MBA Leadership Course Tackles How Implicit Bias Affects Decision-Making

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How do you ensure MBA students learn to become well-rounded, principled leaders? At Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, the answer begins with an intensive course introduced last year in the opening term that focuses on Leading Teams for Performance and Impact.

During the week-long course that launches the school’s leadership curriculum, students explore the dynamics of diversity and inclusion, implicit biases, conflict and civility, and giving and receiving feedback. 

“It is important for our students to begin their studies with this new course so that it frames their thinking and decision-making throughout their time on campus and beyond,” said Prashant Malaviya, senior associate dean for MBA programs. “By exploring their own leadership abilities and understanding how understanding diversity and implicit bias affects how we lead, our students will re-launch their careers with insight into their own abilities that may take others a lifetime to discover.” 

Organizational psychologist Ella Washington, who joined Georgetown last fall as a professor of the practice in management, teaches the course. She emphasizes the importance of teaching students about diversity and inclusion at the beginning of their careers so that they have a starting point from where they can use that knowledge. The topics taught in the course, she says, are not just important for students’ careers after Georgetown, but for interactions with their classmates in other MBA courses as well.

“We felt like students really needed a deep dive into diversity and inclusion from the very beginning. We focus on not just the meanings of diversity and inclusion, but how organizations can thrive by being diverse and inclusive,” said Washington.

One focal point of the course is implicit bias, a term that describes our brain’s habit of using shortcuts to categorize other people that can affect our decision-making in unfair ways.  

“While there is no way to eliminate bias from how our brains work, courses like Leading Teams for Performance and Impact make students aware of these biases and enable them to look for bias in their everyday decision-making and interactions with other people,” said Washington. “Many times we are unaware of our implicit biases, and we assume that we are not racist, sexist, or so on. While that might be the case, there are still experiences we have had in our lives that shape how our minds naturally make connections.”

Because these snap judgments occur in the recesses of our minds, she said, people often are not aware of how these thought processes may introduce bias into what seems on the surface to be a fair decision. 

Silas Humphries (MBA’21) was among the first students to take the new course. He appreciated the introduction to diversity and inclusion at the start of his program. 

“As future business leaders and influencers, it is crucial that McDonough MBA candidates learn to collaborate with and embrace people of all backgrounds,” he said. “As someone interested in strategic human capital, I really value that the course covers unconscious bias, team building, and giving productive feedback. In the future, I hope we can continue to expand the course to include more discussion on the historic and current implications of racial, ethnic, and gender identity in society and business. We should all aspire to embrace a culture of empathy.” 

In recent years, Kerry Pace, associate dean of the MBA program, also has developed opportunities outside of the classroom to explore leadership challenges. Before launching the new Leading Teams for Performance and Impact course, she brought in notable trainers to help students and staff recognize and challenge implicit biases. Pace and her team also incorporated diversity and inclusion awareness sessions into new student orientation and delivered a workshop with Georgetown’s Health Education Services on active bystander training specifically around sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and power dynamics. She also has been working with the school’s Jesuit Initiatives group to organize Ignatian retreats for MBAs. 

“What it means to be an impactful manager and leader is shifting, and these innovations to our leadership curriculum will ensure that Georgetown MBAs are prepared to become changemakers in an increasingly complex world,” said Malaviya.