In one afternoon class of English Literature in a management college, a certain professor was trying to convince wannabe management graduates on how the study of literature might prepare them for executive success. The class was discussing Little Big Man, Thomas Berger’s 1964 parody. Narrated by an 11 year old, the novel talks of some gruesome confrontations between native tribes and white settlers in the 19th century. But the focus of the class discussion was not on the contents of the novel per se. The class rather focused on a failure of communication between the natives and the white settlers ultimately leading to violence.
Students realized through the discussion that situations like these are beneficial to one as it toughens individual will and exposes them to realize what is worth fighting for. The novel about characters in different professions made the students aware of the balance between their professional obligations, personal expectations, and goals, thereby preparing them for the future- making them better people.
The magic of realizing all this through literary pieces is sympathetic identification: the afterglow felt by readers absorbed in a narrative experience that can be imminently be related to his own. According to the old school of thought, management education emphasizes on students becoming target driven leaders who focus on the company’s bottom line first. This tradition leaves no space for empathetic listening and sentimental talk. Yet empathy and feelings are the cornerstones of the current management practices, which recommend empowering employees in workplace decisions. Models of command and control are out of fashion. Empathy, sensitivity, mindfulness, and relationship-building are in. This, at least, is the lesson students can take away from the TED talks, training programs, and leadership guides like The Empathy Factor in classrooms, which promise to “restore humanity to workplace” while “providing competitive advantages for personal, team, and business success.”
It is easy to understand therefore why business schools nowadays continue to insist on fiction as the perfect tool for teaching empathy in management classrooms. The imaginative excursions into the minds of others, the invitation to identify with others, the whole specter of make-believe—this emphasis on humanism helps breed better corporate leadership and thereby better work culture for the future.
Prof Anuradha Pandit