Follow the Science of Culture Change to Transform D&I

David Rock
3 min readJul 14, 2020
Create the right systems to promote and sustain meaningful change at your organization.

By Dr. David Rock and Khalil Smith

We’ve written before on the importance of creating priorities, habits, and systems (PHS) when it comes to large-scale culture change.

But with so many organizations taking a renewed — or perhaps unprecedented — interest in reshaping their D&I efforts to boost inclusion, mitigate bias, and become more human overall, we felt compelled to revisit the model and explain the underlying science. Because when it comes to addressing systemic racism, you can’t do it just by making it a priority.

Here’s the elevator pitch on PHS: Priorities are necessary to change culture, but they are far from sufficient. Too often, leaders over-anchor on getting buy in on big culture change initiatives and fail to develop the actual behaviors, and systems, to support that change. Sadly, good intentions never turn into implementation, and the status quo remains.

Based on our years of working with organizations to create culture change, via PHS and the supporting science, we can offer clear guidelines for how to create initiatives that not only leave a lasting impact, but result in true transformation.

Here’s what acting boldly right now really looks like.


Getting people to care about an issue is the beginning of the journey, not the end. But that’s easier said than done, as evidenced by the countless organizations pinning their hopes on mandatory bias training as the panacea to their D&I challenges.

As it turns out, mandatory bias training often has the opposite effect on participants — making them more biased, not less. As the research shows, bias is a natural part of being alive. If you have a brain, you have bias.

What that means is organizations that merely make their employees aware of their biases, without giving them the tools to label and mitigate those biases in one another, actually can leave their teams worse off than if they had done no training at all.


Creating lasting behavior change requires making those priorities come alive in everyday behaviors. At NLI, our definition of culture is simple: Culture is shared everyday habits. In other words, it matters less what your people believe, and more how they act — as individuals and with one other.

Our D&I work with clients has shown that implementing the right habits, via NLI’s SEEDS® Model, has led to sustained behavior change on a massive scale. According to our internal data, to date, roughly 78% of more than 9,500 participants — across dozens of companies — are actively mitigating bias at least once a week.

That’s what it actually looks like to make something a priority: not just hoping for a change, but acting boldly to create that change.


Lastly, systems are the structural implementations that reinforce habits. They remove obstacles while creating opportunities to shift behavior. And they enable habits to become the norm by making them easy and accessible.

For instance, a hiring manager might look to build the habit of reducing bias in deciding which applicants deserve an interview. A system her team might create is the practice of removing names and identifying characteristics from people’s resumes, in order to more neutrally assess a candidate’s qualifications. This makes the habit of reducing bias less effortful, not more, and ultimately supports the priority of creating a more diverse workforce.

Our mission at the NeuroLeadership Institute is to work with organizations to figure out which aspects of PHS are ideal for each organization. While blanket approaches can be effective, it’s important that leaders think hard about what priorities really matter to their organizations, and then utilize the science of behavior change to develop the habits and systems that make sense for their particular people.

This moment is too important to hope the same old tactics deliver new results. In order to act boldly, leaders must embrace bold ideas — and then direct the full force of their energy to ensure those ideas come to life over the long term.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.



David Rock

Author, consultant, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, and executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, board member of the BlueSchool