Communication is key in reducing prejudice in workforce

February 26, 2023

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Communication is key in reducing prejudice in workforce

A team of psychologists has published a paper showing that autonomy-supportive communication is crucial in reducing prejudice in the workplace.

The researchers issued multi-wave surveys to more than 1,400 British police officers and staff to gauge the impact of autonomy-supportive communication practices within the context of real-world police training across a wide range of concepts, including diversity, equity, and inclusion in the UK. The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, found that police officers who felt their autonomy was more supported by supervisors ultimately reported less antagonism toward diversity initiatives.

The lead researcher says the evidence-based motivation strategies investigated in the study are designed to increase the likelihood of buy-in, not just with individual programs but more extensively throughout society. The goal is for people to create good training programs to forge meaningful, lasting change by encouraging buy-in for ongoing investment of resources and energy.

What the researchers say: “The theory that we are working with as a framework for organizing our research is called self-determination theory,” he said. “One of the foundations of the theory is that human beings have evolved to have a psychological need for autonomy.”

“You’ve got lots of employers, including police departments around the country—around the world—that have programs in place to try to reduce prejudice, reduce bias,” he continued. “But there’s mixed evidence on their effectiveness, and there is even some evidence that sometimes it makes things worse. Even with good intentions, sometimes the way programs are implemented make people resentful, feeling that they’re being accused of something wrongly, or talked down to, or coerced into participating. Ironically, that can lead people to behave in the opposite direction of what was hoped for.”

The team hopes that this study can lead more people to use autonomy-supportive techniques that are less likely to draw counterproductive backlash and more likely to garner cooperation, both in policing and more broadly. The researchers hope that more police officers will embrace the mindset of being a part of significant cultural changes in the way police work is done in their communities.

So, what? There’s little if anything that is new in this paper and probably to those who have read our books or attended one of our talks or workshops, their conclusions are merely a restatement of the obvious. Autonomy—the sense of being in control of those aspects of life that are important to you, or in which you believe you have the right to make decisions—is one of the key motivators of human beings.

The value of the work is that it reaffirms the earlier research in the area of self-determination theory, and that’s worthwhile since many trainers—especially in the area of diversity—don’t yet “get it” about what actually creates change in human beings.

Researchers in psychology and behavioral neurogenetics (including ourselves) have discovered that there are four prime human motivators for change, which we list under the acronym of CATS. They are Certainty in areas meaningful to you, Autonomy, Trust and Status in the eyes of those that you believe are important to you.

If you speak to people in ways that show you respect their autonomy then, as the research has shown, they are far more likely to listen to you. If you can show that what you suggest will increase their sense of being more in control of aspects of their work or non-work lives, they are far more likely to follow your recommendations.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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