It is just after 8am on a Saturday morning — time for breakfast, or sleeping. But in central London more than 100 students have gathered to obsess about themselves. This might not be such a stretch for a group of highly ambitious graduates who are mainly MBAs and Executive MBAs. However, London Business School’s “interpersonal dynamics” course is not about rampant narcissism. Rather, it encourages participants to develop self-awareness, practise mindfulness and handle difficult conversations in the workplace.
At the front of the subterranean hall is lecturer Richard Jolly, an adjunct professor of organisational behaviour, who notes wryly that students might find the arrival of the Buddhist monk later in the term challenging. “Some of you might think it’s ‘fluffy, vegetarian bullsh*t’.” But he implores them to give it a go. After all, “he was a Buddhist monk before it was cool”. This is a tough audience. Later, he asks again. “Any reactions? Is this flaky, psycho bullsh*t?”
This session, a mix of theory and team exercises, is about first impressions. “Most of us think we are very self-aware,” says Mr Jolly. “If you have self-awareness — that [helps] you handle yourself. Emotional self-control is important in developing relationships.”
The session addresses the problem summed up by the social psychologist David A Kenny, of people typically having “just a tiny glimmer of insight into how they are uniquely viewed” by others. The first task for students is to find three adjectives to depict themselves followed by the descriptions a friend and a stranger might use. This is followed by groups of three delivering rapid-fire questions at each other, before writing down three positive and one negative description in turn.
The course followed feedback from the school’s career centre. “Recruiters say students were not self-aware”, says Mr Jolly. “They said they are arrogant [and] don’t listen.” He hopes the lessons do more than find students new jobs. “As you become more senior all you do is relationships. When you’re in the boardroom you’re not doing Excel. Just building relationships.”
Such programmes reflect business schools’ awareness that they need to produce graduates who have soft skills as well as technical, strategic and financial knowledge. The FT’s 2018 Skills Gap survey found that employers preferred candidates who as well as being able to problem solve and prioritise, could work in a team, with a wide variety of people and build a network.
Warren Teichner, a senior partner who is also the lead partner for global recruiting at McKinsey, the consultancy, says that some candidates overlook the value of “communication, collaboration, and relationship-building”. He adds: “Candidates often focus on the problem-solving aspect of consulting and our interview process.” Once they are hired, they are expected to participate in communication, teamwork and leadership training.
Adam Grant, Saul P Steinberg Professor of Management at Wharton School, Pennsylvania university, says schools need to teach soft skills to MBAs. Not doing so “is a bad idea, and probably a dangerous one”. There is plenty of hard evidence, he says, that soft skills “aren’t only valuable — they’re teachable. We have a responsibility to teach the skills that matter most.”
Jennifer Petriglieri, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Insead, says that such courses provide a rare opportunity for thrusting students to reflect. “They are keen to do this exploration — they graduate from university, rush into a job.”
She adds that the focus on soft skills (a term she hates because in her view, they are the “hardest to learn”) signals a return to business schools’ “original roots” — professionalising management for the good of society. “Cynics think you shouldn’t be teaching these things on [an] MBA. If they get to 35 or 40, it can be harder to unpick [bad habits].”
For Jason Andrews, a 30-year-old Australian engineer, the LBS course has been eye-opening. “I wanted to know about finance and the thing I’ve taken out of LBS is the personal feedback. I have understood that it is more important to [find out] how to lead than numbers.”
Not everyone gets the point, however. During the LBS course, one woman complains that she wants to spend more time learning how to manage other relationships and less on managing herself. She says that an exercise which demanded she recount firing someone “seemed forced”.
The forerunner to this course is Stanford Graduate School of Business’s popular Interpersonal Dynamics. Known as “Touchy Feely”, it has run for more than four decades. Students form into 12-person groups that meet for three to five hours every week, facilitated by two staff members and working on topics based on readings or short lectures. In addition, there is a weekend retreat with at least 16 hours of group work.
When Mumbai-based Animesh Agrawal was considering where to do his MBA he solicited opinion from alumni at various business schools. “The [Touchy Feely] course was mentioned by everyone.”
It convinced him to apply. This was not familiar territory for Mr Agrawal, who had attended the Indian Institute of Technology, and then worked in consultancy and private equity, and describes thinking of emotions as akin to learning a new language. “In finance you learn about Excel rather than feelings. At first it’s hard and you make mistakes.”
The personal feedback was particularly important. “In real life it is very hard to get very specific [comments] on how your actions land with others.”
As a result, he feels better equipped to handle tough conversations. Recently he invited his boss out for a coffee to discuss a problem that he had noticed had been bothering both of them. “It is hard to imagine I would have had that conversation two years before.”
Brian Lowery, faculty director for Interpersonal Dynamics at Stanford, says the course can be intense. “The honesty of the feedback is . . . ” He searches for the right word before deciding on “provocative”. Students allow themselves to be open and vulnerable in a way that they would not normally do at work, he says. Facilitators are on standby to help — different people may hold contradictory assessments.
The course, he says, is valuable because it helps MBA graduates become more effective in their interactions with employees. “A big part of that is self-awareness — understanding what impact you have on someone.”
Another important lesson from the course, Prof Lowery says, is not to make assumptions about how the other person is feeling. In other words, not to project your own experience on to someone else.
Andy Katz-Mayfield, co-founder of Harry’s, the male grooming company, graduated from Stanford in 2011. “I came from a traditional business background, worked in consultancy and private equity. I wanted to do more of the softer stuff as my background was in the harder stuff. In an MBA you get finance [and] strategy, that’s half the battle. You have to influence people [and] need a high degree of self-awareness.”
He learnt that he can be hard to read. “People sit there wondering if [I am] happy or frustrated.” When he tried to praise peers, for example, it was taken as low-key. “So I have to bring more energy to it.” It can be hard, he says. “Every single person in my group cried over the course. There are things about yourself that you don’t like and it can be hard to hear.”
Mr Jolly says negative feedback is a gift. “It’s not the gift you want but it’s the gift you need. So often in organisations there are things that people talk about behind your back that they don’t say to your face.”