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Interview with Barbara Fry

Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisation, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Barbara Fry Henchoz.

Barbara is the founder of Re-Thinking Diversity, a D&I boutique consulting practice based in Zurich. She translates insights from behavioral science into solutions that have real impact. She has over 25 years of experience in driving organisational change and shaping workplaces where people are fully engaged and feel they belong. She helps organisations to take objective and fair decisions in talent management – from hiring through to promotion decisions. The focus lies on smart process design that drastially reduces the impact of unconscious bias. Barbara holds a MA in Economics, an EMSc in Communications Management, and has completed executive training in Behavioral Economics at Harvard Business School.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

My passion for Behavioural Science was sparked by a guest lecture at the University of Zurich by Esther Duflo and Abhijit V. Banerjee in September 2017. Their famous book “Poor Economics”, published in 2011, was radical in its rethinking of the economics of poverty, but also entirely practical in the suggestions it offered.

Duflo and Banerjee pioneered the use of randomized controlled trials (RCT) to evaluate the impact of interventions: a radical departure from “classical” economics. Having worked many years in the pharmaceutical industry, I was familiar with RCT from applications in natural sciences. Seeing this concept put to use in economics was fascinating, not the least because it holds so much promise to develop better policies to fight poverty.

Since that lecture in 2017 I’ve made it a priority to learn more about behavioural science. In addition to studying on my own, I was further motivated by completing an executive training at Harvard Business School on Behavioural Science in 2018. I immediately saw its relevance for my work, which over the last 15 years had been focusing on change management in the corporate world and on shaping employee behaviour.

With Re-Thinking Diversity I’ve created a new focus which consists in applying insights from behavioural science to Diversity & Inclusion. I see myself in the role of a translator from research to practice. I’m convinced that behavioural design is a very effective path to creating more diverse and inclusive environments.

I’ve been heartened in this endeavour by the remarks of no less than Richard Thaler. In a recent conversation with the online magazine “Behavioral Scientist” about “Nudge: The final edition”, he said that he saw a huge opportunity to apply behavioural science in Human Resources. He added that there was a revolution to be made, and that behavioural science should be leading it!

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

This is a question that I’ll be able to answer positively in a few years, I hope. My goal is to establish behavioural design as a key method to further D&I in organizations, be it in corporations, NGOs or public institutions. I can’t do this on my own, of course. This is why I’m aiming to build a network of applied behavioural scientists and D&I practitioners in Switzerland, and later on hopefully at an European level.

If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?

Well, had I not decided to enter this fascinating field, I’d still be trying to shape people’s behaviours in organizational contexts, armed with years of experience and best practice, yet without the innovative thinking and evidence-based approach that offers behavioural science. I think I’m more effective in my work now that I’ve enriched my skillset with behavioural science.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

The moment you start studying behavioural science, you notice how it changes the way you think. For example, I apply behavioural thinking when I plan and schedule projects, or being more careful to avoid sunk-cost fallacies, or by consciously applying the tools of framing and anchoring, be it in personal conversations, or in the many pro-bono projects I’m involved in.

With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?

My take on this is based on my experience in translating insights into everyday work life and practice. We have to mindful not to use too many buzzwords when explaining the whats, hows and whys of behavioural science. It can create distance with people who are not familiar with it. Even the terms “behavioural” and “science” are sometimes not helpful, I find. So, the skill here I guess is really perspective taking, to think from the customer’s perspective, and then, to make it simple to understand where we can add value.

How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?

I think that the field will continue to make inroads in Europe. There’s still a huge untapped potential in public policy implementation, but also in applications within organizations. I trust there will be exciting job opportunities for young people trained in behavioural science. The many problems we have to solve as a society definitely call for a more evidence-based approach.

Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?

It would be great to hear from Grace Lordan from LSE. She has launched The Inclusion Initiative, a three-year innovative partnership programme bringing together research and practice to build more inclusive work environments in the City of London. Grace is a thinker and a doer, a real inspiration.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Barbara! A quick update on the blog's end: there will be no new interviews uploaded in October (2021) as I'm taking a break after submitting the PhD. Don't worry, I'll be back in November with more interviews! If you can't wait that long, don't worry! Tis interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. Make sure you don't miss any of those, nor any of the upcoming interviews!

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Behavioural Science

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