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Building inclusion at scale, one nudge at a time

Julia Sperling-Magro

Serves private- and public-sector clients on large-scale organizational transformations, strengthening performance and health through enhanced culture, values, leadership, and talent systems

Andi Almond

Leads McKinsey’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts with expertise in communications, engagement, and change management.

Maura Fitzgerald

Shapes McKinsey's global programs, processes, and analytics to create and maintain a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization.

How do you activate allies and build a more inclusive organization? It’s a tough question. The most well-intentioned colleagues may not know which day-to-day behaviors can make a real difference, and even those who do may forget to act in inclusive ways when it really matters.

A couple of years ago, we decided to tackle this head on at McKinsey. We designed a program to help prompt individual behavioral change on a large scale.

We started by defining a set of inclusive micro-habits, or small recurring behaviors, that our colleagues could easily demonstrate without having to learn new skills.

To do this, we reviewed literature on inclusion and belonging, including a study authored by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. We also drew on tactical insights from organizational behavior and neuroscience research, such as Tiny Habits by Stanford Behavior Design Lab founder BJ Fogg. And to make sure the behaviors resonated in our specific environment, we crowd-sourced suggestions and ideas from our own colleagues.

The effort yielded a list of tangible micro-habits that we put to work through a new opt-in program called Inclusion Nudges.

Built on insights from the groundbreaking research of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, who have just published their latest insights on the tactic in Nudge: The Final Edition, our nudges are short, timely, insightful prompts that combine serious research with memorable stories or visuals that activate inclusive behaviors and make them stick.

For example, in a nudge called, “Be somebody’s best advocate,” we encouraged colleagues to amplify the work, ideas, and leadership of others, even if (or especially when) they’re not present. It featured the image of an airplane flying a banner celebrating a colleague’s good work. Elsewhere, in a nudge called “Giving credit where credit is due,” we shared the story of Ada Lovelace and other women in STEM whose contributions had been overlooked to memorably illustrate the cost of non-inclusive culture.

What we’ve learned

We’re conscious that we’re not alone in this effort to use nudging to drive organizational culture change, and we’re eager to share what we’ve learned so far. To those looking to launch a similar program, we recommend focusing on three pillars:

Select behaviors to nudge that are:

  • Supported by research and/or backed by themes in employees’ lived experiences
  • Concrete and actionable in team settings
  • Timely and synchronized with the organizational calendar (e.g. promotion announcements), the external calendar (e.g. holidays), or individuals’ calendars (e.g., a meeting on their Outlook calendar).
  • Responsive to emergent needs, such as crises, sudden shifts in ways of working, news events, and other pivotal moments.

Craft messaging that is:

  • Succinct!
  • Engaging, fun to read, and likely to elicit an emotional response that builds conviction and helps with follow through
  • Tailored to your organization’s context and relevant across geographies, roles, tenures, identities
  • Combines storytelling with data to cater to different learning styles

Build an audience by:

  • Developing colleague champions, who are enthusiastic about the program and create buzz about it through word of mouth.
  • Focusing on local outreach, such as a network of office inclusion captains, to drive sign ups and provide input on how to make nudges most relevant in their contexts

A program built on those three pillars will provide your team with opportunities to be strategic, innovate, and improve the program over time. Most recently, we’ve used these pillars to inform our approach to a new app created in partnership with McKinsey’s Inspire Individuals team, which specializes in enabling individuals to deliver organizational change at scale through the latest in advanced analytics, digital technology, and behavioral science.

The nudges app helps us achieve mass personalization at scale by offering a long tail of learning in “bite-sized” engagement (just a few minutes per week) in addition to the nudges sent by email. The app also allows us to sync with users’ Outlook calendars to enhance the relevance and timeliness of reminders to practice inclusive behaviors.

Progress and what’s next

While we know there’s no single answer to building more inclusive spaces at work and beyond, the feedback we’ve received so far on the Inclusion Nudges program has been overwhelmingly positive. In a recent participant survey, about 80 percent of respondents said the nudges have directly helped them act in more inclusive ways.

These numbers are supported by what we hear from our colleagues in our day to day work. One firm leader recently told us the nudges were a highlight of her day: “I love them—LOVE THEM—because they are focused, bite sized, and digestible. I sent them to my team, and incorporate them into my life.”

We know from our research and own experience that the gains diversity promises are only achieved in tandem with an inclusive environment. Nudging our colleagues to turn good intentions into inclusive actions is a powerful step toward culture change that matters.

The team would like to thank Stefan Sierra, Jacqueline Brassey, Catherine Loerke, and Michael Tappel, as well as the McKinsey Inspire Individuals Team for their collaboration on this work.

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