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Stakeholder Inclusion - The Power Of Speech Bubbles

12 minute read

Stakeholder inclusion and the voices of 'the people it's about' are important in any kind of development and change processes. The question is how do we do this? Do we just put these people in front of decision makers and hope they listen well enough to include all these diverse insights into the process? This is an example of how you can do it by applying behavioural design and nudge people to listen and include.

The people it's about

An international wave of efforts to foster civic engagement and facilitate citizen participatory development has emerged over the past decades. Similarly, there has been increased attention and efforts to create more inclusive organisations and workplaces and empower employees to contribute to innovation in both in public and private sector organisations. The evidence is clear; the outcomes are more inclusive for the greater good of people, planet, business, and economy when the process is inclusive and empowering. A recent study found that stakeholder inclusion is the number one critical trait of responsible leadership needed in today's world. The saying 'Nothing about us without us' seems to finally be taken seriously. But the question is: are we getting this right?

As an anthropologist specialised in inclusive development processes as a means to foster inclusive communities, workplaces, cities, public policies, and societies, I experience again and again how 'the people it's about' do not feel listened to nor included in find the best solutions, despite the good intentions to actually include them by those having the mandate to initiate changes that would affect the lives or work of 'the people'. This is in spite of the fact that the common narrative in these organisations and the self-perception of the staff is that of 'including the people' in finding the best solutions and developing their own communities. There is very often a gap between the perceived reality (by the professionals) and the experienced reality (by the people it's about).

This gap was framed in a powerful statement by a refugee I met last year when I was in the Kakuma refugee camp working with young entrepreneurs (as part of a World Economic Forum initiative by the Young Global Leaders community in collaboration with UNHCR and Oxford University). I asked them if they ever got frustrated with all the delegations visiting the camp. All the replies can be distilled to this, "No, that is not frustrating, that is just part of everyday life in the camp". But what frustrated them was that "They hear us, but don't listen". They felt this even though the intentions of the humanitarian aid workers and the visiting delegations was to actually include them. This gap is not an issue for only refugees. This happens worldwide and in all sectors, communities, public service, schools, workplaces. How can we close this gap by having greater inclusion of all stakeholders?

How can you actually give people a voice and make other people listen? How can we make sure the diversity of all these lived experiences and diverse insights does not get reduced to a number in a spreadsheet? And what if it is not an option for people to meet in person and talk? Here is one way you can do it. It's called The Speech Bubble Inclusion Nudge. I designed it in 2012 and it has since been used by change makers around the world.

The Speech Bubble Inclusion Nudge

In a global organisation where I use to work, the annual employee survey showed an increased number of employees experiencing unacceptable behaviour (bullying, discrimination, harassment). The managers and leaders saw the numbers and knew (with their rational mind) that changes needed to happen, but they had not taken action (which happen in the unconscious mind).

The challenge I often faced as a change maker when presenting this kind of 'unpleasant' data and reality, was that many leaders would rationally try to deal with this by discussing the legal definition of harassment, discrimination, etc., and in this way distance themselves from the issue. Often someone would conclude that many of the experiences of the employees would not fit this legal definition, and that some people "are just too sensitive". Typically, I would get shot as the messenger instead of the issue being discussed. This would get us nowhere. I needed to avoid these kinds of reactions.

So, I designed The Speech Bubble Inclusion Nudges based on behavioural insights to target the behavioural drivers in the unconscious mind (system 1) to motivate and enable the leaders to take action.

This is what we did

Together with some colleagues, I collected personal stories and examples of staff having experienced unacceptable behaviour in this organisation. We wrote all their stories in first person quotes (anonymised). We printed the examples in speech bubbles and covered the walls of the leadership meeting room from floor to ceiling, giving a voice to people who never felt heard when speaking up or who did not dare to speak up. As the leaders entered the meeting room, we said "Your people have something to tell you" and we invited the leaders to walk around and read "the experiences of your [company name] colleagues and employees".

We also humanised the numbers. Instead of talking about 15% of employees, we wrote on a big poster "15% = 4935 people. That is 4935 [company name] colleagues". Furthermore, we reversed the business case, focusing on the losses. This was based on research findings from other organisations to which we had access at the time, showing that a person experiencing this kind of unacceptable behaviour over a long period loses 30% of their decision-making ability. When one person in a team of 8 people experiences this, it has a negative spill over on the productivity of the entire team. Productivity of the team drops by 12.5%.

