By Modupe Akinola, Columbia Business School; Erin Kelly, MIT Sloan; Zoe Kinias, INSEAD Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior; and Michael Norton, Harvard Business School
For decades, it has been commonplace for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) advocates to feel their voices were often unheard and strategies not acted upon by senior leadership in their organizations. Fortunately, that seems to have changed, at least for now. The killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter upsurge that followed, as well as the manifold inequalities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, have surely contributed to what promises to be a banner year for corporate consciousness around DEI.
This consciousness and DEI focus are also on the rise at business schools, as evidenced by the sense of optimism pervading the third semi-annual meeting of DEI business school educators held in May. In the two short years since these meetings were initiated, participating business schools have made significant progress in integrating a DEI lens into teaching. Attendees reported positive developments including heightened DEI presence in MBA orientation, the core curriculum, and electives. Additionally, business schools have begun incorporating DEI into leadership positions, with Dean and Vice Dean roles established to ensure sustained progress.
However, it is clear that one critical element for making sustained progress in DEI is increasing agility with having DEI-related conversations. While the current climate has increased awareness of DEI dynamics, being able to discuss these dynamics and having maximally inclusive engagement in conversations is a necessary precursor to progress. Educators want to inspire such conversations, creating “a-ha” moments that prompt participants to recognize (and improve) where they—and their organizations—stand vis a vis DEI.
Three Steps to Quality DEI Conversations
Having maximally impactful conversations around DEI is not easy. They involve discussing issues such as race and gender that are laden with emotional associations. People with marginalized identities may be reluctant to share openly about experiences connected to those identities in contexts where they may be judged on the basis of such identities. Colleagues from dominant groups may feel blamed or defensive and argue, withdraw, or shut down as a result. Social pressures on all sides can converge to keep conversation at superficial debate levels and/or excessively polite, apparent acceptance without deep learning and engagement.
At the conference, members of the community shared exercises they use with undergraduates, MBAs, and executive education participants to enhance the quality of DEI dialogues.
Step 1: Experiencing Inclusion and Exclusion
Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School introduced the group to “the numbers game,” in which 18-20 participants are placed in a group with each participant randomly assigned a number from 1-10. The large group is then instructed to break up into groups of four, with the goal being to achieve the highest average score (based on the numbers of each participant in the group). The catch? No one knows their own number. Prior to the exercise, all participants are made aware of the numbers of a few others in their group of 18-20, but not their own. This exercise was adapted for Zoom, and the key nuance was that groups of four had to be formed using the chat function. When Galinsky and others run this exercise in person, the numbers are written on a card that participants stick on their foreheads, still not knowing their own number, but allowing others to see their number. What ensues are public and private invitations extended to those with high numbers and entreaties from those with low numbers feeling left out in the cold.
In both the in-person and Zoom variations, the numbers game evokes what it feels like to be an “insider” or an “outsider” in real life based on the numerous social identities people hold. In the post-exercise discussion, one attendee said, “This immediately transported me back to middle school.” Many noted how the experience mirrors the marginalization they often feel in other contexts, like being the only woman on a committee, or feeling left out of critical discussions due to low status. In the debrief, facilitators can use the numbers exercise as an allegory for hierarchies of privilege that shape the “score” we start out with in the game of life, opening up the conversation around how race, gender, social status, and other social categories can influence experiences of inclusion and exclusion.
Step 2: Acknowledging Race in Conversations
A second exercise focused on acknowledging the elephant in the room when it comes to DEI. Evan Apfelbaum of Boston University and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School shared a game that shows how hesitant people can be about discussing race. Questioners are paired with a partner who is assigned a target face from a sheet containing photos of 32 faces, and are told to ask the Answerers yes or no questions (e.g., “Does the person have a mustache?” “Does the person have blue eyes?”) to try to identify the target face with as few questions as possible. Half of the faces on each sheet are white and half are black, such that asking about race is one of the fastest ways to zero in on the target. But Questioners tend to shy away from that strategy, demonstrating reluctance to even bring up race—not to mention engage in a discussion.
In the post-exercise discussion, Apfelbaum and Norton pose a question to students: “Why are we so reluctant to say that someone is of a race in these sorts of situations, but we’re comfortable with things like gender and other attributes?” The aim is to give participants permission to explicitly acknowledge the ongoing resonance of race in our lives and organizations.
Step 3: Learning the Evolving DEI Lexicon
Impactful conversations also require a common language. But the DEI lexicon can be unfamiliar and even intimidating to newcomers. Zoe Kinias of INSEAD demonstrated an activity to help work through this barrier. A collaboration with Modupe Akinola (Columbia Business School) and Aneeta Rattan (London Business School) involved compiling a list of relevant terms and their definitions, ranging from the relatively familiar (e.g. “prejudice,” “stereotype”) to newer concepts such as “allyship” and “white supremacy culture.” She first used the vocabulary list in her recent MBA elective on DEI.
Kinias asked all conference participants to choose one term from the list with which they were relatively familiar and comfortable, and another that was more challenging. They were then paired up and asked to share their chosen terms with one another in dialogues that “prioritize[d] striving to learn and understand . . . [as well as] listening and giving others space.”
The vocabulary exercise was designed to impress upon participants that everyone—educators, students, and business leaders—is on a learning and development journey. No one has a perfect answer to instantly fix centuries of injustice; the key is to continue inquiry and learning. In keeping with this idea, the DEI vocabulary list has been vastly expanded since the meeting to incorporate dozens of suggestions from attendees.
From the outset, the aim of this group was to start small for the first three years in order to form a strong foundation and subsequently expand to inspire broader change beyond the home institutions. Mindful of the extraordinary promise of this moment in history, the core group has begun planning its expansion. The main objectives include the following:
- Producing and distributing resources for DEI educators around the world (e.g. materials and teaching notes for exercises like the ones mentioned above)
- Organizing teaching conferences and panel discussions, perhaps in connection to significant academic conferences such as the Academy of Management Annual Meeting
- Creating support systems including practical resources for the next generation (current PhDs, post-docs, and faculty) who will educate global business leaders on how to practice equity and inclusion in diverse organizations
Finally, an important theme to note that surfaced throughout the May discussion was the emotional and professional toll that is placed on those who have assumed a change-agent role around DEI within their academic communities. This weight is especially felt by faculty of color, of which there are typically only one or two, if any at their institutions. By widening the conversation to include more educators and change agents, the hope is to create more sustainable DEI learning journeys for all concerned—and ultimately more diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environments in the future.