My work around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is grounded in ensuring business leaders and their employees are given as much access to education as possible in order to make their organisations more inclusive and more representative.
That obviously means sharing information and insight through learning, and there’s a general school of thought that suggests you can never give people too much information.
But I’m not sure that’s true – or at least, I’m not sure dowsing people in an endless stream of EDI-related information leads to the outcomes people believe it will. And in some cases, I believe lack of strategy around the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of information flow can be demonstrably counterproductive.
Recently, I came across some interesting research on Cognitive Load Theory which, in very simplistic terms, argues that when we’re given too much information we begin to lose focus.
Ultimately, when faced with an overload of data the brain begins to subconsciously triage the information it’s receiving, filtering out what it deems to be unimportant and focusing instead on prioritising the rest.
This process is often primal, born from our natural instinct for survival. Think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – information we need in order to literally avoid death comes first, and everything falls into line below that based on how essential it is.
If you’ve done any work to make your workplace more inclusive – and it’s hard to imagine any business of size that hasn’t – then you’ll know how challenging it can be to get people to understand why EDI is important and why they should commit to it.
Although the inclusion and diversity landscape is changing, we still regularly see market research and academic studies that suggest EDI is not seen as a core priority within some organisations – even though there’s plenty of data that shows productivity and profitability increase when you get it right.
Research suggests the amount of information available to us doubles every two years and our ability to process data simply can’t keep pace.
The result of this is often stress and burnout, but it also leads to growing disinterest, scepticism about what’s really important, and lack of tolerance.
The impact of Cognitive Load on EDI
In an age when we work harder and work longer hours, the challenge for those of us working to help businesses change their culture need to find new methods and approaches that have variety built into them.
If we know that when people are under stress they are considerably less likely to function, then we must know they are less open to being stretched or challenged.
For employees and business leaders experiencing cognitive overload, their working memory is already full, increasing the likelihood that they see inclusion as merely “unnecessary work” that should be deprioritised.
We know that inclusive leadership requires us to adapt to others rather than relying on their adaptation to you. A heavy cognitive load makes adaptation much less likely in those individuals.
In addition to being less inclined to alter their behaviour, they may also be less capable of doing so, because adaptation needs effort, thought, and contemplation. Additionally, people who are under stress and carrying a heavy cognitive load tend to exacerbate and magnify their own biases.
It’s not necessarily that they don’t want to change, it may simply be that they don’t have the room to do it.
How we nurture better education around EDI is crucial
If we understand and are aware of the impact of cognitive overload, we are better able to manage how we deliver EDI strategy (indeed, any strategy) more effectively.
Business leaders would do well to audit not just how they’re communicating, but also what they’re communicating, and why.
We would do well to be mindful of keeping our corporate messaging simply. Telling your people that twenty different things are a top priority isn’t helpful – in the end, all twenty of those things just combine to become white noise. People ignore or pay lip service only to all of them.
- Take time to identify where your EDI strategy fits into the other corporate objectives you have.
- Work out how to create the time and space necessary for your people to reflect and contemplate all of the messages you want them to hear.
- Develop a communications plan to ensure people are hearing one message at a time
- Create a tools that allow you to understand what people believe they have heard and to measure any desired actions and outcomes
- Look for examples and proofs that show how being more inclusive will lessen rather than raise cognitive strain
- Look for signs of cognitive overload – apathy, cynicism, missed deadlines, lack of attention to detail are all common indicators
To do this, it’s useful to place inclusion in the context of a problem-solving strategy rather than just another item on your list of things to accomplish.
A sole concentration on cognitive load won’t be enough to remove other obstacles to delivering your EDI vision – things like time, money, and resources – but by working to reduce cognitive load you’ll start to create the headspace within your teams for that work to be effective.