In June of 2021, President Biden continued his series of executive orders designed to strengthen the largest employer in the nation, with this one focusing on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA). Noting the depth of research and the importance of DE&I in organizational success, the order includes requirements for action, a timeline for milestones, and guidance on data collection for evidence-based practice.
The good news is it calls to define standards “based on leading policies and practices in the public and private sectors.” We couldn’t agree more, Mr. President, and we’re here to help with what we know from a couple decades of work and research on the subject. We’ll start with three traps we’ve identified, and the science-based actions agencies can take to avoid getting snagged.
Trap #1: mandating DEIA programs
Technically, the executive order is an order to take action—that’s clearly a mandate. But viewing and communicating the order as a mandate for specific actions is inaccurate, and passing that inaccuracy down the chain of command could reduce the effectiveness of any actions that are taken. Humans have an innate need to feel in control, even if that control is limited to the ability to come to their own conclusions about the need for DEIA.
In a study published in 2011, participants were provided with essays regarding prejudice. One group was provided with an essay inviting them to choose an open-minded way of life and the other was informed of an obligation to be anti-prejudiced. The results were significant, showing that those who are provided with autonomy in their decisions showed less bias than those who were told how to think.
Mandating diversity and inclusion programs can cause problems when it becomes telling people what to think and how to behave. “Most people don’t like being told what to believe, and anything that feels like pressure to think a certain way makes people want to do the opposite.” Once you remove someone’s choice and sense of autonomy—that is, the control they feel that they have in a matter—it can have unintended consequences.
ACTION ITEMS FOR YOU:
Many government employees may feel trapped right now, so framing the order with unexpected autonomy gives you a far greater chance of driving the change you want to see. Let your people know that the best part about the executive order is that it leaves the methods to the people who best know how to accomplish the mission, and that’s them. Convey the message of the order not as a DEIA mandate, but as a statement of support to help take your agency where your agency needs to go, and that’s not going to be the same for the agency down the road.
The best way to provide autonomy within something that has already been mandated is to encourage individuals to contribute ideas on how to meet the intent. Start by asking them to reframe the intent, and how they interpret it. This will get them involved while also providing a status boost that their opinions are valued and trusted, which is a step in the inclusion direction anyway.
When seeking ideas, find a few key points that seem like they might pose a challenge, and assemble a team to generate insights about how to approach them. Prioritize the need for decisions and ensure the team you assemble includes a diverse range of backgrounds, viewpoints, and expertise.
Trap #2: not following the science of bias mitigation
Agencies that successfully avoid the first trap and assemble diverse teams to tackle this challenge can still get snagged if they don’t recognize and mitigate biases. These unconscious shortcuts in our brain are designed to keep us out of trouble, but they aren’t always useful. Those at senior levels in government may have seen mandates like this before, and they can easily fall into traps of making assumptions with this one.
According to research that we’ve summarized here, there are over 150 cognitive biases that can affect the way we make decisions in work and social settings. We have assembled them into the SEEDS Model, made up of five domains–similarity, experience, expedience, distance, and safety. Those biases can all affect how leaders view this executive order, and potentially guide poor decision-making even when intentions are good.
- Similarity bias may make leaders look to people who are like-minded and will help support their ideas on how to approach solutions.
- Experience bias may make leaders recall previous mandates that ended in backlash, causing hesitation or jumping to conclusions that may not be relevant.
- Expedience bias may cause leaders to make rushed decisions based on what they assume is the quickest solution on a tight deadline.
- Distance bias may cause leaders to assemble a team or create tasks based on who is in the office, which may exclude dispersed workers.
- Safety bias may prevent leaders from taking risks, relying on limited actions with limited results.
ACTION ITEMS FOR YOU:
One requirement in the order is to “strengthen its ability to recruit, hire, develop, promote, and retain our Nation’s talent and remove barriers to equal opportunity” which include military spouses, people in rural communities, formerly incarcerated, as well as the most historically and systemically underserved—BIPOC and LGBTQ+. These barriers don’t just need to be removed, they need to be eliminated from existence at the root of the processes so that they can never return. This complete elimination happens when systems involving people processes are evaluated through the lens of SEEDS.
Start with recruiting and then work down the line. If your recruiting efforts include trade shows with registration fees, for example, make sure candidates who apply through other channels have the same access to an interview that the person who paid to get an on-the-spot interview at a booth did.
Scour every aspect of agency processes and shift your view to see it from the perspective of an underserved person. Make sure you take perspective from each independent group you’re trying to attract. When you make a list of processes and systems to evaluate, once again ensure the team you assemble includes a diverse range of backgrounds, viewpoints, and expertise. Poke holes, specifically looking for the SEEDS of bias.
Trap #3: focusing on training delivery instead of building habits
There are requirements for training within the executive order. “Such training programs should enable Federal employees, managers, and leaders to have knowledge of systemic and institutional racism and bias against underserved communities, be supported in building skillsets to promote respectful and inclusive workplaces and eliminate workplace harassment, have knowledge of agency accessibility practices, and have increased understanding of implicit and unconscious bias.” There is a trap to check the box and make sure everyone knows why we got here. Programs that provide education in the form of awareness offer limited value, and that’s only if they aren’t triggering.
Agencies seeking to change behavior cannot do it by simply providing awareness and policies.
Anyone who has attempted to start a fitness habit on New Year’s Day knows that even with the best of intentions and tools in place, sometimes good habits just don’t stick. Even if you know your health is declining, and you make rules for exercising daily or punish yourself with a skipped meal for skipping a workout, within a few months you might ease back into deeply ingrained, less useful habits. If knowledge of hazards and threat of violations was an effective combination for creating behavioral change at scale, jaywalking wouldn’t still be a problem. To achieve DEIA change at scale, the entire culture of an organization needs to practice shared everyday habits.
ACTION ITEMS FOR YOU:
In order for learning to generate a habit that sticks, learners must create a cognitive connection to the importance of the habit. With DEIA, if they haven’t figured out the need yet it’s clearly time to take a new approach. Research shows that people who feel an internal reward to completing tasks have a stronger motivation to achieve them. Applying learning techniques like storytelling that allows the learner to absorb information as it might relate to them, or through perspective-taking exercises may be useful.
Encouraging people to gain their own insights, a topic we’ve researched and love to talk about at NLI, allows the participants to develop an emotional connection to the information while they’re processing it. Keep in mind, employees are more likely to have insights when they’re feeling positive, so do what you can to keep employees feeling good about the topic of DEIA. When they come to their own insights about new information and relate it to intrinsic rewards, you’ll find habits are shared wider, creating the cultural change needed to accomplish the intent of the executive order.
Avoiding the traps is possible, but it will take strategic efforts.
DEIA is a monumental effort requiring all hands on deck. Government leaders have significant autonomy in how to do it effectively for their agencies, and can pass that autonomy to their teams. Approaching the executive order with science, and a little growth mindset, is the only way to move the needle towards an equitable and accessible future of government work.