This grad course teaches MBA students how to handle conflict at work

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Jan 23, 2023
Heard on:
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

This grad course teaches MBA students how to handle conflict at work

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Jan 23, 2023
Heard on:
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

From performance reviews to asking for a raise, work life can be full of uncomfortable situations. But if you could practice having those tough conversations, would you?

A new course at the Haas School of Business of the University of California, Berkeley, gives grad students a chance to do just that. The class — Difficult Conversations: Conflict Lab — was held last fall and had 30 students in the MBA program roleplay scenarios that included giving difficult feedback and saying no to the boss.

The course facilitators were Bree Jenkins, a leadership development associate at Pixar Animation Studios, and Francesca LeBaron, a faculty member at Haas, who are both alumni of the Haas MBA program. “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with the pair, asking them what students taking the course should expect.

Bree Jenkins: Actually, it’s interesting. I think that we spend the entire first class talking about what they should be expecting, otherwise they should drop the class.

Francesca LeBaron: We say our goal at the beginning of class is to get rid of at least half of you.

Kai Ryssdal: And that shows up really well on Rate My Professors, I’m sure.

LeBaron: Well, it’s true it’s not for everyone. We say we’re building a sandbox. We’re building a sandbox where you get to experiment when it comes to different conflict roleplays and be able to say, like, “That worked, and that didn’t work.” Not right and wrong. We’re very specific about the language we use. “What was your goal? What is your objective of this conversation? And did you achieve it?” It’s not about being right or wrong, it’s being effective.

Ryssdal: Bree, when you went to the powers that be at Haas and said, “Listen, we’ve got this idea” — and, in theory, Haas is training future business leaders of America — what was the elevator pitch?

Jenkins: Yeah, the elevator pitch was all about how we would talk to our fellow classmates, especially after Francesca and I had already started developing the class, and we said, “Tell me about the conflict that’s happening in your workplace.” And they’re like, “Conflict? I’ll tell you about the conflict. This thing happened, this person, let me tell you about this.” And then we’d say, “OK, cool. So did you talk to that person?” And they’re like, “Oh, nah. What am I supposed to say to them?” and “They are my boss” or “They’re my friend. I don’t want to hurt their feelings.” And that was probably the clearest pitch that we could have given.

LeBaron: It was such a litmus test for, like, is there a place for this class, when the No. 1 feedback we got from alumni was, “I wish we had this.” And No. 2, it was exactly what Bree said. It’d be like, “Oh, we’re looking for roleplays in class. Like, do you have any roleplays?” And then it would turn into, like, a 40-minute conversation. Each of our alumni would tell us, “These are the 12 conversations I’m avoiding in the workplace.”

Ryssdal: We should say here both of you are reasonably recent graduates of Haas, so you know, you’ve got a ripe alumni base and classmate base that you can pick from. Give me an example, would you, either one of you, of your favorite roleplays, the ones that are most rewarding, right? Because what you want out of this experience is growth and development, so which ones get you there?

LeBaron: Oh, there was a lot of them.

Ryssdal: I know. You’ve gotta pick one, sorry.

LeBaron: We had a lot of conversation around an example where you had to give feedback to an employee or a direct report that was very high-performing — so they, like, hit their numbers, did a great job, but they weren’t great team players or they had interpersonal issues. So how do you give that direct report feedback of, like, “You’re doing great at your job, and you also need to be more collaborative with your teammates”?

Jenkins: Yeah, I think that was so important for students’ growth because we got to just really challenge them back and forth. They would say, “Well, you are an employee who is doing really great at your job.” And so we would say, “Oh, are they doing great at the job? What are the components of their job that are important? And if dealing with interpersonal kinds of relationships is an important part of the job, what are ways that we can expand that and talk about that with that person? How can you be more specific when you give the feedback?” And this one just people struggled with. “I don’t want to lose that person!” You know, it wasn’t even a real person. It was just a roleplay with, like, “I don’t want to lose that person on my team.”

LeBaron: It was amazing how real the roleplays got. And then we brought in undergrads to roleplay direct reports, since a lot of our MBA students will, you know, realistically be managing someone that was a recent grad from undergrad. And then we brought in alumni to play their managers or their clients, so it made it superreal for them.

Ryssdal: Can we talk for a second, actually — you know, asking for a friend here — about having these conversations and managing up, right? Because that’s way harder. That’s got to be way harder than telling your direct report, “Listen, you need to do X, Y and Z.” And this is a tough conversation, but managing up is among the hardest things you do in an organization.

Jenkins: Yeah, completely. Because there’s so many dynamics that are happening. There’s the power dynamics of, ‘What if I tell this person this, and then am I gonna get fired or something?” And so we took a lot of our classes to talk about how do you deal with your emotions in these situations? Do they get a tightened chest? Do they find it hard to think? And how then do they want to manage that in the moment? I think that was the biggest thing to realize, especially when managing up.

LeBaron: One thing that we focused on is kind of owning our needs in class. I think a lot of, a lot of our students we found had a hard time kind of owning their needs and asking in a way where it was a request to others.

Ryssdal: Owning their needs is really interesting because, there is less so now, I think, but for a long time, there’s been in professional life in this country, to quote [“Mad Men” character] Don Draper, “That’s what the money is for,” right? You come to work, you do your job, you shut up and we’ll give you a paycheck, right? And it is different now, which is good. But it’s a different thing.

LeBaron: Yeah. I think one thing we’ve learned, particularly over working through the pandemic, is that we’re all humans. And I think that bosses and organizations that kind of neglect the human, they’re losing people left and right because we’re not giving people a space to own their needs and ask for what they need to be successful.

Ryssdal: I’m just gonna throw this out there because there’s probably some people out there listening to this, but look, conflict avoidance is just easier, you know, and it’s so easy to just not have these conversations. As I’m creating it in my mind, this is a really good question. It’s great that you’ve got this course, but you have to convince people somehow that they should have these conversations. How do you do that?

Jenkins: Yeah, that’s such a relevant thing. Yeah, it’s easier, but I would say it’s easier for a very specified amount of time, and then it becomes harder. You’ve become unhappy with where you’re at. You’ve become resentful of the people that you’re with. And so then your entire work life starts getting consumed by these relationships. And so all of a sudden it’s not easier anymore. It’s harder. We actually did give our students, though, if there were situations where they were, like, you know what, engaging in this conflict is actually not going to be the thing that is most effective or beneficial, then we gave them an out. And so then we didn’t have to tell them, like, you need to be in this conflict. Right? They got to tell themselves why was it important for them to do this or not.

Ryssdal: Are you gonna get re-up for next fall? Are you back on the syllabus?

LeBaron: We are back on the syllabus for next fall.

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