Reaching In, Reaching Out
MBA Students Explore Spirituality,
Listening and Managing Conflict

A graduate business curriculum might seem like a fairly simple and straightforward proposition. Courses in marketing, finance and accounting provide the essential analytic tools, while management classes introduce leadership and workforce issues students will face during their careers.

But the business world is not a simple and straightforward place. Instead, it is a complex, ever-changing system that relies on stockholders, employees, consumers and executives who intersect in a dynamic workplace driven by one undeniable factor-people.

The ability to understand and communicate with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives is more important in today's business environment than it has ever been. Rapidly evolving technologies have fueled a global marketplace in which projects are outsourced to programmers in foreign countries, while the Internet has powered a revolution. Add to that an increasingly diverse global workforce and it's clear that communication is at a premium.

This spring, the Mendoza College of Business addressed the growing need for communication and understanding in the modern business environment by offering four innovative and unique courses geared toward a changing workplace.

With courses ranging from Listening and Responding to Managing Differences and Conflict, students are encouraged to look at themselves and how they communicate with and view others. "We see what we are conditioned to see," says Dean Carolyn Woo. "These courses address how we think about the world, our inherent biases, assumptions and the projections we make."

Listening and Responding

"Everyone wants to learn how to talk more," laughs Management Professor Sandra Collins discussing her course in how to be a better listener. Collins and Management Professor Jim O'Rourke, however, understand just how important listening is to being an effective person in the business world. The success of individuals, teams and corporations often hinges on how well members of an organization are able to take in and process what they hear.

Listening and responding to others in a meaningful way, according to O'Rourke and Collins, is something that nearly everyone has some difficulty with when it comes to interpersonal communication of all kinds. "These are learned skills," says O'Rourke. Collins's course uses several texts, which offer a theoretical foundation for the processes involved in listening. She then takes students through exercises in developing listening objectives, understanding personal barriers to listening and creating strategies to overcome those barriers. During the last week of the course, Collins has students apply their listening skills by learning how to play the game cribbage through the verbal instruction given by one of their classmates. Before long, students found themselves getting lost as they tried to follow directions and learn the game-demonstrating just how difficult and how important it is to be a good listener. "You can't lead unless you know how to follow," says O'Rourke.

Spirituality of Work

In 1998, Anne Koester made the difficult decision to abandon a promising and lucrative career in law to examine her own spirituality. While serving as the education director for Notre Dame's Center for Pastoral Liturgy, Koester created a new course, Spirituality of Work, at Notre Dame.

Concerned with the way in which modern business people compartmentalize their lives into work, leisure, family and religion, Koester designed the new MBA course to examine how students bring their spiritual beliefs to the workplace and create a more well rounded experience of their lives and careers. "Work and [individual spirituality] shape each other," Koester says. "Even if we can't see the relationship, it's there. It can't help but have an impact on us."

The course, offered for the first time in Spring 2002, took Koester's students through the history of spirituality and work, from Pre-Christian, Roman and Greek antiquity to Hebrew theology into the New Testament and the Second Vatican council which addressed issues like the dignity of work, workers' rights, justice in the workplace and fair wages.

From there, the class talked more specifically about its definition and understanding of spirituality. Final papers asked students to explore issues that had challenged them and explain how their spirituality might impact them as future business leaders.

The impact of spirituality in the workplace, according to Koester, can have a significant and important effect on relationships with co-workers and other business contacts. By bringing their own spiritual perspectives to the workplace in a conscious way, Koester says, MBA students will find themselves acting out of more than self-interest. "We need to build each other up," Koester says. "When we recognize and nurture the giftedness in other people, it makes a huge difference."

For Dean Carolyn Woo, the course takes on even more importance in the wake of Enron and other corporate scandals. "It's about taking risks and having courage," Woo says. "It's about how we handle situations and how we conduct ourselves."

Managing Differences and Conflict

"Demographics are our destiny," said Hearst Magazine President Cathleen Black, pointing out that 73% of the current U.S. population is white. By 2050, Black said, 50% of the U.S. population will be non-white. Diversity, she says, has moved beyond simply being an altruistic goal; it is the reality of our workplace and a tremendous asset in the creation of new ideas.

