Skip to main content
business education

Chase Lee, a Sauder School of Business student, found it so difficult to speak up in class that even trying to make bets to help him speak up didn’t work.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

When Chase Lee went to the Sauder School of Business to pursue marketing and business technology management studies, he was immediately overwhelmed by how outgoing his peers were and how confident they seemed. Shy to begin with, he froze in class, routinely "giving up on the 10-per-cent participation mark."

By third year, however, it became painfully apparent to Mr. Lee that he could no longer get by on the strength of written work alone.

He had landed in a course taught by marketing professor Darren Dahl, "who pushed and encouraged each and every one of his students to participate, speak up and think critically during class . . . he said he wanted to prepare all of us for the real world."

It takes more than book smarts to succeed in business, the students were told.

Intimidated, and with the participation mark worth 20 per cent in Dr. Dahl's course, "I even thought of switching to a different professor," says Mr. Lee, who is now 21 and in his final year in the commerce program at Sauder, affiliated with the University of British Columbia.

But instead of bailing, he made a conscious decision to change. Initially, Mr. Lee tried to motivate himself by betting money on whether he or a shy classmate would be the first to participate.

He made many failed attempts, "hand going halfway up and quickly down" again. At this point, losing wagers as well as marks, Mr. Lee approached Dr. Dahl for help in breaking the shyness barrier that was limiting his potential. Dr. Dahl, one of 10 Canadian professors to receive this year's 3M National Teaching Fellows Award for teaching excellence, suggested that Mr. Lee send him an e-mail in advance of classroom discussions on the subject areas he felt most knowledgeable about. In class, Dr. Dahl would glance in Mr. Lee's direction when posing questions. "If I felt like I was ready, I put up my hand and he picked me to answer. After a couple of times of this set-up participation, I gained confidence and felt more comfortable to participate any time with any question during class," Mr. Lee says.

Dr. Dahl, who teaches undergraduate, MBA and executive education courses, strives to help all his students develop the skills to make meaningful contributions.

"We do hear from the business community, our advisory boards, etcetera, that communication skills – and it is not just the shyness issue, but the ability to communicate, to talk to large groups, to get your point across – is an important skill in business," Dr. Dahl says.

"Business pushes the business schools in general to help develop the students' skills and talents in this way," says Dr. Dahl, who is also senior associate dean of faculty and research at the Sauder School of Business.

"That's not to say that every business person needs to be a Type A or an extrovert to be successful . . . . but communication skills are something that are prized . . . We do try to help students realize that's part of what they can add to their toolbox."

The importance of developing soft skills is being emphasized at many business schools. At the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, associate dean Mihnea Moldoveanu developed a comprehensive suite of self-development labs, including modules on presentation skills, communication skills, team work, conflict resolution and relating to others in "difficult interpersonal situations."

Dr. Dahl says he does not expect the quieter students, like Mr. Lee, to dominate the conversation, but he does expect them to speak up when they have something intelligent to say.

"The flip side is that sometimes helping people with their communications skills is helping them understand when they need to be quiet and listen. Communication isn't all about speaking, and speaking forcefully; it's also about knowing when you are rambling, when you are saying stuff . . . just to hear your own voice," says Dr. Dahl, who has also been nominated for the Economist Intelligence Unit's international business professor of the year award.

Communications issues are being addressed by professors in other business schools, as well, to better prepare their graduates for the workforce.

"I do see this in my classes," says Jennifer Berdahl, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto's Rotman School. "Some students are definitely more comfortable sharing their ideas and speaking up; the trick is to not let them totally dominate the class discussion. You have to create an environment on Day 1 of equal participation and encouragement, or else the introverts and more shy students may never speak up.

"Smaller group contexts in which they're successful in speaking their ideas and getting comfortable with their classmates can help, too."

When Rotman's Prof. Moldoveanu launched the optional, non-credit labs in the fall of 2011, he expected maybe 30 students to enlist. "Out of 265 students, 261 showed up. So the demand was staggering. It turns out that students are very well aware of this sort of [skills] gap."

At Sauder, first-year business students are required to take a credit course on presentation skills, and the career centre offers an array of additional workshops that students can take advantage of, Dr. Dahl says.

Mr. Lee, who has gained the confidence to participate in other classes and employer recruitment sessions, advises other students not to wait until third year to get help.

His shyness and performance anxiety, as it turns out, are far from unique – and more business schools are taking steps to pull the best out of their more introverted students.

For one of the self-development lab modules at Rotman, Prof. Moldoveanu has brought in a professionally-trained actress to coach the students on voice and movement.

"This is a seminar in which students learn to control their voice, because a lot of them are very nervous when they speak in public and forget what they want to say because they have to control their voice and their anxieties and their breathing," he says.

"Their body motion is very awkward, so she loosens all of this up."

At the end – "and this is maybe the first time in any business school – the students have to recite Shakespeare monologues," Prof. Moldoveanu says.

"We notice enormous improvement in terms of self-expression. . . . I have witnessed presentations from students for whom English is not their first language and they have delivered Shakespeare monologues at the end of their theatrical training that are simply riveting."