An eye-opener and grateful reaction

I remember well the first couple of times we facilitated this intervention with executives and top leaders and it still gives me the shivers. The silence was palpable as they were reading. We hoped they would read at least 4-5 examples. Actually, they read all of them. When the leaders started speaking with each other, they were expressing emotions (which rarely happened in this organisation -- the social norm was 'be assertive'). They were whispering as they expressed feelings such as anger, surprise, sadness, shame, disappointment, disgust. They said, "I feel disgusted that this is going on in our workplace", "I feel so sad", "How can this be going on right in front of us, without us knowing?", "I feel nauseous, I can't read any more", "These are my colleagues and I feel ashamed that I didn't know what they go through", and "I actually think, I said some of that myself".

With this intervention, the discussion changed. Passive and reluctant behaviour changed to active and engaging behaviour. Normally, they would have delegated the task to the HR department to create a new policy and get global compliance. After the Speech Bubble intervention, it was different. They were grateful for experiencing this and realising what was going on. The leaders took action themselves. They did not need a new policy and long action plan. They suggested several simple actions they could take themselves immediately. Within 10 minutes, we had co-created a plan for how to involve the entire community of managers and employees globally in the organisation. One leader said, "The other leaders need to experience this, we can't tell them this, they need to feel what we felt. Let's send this on a tour, so the others can experience this as well". He had captured the very essence and purpose of this intervention in one sentence. He intuitively knew the importance of 'feeling the need' to change this problem instead of having a rational understanding. They also made a decision immediately to add the issue of a 'mentally safe work environment' on the agenda together with a 'physically safe work environment' (this was an already existing topic on the agenda -- it was a manufacturing company) of every weekly leadership team meeting in the entire global organisation.

The intervention toured internally and many people in the organisation listened to the voices of their colleagues, and realised issues they were blind to. It led to local initiatives emerging and many managers and leaders involved the employees in creating solutions to foster the needed changes for a more inclusive workplace culture. After all they were 'the people it's about'.

How can speech bubbles be so powerful?

This motivates people not only to listen but to engage in making change happen because it appeals to system 1 in the brain. It also motivates to co-create solutions with 'the people it's about'. Getting stakeholder inclusion right is about making the unconscious mind* feel the need* to be inclusive and feel the need to take action. This is also a proven way to motivate people to be allies for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Several insights from behavioural and social sciences were applied in the design of The Speech Bubble Inclusion Nudge to influence the unconscious mind in multiple ways.

Why it works -- the behavioural insights

Activate tribal mentality: The first sentence "Your colleagues/employees have something to tell you" is designed to trigger the tribal mentality of "this is my tribe" and "I am their leader -- I am supposed to protect my tribe". The effect of triggering our tribalism towards our in-group is emotional engagement. We listen more closely to our tribe members.

Change the messenger: This intervention changed the messenger from being the 'facilitator' to being 'the people'. The messenger powerfully influences our behaviour and when our peers are the messenger it often has a bigger influence on what we do, how we listen, and what we hear.1

Trigger empathy and pain: Experiencing other people being treated badly, being discriminated against, and being socially excluded triggers the area of the brain where physical pain and empathy are located. This happens even when we're not directly experiencing it ourselves and it motivates us to want to change this.2

Humanise the numbers: Numbers and data are communicated to the rational mind (system 2) but it is system 1 that is controlling our behaviour. Numbers do not motivate system 1 to take action. Emotional reactions do. So, it is important to humanise the numbers. The 'visual voices' do that, combined with the conversion of percentages into the actual number of people with an identity (the organisation's name). This activates the feeling of a social bond with 'similar others'.

Loss-aversion bias: This is triggered by being confronted with losses, such as loss of staff's decision-making ability and team productivity, or the threat of losing image as professional leaders (by not having taken action to change this). The pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.3 The basic principle of loss aversion can explain why penalty framing (losing money, performance, business, etc) is sometimes more effective than reward framing in motivating people.4 Reversing the business case in this intervention proved to be motivational.

