, very helpful, ends up being a problem in the social world,” Kay suggests. Biases and stereotypes prove useful in helping us make sense of the world around us. An example Kay gives is our ability to quickly and automatically recognize a table. “It would be a disaster if I had to figure out what every table is. I can’t stop being a categorizer. But I can realize that this is a problem when it comes to people,” says Kay.

Our brains are not perfect, but that doesn’t mean they are broken, either. Forming categories to help us grapple with what’s around us does not work well in the social world. Humans do not fit into clear categories. Understanding this enables us to adopt tools that work with our brains in situations where we know we might be prone to bias. We cannot train bias out of our brains, but we can leverage technology to guide us toward objectivity.

The paradox of progress

Citing interesting research by Michael Kraus, Kay states, “The belief that we’ve made progress as a company stops companies from actually doing anything to solve diversity.” He goes on to say, “The reason that they feel like they’ve made progress is that they’ve never collected any data, and they think that this a problem that everyone’s moving forward on it and fixing it, but they haven’t actually checked.”

With so many spinning plates, it’s easy to assume that progress is happening and things are changing when this may not be the case in reality. Just because you’ve had conversations, appointed a diversity officer or focus group, made a pledge, or drafted a sophisticated plan doesn’t mean anything is changing. Data is essential.


Scot is a successful HR technology entrepreneur and advocate for conscious inclusion. Passionate about helping others succeed, he’s committed to improving the hiring process for employers and job-seekers every step of the way.

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