Top business schools are not warm, fuzzy places.
There is intense competition for grades and sharp elbows are used frequently. When I was a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia Business School, I needed an obscure academic article. The professor in one of my courses told us that there would be a question about it in an exam the following week. He had, helpfully, put the journal in which the article appeared on reserve in the library.
When I checked out the journal, I found that an unseen hand had neatly excised that article with a razor blade.
Most of my fellow professors loved their jobs but they all agreed that one of the distasteful aspects of it was dealing with students who thought they should get a better grade than they had received and were quite aggressive about it.
How can you grade students in a deeply introspective course like mine? Creativity and Personal Mastery requires a great deal of ‘inner work’ and external markers are not always present. Certainly there were some ‘objective’ metrics like were the assignments done and handed in on time, attendance and class participation and so on. But I did not feel that these were a sufficient basis to assign a grade.
Compounding the problem was the requirement that I ‘grade on a curve.’ So, in any given class I had to assign a set number of students a particular grade.
I discussed my dilemma with my class. I received dozens of emails to the effect “Professor Rao, I received so much value from your course that the grade is irrelevant. Please give me the lowest passing grade and feel free to assign the higher grades to whomever you need to.”
I also received emails like “Professor Rao I am in contention for XYZ award and a high grade would be helpful. If you do not feel that I have earned this, can I do extra work to justify it? In any case, please know that I accept whatever grade you assign me.”
Other faculty members found it difficult to reconcile my experience with theirs.
I was also puzzled by this and concluded that, because there was a stringent application process for Creativity and Personal Mastery, my students differed from the business school norm.
A more likely explanation came to me when I read “Give and Take” by my friend and Wharton Professor Adam Grant. By the way, if you have not read this book I strongly advise getting it right away.
Grant basically divides the general population into ‘Givers’ whose nature is to be helpful to others, ‘Takers’ who are ready to accept help but reluctant to give it and ‘Matchers’ who try to calibrate what they give to be proportionate to what they feel they received. If you want to rise to the top, it is helpful to be a ‘Giver’, but you have to give strategically and Grant has many useful pointers on this.
One of Grant’s findings gave me the most likely explanation for my experience. Grant discovered that if a company was able to create a ‘culture of giving’, then even people who would normally be ‘Takers’ became ‘Givers’ while in that culture.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, Creativity and Personal Mastery most certainly sets out to establish a culture of giving. And my students sensed it and reciprocated. And that is why my experience as a professor at top business schools did not include negative memories of grade haggling.
There is a lesson here for you. In whatever organization you are, what can you do to create a culture of giving?
You will improve organizational results. You will also enhance your experience of life.