This, however, begs the question of how students and executives can best prepare themselves to succeed in a diverse workplace. The beginning, according to Black, is fairly simple. "Each of us needs to be more open with ourselves and with the world around us," Black said.

Black's comments about diversity are a pretty fair summation of the purposes behind Mendoza's Managing Differences and Conflict course and the accompanying lecture series at which she spoke in January. MBA students are entering a workplace that thrives on fostering ideas created by people and teams from all walks of life.

The reality of the marketplace, says Management Professor Jim O'Rourke, is that students will be working with people different from themselves and supervising workers that are both older and younger. The key to doing this, O'Rourke says, is to comprehend multiple worldviews.

"Human factors are among the more difficult and important issues that executives and young managers will face," O'Rourke says. "But, the more you understand them, the better off you are going to be."

In order to give students a multi-dimensional perspective on diversity, O'Rourke, Management Professor Renee Tynan and Accountancy Professor Ram Ramanan (Mendoza's Diversity Officer) put together a seven-part Managing Diversity and Conflict lecture series that touched on different aspects of the issue from several vantage points.

Advantica Restaurant Executive Vice-President Ray Hood-Phillips spoke about her experience as Advantica's Chief Diversity Officer. After Denny's restaurants battled charges of racism, she was able to transform the corporate culture considerably. Denny's is now rated one of the best companies for minorities to work for.

Other speakers in the class included New York attorney Joseph McLaughlin, who represented professional golfer Casey Martin before the Supreme Court. McLaughlin addressed society's response to disability. Babson College Management Professor Anne Donnellon discussed communication and conflict in groups and teams.

Other class sessions included a roundtable on faith and religious values headed by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh that called upon Notre Dame experts in Judaism, Islam and the Protestant Church. The students also heard from NBC News Correspondent Anne Thompson and from Juan Johnson, vice president and director of diversity strategies at Coca-Cola Corporation.

According to Professor Ramanan, the lectures introduce students to the benefits of dialogue around hard issues and the fact that there are rarely clear answers. "At the end of this," says Ramanan, "students can begin to appreciate the situation if they are able to listen and be a little more open-minded, reinforce commonalities and show sensitivity in respecting differences."

Professor Renee Tynan's Managing Differences and Conflict course offered a social psychology perspective on the modern workplace. In the wake of September 11th, students were more than willing to examine how they saw others and ways in which they could affect change in the business world.

"They saw how bad it could get," says Tynan of September 11's impact. "The students really wanted the tools to deal effectively with differences and conflict."

In discussing the Casey Martin case, Tynan found a typical workplace scenario being played out in the classroom. "Students either thought it was a good idea or a bad idea to let him use a cart," Tynan says. "But they didn't know how to resolve the issue."

Working with issue-based theory and case studies, Tynan hoped to show students that regardless of personal opinion, they need to understand and respect the varying perspectives brought to the table.

In order to deepen this understanding and personalize it, Tynan had students examine their own leadership styles. They did a significant amount of what she calls unstructured introspection. Tynan asked them to examine their "personal triggers" and what they can do to "make themselves more effective around these issues."

By going beyond theory and case studies, Tynan exposed students to the reality that they will be facing issues with no clear-cut answers or easily-applied formulas. The issues, Tynan says, go beyond racial or gender-based differences and involve how we can best respect and work with those that come from a different perspective. "It's not a course on race," Tynan says. "There is a fair amount of research that shows real problems on teams that are diverse in respect to things like age."

By looking at themselves and determining how they can be more open to varying cultures and viewpoints, Tynan believes that students can prepare to be a positive force in an ever-changing world.

"I don't know what kind of differences they are going to be dealing with 20 to 40 years from now," Tynan says. "But if each of the students can work a little more effectively and deal with conflicts in the workplace just a few times each, that represents a big impact on the world."

 

More Than 75 New Courses

The four MBA courses described in this article are just a few of the innovative new courses added this past year. Over the past five years, the College's faculty has created 75 new courses-50 in the MBA program and 25 new undergraduate courses. Several new executive programs have also been added in the past year alone.

"These new courses reflect the faculty's dedication and commitment to providing the best education for our students," said Dean Woo. "To their research, creativity and organization, the Mendoza faculty bring a spirit of innovation and a willingness to explore topics in a new way."