Can you teach empathy? Brenda Ellington Booth believes you can.
Booth, a clinical professor of leadership at Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, is teaching a new MBA class this year that helps students increase their levels of emotional intelligence, specifically as it relates to leading diverse teams.
Leading with Empathy: Enhancing Your Emotional Intelligence to Lead in Diverse Settings is a new course, one of five new electives at Kellogg in 2021-2022. But Booth, who joined Kellogg in 1999, has been having conversations — and breakthroughs — about empathy for many years.
“I think it’s not an on-off — it’s a spectrum, a continuum, and I teach it in the framework of emotional intelligence,” she tells Poets&Quants about the practical teaching of empathy. She dismisses the idea that it’s something “you either have or you don’t.”
“There is research that says that you can become more emotionally intelligent — and if empathy is a part of emotional intelligence, then you can get better,” Booth says. Her class “is very experiential, very learn-from-others as you go through this, very much about self-awareness in the context of others, which is what all of my classes are.”
AT 26 U.S. B-SCHOOLS, 173 NEW COURSES IN MANAGEMENT, FINANCE & MORE
Brenda Ellington Booth’s new course is one of five being taught for the first time this year at Kellogg and one of 189 new courses at the 26 leading business schools in the United States. They range from the topical — four courses focus on climate change, for instance — to the basic: accounting, data science, business analytics are well-represented, but so are marketing, leadership, and organizational studies.
In 2019, the last time we did this story, there were 182 new courses at 25 schools; two years before that, there were around 130. Once again, some schools have more new offerings than others — Yale School of Management has the most new classes this year, with 20. Columbia has 17 new courses, including seven finance courses, while Harvard Business School and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business each have 16 new courses. Meanwhile, two schools — Duke University Fuqua School of Business and Indiana University Kelley School of Business — have no new MBA courses this year.
Most new courses are categorized in one of a few umbrella disciplines. By far the most are categorized as “management” courses: 40. Next is finance with 34, followed by 15 for marketing and 12 each for entrepreneurship and operations. Ten are for strategy, eight are business administration classes and six are data science/business analytics. Seven are accounting, four organizational behavior, and three leadership.
HOW — AND WHERE — TO TEACH EMPATHY
Brenda Ellington Booth’s course is listed under the latter category, though it could probably fit in any number of disciplines. What matters more is how and where it’s being taught: There may be no better business school to teach empathy than Northwestern Kellogg.
“With so much change and disruption happening constantly, we can’t predict how the world will evolve in the next 10 years, much less the next 50 years,” according to the school’s language on the importance of empathy. “But what won’t change is the need for leaders who have the rare ability to understand and influence people, and to inspire teams with diverse backgrounds and perspectives — leaders who demonstrate great empathy.”
Kellogg long ago embraced the notion of being an inclusive place for all students, Booth says. “And it is a very diverse population of students — probably the common denominators are that they’re all super smart, but beyond that, there’s lots of diversity. And so we work really hard, even in orientation week, to really foster that sense of diversity.”
One way they do that is through a “culture box” exercise, in which students pick three physical objects that represent important parts of their social identities — race, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, etc. — and explain them to a small group of peers. The goal is to help others gain a deeper understanding of some of others’ formative experiences — including their joys and their struggles.
“Historically, Kellogg has a culture of being team-based. And so, it’s in the DNA of Kellogg,” Booth says. “And it’s a nice culture, and sometimes it’s overly nice — tough feedback is hard in our culture. We call it ‘Kellogg nice.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, no, you’re great.’ ‘Give me feedback.’ ‘I can’t think of anything.’ But it’s a very supportive lookout-for-your-fellow-classmates culture. And so empathy, I think, is always below the surface.”
What’s unique about Booth’s class: Through the lens of growth and learning, it pushes students to have uncomfortable conversations — and to really listen to each other.
“I think so many of us don’t really listen to each other or don’t even ask those questions because it’s politically incorrect or uncomfortable, but I’m trying to create that space where it is comfortable, so people can really learn,” she says.
In the bulk of the class, students are grouped according to social identity. “It could be gender, it could be race, it could be mental health, it could be anything,” Booth says. “And I have them talk about what it’s like in that situation. When do they feel like they’re in the in-group? When do they feel like when they’re in the out-group? When did they struggle? How do they perceive other groups? How do they perceive how other groups experience them?”
A pre-Covid pilot of the course went well: “People said, ‘This is such a heavy class in a good way.’ Particularly when we did mental health, people had no idea how hard it was. But just understanding people’s lived experiences and how they have to deal with whatever they’re dealing with — it could be obvious and it could be below the surface, but we all have something to share.
“The impetus of this class came out of the marriage of Covid and all the craziness of 2020. And just all these conversations I’ve found myself in and just feeling a need for two things. Number one, people feeling comfortable about who they are and where they are in their journey in terms of understanding just the diverse fabric in which we live and work. And then secondly, taking time to understand that your life experiences shaped your values, your thoughts, and how you approach things. Your judgment and assumptions. But then taking the time to understand that about someone else who has a different set of life experiences. And so, that’s where the class is different.”
Teaching a course that is reminiscent of one of the most famous electives in business school history, Booth unsurprisingly learned empathy herself from long-time Stanford professor Helen Schrader, who died in 2015 at 100 after more than 50 years’ teaching. Shrader taught Booth “that we need to just have conversations to appreciate others’ lived experiences. And so a bazillion years ago, when I was an undergrad, she did this experiment. And it was incredible for me personally. And it was a paradigm shift for me in terms of how I viewed differences in others. And so I’ve just brought it to 2021 and overlaid the theory behind it.”