Building soft skills through applied practice

September 17, 2018

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Michael NortonMichael I. Norton, Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration, uses experiential exercises to help students build strong foundations for collaborative work. In the FIELD Foundations course, students practice and refine their self-awareness, social awareness, and team effectiveness through activities such as identity mapping and the marshmallow challenge.

The benefits: The activities provide low-stakes, experimental ways for students to practice more effective communication with colleagues and clients during the subsequent immersive spring module, broadly in all coursework at Harvard Business School (HBS), and in their careers. “It’s like a simulation of the world, but it’s easier for students to experiment because they’re not going to get fired.”

The challenges: Most skills, such as giving and receiving feedback, can’t be mastered in a semester or a year, and the benefits are not always immediately clear to MBA students intending to develop specialized expertise. Norton also finds that many students are more likely to see the relevance later in their careers.


Takeaways and best practices:

  • Build trust with and among students. The sections experience lays the groundwork by assigning first-year MBAs to a cohort where they share cases, classrooms, and a dedicated team of faculty which enables students to practice team-building skills and shape section norms. “The idea is that it’s a safer place to try new things with a professor you know. Last year my students referred to me as their ‘homeroom teacher.’”
  • Enact simulations that emulate real-world dynamics. Another example of the aforementioned experiential prompts is one that Norton credits to psychologist, Nicholas Epley. In it, students are instructed to place a card on their heads facing outward (so they can’t see it) that contains a number between one and ten, then pair up with the highest number they can find within five minutes and without mentioning numbers at all. “Even with 90 students, they’re paired within three minutes and like numbers are generally paired together—nines with other nines or tens, ones with other ones or twos.” Norton then facilitates a debrief discussion which uncovers how students felt during the activity (ones and twos have a terrible experience while nines and tens enjoy it) and connects to themes around inclusivity and prejudice.
  • Model continued practice through after-class reflections. Contrary to the usual case teaching approach, students read cases and perform activities in the moment, rather than doing extensive preparation before class because, as Norton explains, “you often face the unexpected and have to deal with it.” Instead, he requires students to reflect on each activity and articulate what they learned and what they might do differently.

Bottom line: While the majority of the soft skills practiced by MBA students can take a lifetime to master, Norton says, “starting the habits now is the goal.”