By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Jared Law-Penrose, assistant professor of business, sums up his teaching philosophy in one word: Curiosity.
It was curiosity that won him a Boren Scholarship as an undergraduate for a year-long study in Russia to investigate the way media exportation affected Russian college student perceptions of American culture.
It was curiosity that led him to a civilian position in the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Planning directorate of the Naval Supply Systems Command, where he began to examine issues between leadership and staff.
It was curiosity that led him to devote his career in research and instruction to these issues as they affect the workplace, as a scholar of human resources management.
And it is curiosity that he seeks to awaken in his students through a series of innovations, including a simulated leadership experience that obliges them to wade into the grey areas of working life, and manage the consequences of their decisions.
Implication is everything
True to his own path, Law-Penrose applies the principle of total curiosity to his own classroom.
“I want my students to leave my courses asking more questions than they had when they enrolled,” Law Penrose said. “I want my students to get curious about the answers they receive along the way and not be satisfied without pursuing the why behind the answers.”
Behind the answers, there are always more questions.
The ultimate goal of all this curiosity is an appreciation for ambiguity, and an ability to deal with it creatively, responsibly, and in the best interests of the organization.
In an environment that prizes clarity and transparency, ambiguity would appear to be a detriment rather than an asset. But in fact, ambiguity is like the dark matter of the business universe: it exists, it’s hard to pin down or utilize, and it might just make the whole thing work.
“Implication is everything,” Law-Penrose said.
In his research, Law-Penrose explores the link between leader behaviors, distance (physical and psychological), trust, uncertainty and creative employee performance. He examines the many ways in which leaders can behave differently depending on the amount of distance between them and their subordinates.
“Leader behaviors can result in trust between the employee and leader,” Law-Penrose said. “The greater the trust the employee has in the leader, the greater ambiguity a follower can tolerate.”
You can’t design ambiguity, but you can create trust, which is the foundation for acceptance of ambiguity. This acceptance has consequences for the culture, working environment, and ultimately success of the organization and the individuals who participate in it.
“When organizational leaders work to create an environment of trust with their employees, those employees can tolerate a higher level of ambiguity, which is a necessary condition for developing creative solutions to complex problems,” Law-Penrose said. “Companies that embrace this approach are more likely to generate unique and creative responses that allow the organization to move and grow in new directions.”
Coffee and curveballs
To teach trust, and to nurture a mindset that accepts and leverages ambiguity, Law-Penrose has created a simulation housed inside a make-believe business: FIKA Coffee Company.
Over the course of a semester, students embark on a complex role-playing exercise within the confines of this company. They are first divided into groups and assigned to assume the role of vice president of HR. Law-Penrose presents them with a scenario involving an uncomfortable workplace situation: An older male employee is hugging younger female coworkers and calling them his “girls.”
Law-Penrose emphasizes to the students that no complaints have been lodged, no allegations put forward. The students themselves must determine the next steps. Their choices determine what happens next.
“Regardless of the path they choose, there are variety of different paths that might open up,” Law-Penrose said.
For example, taking no action could expose the company to legal action, while firing an employee could create a staff shortage. What if the offending employee has skills that are mission-critical to the company? Implementing a training program sounds good, but not only involves additional time and labor, but raises questions about what sorts of issues to address, and how it might impact the company culture: If it is too lenient, it may not achieve its intended purpose, and those it is meant to protect may lose their faith in leadership’s credibility. Too stringent, and it can stifle the spontaneity that makes FIKA a successful company.
Each decision demands another. And nothing is by design.
“I throw increasingly challenging curveballs as they come up with their responses,” Law-Penrose said.
This structure can be difficult for the students, and for Law-Penrose as well.
“It requires me to be innovative not only with the initial scenario but especially with the potential responses that each group may receive,” Law-Penrose said. “It requires a high degree of innovation each semester to ensure that the subsequent scenarios relate back to the topics/modules that we cover in the course, including legal issues, staffing and selection, compensation, performance management, and more.”
This innovation prepares students to participate at the cutting edge of human resources management. HR managers are no longer mere administrators with the power to hire and fire. They are leadership professionals whose increasingly diversified skill set is considered vital to an organization’s ability to design its own success through discerning recruitment, sensitive professional development and the maximization of individual potential. It’s an all-encompassing brief. Organizations are after all not machines, but manifestations of common purpose, composed of complex living organisms, each with its own innate qualities and personal histories, all of which must somehow be persuaded to move in the same direction. Without a leadership team that is sensitive to all the dynamics at play, an organization cannot thrive. It is this sensitivity that Law-Penrose seeks to awaken.
No place for right answers
Many if not most students arrive at college having spent a dozen years chasing, and largely finding, the right answers to questions they have been asked.
Part of the purpose of higher education, Law-Penrose believes, is to disrupt that habit of mind.
Because the world is no place for right answers.
In Law-Penrose’s class, students learn that all decisions have consequences, and what matters is resilience in the face of the unexpected, not perfection.
“Even good decisions can lead to poor consequences, because we base our decisions on what we know at the time, and what we think will be best in the future,” Law-Penrose said. “It can be debilitating when the situations we expect to happen play out differently.”
Hence the need to overcome, to move past mistakes, to win ugly, to learn from failure.
This is why, in building decision points within FIKA Coffee, Law-Penrose starts not with a pre-determined set of criteria, but with what the group has previously submitted. In that way, he can continue to insert unexpected twists, and create a simulation that owes less to pedagogical theory and more to the messy realities that students will face in the world beyond the classroom.
“In HR one of the biggest challenges is thinking through a variety of different scenarios at once, making an educated decision in the face of some uncertainty, and allowing both the situation and response to evolve over time,” Law-Penrose said.
If he were seeking validation for his approach, Law-Penrose need look no further than 2020. Students can see the relevance of their coursework all around them.
“I hope they learn to think through the implications of their decisions and gain the confidence to thrive in an uncertain world,” Law-Penrose said.