A Feeling for Success

​Hillary Anger Elfenbein brings a scientific approach to social skills

“Let’s be honest,” says Hillary Anger Elfenbein, PhD, professor of organizational behavior at the Olin School of Business. “In the modern workforce, your technical skills might get you in the door, but your people skills are what get you promoted—and what make you valuable in a way that can’t be outsourced.” 
It’s Elfenbein’s mission to contribute to the successful careers and lives of her students by raising awareness around emotional intelligence and other interpersonal skills, which advance leadership and negotiation abilities.

Transdisciplinary and Interpersonal

“I’m a psychologist in the business school,” says Elfenbein. “I try to bring a scientific approach to what are often erroneously called ‘soft skills’—for example, social interaction, intuition, and communication. My students learn to use those skills not to manipulate others but to motivate them, whether in contract negotiations, professional advancement, or even family life.” Appropriately, Elfenbein takes a personal approach to such instruction. She challenges her pupils to discuss work life in the context of their own past experiences, feelings, and personal values in the safety of her classroom. In her negotiations course, after simulated deals, she returns to students’ own characteristics to discuss how they may or not have informed the process. Such exercises, she explains, illuminate that social skills are not “simply being a nice person,” but a vital set of core competencies that can be developed deliberately.
Elfenbein’s methods draw from an interdisciplinary foundation she built while a student and then researcher at Harvard University. There, she was trained as an experimental social psychologist in the psychology department while completing the department’s joint organizational behavior doctoral program with the business school (and earning a master’s degree in statistics, as she describes it, “in my spare time”). She joined the Washington University faculty in 2008, after five years on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was honored for earning exceptional student course ratings. At Washington University, Elfenbein has continued to resonate with students, offering courses whose waiting lists often outweigh their enrollment lists. “It’s been described as a ‘cult following,’” she laughs, “which feels great to hear.”
When students arrive in Elfenbein’s classroom intimidated by the prospect of negotiating, she encourages them to draw on their own sense of empathy and loyalty. “If someone says, ‘I just can’t do it. I’m not a born negotiator,’ I advise them to think of the people they care about who have a stake in the outcome,” she explains. “When you negotiate a higher salary, it’s not just for you, it’s for your family. When you negotiate a vendor contract, the outcome will affect the work lives of colleagues you rely on. You’re not comfortable getting the best deal for yourself or your own project? You feel like it’s selfish or mean? Then do it for them instead.”
In teaching students how to recapture the value they create for employers, Elfenbein references her own original research. She worked with colleagues from MIT to develop a new concept: subjective value in negotiation, which explores the worth of feeling satisfied. “Often the colleague who is chosen for a business partnership is the one who makes others feel good about themselves and their work—not necessarily the person who offers the highest tangible negotiation outcomes to their partners. I want my students to be prepared to reach a great deal for themselves while leaving their counterpart feeling good about it.”

Measures with Meaning

Last fall, the Academy of Management honored Elfenbein’s work in that area with its Most Influential Article Award of 2013, for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology piece defining subjective value in negotiation. In addition, she has received awards and honors from prestigious organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health. In 2011, in an effort to increase federal funding for American social, behavioral, and economic science research, she testified as an expert witness before the Congressional Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. She is an associate editor at Management Science, serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Applied Psychology, Emotion, and the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, and has shared her perspectives and research findings at universities and conferences around the world.
“It’s one thing to be recognized and valued among my peers, or to get a high number on a teaching evaluation,” she says, “but nothing feels quite like hearing from former students who share how my courses have touched their lives.” One recent alumna contacted her to report that she had negotiated a 17 percent pay raise for herself, and that the discussions actually improved her relationship with her supervisor. Another former student resolved a complicated wedding-related conflict with his future father-in-law. Both attributed these successes to what they’d learned from Elfenbein, and she’s received more than a hundred similar emails, phone calls, and visits. “Those outcomes, that impact,” she says, “that’s how I measure my own success.”

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