What is courage? Specifically — since we’re talking about business school — what is workplace courage?
The first thing Angela Noble-Grange asks MBA students to do in her new class is define that well-known, but not-so-well-understood, term.
“I teach at a business school, I’m not in an undergraduate liberal arts program,” Noble-Grange, a senior lecturer of management communication at Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management, tells Poets&Quants. “This is a business school. So how do you define courage in the workplace? And then they come up with their definition.”
So begins Courageous Communication, which in many ways is a culmination of Noble-Grange’s long career at Cornell, where she earned her MBA in 1994 and founded the Johnson School’s first diversity office in 1999.
‘HOW CAN YOU PRESERVE THE RELATIONSHIP?’
“It’s a long journey to this course,” she says. But it’s also very much a reflection of the world we live in. “This course is in response to the division that’s happening in the country. I kept asking myself, about a year ago or so when we’re arguing about Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter and lots of things. Things aren’t great now, either — we’re arguing about masks and vaccines. But back then, I thought to myself, ‘What can my role be where I am in the world. and that’s with business school students, and how is this affecting their lives at work and in general?’ Especially because most of the time we’re working from home and societal pressures are just everywhere.
“So I decided to stick with what I know, which is communications, and came up with a course that calls on the students to do a little bit more than just traditional communication.”
But how do you speak to somebody who has a completely opposite point of view than yours? And how do you do it in a respectful and professional way so that you can preserve the relationship? These questions are paramount in today’s diverse workplaces — and their answers are essential for success. “Because at work we don’t have the ability to just say, ‘Oh, I don’t like you because you believe in X and now I’m not going to work with you,’ or ‘You can’t be my customer,’ or ‘I’m not going to work for you or with you or anything.’ So I thought there was definitely a place for this in a business school.”
‘IT’S INCREDIBLY HARD FOR MBA STUDENTS’ TO PUT ASIDE THEIR FEELINGS & LISTEN
The first thing to know about Courageous Communication, which had a pilot in the spring semester, is that it is not a debate class.
“I had to make a choice about the things are we going to talk about,” Noble-Grange says. “So we’re not discussing Black Lives versus Blue Lives. It’s totally not a debate. So many people think that course would involve debate. It’s not at all related to debate.”
Instead, after sharing definitions — “a pretty powerful and interesting conversation” — the course unfolds as an active listening session. “The absolute foundation to entering a courageous conversation is your ability to come into any conversation with curiosity and openness to the other person’s point of view, and a willingness to put aside your own feelings about a topic,” Noble-Grange says. “That’s incredibly hard for MBA students. We tend to think we know a lot, and we’re leaders and we’re all this. So you have to put that aside and just really listen to somebody. So we work on listening first and that’s a challenge. And then from there we talk about vulnerability.”
Following that, students engage in reflective listening exercises. “They would go back to their apartments or whatever, and I might say something to them: ‘Think about somebody in your life, who you have a completely different opinion from.’ And they had all different kinds of situations. It was really interesting. And then I said, ‘I want you to go into the conversation. Now you’re going to try to start a real-life conversation.’ This isn’t a case study and your job is to just listen to what the other person’s saying, validate what the other person is saying. Do not offer your opinion at all. Try that and see how it goes.”
USING THE HARVARD NEGOTIATION PROJECT AS A MODEL
It was extremely difficult. But to her surprise, there were no meltdowns.
“Their job was to reflect on it and send the paper to me. What was easy about it? What was hard about it? And then we would just take these steps, following the model that was done with the Harvard Negotiation Project. And they produced a book called Difficult Conversations. It’s old stuff, but it’s so relevant today. And so we use that model of, you go in, you listen to what another person says, you validate them, you listen to their story, their experiences that they’ve had in their life. And then you say, ‘Is it okay for me to offer mine?’ And then you offer yours and you work towards some sort of a shared resolution.
“And so we were working on that model all the way through the course until the very end when I split them — and then I did take societal topics, and their final was one of these societal topics. I asked them in the beginning of the term what their feelings were about different things. ‘Do you strongly agree with something or don’t agree at all, or are you moderate on several issues that they found interesting and relevant. And then I would put them with someone who was on the other end of the spectrum, and they would have to have a conversation about it.
“The goal of their conversation was to just learn another person’s perspective. It was not to win somebody over to your side. It was not for you to be persuaded to their side. It sounds so simple, but it’s so difficult to do: just to appreciate and understand another person’s experience and point of view.”
‘JUDGMENT IS THE ENEMY OF COURAGEOUS COMMUNICATION”
What is courage? Angela Noble-Grange shares definitions from Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelous with her MBA students; but she made this, from professor and author Brene Brown, part of the class syllabus:
“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor — the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.'”
It sounds like — and Noble-Grange hopes it is — a class that will have an impact on people many years after they leave the Johnson MBA program.
“I’m so incredibly excited,” she says. “So many people recognize the difficulty for everyone. Not just our students, but everyone, including me. So somebody who has a different political opinion from me and I can’t be a hypocrite. I tell the students, ‘This is incredibly difficult stuff.’ I had a situation yesterday at a board meeting where something really awful happened, somebody challenged somebody, somebody defended themselves instead of listening to the challenge and finding the truth. And they defended themselves which escalated the entire thing. And it didn’t have to be that way. And what I learned about myself in that moment as a communications professor was that I got frozen in judgment — and judgment is the enemy of a successful, courageous communication.”
See the next pages for a complete list of new courses at the top 25 MBA programs in the United States.