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When Martina Valkovicova became an assistant dean at Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Canada five years ago, she believed its careers service needed to expand its mandate radically to reflect the changing demands of recruiters.

“We can’t just be a centre that posts jobs and checks résumés,” she says. “When you look at the skills that are important to employers, it’s about team-building, influence and negotiations, which are all connected to emotional intelligence and social skills. We have transformed into a personal and professional development centre.”

Her vision mirrors growing demand in organisations for managers who can lead with empathy to motivate employees, promote wellbeing and, in the process, boost productivity. Such concerns have come into fresh focus with calls for greater diversity in the workforce and the stresses of remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Coronavirus has made ever more relevant the fact that ‘command and control’ is not a style of management that gets productivity up or reduces sickness,” says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School in the UK. “If you are not socially sensitive, you won’t recognise when someone is not coping; you won’t be able to motivate, to build teams, to have creativity.”

Mental health costs employers vast sums in support and workplace absences. A still larger number of employees are demotivated by poor management practices, including bullying, and a lack of autonomy, trust and motivation in the absence of values or a sense of purpose at work. That in turn increases presenteeism and impairs performance.

Yet many researchers and practitioners say business schools have a poorly developed approach to fostering more enlightened management skills, despite their role in training the next generation of leaders. That risks undermining students’ appeal to future recruiters as well as perpetuating poorer performance and preventable ill health at work.

Wider mandate: Martina Valkovicova says Sauder has been transformed into a ‘personal and professional development centre’ © Copyright Martin Dee.All Rights Reserved

“What has long struck me about business schools is that historically they have focused on the ‘harder science’ of business and not enough on the behavioural and human side,” says Peter Cheese, chief executive of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. “We need them to produce well-rounded business managers and future leaders with a good appreciation of all sides of business, and the development of their own personal behavioural skills.”

Martyn Newman, chairman of RocheMartin, a consultancy specialising in emotional intelligence, agrees the onus is on the institutions. “Business schools are under incredible pressure to ensure graduates come out not only with intellectual and business acumen but are eminently employable,” he says. “Employers want to develop an effective culture to tackle diversity and inclusion. Empathy is critical. You need to have these emotional skills to deliver.”

Newman’s organisation, which advises business schools, including Sauder, has developed an “emotional capital” report to assess individuals’ personalities and attitudes. Newman says traits such as empathy can be taught — something Sauder provides for undergraduates and MBA students through testing, courses and coaching.

The terminology may vary, but the idea of nurturing social and emotional skills is gaining momentum in business education. Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, for example, has signed a deal with US wellbeing consultancy Thrive Global to support student and executive education that aims to reduce stress, anxiety and burnout and improve wellbeing in the workplace.

“Young managers are more able to deal with difficult situations and take care of their own and their team’s health when they develop leadership capabilities such as empathy, emotional intelligence, opportunities for coaching and connection to societal mores in parallel with conventional business skills,” says Professor Patrick Butler, director of Monash’s global executive MBA.

At the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in the US, professor of behavioural science Nick Epley teaches a course called “Designing a Good Life”, aimed at creating ethical, sustainable organisations. “Our goal in both our research and our teaching is to help people understand each other better, and hence be better at leading and managing others,” he says.

Mary Gentile teaches ethical, empathetic leadership through her “Giving Voice to Values” curriculum as professor of practice at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in the US. “One of the major sources of depression, frustration and stress in the workplace is when our own values are out of alignment with what we think is expected of us,” she says.

Prof Cooper at Manchester says: “what is really important is to make learning experiential rather than cognitive”. Rather than classroom lectures, students need to take part in team projects, with feedback from trained observers “telling them how they behave and the impact they have on them”.

“To manage people well, one needs empathy and emotional intelligence to take each person and situation as appropriate,” says Kai Peters, pro-vice-chancellor of the faculty of business and law at the UK’s Coventry University and former chief executive of Ashridge Business School. “To accomplish this, teaching tends to come from people with psychology backgrounds.” But he concedes that younger students “are still trying to achieve some level of competence with the hard skills. The idea of managing people really is ‘future music’ if you are trying to find your first job. It doesn’t seem real.”

Nic Beech, vice-chancellor at Middlesex University in London, is keen to integrate such issues into his courses, but concedes the process is also not easy for faculty. “While ethically a lot of people in business schools believe in it, pragmatically most are constrained by the pressure of work and a very long list of other topics to be dealt with, so this really complex area can end up as an elective.”

For Prof Beech and others in the field, business schools will need to do as much as their students to overhaul their curricula and meet the workplace’s changing demands.

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