Empathy, the evidence suggests, is the leadership skill most strongly correlated with growth, productivity, and earnings per employee. It’s also the skill that is hardest — some even say impossible — to teach. That’s a challenge Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business has taken on with SHIFT: Enhanced Approach to Leadership Success, a program introduced last year that employs virtual reality, poetry, contemporary art, fiction, design thinking, and other unconventional methods to prepare MBAs to become emotionally intelligent and modern-minded — in a word, empathetic — leaders.
SHIFT is the brainchild of Leanne Meyer, who heads Tepper’s MBA Accelerate Leadership Center. A series of interdisciplinary activities focused on developing ethical judgment, critical thinking, and cultural sensitivity, SHIFT is an elective to the required MBA leadership development curriculum that is designed to supplement the robust analytical education of the Tepper School. It is also immensely popular: When Meyer and her team softly launched the program last fall, the response was immediately overwhelmingly positive, she says, with students filling all the workshops and queuing in long waitlists, clamoring for more.
“Empathy is the leadership skill that most leaders and the majority of Tepper students struggle with,” she says. “My team and I knew that this type of programming would be beneficial for our MBAs, but we were surprised that each event registration was oversold. We had to create waitlists for students who wanted to join! Clearly this programming is in line with what MBAs are hungry to learn.”
MAKING DECISIONS THAT ‘REVERBERATE THROUGH OUR INTERCONNECTED WORLD’
It may not be a surprise that MBA students, looking ahead to life in the business world, would seek a better understanding of the people they will manage and those who will be their superiors. But how to actually teach that understanding was the challenge Meyer and her team faced while designing SHIFT. How do you foster empathy in a classroom? How do you create MBAs with the skills to cultivate a workplace environment that encourages and supports personal and professional growth — who know how to motivate, delegate, and inspire?
When it was launched last fall, SHIFT opened with a series of interactive seminars called the Leadership Touchpoint Series. Each session involves stakeholders from across the university facilitating a 90-minute workshop. The first, Introducing Design Thinking for Empathic Business Practice, took place in fall 2018 at the Tepper Quad, led by Carnegie Mellon design faculty members Mark Baskinger and Bruce Hanington. It highlighted how strategies from visual design can inspire more human-centered innovations across industries.
Other workshops have involved improvisational theater, art, poetry, writing, and virtual reality. One planned series is Decisions That Matter: Constructive Conversations, which confronts “multidimensional challenges in the workplace concerning gender and racial parity, sexual harassment, or sustainability,” according to the school’s description, and how empathetic leaders help develop “confident and compassionate strategies to facilitate ethical resolutions.”
Quintessentially, SHIFT is about thinking outside the box, Meyer says, and doing it in a creative and constructive way.
“In our global economy, we need business leaders who can understand diverse points of view and recognize how their decisions reverberate through our interconnected world,” she says. “We are infusing empathy into the heart of leadership training at the Tepper School for our MBA students so that they develop a natural and instinctual reflex to try to understand another person’s point of view when they face a challenge in the workplace.”
‘NEW INSIGHTS ABOUT DIFFERENT CULTURAL EXPERIENCES’
In February, SHIFT launched Emergence, a rotating art installation series in the MBA Commons at the Tepper Quad. Each semester, the Accelerate Leadership Center will work with an artist to develop an exhibit meant to “provoke in attendees a greater awareness of self, of others, and of the larger world,” Meyer says. “Each exhibit will be accompanied by a set of discussion questions to engage viewers and encourage them to consider the artwork in new and analytical ways.”
Beyond its scheduled series, SHIFT also includes informal opportunities for students to connect with each other and with alumni, faculty, and staff through regular coffee chats and social dinners — engagements that allow students to “build connections outside their immediate peer groups and gain new insights about different cultural experiences,” Meyer says.
“This is a co-curricular program but we’re not academics — we all come from industry,” Meyer tells Poets&Quants of her SHIFT team. “In my past life I was an executive coach, and my team were executive coaches, and our goal is to focus on providing students with the leadership and interpersonal communication skills that we think will accelerate their careers once they leave the MBA. That’s the focus of my center.
“We tend to do this in traditional ways, in that our students have workshops, assessments, one-on-one coaching. But in developing SHIFT, we recognized that it is not an easy thing to teach how to appreciate the world from another’s perspective. So we began exploring new pathways to help people become more empathetic. And we are still exploring.”