We know that diversity drives innovation, and innovation in business can be assessed in terms of profits, new patents, and other products. But these products are often realized only after years of continuous effort. For people and organizations to get immediate clues about the fruits of their labor, these “lagging indicators” need to be supplemented with “leading indicators” such as people’s knowledge gains and their confidence for enacting new behaviors.

The College of William & Mary’s Mason School of Business launched a semester-long professional development program that immersed leaders of the school in three different VR simulations for diversity, equity, and inclusion that taught them how to advocate for more equality in their departments.

Mursion’s Future of Work roundtable series recently hosted William & Mary’s Jason Chen, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology, and Inga Carboni, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, to present data from the project that revealed changes in participants’ self-efficacy for advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion and their mastery of these topics.

Below is an excerpt of Jason and Inga’s presentation. Join us for our upcoming Future of Work sessions by signing up here. And, to experience Mursion’s virtual reality simulations and see for yourself how this platform can support your own business to learn how VR can play a role in honing the interpersonal skills needed to foster a culture of coaching, schedule a demo today.

Inga Carboni: About two or three years ago, and not for the first time, we had explored the issue of diversity and inclusion at the business school. We were very well aware that we are a large community. We had lots of different constituencies, and we wanted to make sure that everyone felt equally comfortable.

We had heard that maybe that was not the case, but I don’t think we had started to really take it seriously enough. Finally, we did get the okay to go ahead, do a D&I audit. We ran a number of focus groups and did some surveys. We’re very big on community. It’s not just the business school, it’s a William & Mary attribute. We’re all part of the tribe, and it’s very important to us to be part of this community that’s connected to the school.

We’re a Virginia institution, we’re the second oldest in the country, but of course, we do try to stay as current as we possibly can, but we weren’t sure what we’d find when we did this D&I audit of ourselves.

What we found was that a lot of us had this feeling of tribe and being part of the community, but that there was a significant portion of us that didn’t feel that way, that didn’t feel that they were fully included. Some of the broad themes that came up to us from our research was that there was a perceived lack of diversity. Simple demographic representation was an issue. We’ve gotten better, but we’ve still got quite a ways to go. There was a sense of inequality. People did not feel deeply part of this community. There were some that were having a great experience, and that there were some that really felt excluded, not fully brought into the community, and that they were not valued for their own authentic voice.

We also found that there was a lack of formal and informal sources of support, everything from mentoring to who the administration is going to support your efforts or your ideas. What really actually surprised us was that there were definitely people who felt there was some instability, that there was the lack of respect and a lack of empathy for other people’s positions and perspectives. My guess is a lot of that was comments that coming out of unconscious bias, but there it was, there were people in our community who were hurting.

Lastly, we felt there was a real fear or we didn’t feel, we were led to understand by what we were told by our colleagues of saying something, of speaking out, of being perceived as a troublemaker, or oversensitive, all the things that you might hear in other institutions. I’m sure that some of you have experienced in your own home, organizations, and companies. We took that information and decided to get serious about doing some diversity training in our institution. Obviously, we had lots of other things to do around who we brought into the institution, but diversity training was top on our list.

I reached out to Jason and I said, “Help us. We need to take our senior administrators and faculty through some diversity training with a goal of really getting these ideas pushed throughout our organization,” and I asked for advice. Jason told me some stuff I wanted to hear and some stuff I didn’t want to hear.

Jason Chen: Thanks, Inga. What I’m showing here right now is some data visualizations about what we see about diversity training. When I say this, I mean your typical schemes in companies and also in universities.

I want to just highlight a couple of things. When you look on the left-hand side, we’re seeing mandatory diversity training. These are programs that try to force managers to comply by setting strict rules and regulations. I think a lot of us have experienced these. Another form of mandatory training is biased control interventions that require participants to read anti-prejudice statements. What we find is that typically white participants who feel pressured to agree to these statements actually show greater anti-Black sentiments after the intervention. There’s a bit of a pushback on that.

