Q. What was the genesis of the Self Development Lab?
I was working on my post-doctoral fellowship at the Centre for Integrative Thinking at the Rotman School, under the supervision of Associate Dean Mihnea Moldoveanu. Mihnea had this vision of providing Rotman students with a place where they could develop interpersonal and interactive skills, and the self-awareness that comes along with those skills. Most people now recognize that ‘soft skills’ are important, but they tend to believe you should develop them on your own time, or maybe through a quick half-day workshop on presentation skills. We approach it with a lot more intellectual rigour, because we understand how difficult it is to change patterns of behaviour in people.
At the moment, this course is voluntary. From extensive research, we know that self-development is one of those things that you cannot demand of people. A person can only be successful at it if they perceive the need to develop in this area. I imagine that a lot of schools try some version of this, but unfortunately, many just teach tips and tricks to make students appear more ‘polished’; they don’t really focus on personality development, as we do. I imagine that some business people would be slightly wary of what we’re doing, but I’m hoping that as we move forward, the value will be evident as our students move into the workplace. Since we piloted the Lab two years ago, the demand for it has continually expanded.
Q. You mentioned ‘personality development’, which is one of the things you focus on in the Lab. How do you define it?
Personality, by definition, is ‘the stable way in which people interact with themselves and with others’. It includes the way you make eye contact, the way you shake a person’s hand and the kind of impression you leave through your sheer presence. By studying personality development, we have discovered the processes through which personality changes, and what changes end up bringing positive or negative results.
At the root of our work in the Lab is a belief that people can engage in a set of feedback-intensive activities that will help them improve on what has always been a stable aspect of their functioning in the world. We don’t just tell students, ‘This is what you should do.’ Instead, we try to build psychological understanding, so that they understand how the mind works and how their ‘self’ is structured. We want them to understand that, ‘If you do X, Y and Z, the outcome is likely to look like this’. By the end of their first year, students have a better understanding of who they are; they have more self-awareness. We’re offering them the tools and the feedback necessary so that they can make changes within themselves that make them more effective in the world.
Q. Your course syllabus also talks about “re-engineering patterns of expressive, communicative and interactive skills.” Please explain.
When our students come to us and say, “I procrastinate all the time,” “I can’t focus,” or “Whenever I interact with people, I try too hard and they end up not liking me,” these statements indicate patterns of behaviour. The first thing we tell them is that it is possible to change these patterns. In plain language, what we’re offering them is an understanding of their behaviour and the skills they need to change some patterns that are impeding their optimal effectiveness, both at school and out in the real world.
To me, this is a very inspiring concept—the idea that yes, they will do better in the workplace, but they might actually do better in their personal lives, as well. Twenty years from now, they might use some of these skills to improve their life in various ways. That is what makes this initiative doubly important to me.
Q. What are some examples of the process students go through to get a better sense of their own personality?
One of our modules focuses on giving presentations. Often, when students make presentations to a group, they are so concerned with their performance that they forget that the reason they are in front of the group is to help them understand something or propose some sort of solution to them. We have the students videotaped and then review the video in a session with a very small group, and a series of behaviours often emerges: many students are very self-conscious; they move around a lot because they’re nervous and they project an energy that leaves an impression that they are more concerned with themselves than with the content they are delivering. Sometimes, inadvertently, they give off the impression that they’re not competent, even though they are; and other times, students respond to probing from the audience in unproductive ways. A variety of behaviours emerges that can be very counter-productive.
Together, we outline some of the vulnerabilities we see that are impeding their knowledge being transferred to their audience.
Job interviews are another scenario we work on. Sometimes students walk into interviews and they don’t understand what kind of impression they’re leaving. The fact is, even before you say anything, you can create a strong negative impression. As a facilitator of these sessions, it’s important to recognize that each individual might be fidgeting for very different reasons, and that needs to be explored individually. This is why the psychological education aspect of the Lab is so important. They need to actually sort out--sometimes by themselves and sometimes with our help—why they are uncomfortable and what are the best ways to overcome it. We take a highly individual approach.
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]