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22 May. 2012 | Comments (4)

Influencing sustainable change in the complex realm of Diversity and Inclusion is challenging.  With constant demands for better business cases and action plans, we sometimes forget how essential it is to motivate executives and other stakeholders through their feelings. 

Emotions are often stronger than rational thoughts, as Chip and Dan Heath illustrate in Switch, How to Change When Change is Hard.  As many of us know, the rational mind may want to avoid extra calories to be slimmer tomorrow, but there are powerful emotions pulling one to enjoy sweets today.  Similarly, the rational mind knows the value in altering the workplace to be more diverse and inclusive, while the emotional mind might be less comfortable with change.  Furthermore, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Blink, we make instant decisions without knowing why and then make up rational reasons to justify our emotional decisions after the fact.

What are ways we can influence through visceral emotional experiences when business case logic is not enough to gain the commitment and resources we need to generate results in D&I? Below are suggestions collected from some of my D&I colleagues around the globe. 

Videos can help people feel and see things from a different perspective. 

Fieldtrips can take leaders into the lives of marginalized populations to help them gain perspective. 

  • Business in the Community's Seeing is Believing Programme builds empathy and insight by exposing executives to the realities of homelessness and social problems.  After the experience, executives write about their impressions for the Prince of Wales and later follow up to discuss their actions resulting from the experience.
  • The Lighthouse for the Blind offers tours that help employers overcome misperceptions about capabilities of blind employees and see firsthand how to in make jobs accessible for blind applicants.

Empathy Building Exercises

  • Barnga is a card game that simulates cultural misunderstandings and builds insight and empathy regarding how people from different cultures play by different rules
  • Asking heterosexual employees to share stories about their weekends without revealing the sex of their spouses or companions can demonstrate the discomfort and distraction homosexual employees have when they hide their orientation in conversations at work.

Unconscious Bias Revelations

Diversity and Inclusion experts, including Kay Iwata, Binna Kandola and Angela Peacock, use a number of clever exercises to reveal the unconscious bias that we all have.  Their exercises quickly demonstrate

  • The powerful impact of labels and stereotypes,
  • The ways our brains fill in gaps, often erroneously, when we don’t have complete information, and how this can lead to biased outcomes, or
  • The faulty assumptions we tend to make about people and their capabilities based on appearances.

Project Implicit's online Implicit Association Tests also effectively provide insight about biases that exist outside of our conscious awareness.

Listening Exercises such as Focus Groups or Fishbowls can give people in the mainstream a deep appreciation of the challenges and perspectives of marginalized employees or customers.  While both these types of exercises require careful preparation, selection and facilitation, they can also generate deeply emotional learning outcomes. 

In a gender Fishbowl, women sit in a circle facing each other while men sit around them in a larger circle.  The women respond to a facilitator’s questions while the men remain silent and listen carefully to seek understanding.  Facilitator questions may include what has supported and what has limited these women’s success, as well as what the organization could do to better enable their success.  After the men digest what they heard, they share feelings, surprises, and reflections. A critical element is to plan, execute and measure change based on the Fishbowl experience.

Direct Connection between mainstream and marginalized individuals can also deepen understanding.  Reciprocal mentoring or executive sponsorship of Employee Resource Groups can be useful channels.  Community involvement where leaders volunteer in community causes and interact with people different from themselves can also be effective.

Images can also touch people’s emotions and change perspectives.  Consider HSBC's provocative advertising campaigns which position HSBC as the “world’s local bank” and show that there are multiple perspectives associated with a variety of images.  Unilever’s Dove Campaign for Real Beauty also effectively used inspiring images to challenge stereotypes and shift perspectives about the natural diversity among women.   

Stories can also powerfully connect to emotions.  Consider the effect of this story of inclusion from Mary Gordon, Founder and President of Roots of Empathy, published in the Fall 2005 issue of Canadian Teacher Magazine.

In one Grade 4 class, nine-year-old Sylvie was wearing running shoes that did up with a Velcro strap. Some of the other children taunted her, saying she wore “baby shoes” and “geeky shoes.” She was the target of a double-barreled criticism—her shoes were not only cheap and unfashionable, they were immature. This is the kind of humiliation that would shrivel the spirit of any nine-year-old. But then something happened. When the class headed outside for recess, Sylvie’s best friend June swapped one shoe with her. The empathic insight and quick thinking of that child gives us hope. Her actions said, “I’m your friend and I’m proud to wear your shoes and be just like you.” She turned a mean, exclusionary attack into something playful, without saying a word. Every other child in the class got the message: “This is my friend, make fun of her and you are making fun of me. Keep it up and you may find yourself outnumbered by kids who care.”

Please comment to share your most influential tactics when rational persuasion is not enough.

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion blogs.

  • About the Author: Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele is a senior fellow providing diversity & inclusion (D&I) expertise for The Conference Board. She serves as program director for both the Diversity & Inclusion Executives and…

    Full Bio | More from Rebekah Steele


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  1. Alison Maitland 0 people like this 23 May. 2012 05:31 PM

    Rebekah, this is a terrific collection of stories, videos and exercises that touch us and encourage empathy and seeing the other person's point of view. I hope you will receive lots more examples from people working in D&I and elsewhere. I experienced the Seeing is Believing programme you mention, focusing on homelessness, and I know how eye-opening it was for the senior business executives who took part, many of whom changed their preconceptions towards people living on the streets or in shelters.

  2. Rebekah Steele 0 people like this 24 May. 2012 12:26 PM

    Thank you for your comment, Alison. This brief collection is surely just the tip of the iceberg, and I look forward to gathering additional examples for this important aspect of influencing stakeholders to commit to D&I.

  3. Sarah Bond 0 people like this 25 May. 2012 08:34 AM

    Hi Rebekah – great article, thank you. I absolutely agree – whilst the business case for D&I gets the issue on the top table, it's much less successful at truly motivating people and inspiring action. For that you need something much more heartfelt. One example to add to the list comes from Dining with a Difference ( which runs great dinners for senior execs to get them thinking - in a very practical and immediate way - about the experience of disability in the workplace.

  4. Rebekah Steele 0 people like this 25 May. 2012 09:49 AM

    Excellent addition, Sarah, and thank you for sharing it. I understand that the enjoyable and insightful dining experience helps participants become more comfortable with disability in general while also growing capability to articulate how inclusion of persons with disabilities is important for their businesses and communities.