New Course Teaches MBAs How To Deliver Bad News

New Course Teaches MBAs How To Deliver Bad News

Students at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School are learning a soft skill that’s difficult to master: the art of delivering bad news.

The course, titled “Difficult Conversations: Conflict Lab,” debuted this fall with 30 enrollees as the tech world is reeling from mass layoffs. Students in the course practice navigating office politics—from delivering a poor performance review to firing an employee.

“The frameworks help you calm down and reassess the situation and approach it very tactically,” Khalil Somani, who plans to go into human-resources strategy after graduation, tells The Wall Street Journal.


Much of the course is centered around role-playing exercises, where students practice conflict by playing both sides. In one exercise, students go through the exercise of laying off a “colleague.”

Instructors Francesca LeBaron and Breona (Bree) Jenkins said they developed the course after seeing many of their own colleagues, former classmates, and clients struggle with difficult workplace conversations, such as firing a teammate or delivering harsh feedback.

“I noticed themes and trends with what we were doing at work,” Jenkins says. “There was conflict avoidance and harm from conflict that’s not dealt with effectively. We talked to friends in other organizations and we realized quickly that everyone is dealing with workplace conflict.”

The instructors recruit Haas alumni for the role-playing exercises and have even brought in undergraduate students from Berkeley leadership classes to participate. Participants are given minimal preparation, typically only told the situation from their own perspective, and are expected to respond on the fly during exercises. After exercises, MBA students discuss each participants’ response and dissect the conflict session.

“The role playing was so useful—like when alumni talked to us as our managers,” Mariam Al-Rayes, a Class of 2023 MBA, says. “It was realistic and we applied what we learned in class first-hand.”

Given how popular the class has been—there’s already waitlist for this term’s course—LeBaron and Jenkins say they’re planning to offer the class again in Fall 2023.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, Berkeley Haas

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