When you go to get your MBA, you expect to read about finance, organizational psychology, and human motivation. Chekhov and Hemingway? Not so much. But recently, a pair of business school professors decided to mix a few fiction titles into their classes, reporting the results on Harvard Business Publishing. They were, in short, pretty amazing.
The science of fiction.
First, what prompted Christine Seifert of Westminster College, and Russell Clayton of the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida, to assign short stories by Herman Melville, Ira Sher, and Yu Hua to their students? Both professors note that the most in-demand skills for our high-tech future will be things no robot can master: empathy, creativity, flexibility, and resilience.
But while these skills are essential, they're less straightforward to teach than accounting or statistics. Research suggests fiction is one way to go about it.
"Several recent studies have identified reading fiction as strongly correlated with higher levels of emotional intelligence, including empathy, understanding of others, and deep thinking. In the workplace, facilitator-led discussion groups about fiction can help strengthen organizations and increase individuals' psychological safety," they write.
Armed with this research, as well as other studies showing that the type of deep reading we do when we engage fully with fiction strengthens critical thinking and focus, the pair assigned their students to read short stories and discuss their responses.
Empathy, ethics, leadership.
How did this unorthodox assignment go over? The professors claim to have noticed a trio of benefits. Classroom discussions, they note, turned into thoughtful debates about the intentions of various characters, as well as similar experiences the students had experienced in their own lives.
"Lengthy discussions of what each student would do if they were in the lawyer's shoes" in Melville's classic "Bartleby, the Scrivener" were "a clear sign that students were practicing empathy," they write.
The students didn't just tune up their ability to understand what it's like to walk in other people's shoes. They also dug deeply into themes of responsibility and ethics. The students "frequently used the stories as a jumping-off point to ask bigger questions about morality," the professors report.
Finally, reading fiction pushed students to reflect on the responsibilities of leadership, discussing in detail how leaders in the stories behaved and alternate ways they might have handled challenges.
In short, the classroom discussion moved away from the technical aspects of building a business toward questions of why we do the things we do, the impact of our actions on other people, and our responsibilities to both our fellow humans and society at large. Those aren't the easiest topics to shoehorn into a hard-nosed business class, but they are essential questions for budding leaders who want to make a positive impact on the world.
Fiction: Business leaders' secret weapon.
All of which suggests that adding a sprinkling of the arts to MBA curriculums might be a good idea. It also suggests that individual leaders looking to up their EQ, and engage with thorny questions of mutual responsibility and leadership, might want to follow in the footsteps of notable fiction fans like Barack Obama, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk and mix a few more novels into their reading diet.
You could even, the authors suggest, citing a previous work by Seifert, consider organizing a book club at your office and digging into some fiction titles as a team. Reading these stories isn't just a fun pastime. Fiction exercises both our intellect and our empathy in ways that make us not just better humans, but likely better business people, too.