Business Schools Train Students’ Social Skills

MBA programs support students to improve emotional intelligence to respond to corporates’ demand for values-driven leadership

Christian Dummett, executive director of the London Business School (LBS) Career Center, says that enterprises have lately emphasized the significance of the human side of leaders in motivating employees and raising awareness of wellbeing as well as inclusive diversity.

The need for empathetic leaders has increased especially during the Covid pandemic. Dummett explains that since employees’ circumstances, motivation, and well-being have been considerably changed due to more frequent remote working, leaders have felt the need to adjust their leadership accordingly. He says, “There is a growing view that empathetic and forward-thinking leaders are more effective in getting the best out of their employees.”

Dummett notes, “Empathetic leaders who treat their employees with respect and dignity not only attract top talent but also succeed in retaining them in the long-term.” As mental health management of employees takes a large part of the budget and mismanagement can affect performance, it is evident that human-centered leadership has a strong appeal to businesses.

In this vein, industry practitioners are concerned about current MBA courses that disregard the importance of social skills for future leaders. Then, how can MBA programs nurture the human side of their students that is now claimed to be an essential requirement for developing leaders?

London Business School (LBS) at the University of London helps students find their leadership styles through 360-degree surveys and personality tests. Randall Peterson, a professor of organizational behavior at the school, wrote in an article, “It is important to find your own voice, and then leverage that in a way that makes you a great leader.” Photo: London Business School (LBS) at the University of London

According to Dummett, business schools provide their students with varying programs to meet the growing demand in the industry for emotionally intelligent leaders. For instance, at LBS, MBA students are encouraged to work with a 360-degree feedback system and to create a personality profile as the program starts. These programs are designed to allow students to understand their leadership style as well as strong and weak points, all of which are to set their individual goals to improve their leadership skills throughout their time at MBA.

Dummett comments, “Experiential learning activities, individual coaching, and club leadership opportunities help our students to develop the ‘soft’ leadership skills, such as social and emotional intelligence, that are needed for global business success.”

What business schools can do to bring positive change

For many schools that have continuously underlined the human side of leadership, the question of how institutions can drive change is not new, Ricard Serlavós, a lecturer at the Department of People Management and Organization at ESADE Business School in Spain, says. Serlavós adds that the adjustment of the assessment criteria utilized by the accreditation agencies, AACSB and EQUIS, is a great example of the ongoing change within the sector.

Serlavós points out that there has been wide criticism on the role of MBA programs in developing managerial mentality, which was partly responsible for bringing the 2008 financial crisis on. “I believe and trust that the industry has learned its lesson. Its future survival will depend on it,” he says.

To encourage students to make positive changes both in the industry and society at large, ESADE has developed its curriculum. With its MBA program, it hopes to forge students’ managerial mindsets, especially emphasizing collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and effective communication skills.

Serlavós says that these changes in the sector are, in fact, partially initiated by the employers. He says that enterprises have been making efforts to increase their employees’ quality of life as well as diversity and inclusion.

However, Serlavós adds that temporary leave for mental health reasons has noticeably increased in recent years. He notes, “Multiple studies reveal that the main cause of voluntary departure from an organization is the abrasive or toxic profile of the immediate boss.” He further highlighted that the role of managers in the creation of work environments is undeniably fundamental to stimulate participation, initiative, a sense of purpose, and effective contribution.

How are business schools developing students’ soft leadership skills?

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business offers the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) curriculum which focuses on ethical implementation rather than on ethical analysis. It guides students find their own answers to the questions: “What if I were going to act on my values? What would I say and do? How could I be most effective?” Photo: Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business also strives to enhance students’ emotional intelligence and empathy as parts of social and emotional skills development.

Giving Voice to Values, a curriculum directed by a professor of practice Mary Gentile at Darden, is aimed to promote values-driven leadership across the institutions in the U.S. The most effective teaching techniques to nurture social and emotional skills, such as through rehearsal and feedback, are outlined in the course.

Gentile underscores, “Giving Voice To Values provides opportunities for students to practice action-planning for values-driven leadership.” She mentions that through the course, students build a “moral muscle memory,” which would enable them to act in situations where they previously failed to recognize the conflicts of values.

The curriculum includes a case study where students are given scenarios in which the protagonist has already decided on what the “right” action is. Students are to find ways to effectively persuade the protagonist in each scenario. Gentile adds, “They have to understand the perceived stakes and risks and motivations of their audience and frame their approach accordingly.”

In responding to some institutions’ concerns about balancing between the rising demand for emotional intelligence and the long-demanded skills like finance, Gentile ensures that the value-driven curriculum is well blended into traditional courses such as finance, accounting, and operations.

She further elaborates that lectures on value-driven leadership must be integrated throughout the program. She emphasizes, “It will not be effective to simply add an attention to emotional intelligence and values to an already crowded curriculum and to ask faculty who are experts in finance or marketing to teach psychology.”



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