Alison Wood Brooks
O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration and Hellman Faculty Fellow
Harvard Business School
Putting Alison Wood Brooks on this year’s 40 Under 40 Best Business School Professors list was easy. At just 36 years old, Brooks has published research garnering more than 2,100 Google Scholar citations and the media attention to come with it. She had dozens of thoughtful nominations from colleagues, students, and alumni speaking of how much impact she’s had on them. Plus, she’s in a band with two other Harvard Business School professors.
“My greatest discovery so far is that not only are people often really bad at conversation, but social scientists have very little guidance to offer,” Brooks says of her research. “And so my research focuses on the psychology of conversation, with discoveries related to managing conversation topics, asking questions, creating levity, and expressing good listening.”
Sealing the deal for Brooks landing on this year’s list is her current MBA course called “How to talk gooder in business and life.”
Current age: 36
At current institution since what year? I’ve been at HBS since 2013
Education: A.B. degree from Princeton University 2008, Ph.D. from Wharton 2013
List of MBA courses you currently teach: How to talk gooder in business and life (affectionately called “TALK” by my students)
TELL US ABOUT LIFE AS A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I was inspired to try to become a business school professor when I began collaborating with my Ph.D. advisor, Maurice Schweitzer at Wharton, and saw firsthand how much he loves his work (and his family)—and learned how fun (and fulfilling) behavioral research can be. Over time, I’ve become more and more convinced that I really want to be a business school professor, having found beautiful overlap between my research, teaching, and personal values—alongside a cast of colleagues, coauthors, and students I truly love.
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?
My greatest discovery so far is that not only are people often really bad at conversation, but social scientists have very little guidance to offer. And so my research focuses on the psychology of conversation, with discoveries related to managing conversation topics, asking questions, creating levity, and expressing good listening.
If I weren’t a business school professor… I’d go on tour with my band, which includes my HBS faculty colleagues Ryan Buell and Mike Norton, so they’d have to leave HBS, too.
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? My passion for uncovering novel insights into conversation has found a perfect outlet in trying to help my students become better at this fundamental skill.
One word that describes my first time teaching: Courageous (and collaborative)
Professor I most admire and why: This is impossible! My heart bursts with admiration for so many friends and colleagues in the field (for their work, who they are, how they treat others, and their positive impact on the world). If pressed, I would say Maurice Schweitzer, because I admire his whole self, not just his mind. Honorable mention to Mike Norton, Leslie John, and Ryan Buell, three of the most brilliant behavioral scientists in the world, whose generosity to others (including me) is endless.
TEACHING MBA STUDENTS
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students? I love watching them learn to be more smooth and selfless, funny and kind in all of their conversations.
What is most challenging? I am always searching for new, better ways to deliver concrete, personalized feedback to students at scale. And, of course, creating brand-new, research-based course content and committing to your students’ learning is a tiring pursuit—but very worth it.
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Earnest
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Jaded
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… direct but kind
LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies?
At this stage of my life, if I’m not working, I’m with my three little ones: Charlotte (2), Grady (4), and Kevin (6). If time were unlimited, I would spend more time playing basketball, painting, and playing music with my band. In normal times, the band gets together about once a month. During the pandemic, we’ve been writing and recording original music separately from our homes. It’s been a joy to create something new, even from a distance.
How will you spend your summer? I’ll be working on my research, writing a book, and teaching executives “how to talk gooder.” On the weekends, we’ll take our kiddos to swim, kayak, and hike.
Favorite place(s) to vacation: My hometown—Canandaigua—in the finger lakes area of upstate New York. It’s outrageously beautiful. Other-worldly. And it’s drivable from Boston.
Favorite book(s): Some recent reads on my bookshelf: “How to Change” by Katy Milkman, “Chatter” by Ethan Kross, “Think Again” by Adam Grant, “Humor, Seriously” by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, and I’m excited for Vanessa Bohns’ upcoming book “You Have More Influence than You Think.”
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much? I like mindless stuff to unwind with my husband (while we pick up the house, fold laundry, order groceries, pack lunches, work, etc.)—a case study in the joy of divided attention and teamwork, really. Recently we’ve been “watching” Fargo on Hulu.
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more… courses about better conversation, and smoother, more effective social interactions.
In my opinion, companies, and organizations today need to do a better job at… remembering that engaging in serious work doesn’t have to mean an absence of laughter or joy.
I’m grateful for… PEOPLE: my students, colleagues, friends, and family. And Diet Coke.
Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:
“Managing research and teaching (and juggling both simultaneously) can be a herculean and arduous task. Alison, however, brings much joy and energy as a reminder to students that doing research and teaching can be fun, too – and there is always room for bursts of creative energy. Her signature course, “How To Talk Gooder in Business and Life,” could not be more relevant in today’s times of uncertainty and crisis, where creating positive engagement with others through communication has not been more important than today.”
“Professor Brooks was the first professor I had at business school. She set the bar high. We had some intense conversations in her class around difficult topics such as the gender equality debate launched by the Google memo. She not only guided the class but found a way to tease out my classmates perspectives that were not necessarily mainstream. I gained a greater perspective from that conversation. She created a physiologically safe environment with high energy. Out of all the professors I had at business school, she is one of the most deserving of this recognition.”
“Profound impact on me as a student; Professor Brooks recognized each individual’s unique gifts, encouraging them in ways that unlocked their leadership potential both within and outside the classroom. For me, that meant changing the way I thought I could be an authentic leader; recognizing what was unique about me and believing in me when I struggled to; giving me the opportunity to exercise those gifts, such as shaping her unique class about communication and negotiation; and serving as a role model for being one of the youngest female professors at HBS while being simultaneously humble/down-to-earth and insanely accomplished! Unique teaching style or techniques.”
“Prof Brooks teaches with an enthusiasm for scholarship, learning and empathy in a way that lights up the classroom. She fosters difficult conversations in an exemplary way and helps her students become better leaders.”
“Prof. Brooks is a dynamic professor with passion for her research and a compelling classroom presence. Her specialization in negotiations and communication are invaluable skills for any business leader — she makes intimidating content accessible.”