MBA Student Stereotypes ‘Entirely Accurate’: Latham Motivates with Social Science Research

Part of Gary Latham’s job is to teach MBA students to appreciate and value social science research. Latham, of the University of Toronto, discussed his experience at the annual meeting of the Western Psychological Association.

Latham has learned to be creative in teaching his students about research. He has turned to Lewin’s famous dictum, “No research without action, no action without research,” to develop a way to instruct MBA students about research. His methods work; by the time his students graduate, they are true believers in the power of social science research.

The key to Latham’s success lies in involving his students in research that is directly applicable to their lives. Latham described some research scenarios he has used to successfully involve his MBA students in research. The first example involved the use of situational interviews to select students for their study groups. MBA students are required to work in study groups throughout the duration of their program. As a result, the personalities, motivation, and aptitude of their fellow students directly affects them. Latham took this opportunity to introduce students to situational interviews and the research underlying them. Situational interviews dispose of the standard interview questions.

Instead, the interviewer poses a hypothetical dilemma to the candidate and asks how he or she would respond in such a situation. For example, imagine that you are holding a winning lottery ticket in your left hand and helping your elderly mother across the street with your right hand, when a gust of wind blows the ticket from your hand. What do you do? Do you forget about the ticket? Do you drop your mother to chase down the ticket? Do you run after the ticket, dragging your mother behind you?

Such questions are designed to reveal key aspects of candidates’ personalities. Good situational interview questions must tap into personality characteristics that are important to the interviewer but must not be transparent enough for candidates to be able to guess the “right” answer. In fact, good situational interview questions don’t have one right answer. The answer an interviewer values is based on the values of the hiring organization; a company that values team players may want candidates who would sacrifice the lottery winnings for the mother, but a company looking for independent, performance-oriented individuals may not be interested in such candidates.

MBA students have a vested interest in developing good job interview techniques because these techniques will in part determine with whom they will be working in the future. To demonstrate the importance of research, Latham challenged students to develop a situational interview that could predict which candidates would make the best team players. The interview questions were given to students whose team playing abilities were then rated by their study group partners.

The process of developing interview questions was interesting for the students, but not nearly as interesting as the results. Students were on edge waiting for the data to be collected and analyzed. The results were surprising. Some questions that had appeared to be good were of no predictive value, whereas other questions were highly predictive, some exceeding .80 in reliability. After learning of these results, students had a deeper appreciation for how research could inform and validate interview techniques.

A second example involved determining whether learning or performance goals lead to higher satisfaction in the MBA program, a topic that is relevant to these performance-motivated students. In addition to their immediate personal interest, MBA students are interested in learning what kind of goal-setting they can use to enhance performance and satisfaction in themselves, as well as future clients and employees.

Learning goals are those which emphasize the process of learning and the incremental accumulation of skills and knowledge. A learning goal might be to learn a specific skill. Performance goals are those which focus on the end product, or in this context, grades. A group of MBA students were split into three groups; one group was coached in setting learning goals, one group was coached in setting performance goals, and one group was given no goal instruction but told to “try their best”. Satisfaction with the MBA program was measured throughout the semester. At the end of the semester, the results revealed that the type of goal that contributed most to satisfaction varied through the semester. Early in the semester, when course work was new and especially challenging, students with learning goals were the most satisfied with their progress. However, as the semester progressed, learning goals became less effective, and by the end of the semester, the students with performance goals reported the highest levels of satisfaction with the program.

These experiences have reaffirmed Latham’s faith that research and action must go hand in hand. No action without research; every meaningful action you take should be supported by research – if there is no research to inform the action, you should conduct that research. No research without action; if there is no conceivable application for your research, why are you doing it?

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