JKT Spotlight: Sylvia Apostolidis


Change is harder than we think. This is why New Year’s resolutions fail and just talking about something being right isn’t enough to inspire a lasting impact, so Sylvia Apostolidis uses behavioural design principles to help steer organizations towards workplace inclusion. These principles have helped people make healthier food choices, save for retirement, and make more environmentally friendly decisions. Sylvia and The Jasmar Group help companies create simple and compelling solutions with measurable impact.     

As someone who was drawn to women’s studies and sociology in school she considers herself to be a feminist and understands the importance of engaging everyone in the conversation. Today she thinks about diversity in broader terms including sexual orientation and disability. Looking to make a long-term impact her company’s name combines the name of her twin sons, Jason and Marco and represents future generations and the importance of engaging boys and men in gender equality. This is how one person helps make a big difference - one person at a time. 

What are some of the most common unconscious biases in the workplace? How would you suggest that someone in a leadership role work to change this?

There are 150 different kinds of biases. Two of the most common types are similarity and attraction bias; this is how we favour people who are similar to ourselves. We do this to people whom we sponsor, mentor, or place in our network, and this makes us feel better about ourselves. The way our brain processes people in our "in group" is different from people on the outside. In another common bias, called confirmation bias, we seek out information that confirms our position, and we do this all the time in everything. If I am liberal in my politics I will seek out that information instead of looking for the other side’s perspective. This can show up when we interview someone and we will ask questions to confirm our original opinion. These biases get in the way of making an objective decision, and this flies under our radar which makes it more challenging to tackle. 

The bias when we like people similar to ourselves can be mitigated by trying to find commonalities with others and bringing someone outside our "in group" to help bring them into our "in group". Even when you’re reading a resume consider completing your search with that perspective to help mitigate that bias.

The confirmation bias that occurs when people are tired, what we need to do there is slow down our thinking and consider bringing in a third party to round out and provide fresh perspectives. That kind of bias is where we just seek out information we want and when we need the information quickly.

Many people assume that making workplace culture and inclusion changes involves primarily emotional intelligence. How does your work at The Jasmar Group use a scientific based approach to change behaviour within an organization?

We use insights from behavioural economics and how the brain works. There are two systems in our thinking process: one is very rational, the other not as much, even though we tend to think all of our decisions are rational. Only 10 percent of our decisions are made from slow and rational thinking. Ninety percent of decisions are made quite quickly, because they need to be. The problem with traditional diversity is that it approaches a solution from the rational mind which gets tired quickly and once we’re tired we move to the other side that is controlled by our biases. We need to help that rational mind keep energy with goals and clarity and motivate the unconscious and designing interventions. 

How do we know people behave and how does that help people reach their goals? We detect stress more than we detect reward, this is evolutionary. That part of our brain impacts whom we hire, because it’s riskier to hire someone different than ourselves. Our brain will detect threat more often when someone is different.

So how do we use that knowledge to create better recruitment processes? We help nudge people in the right direction, so we’re not trying to change their minds, but instead we try to design interventions. If you want to recruit more diverse candidates, there is more diversity when you pick in batches rather than sequentially. For example if I were to tell you I was going to buy you lunch all week, you would likely select food of a greater variety if I had you select your meals for the week all at once, as opposed to coming to you daily for a decision. Consider hiring 10 people at once as opposed to tackling one at a time to increase diversity. 

What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in your processes to improve workplace diversity and inclusion?

The biggest challenge is to get people to buy in to the process and commit to it long term. It’s really about bringing intent into action. People need to feel the change to create an approach that works. It’s about determining how you motivate the emotional part of the brain. The solution is really around appealing to systems in a very feelings based way. A good example of diversity and inclusion over the past five years is that people are really feeling the need for this and the crisis for it, and now doing something about it. That empathy and emotion are triggering action. Emotion’s involvement is both the challenge and the solution.

What role does mentorship and sponsorship play in workplace diversity and inclusion?

Both are really important. Women have been mentored over the last decade or so, whereas sponsorship is where someone advocates for another. All of these are critical networks for all diverse groups, particularly women. Networking with men is important for women because men are usually at the top of the company. Sponsorship is most impactful because someone is advocating for you. 

I would suggest mentoring or sponsoring someone who looks different than yourself. If you’re a senior man make sure that you’re sponsoring women and people from diverse groups. This provides you with an additional learning opportunity. Mentors and sponsorship is a leadership goal and position and trait, so you want to embrace this. Deliberately select someone that is a high performer, but challenge yourself to pick someone who doesn’t look like you.

What are the biggest positive changes you've seen in workplace diversity and inclusion over the course of your career?

I think the biggest change is that there is a real realization that it matters, and today there are more men involved in the conversation and more men advocating for this. Senior leadership drives this, they need to role model, and they know that. This is a huge shift from back in 2005. People didn’t even understand the business case for it. Today there are a lot of women who won’t speak on workplace diversity to female-only audiences because they know they need the support of men in leadership positions to truly make an impact.


Can you share some career highlights?

When I get a senior leader to their "a-ha" moment, that’s huge, because change starts one person at a time. I also love speaking engagements where I have the opportunity to interact with participants to find out what they’ve learned.

What inspires you? 

There are a couple of fantastic quotes that I use for inspiration:

"The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn." Gloria Steinem

"This loss hurts. But please never stop believing that fighting for what's right is worth it." Hillary Clinton

It’s not easy work that I do, it’s constant. It’s not a quick fix, yet it’s the right thing to do because of equality, from a business model, and that it’s just worth it. 

Which projects are you most proud of and why?

When somebody who was transgendered and transitioning in the workplace and I was able to help him and make it easier for him, and train his staff. That was another way I was able to make an impact and help somebody. 

How do you define success? Has your definition of success changed throughout your career?

My career has never been about money or power. It’s about helping people become the champions of change. I want to help companies get to where they want to go. 

What advice would you give to a leader looking to be a change agent in their organization?

Leaders need to recognize that diversity and inclusion is not something run by HR; it is something that needs to come from the senior leadership team as the champions. As a leader, really lead it, hold yourself accountable and measure the goals as a strategic priority. I’d recommend in your daily interactions as a leader to have three key habits:

  1. Find common ground with all people and be curious 
  2. Empower people to make them feel valued, be fair as an inclusive behaviour, think about who you choose to be on your team, in your network. Lift people up and make sure they are treated fairly. 
  3. Speak to your rational mind and take action around inclusive leadership behaviour.  

Try to create as much clarity as possible for people and share information, don’t withhold it. Collaborate, and bring people into the conversation. Help them contribute.

Based in Toronto, Ontario, Sylvia Apostolidis and The Jasmar Group helps companies make real progress in building diverse and inclusive workplaces. Connect with them on Facebook, LinkedIn and read more about their activities on website.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *