Self-Development 101

Maja Djikic, the director of the Rotman School's Self-Development Lab discusses the need for business practitioners to get in touch with their inner selves

Published: Apr 3, 2014 06:09:30 AM IST
Updated: Apr 1, 2014 12:23:21 PM IST
Self-Development 101
Maja Djikic, the director of the Rotman School’s self-Development Lab

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.

Q. Do you envision the skills acquired in the Self Development Lab as impacting the workplace of the future? If so, how?
I do. As companies anticipate the new crop of MBAs coming out, I don’t think they expect schools to be training for these types of skills. I’m hoping that business education will evolve so that in addition to specialty areas like finance and strategy, a new set of skills is embraced: things like self-awareness, self-understanding, the ability to interact, to resolve conflicts, and the ability to effectively and impressively present solutions to clients.

Q. How have smart phones and the resulting decrease in face-to-face communication affected your work?
The media is really starting to insulate people more and take away opportunities to develop these abilities.  It is so important for students to develop better interpersonal skills. Things like cognitive empathy, so that when I’m sitting with you, I can pick up from your facial expressions or your body language how much you’re interested in what I’m talking about. Am I boring you? Is this too much? If you’re not very good at this, you’re not going to have productive conversations, and you will likely withdraw from personal interactions.  But if we can help you improve a little bit, you might actually drop that BlackBerry and go talk to somebody, because the pleasure you get from the interpersonal connection will be reinforced.

Q. Does this philosophy of self development go against the ‘typical MBA’, who has been trained to focus on the bottom line?
I don’t think so. Before I started working with MBA students, I held the same stereotypes; so much so that I actually wasn’t sure whether anybody would be interested in something like this. My thought was, “Fine, let’s try this. But really, will people be interested? Will businesses be interested?” Actually, I found that there was a remarkable level of interest. People understood that no matter how competent they are academically and technically, that unless they can communicate that competence and technical expertise and maintain relationships out there in the real world, it will be very difficult for them.

It’s easy to have a stereotype of business where the bottom line is all that matters. But today’s MBAs are not just a bunch of people who are trying to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible. Many of them are seeking work that is extremely challenging, where they’re trying to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.  They need all the help they can get.


Maja Djikic, PhD, is a Senior Research Associate and director of the Self-Development Lab at the Rotman School of Management. She has been a post-doctoral fellow at the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking at Rotman and in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. Her research has been published in Journal of Research in Personality, Psychological Science, Creativity Research Journal, New Ideas in Psychology, Journal of Adult Development, amongst others.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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