If you have the next one, testing, so these hiring tests, according to data about 40% of large or other companies do this. What this involves is fighting bias with mandatory hiring tests. These tests assess the skills of frontline workers, but as we all know, managers hate being told that they can’t hire whomever they want to. Also, managers find ways around these tests anyway, and so we see negative impacts in that as well.

Then finally, grievance systems, about half of mid-sized and large firms have these. These sorts of tactics identify and rehabilitate biased managers regarding pay, promotion, and termination decisions. That’s what we’re looking at when it comes to diversity training here, just typical schemes. I want to just note here that if you look at the graphs, the ceiling on this is 0%. Everything you’re seeing is negative, meaning that there are negative returns on results on these programs. That’s the landscape of diversity programs, and we wanted to completely re-envision how we do this.

As we all know, organizations, institutions in order to see change, it requires our participants to know that institutions all have gatekeeping functions. These gatekeeping functions inhibit diversity, equity, and inclusion, so we recruited participants who make important gatekeeping decisions in the department. We were intentional, very purposeful about selecting who was going to be part of this training. To do this, it was really, really super-duper helpful to have Inga onboard because I don’t know the business school, but Inga does. She offered a lot of insights about how the professional development need to be conducted, who needed to be recruited, all that stuff. That was incredibly helpful.

The other piece of thing that we did here was we conducted a number of interviews. Myself and also a colleague on this project, his name is Francis Tanglao-Aguas. He is a professor of theater who helped us develop a lot of these simulations. The two of us conducted interviews with over a dozen people at the business school, just so we could get a good understanding of what does exclusion look like and sound like? What does inequity look like and sound like in the business school? We wanted to be able to get language around that. We wanted to get visualizations for what does that look like. That was incredibly useful also in terms of how we designed our scenarios.

Now, we also recognize that showing skills that are required to be a strong advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, doesn’t just happen overnight. You can’t be a passive bystander one day and an amazing, active, and tactful advocate the very next day. It takes a lot of training, it takes a lot of practice. That’s what we were really trying to do with these simulations.

The couple of things I want to really highlight is that when it comes to a learning, the doing and the saying are so important, particularly when we talk about things like complex behaviors, such as advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Here’s the thing, we don’t get a lot of practice in our everyday lives to intervene or to advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in a low-stakes situation where your integrity and reputation are on the line.

A lot of times, when these situations present themselves, where we should say or do something, they’re in high-stakes environments, and you get few opportunities to practice this. For us, the simulations were designed to help our participants try out strategies that we would teach them, so that it could start working its way into muscle memory.

Just to provide you some context here, the simulations were part of a larger professional development experience that happened over the course of an entire semester. It started out with a kickoff meeting where we introduced the participants to the key concepts that we expected them to master throughout the semester. Also, just give them an idea of why they were being immersed in this experience, rather than our typical diversity training.

After that launch workshop, participants then went through the first simulation. That first simulation was designed to get them to call in microaggressions and to act as an ally with a colleague who’s been micro-aggressed against. I say, call in rather than call out, because calling out generates more heat than light, and calling in helps to bring the aggressor into the conversation.

Calling out generates more heat than light, and calling in helps to bring the aggressor into the conversation.

That was Simulation 1. Right after that, we debriefed as a large group together, just to talk a little bit about that experience, and then to further their learning about microaggressions and allyship. Shortly after that, there was Simulation 2. In the second simulation, we immersed students or our learners in a situation where they were part of a hiring committee that its goal was to hire a new faculty member. Again, after that, we debriefed as a large group.

Then our third simulation after that, the story there was that our participants have been invited by the dean of the business school to be part of a moonshot proposal for $10 million. They were told that the president of the university is running a competition for this proposal and that the participant’s job is to advocate to the dean and to their colleagues for an inclusive process where diversity and equity are the driving forces behind the moonshot proposal.

Lagging Indicators vs. Leading Indicators

You might be wondering, after this experience with the business school participants, did this work? Did this work as a hard question to answer in what we did? Ultimately, I think that there’s these things that we call leading indicators and lagging indicators. A lagging indicator or something like, is your department more diverse now? Is there better pay equity in your organization now? Those are lagging indicators. They take years and years to push the needle on.

