Haas MBA Students Tackle Difficult Workplace Conversations
Cool course alert at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business!
Even brilliant, über-accomplished people can have a common Achilles heel: avoiding conflict whenever possible. This fall, UC Berkeley Haas MBA students enrolled in the new course, Difficult Conversations: Conflict Lab, where they learned how to make unpleasant workplace conversations a little less uncomfortable. In it, they role-played dreaded work situations, such as delivering a poor performance review, providing a critical work project assessment, or firing an employee.
Instructors Bree Jenkins and Francesca LeBaron, who met in their first year at Haas, created the new course together. After graduation, LeBaron went to work as an executive coach and mediator for startups at UC Berkeley’s accelerator SkyDeck. Meanwhile, Jenkins runs leadership training courses as a senior leadership development associate at Pixar Animation Studios.
“I noticed themes and trends with what we were doing at work,” Jenkins said. “There was conflict avoidance and harm from conflict that’s not dealt with effectively. We talked to friends in other organizations, and we realized quickly that everyone is dealing with workplace conflict.”
For example, LeBaron recently coached former Haas classmate and startup founder Fahed Essa on how to fire someone. “Fahed is brilliant—has three masters degrees and has started three companies,” she said. “If he is still struggling with this, I bet many people are. I want Haasies to have this skill set that balances being compassionate with being honest and clear.”
Discomfort in Action
The class enrolled 32 MBA students—with a waitlist. Jenkins and LeBaron began the semester with a speed conflict session where students role-played a back-to-back series of conflicts to get a sense of the discomfort they would experience in the class. The exercise helped students assess if this experiential learning style was right for them.
In one session, alumna Kelly Deutermann, MBA ’17, confronted Mridul Agarwal, MBA ’23, about why he wanted to get off a project. Deutermann aggressively questioned Agarwal. “Do you want to be promoted? Do you want to be taken seriously? This is your chance.”
When Agarwal explained that “it might not be the best project for me at this time,” Deutermann responded with, “This project needs to happen. Do you just not want to work hard to do it?” In this role play, Agarwal had to balance his bandwidth and need for support with Deutermann’s demands for project management.
To track their progress throughout the class, students provide one another with feedback, write papers addressing their own conflict styles, and identify conflicts in the media and how they can be improved using lessons from the course framework.
“It’s really important that the students find ways to continue to practice this work after the class is complete,” Jenkins said. “They should have a clear understanding of where they are in their conflict journey and what they want to do to continue to grow.”
LeBaron stresses that the class isn’t about right or wrong or debating morality. “It’s about maintaining connection, even when we disagree with the person,” she said. “What is your objective? Is it to make this person feel heard, to problem solve, or to share your own needs? And how effective were you at achieving that objective?”
After the 10-week class ended, students who identified themselves as conflict-avoidant at the start of Conflict Lab said they were starting to work past it.
Daryl Pugh, MBA 23, an executive recruiter before he came to Haas, said he’s learning to be “comfortable with discomfort” and was already using what he learned in class to help a friend through the difficulty of laying off employees. “I tried to talk to her through having that conversation and processing other people’s feelings, understanding what was happening and her interpretation of what was happening. We had a couple of sessions.”
What Pugh said he found most surprising over the weeks was understanding how inaccurately he can interpret the actions of others. “We need to focus on not ascribing emotion to people that could be just wrong,” he said. “That’s how we are trained our whole lives, even in social settings, is to interpret other people’s feelings. The only way to know how a person is feeling is to ask. This class taught me how to get others to express their feelings, then I can move past my observations and interpretations to a new level of understanding.”
LeBaron and Jenkins plan to offer the class again in fall 2023.