Soapbox

May 4, 2014 11:30 pm

Arrogant MBA students are products of role modelling

The world, and business, has changed and outspoken Type-A personalities are no longer appropriate

I have read the following criticism about business school students and recent graduates many times: “They are arrogant.” One executive even complained that some graduates of the best schools “are so full of themselves that they can hardly walk straight”.

Are MBAs really arrogant? If so, why are they, does it matter and if so what should we do about it?

What do people mean when they say “arrogant”? Are they saying that business school students are opinionated and rather self-assured? If so, then the shoe probably fits.

Ultimately business people have to make decisions. And that is how the reward systems work: defend your point of view, act on it and show results, the faster the better, because time is money. No surprise, then, that western business schools have trained their students to converge on strong opinions and demonstrate reductionist behaviour.

So, who is to blame them when our next generation of young leaders practise this in class, in interviews and in their first jobs? Are they not just imitating what they see as the winning model out there? Have they not been told that a strong voice that can “cut to the chase” is a key ingredient for making it up the ladder? Is it not the case that society has emphasised and elevated outspoken Type-A personalities and celebrates “heroes” with strong, charismatic and overbearing personalities? No wonder then that business school students, who observed this growing up, now think that is the best way to carry on.

But the world has changed. There are now a myriad intertwined financial, economic and social systems that cause complex problems on regional and global scales. Value chains have evolved to value webs with diverse sets of non-traditional economic actors, including political and environmental activists, high net-worth individuals, foundations, social enterprises, sovereign wealth funds etc. Societies’ needs and the approaches taken by the businesses that seek to address them have become difficult to anticipate, analyse and master.

It has become much more difficult to judge quickly and accurately, we can no longer rely on linear logic and reductionist thinking. In an era where complex problems and diverse stakeholders collide with a focus on profit, behaviour that signals dominance and superiority – arrogance – is now much less helpful. In fact it generates negative equity.

Diagnosing problems and arriving at solutions now requires a more iterative and collaborative process. Business leaders need to be driven by humility, respect and sensitivity to cultural narratives in the face of the unknown in those systems if they want to continue to create and sell robust solutions for society’s problems. They need to integrate many divergent perspectives and value propositions by engaging people with greater socio-emotional awareness and sensitivity. “Soft skills” such as diplomacy, co-creativity, patience and humility are becoming key in the evolving business landscape.

However, that is a fundamentally different leadership style and one for which today’s MBAs are – by and large – not being prepared. A “rethink” on leadership training in business schools is needed.

How can business schools teach these competencies to competitive Type-A overachievers that have been conditioned toward business life as one big zero-sum ranking? A change of approach is needed. Firstly, business schools need to let go of the teaching paradigm of the 1980s and 1990s. Recruitment must also change and schools should admit students who demonstrate the potential to master softer engagement competencies alongside intellectual ones.

Students need to be provided with tools to help them self-reflect, practise new thinking and patterns of behaviour and improve in measurable ways.

Business schools must create near real-world experiences for students using simulations and labs that demonstrate that humility and other soft engagement competencies complement intellectual skills and will yield better results.

As for the harder intellectual skills, changes are needed there too: business schools must teach the art of taking the longer view, navigating through systems, thinking across disciplines, innovating openly, combining analytical with liberal arts lenses and developing participatory business models. Students need to learn how to develop points-of-view on systems, coming at them from multiple-discipline angles, and exercising “surround sensitivity”.

With a combination of these new soft and hard skills, MBA arrogance could become a thing of the past and students be able to attack wickedly complex problems with much more self-reflection, social, cultural and psychological awareness, global 360-degree vision and curiosity about the unknown.

So, we should all remember that business students are the product of our pedagogy and role modelling. If the world is changing and we want students to be humbler, business schools might have to drop their hubris too and change first.

The author is global professor of management, strategy, innovation and economics at Hult International Business School.

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