What we do to try to get the sense for whether it worked or not, is get these things called leading indicators, and leading indicators are a little bit harder to put your finger on, but this is one thing that we look at something called self-efficacy. What is that? It’s your confidence to be able to do something. We use surveys to assess what people’s self-efficacy is like in these scenarios. For this particular group of people, we asked, “How confident are you that you can advocate for somebody who’s been microaggressed against?” We ask those sort of questions to get their self-efficacy.

Before we’ve even met our participants, they were reporting on average, a score of 3.58 on a scale from one through six. A three means I’m not too confident about this. Number four is like, I’m kind of a little bit confident. That’s where people were starting at the very beginning, somewhere between I’m not too confident and I’m kind of confident. Then at Time 4, this at the end of the semester, this semester started in January, it ended in mid-May. They were reporting gain again of about four and a half. This is a little bit like I’m kind of confident, and five is, I am confident, and six is, I’m 100% confident.

This happens to be a statistically significant gain growth, and it’s quite a nice effect size. That’s what we’re looking at in terms of leading indicators, people, individuals are becoming more confident in their ability to do things, but I want to show you something else here. The gains were not even across the board. When you look at male participants and female participants, we’re looking at women starting out at the beginning lower in self-efficacy than their male counterparts, but by the end, their growth was quite considerable, and so they even exceeded men in the end. Although that difference is not statistically significant.

The Power of Collective Efficacy

Let me introduce you to another concept, it’s called collective efficacy. Self-efficacy is how confident are you that you can advocate for diversity? Collective efficacy takes it up a notch. It says, “How confident are you that your team can work together to achieve collective goals with diversity, equity, and inclusion?” As you can imagine, that’s a heavier lift, right? I can tell you that it’s not surprising that we didn’t see any difference from pre to post. It looks like a decrease in fact, but it is not a statistically significant decrease.

Here are some possibilities here. It might be that participants started out trying some techniques that we had taught them, or maybe they started thinking about, “Hey, how could I pull this off?” Then started realizing, “Oh, this is a lot harder than I thought it would be.” From start of semester to the end of semester, there could have been detriments in collective efficacy, because it is a team effort to do this and it does require a lot of organizational skills to meet that demand.

This is what I’m looking at in terms of leading indicators. I’ll say that, I think this is good news, because when I see something like collective efficacy dip a little bit like this, although it’s not statistically significant, my instinct is to say that there’s a group of people who are individually ready and capable to make changes happen in diversity, equity, inclusion at the business school, but for there to be meaningful and lasting change, there needs to be a group of leaders within each unit who can bring everyone together and move the group towards a common set of goals regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion.

For there to be meaningful and lasting change, there needs to be a group of leaders within each unit who can bring everyone together and move the group towards a common set of goals regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion.

I think it’s a positive assessment. If I had seen self-efficacy stayed the same or go down even, to me, that would say that there’s a lot of work to do, individually still to really help people lean into those conversations. It looked like the simulations were effective in helping people to develop their own abilities to intervene, but then now it’s about, how do we get groups together to achieve a common vision. That’s what I look at.

I’ll end today just by sharing a few comments that participants had sent, either directly to me or wrote in in the evaluation later on. I had one person say, “Thank you so much for working with our school. I’ve really enjoyed the simulations. It’s the best DE&I training out there.” That was really nice. The second one was from somebody who said that, “That simulation was transformative to me.” This particular person must be referring to the job search committee, because this person is involved in a lot of job searches and having to do the simulation where they were trying to navigate that terrain, was really, really instructive for this person. The last person just said, “I’ve had more discussions with colleagues in the past three months than my entire time at the business school.”

It was great because I feel like these these simulations, more than anything else, they really start people on a journey to start talking about diversity, equity, inclusion and how their unit and how their organization could do better in the future.

by Wendy

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