The strength of this approach is that it motivates a person to take action even when they know they can't control the outcome. It empowers 'the people it's about' to apply their diverse insights and ideas in joint effort with peers and they all own the solutions. Another strength is that the people often realise that they themselves are as much a part of the problem as 'the others', which in many cases has led to mitigation of the feeling of 'us' and 'them', the attribution error bias, and fosters social cohesion and a more inclusive culture.

This design has since been used in urban development, multinationals, public services, and humanitarian organisations to address issues such as reducing conflict between clans in a refugee camp, loneliness at work, and engaging residents in city development.

Keep listening to 'the people' in the entire process

This intervention addresses several challenges in getting stakeholder inclusion right because when it comes to inclusive co-creating, we need access to diverse perspectives and also to the people who often don't have a voice. Some do not have the opportunity to share their experiences or perspectives on an issue. People in vulnerable situations are often left out or sometimes are not even invited. Also, it can be sometimes too much or too risky to participate. An intervention like this includes them indirectly, making sure their voices are collected (e.g. in their homes, on the streets, in workplaces, or elsewhere) and shared and listened to.

Another challenge is that people, both in privileged positions and non-privileged positions, may find it difficult to grasp each other's problems (due to in-group and out-groups, as well as ethnocentrism). They need real examples of the lived reality of the other people to improve their ability to be open minded in co-creation.

Another challenge is how to make sure people listen. Also, how to ensure they keep a focus on 'the people it's about' throughout the entire development and decision-making process. This is important even when those people are not physically part of the process. When people are out of sight, they are often out of mind. With this intervention, the voices of 'the people' are made visible throughout the process and all the time. They are present and insisting on attention.

Another challenge is that the diversity of perspectives that characterises 'the people it's about' often gets lost in transition. Facilitators of stakeholder inclusion in participatory and co-creation processes often have to hand over and/or communicate the insights to decision-makers, politicians, entrepreneurs, etc. who will decide what happens next, and what kind of resources to allocate. 'The people it's about' are often turned into numbers, percentages, graphs, statistics, and spreadsheets in the handover, meaning that the communication is to the rational mind (system 2) instead of the unconscious mind (system 1). These stakeholders also need to feel empathy for 'the people it's about' in order to make choices that benefit both people, organisation, community, and budget and not just the latter, as is too often the case in decision-making.

My experience is that a behavioural design as simple as this can mitigate all these challenges, and close the gap between the two systems in the mind, and the gap between the perceived reality (by the professionals) and the experienced reality (by the people it's about). At the same time, it empowers people to take joint action and be allies for making inclusion the norm everywhere, for everyone.

I hope you will give it a try!

You can learn more about the details of how to design and facilitate your version of the Speech Bubble Intervention in the Action Guide for Motivating Allies and The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook. www.inclusion-nudges.org


  1. MINDSPACE: INFLUENCING BEHAVIOUR THROUGH PUBLIC POLICY. P. Dolan, M. Hallsworth, D. Halpern, D. King, & I. Vlaev, 2010

  2. EMPATHY FOR SOCIAL EXCLUSION INVOLVES THE SENSORY-DISCRIMINATIVE COMPONENT OF PAIN: A WITHIN-SUBJECT FMRI STUDY. G. Novembre, M. Zanon, & G. Silani, SCAN, vol 10, pgs 153-164, 2015

  3. JUDGEMENT UNDER UNCERTAINTY: HEURISTICS AND BIASES. Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman, Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. *Science, *vol. 185, no 4157, pgs 1124-1131, 27 September 1974

  4. ARE EXPERIMENTAL ECONOMISTS PRONE TO FRAMING EFFECTS? A NATURAL FIELD EXPERIMENT. S. Gächter, H. Orzen, E. Renner, & C. Starmer, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, vol 70, pgs 443-446, 2009

Want to learn more?

The Inclusion Nudges Guidebook (2020) for change makers gives you 100 examples of Inclusion Nudges

Inclusion Nudges Guidebook

The Action Guide series are shorter plug-and-play guides with 30 targeted Inclusion Nudges:

Inclusion Nudges for Leaders

Inclusion Nudges for Talent Selection

Inclusion Nudges for Motivating Allies

You can learn more and get other free resources on the Inclusion Nudges platform inclusion-nudges.org

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