There might not be a more prolific researcher and publisher on this year’s 40 Under 40 list than Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business professor Taya Cohen. The 39-year-old has nearly 2,800 Google Scholar citations — 2,041 of which are in the last five years. A specialist in social psychology and organizational behavior, her research on moral character in the workplace has earned numerous awards and media coverage in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and BBC, among others. Focusing on how guilt and shame impact the workplace, she created the Five-Item Guilt Proneness Scale.
And yet, she is an accidental business school professor. Cohen seemed destined to follow a career path that would lead her toward a professorship in psychology. Then, she landed a postdoc/visiting professor gig at the Dispute Resolution Research Center (DRRC) at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “While working at Kellogg,” she says, “I learned for the first time about the field of organizational behavior and realized that this is where I belong.”
That is an understatement, given the accolades showered on her by students and colleagues. “Every class includes theory and actual negotiation exercises followed by debriefing,” one nominator said of Cohen. “Her approach is one she facilitates the learning experience by first allowing students to share their insights and then teaching theories derived from research. Teaching doesn’t feel forced upon since we got a chance to try first which made us think about what could have gone better. Then we’re all more receptive to learn what she has to teach.”
An avid soccer player, Cohen says she has been playing soccer every year since the age of six or seven. She still plays in pick-up games. Outside of the classroom, Cohen also enjoys spending time with her husband and two young sons who are three and one.
Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory
Current age: 39
At current institution since what year? 2010
Education: Ph.D. in Social Psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2008). BA in Psychology, Pennsylvania State University (2002)
List of MBA courses you currently teach: Negotiations. I’ve taught this course every year I’ve been at Carnegie Mellon. I also taught Managing People and Teams for a few years, but am not currently teaching that course.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A PROFESSOR:
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I was hired as a postdoc/visiting professor at the Dispute Resolution Research Center (DRRC) at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Prior to that I had planned on being a professor in a psychology department owing to my undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology. While working at Kellogg, I learned for the first time about the field of organizational behavior and realized that this is where I belong.
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? Honesty. People believe that others will react more negatively to honesty than they actually do. Emma Levine from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and I demonstrated this in a 2018 paper in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, in which we conducted a study where we instructed people to be “absolutely honest in every conversation you have with every person you talk to” over the course of three days. Before undergoing this experience, most people believe that it will be pretty awful—unenjoyable and socially isolating. It turns out that this isn’t the case. Others generally react more positively to honesty than we expect, and that makes honesty considerably more enjoyable than we believe it will be, and it strengthens our social connections in ways we don’t anticipate. Emma and I are currently planning to extend this line of research by studying how mentors navigate tensions between honesty and kindness when communicating with mentees.
If I weren’t a business school professor… (I’d be) working as a research scientist of some sort. I like statistics and analyzing data to answer questions about human behavior.
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I’m good at making connections, between ideas and between people, and I think quickly on my feet.
One word that describes my first time teaching: Grateful, to all the prior students, postdocs, and professors who shared their materials with me so I could learn from what they had done, and not have re-invent everything myself.
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: To understand business, you need to understand people. Psychologists can offer insight into why people make decisions and behave the way they do. Prior to being hired at a business school I didn’t realize I had expertise relevant to business. Ten years in, I now realize that I do.
Professor I most admire and why: Jeanne Brett from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Her research is exceptional in its rigor, innovative in its methods and questions, and impactful in its application. But that is not what makes her stand out to me, as the same could be said for the research of many others. Rather, it’s what she has created through her mentorship and sponsorship of students, postdocs, and junior scholars, and what she has contributed to teaching and practice through her negotiation role plays and related teaching materials. The field of negotiation and conflict management might well be half its size and half as interesting had Jeanne not founded the Dispute Resolution Research Center at Kellogg. The community she formed by providing resources and opportunities for postdocs and other early career scholars from throughout the world is striking in its expansiveness and impact. I’d love to see a network analysis of Jeanne’s connections in the field of negotiation and conflict management, in terms of who she has sponsored and mentored through her initiatives, and collaborated with directly or indirectly on projects. I suspect the analysis would show that she is the hub of a very large and impressive network of scholars, many of whom, including me, would be working in very different areas had it not been for Jeanne.
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? They are really smart, and they are going to change the world.
What is most challenging? Trying to get students early in their career to understand the challenges associated with working with and managing people, and to appreciate the ideas and tools that the field of organizational behavior could offer to help them navigate those challenges.
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: curious
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: closed-minded
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… fair.
LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM:
What are your hobbies? Soccer. I’ve played almost every year since I was six or seven years old, and continue to play as an adult in pick-up games and recreational leagues.
How will you spend your summer? Depends how long the COVID-19 lockdown continues. With child care centers closed right now, I’m spending all my time with my 3-year-old and 1-year-old sons, my husband, and parents. That, and the occasional Zoom call.
Favorite place(s) to vacation: the beach. North Carolina beaches are some of my favorites (Emerald Isle and the Outer Banks). I grew up near the Jersey Shore, so the New Jersey beaches will always be special to me.
Favorite book(s): I tend to gravitate toward non-fiction and memoirs. I don’t have one favorite (or even a list of favorites). The two books I read most recently are Would I Lie to You by Judi Ketteler and Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. I enjoyed them both.
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? The Sound of Music has been my favorite movie since I was 3 years old, and now I’m delighted to be watching it again with my 3-year-old. I love the music, the gorgeous views of the Alps, and, of course, the exceptionally talented Julie Andrews.
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? My musical tastes are expansive. I gravitate toward music that is sometimes labeled “adult alternative.” Also, Motown, which is the music I grew up with from my parents.
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… women as full professors and in leadership roles.
In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… leveraging evidence from organizational behavior and related fields to improve their processes and performance
I’m grateful for… my brilliant and supportive colleagues and students at Carnegie Mellon University
Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:
“Every class includes theory and actual negotiation exercises followed by debrief. Her approach is one she facilitates the learning experience by first allowing students to share their insights and then teaching theories derived from research. Teaching doesn’t feel forced upon since we got a chance to try first which made us think about what could have gone better. Then we’re all more receptive to learn what she has to teach.” – Student
“I had Professor Cohen for Negotiations and her class was the best I’ve taken at Tepper so far. The way that she facilitated conversation, discussed ethics in the context of negotiation, and made space for everyone to share their experiences was extremely effective.” – Student
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