Developing DEI Teaching Practices

How can business school educators most effectively teach diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)? That was the question the late Columbia Business School distinguished Professor Katherine W. Phillips raised five years ago, when she convened 15 academics from top business schools to create a working group devoted to the subject.

In honour of Phillips’ legacy, that group still meets several times a year to explore the latest research and insights on teaching DEI, a discipline that is continually evolving. The group is now organized and led by professors Modupe Akinola (Columbia Business School), Heather Caruso (UCLA Anderson), Erin Kelly (MIT Sloan), Zoe Kinias (Ivey Business School), and Michael Norton (Harvard Business School).

In 2022, to disseminate its learnings to a broader audience, the group presented its first Professional Development Workshop (PDW) on teaching DEI at the Academy of Management (AOM) conference. In August 2023, the group held its second overenrolled PDW, featuring three teaching demonstrations and a Q&A panel on designing and delivering quality DEI education. Here, we summarize key takeaways from the 2023 event.

Teaching demo 1: “DEI Change Signals”

To kick off the workshop, Stephanie J. Creary, Assistant Professor of Management at the Wharton School, demonstrated a simulation exercise from her course, Leading Diversity in Organizations.

The exercise begins by dividing students into small groups, where they role-play as managers charged with developing a new diversity initiative for their company. The managers are asked to craft strategies for engaging with employees who have different views about DEI; some employees are strongly for it, some are strongly against it, and others fall somewhere in the middle.

To complement the exercise, Creary presents her research-based framework for understanding different attitudes about DEI. Called “DEI Change Signals,” the framework resembles a traffic light, with each signal representing a different persona. Individuals who are “experienced champions” or “engaged newcomers” with DEI send a green signal; “concerned newcomers” send a yellow signal; and “reluctant beginners” or “resistant beginners” send a red signal.

The point? When developing diversity initiatives, it’s important to recognize the “signal someone is sending when they’re saying what they’re saying to you . . . and be mindful of those signals as you create interventions or tailor messages,” Creary says. “It’s not one-size-fits-all.”

 Teaching demo 2: “Poll Everywhere”

Before leading students through discussions about DEI, Modupe Akinola, the Barbara and David Zalaznick Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, lays the groundwork for productive conversations.

She sets “conversation guidelines” that include “active and empathetic listening”; “challenge the idea, not the person”; and “take space and make space.” She also challenges students to embrace discomfort, trust intent, and acknowledge assumptions.

Then, to kick-start meaningful conversations, Akinola uses a tool called “Poll Everywhere” to capture student feedback in real time.  The tool helps students feel validated while making DEI conversations more holistic, she notes.

“I always remind them, ‘Let’s not refer to conversations about DEI as challenging or difficult conversations,’” Akinola says. “‘Let’s call them transformational conversations. That is your goal—to emerge transformed, learning from others.’”

One way she teaches this concept is through an exercise where students first identify moments when their classmates have made them feel uncomfortable. Such moments include potentially divisive comments around gender, race, religion, identity, and/or politics, to name a few. After discussing those scenarios in pairs, students regroup as a class to role-play them. She then has them write a note of apology, explaining: “If you’re going to do DEI work, you’re going to make a mistake.”

Teaching demo 3: “The Power of Why”

Adam Galinsky, Vice Dean for DEI at Colombia Business School, began his demonstration by sharing a clip from a comedy show with Michael Jr. In the clip, Michael Jr. asks an audience member—a choir director—to sing a few bars from “Amazing Grace.” Following the performance, Michael Jr. asks him to sing it again, this time in a way that reflects the experience of a Black man in America. The second rendition is particularly moving.

“When we give people a why, a permission, and a context to be their authentic selves, we allow them to go from good to great,” Galinsky explains. “I like to call it the ‘win–win power of why.’”

To facilitate this experience in the classroom, Galinsky asks his students to write down their “why” for his DEI course. He encourages them to think about the conditions that allowed them to grow their emotional intelligence or leadership skills. After sharing their whys, students vote on the top six to serve as classroom norms.

“I think this is particularly powerful in a DEI context because people can sometimes come in with concerns,” Galinsky shared. “Norms solidify expectations that everyone can agree on.”



Bring your authentic self. “I show up in the classroom as a Black woman who is visibly queer, and I bring my own research on intersectionality to the class. I think that brings some levity to the conversation . . . and fosters safety.” — Sa-kiera Tiarra Jolynn Hudson, Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, Berkeley Haas School of Business


Orient yourself to learn. “If someone says something I deeply disagree with, I think: ‘What can I learn from this?’ Cultivating that attitude is what we’re supposed to be teaching.” — Martin N. Davidson, the Johnson & Higgins Professor of Business Administration, Darden School of Business


Invite reflection. “I assign weekly reflection notes, and that helps manage the temperature of the class. If an issue isn’t resolved in class, I will connect with the student afterwards. The last thing I want to do is alienate them and have them drop the class.”  — Sora Jun, Assistant Professor of Management – Organizational Behavior, Jones Graduate School of Business

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