Classified: Learning about Interpersonal Style in Cameron Anderson’s Power and Politics Class

Imagine you and three colleagues have to choose the next CFO of your company—and each likes a different candidate. How does the group reach an agreement on the best person for the job?

To some extent, it's not so much the candidates' qualifications that matter but the interpersonal style of you and your colleagues making a case for each of them. That's the lesson that MBA students learned firsthand in an exercise last week in their Power and Politics course taught by Professor Cameron Anderson.

"There's always at least one big surprise," Anderson told students Thursday as they debriefed on the exercise, which was held two days earlier in the new Berkeley-Haas Innovation Lab.

On Tuesday, students were divided into groups of three and four each and charged with recommending a chief financial officer to the CEO of a fictional moderate-sized publicly traded tech company. Each student had to persuade the rest of the group to choose his or her candidate, and the groups had 30 minutes to reach a consensus on their top picks.

After the exercise, students rated their own and each others' performances based on five characteristics of interpersonal style: strength (assertiveness), credibility, trustworthiness, likeability, and openness to others' input. The exercise was videotaped so students could watch themselves later to better understand their scores.

The surprises often came from the gap between how students rated themselves and how they were rated by others.

"I try to be likeable and get along with people, make situations less tense, or make people laugh," says Skyler Soto, MBA 14. But "as I watched the video, the one thing that struck me is that sometimes that approach hindered me from being truly assertive."

Soto's other takeaway: being more open and honest than required can hurt credibility. "My classmates ranked me lower because I admitted what I didn't know and then they felt what I said wasn't as credible," she says. "It's important for me to keep in mind that what I think I'm sending out as a signal that I'm being honest, credible, and open can instead be interpreted as a weaker position."

But the reason Soto found the exercise so helpful, she says, was because it gave her the freedom to try new tactics in a safe environment with classmates.

"Halfway through the video I kind of flipped the switch and tried to be more assertive," she says. "I just went for it, and I wouldn't have done that in a professional setting."

Soto's candidate was ultimately picked second by her team. Ten percent of the teams, meanwhile, were unable to agree on a top candidate at all. In executive education classes, where Anderson first began teaching the exercise, 30 percent of teams typically reach an impasse, Anderson says. "They wouldn't budge."

Students in Power & Politics Class

Students debate job candidates for a fictional tech company in an exercise on interpersonal style in Prof. Cameron Anderson's Power and Politics course.

Prof. Cameron Anderson