The Importance of Soft Skills: MBA Programs Push Emotional Intelligence Courses

Soft skills such as empathy, building trust and influencing people are just as valuable to MBAs as calculating valuations and debt to asset ratios

Business schools are asking MBA students to get in touch with their emotions, putting students through courses that can make them cry but which are apparently coveted by corporate recruiters. 

Stanford Graduate School of Business, London Business School, the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, and others are among the elite institutions on a mission to help future business leaders build effective relationships and work through conflicts with colleagues.

For example, MBA students in MIT’s Sloan School of Management can pursue elective classes in “Power and Negotiation” and “Improvisational Leadership: In the Moment Leadership Skills,” both of which focus on the softer side of management. At the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, the MBA leadership development system aims to develop emotional intelligence throughout the entire degree, and produce leaders who can influence others. 

Andrea Corney, a management lecturer at Stanford GSB, says that soft skills such as empathy, building trust and influencing people are just as valuable to MBAs as calculating valuations and debt to asset ratios. “We consider management education in a more holistic manner,” she says, adding: “Businesses are hungry for people who can work with others [and] lead groups effectively.”

Indeed, the Financial Times’ 2018 Skills Gap survey found that employers wanted candidates who could work in a team, with a wide variety of people and build a network, as well as being able to problem solve and prioritize. 

Steve Misuraca, assistant dean of Duke Fuqua’s daytime MBA program, cites the popular anecdote used by employers called the “layover test”: would you be comfortable stranded with this candidate at an airport? 

He says hard skills are often the minimum requirement to land jobs, but it’s attributes like situational awareness and the ability to elevate the experiences of others that are the primary motivation for job offers. “Students who excel in these areas are the ones you want to be stranded with at the airport or a late night at work,” he says. “These students are the ones who get the most offers.” 

It is far easier to teach, measure and communicate technical ability — companies often narrow resumes down on GMAT scores, GPAs or school reputation, says Misuraca. So how do you teach soft skills? 

The Stanford MBA course that makes some students cry

Stanford’s popular “Interpersonal Dynamics” course has been running for decades. Better known to students by the nickname “Touchy Feely”, the course’s mission is to give MBAs the ability to learn and adapt to new people, roles, and organizational cultures. 

Students form into groups of 12 who interact with and learn about themselves for three to five hours weekly for 10 weeks, aided by Stanford staff. There are also brief lectures and a weekend retreat on which students receive honest feedback on how their behavior impacts people and what drives that behavior in a confidential space where “everyone is stretching themselves”, says Corney. 

One exercise asks students to rank their classmates on their power to influence others, so as to show them that their classmates may value their strengths and weaknesses differently than they do. 

Feedback from classmates is central to the course and many participants cry at some point, says Siqi Mou, a Stanford MBA from the class of 2016 who is the founder of HelloAva, which recommends what skincare products customers should buy using artificial and human intelligence. 

Many students share “dark secrets” on the course — the passing of relatives or the pain of divorce — which helps to “break down barriers” and build rapport among the group, says Mou. Many people think vulnerability is a weakness, but she believes it is a strength: “If we tell people why we feel certain ways, it opens up dialogue” and can resolve disputes and motivate employees. 

For instance, Mou has encouraged openness in her workplace, which has led to employees formulating new business ideas. One intern came up with a successful Mother’s Day marketing campaign: a social media influencer sharing beauty advice from their mother. 

Mou used to work in banking on the trading floor, which was “way too formal”. Her startup is more encouraging of innovation. “We want people at all levels of the business to share ideas because everyone is a potential user of the service,” she says. 

Students who take the Touchy Feely course are graded partly on their ability to try new behaviors, raise difficult issues, learn from feedback, help other participants learn and steward the group. 

Corney says the learning process can be uncomfortable. “This course doesn’t fit a model [students] are familiar with and they have to be willing to tolerate a good bit of discomfort,” as well as having some patience, she says.

But students often come out of the course realizing that they are more resilient than they had thought, Corney adds. “Real growth requires stepping outside our comfort zones. Being a leader often requires making hard decisions, taking in challenging information, and being with people in uncomfortable moments.” 

Encouraging students to get outside their comfort zones 

At Duke Fuqua in Durham in North Carolina, developing, practicing and elevating interpersonal dynamics is the “backbone” of the learning experience, says Misuraca. First-year MBA students are placed on six person “Consequential Leadership” teams to navigate the core curriculum, and to go to for support, honest feedback and inspiration, supported by a second-year mentor. 

On one course, “C-LEAD” teams come together to help build houses as part of a community service in the local area, as well as do team development exercises like outdoor climbing. 

“Throughout these interactions, Fuqua encourages students to look deeply into their own values and goals, get outside their comfort zone, share their authentic perspectives, get constructive feedback, and come together around common purpose,” says Misuraca. 

There are also two “management communication” courses, where students gain practical presentation and persuasion tools to prepare them for human interaction, adds Misuraca. 

“Our aim is to prepare you for a lifetime of leadership and personal and career development,” he says. “Finding an internship or full-time job is a significant part of this, but we are playing the long game.” 

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