Goodies from the Harvard Business Review in 2018: Corporate Culture, Emotional Intelligence, Bad Bosses, and More

With time on my hands over the holidays, I’ve finally been able to go through my emails from the Harvard Business Review, which I saved in a special folder during the past year.

Below, in reverse chronological order, are the finds I liked the best, based on their potential usefulness to bcomm students. (Note: Some of this material was for “subscribers only,” so I’ve provided publication information rather than links. But if you register for a free HBR online account, you can view eight articles per month as well as many features on the HBR website.)

  • “Cultivating Everyday Courage” (Nov.-Dec. 2018 issue). Standing up for oneself in the workplace is important, especially if inequality is involved. This article discusses how to create positive change by being “competently courageous.” It can help our students see that strategic communication problem-solving can help them successfully handle even the most risky-seeming conversations.
  • “What to Do When You Have a Bad Boss” (HBR blog, Sept. 7, 2018). As this article points out, bad bosses are common, and they create not only emotional but physical problems for their employees. One can try several coping strategies, however, before deciding that leaving the company is the only solution. This article could be part of a great little unit on getting along with one’s boss.
  • “Why Companies Should Add Class to Their Diversity Discussions” (HBR blog, Sept. 5, 2018). Referencing J. D. Vance’s widely read book Hillbilly Elegy, the authors discuss common biases faced by “class migrants”—aspiring workplace professionals who’ve had less privileged backgrounds than most of the people they want to work with. Along the way, they discuss problematic company practices—such as rejecting job applicants because they aren’t a good “culture fit”—that affect other minority groups as well.
  • “Boost Your Emotional Intelligence with These 3 Questions” (HBR blog, Aug. 16, 2018). Co-written by the inventor of the term and concept “emotional intelligence,” Daniel Goleman, this article can help students aspire to the kind of emotional intelligence that suits their values and goals. A link in the article takes you to a handy chart showing Goleman’s 12 EI competencies.
  • “Why Women Volunteer for More Tasks That Don’t Lead to Promotion” (HBR blog, July 16, 2018). This phenomenon has been well established. What do you think causes it? The authors conducted several experiments to test various hypotheses . . . and the results will probably surprise you and your students. This could be a great article to include when discussing collaboration or gender issues in the workplace.
  • “How to Give a Webinar Presentation” (HBR blog, June 11, 2018). The author discusses important tips for conducting a successful webinar. If your students have access to WebEx or similar software, having them conduct and record a webinar could be a great assignment, especially since webinars have become such a common medium in business.
  • “Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking” (HBR blog, Mar. 20, 2018). Researchers conducted an experiment to see if people’s smartphones were distracting even when they were turned face down and put on silent. Of course the answer was “yes”! Read the article to see why, and invite your students to do additional research on the influence of smartphones on performance.
  • “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture” (Jan.-Feb. 2018 issue). After defining corporate culture and stressing its influence on organizational success, this article describes eight types of cultures based on two factors: the organization’s attitude toward people and its attitude toward change. Students can practice analyzing corporate culture by reflecting on places where they’ve worked, businesses they know, and/or businesses that are in the news, and they can make connections between the type and size of the business and its cultural traits.

I like the Harvard Business Review the best of the general business periodicals because I think its topics relate the most to things our students need to know. I highly recommend registering for their free online content and sharing the goodies you’ll get in your in-box.

Taking Aim at Talky PPT Slides

I am actually a big fan of PowerPoint, though it has been misused and much abused. Especially when your goal is to give an informative presentation based on numerous facts, I think well-designed text-based slides are more helpful than slides that are heavy on visuals and light on words. (Still, check out this nice post by Dr. Heather Collins on the McGraw-Hill Education site. Her guidelines apply to whatever kind of show you’re building.)

But what are “well-designed text-based slides”? Certainly, the following example wouldn’t fall into this category:

Text-heavy slide

The slide comes from a talk by a team in my Writing for Business class. They did a super job of gathering their information, but they gave the visual dimension of their slides insufficient attention.  Also, they put all their points on their slides verbatim rather than using easy-to-digest bullet points fleshed out by smooth oral commentary.

I redesigned the slide to show the class how to turn it into a more visually appealing, readable slide. Here was the result:

Revised text slide

I know—it won’t win any design prizes. (If only I had Gail Cruise’s knack with visual design! If you’ve ever attended one of her presentations at an ABC meeting—which I did just last month—you know what I’m talking about!) But perhaps you can use these examples to help students see what you mean when you tell them to “add some visual interest” and say not to “put too much text on your slides.” They don’t have to be graphic designers to be able to create nice-looking informative slides.

My good buddy Paula Lentz just told me about PowerPoint’s “Design Ideas” feature, which pops up at the far right of your screen when you click “Design” on the main menu. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve seen some of her text-based slides that used this feature, and it really added a professional-looking visual touch.

What’s your relationship with PowerPoint? The opinions seem to be all over the place. We’d love to hear yours.

A Little Classroom Activity on the You-Viewpoint

It goes by various names in our bcomm textbooks: “you-viewpoint,” “you-attitude,” or even just “thinking about your reader.” But whatever you call it, it’s critical to successful business communication.

As a concept, the you-viewpoint seems easy enough to understand. But when it comes time to apply it to their writing, our students often falter. Examples can really help them see the difference between a text that focuses on the writer or writer’s company and one written from the you-viewpoint.

Below are two pairs of contrasting excerpts from business messages that illustrate the concept. My students found them useful, and I hope yours will, too.

Example 1: “Selling” a Rewards Program

The case behind this example asked students to play the role of a hotel’s customer-service representative and inform a customer that her request for a partial refund had been granted. The students were also required to use this message as an occasion to promote the Marriott Rewards program. Here are the “we-viewpoint” and “you-viewpoint” versions of the paragraph on the latter topic.


We would also like to invite you to join our Marriott Rewards program. The Marriott Reward program gives members complimentary internet access, early check-in and late check-out, points that can be used for free stays, and many other great perks.


When planning your future travels, consider taking advantage of our Marriott Rewards program. As a member of this program, you’ll receive complimentary wi-fi with every stay. Plus, you can check in online, check out late, earn free stays, and enjoy many other benefits. Just visit [link] to see how.

Example 2: Giving a Customer a Special Perk

The case behind this example asked students to represent an online car-parts business and inform a customer that the company would grant his request for free shipping (as well as a refund) on a return. The customer had ordered the wrong part because the part number on the website was incorrect. Here are the “we-viewpoint” and “you-viewpoint” versions of the paragraph that encourages him to order the correct part.


In addition to reimbursing you for the shipping of the incorrect part, we are also offering you a free two-day shipping coupon code for the Carquest Alternator – Remanufactured -130 amps that you originally requested. The coupon code is 2DAYSHIP.


You can now purchase the correct part at [link], and we would be happy to cover the shipping cost for this replacement order. Just enter the code 2DAYSHIP at checkout.

It can take a while to get the hang of imaging oneself in the reader’s shoes, but activities like this can help. Be sure to ask you students to point out specifically, in terms of wording and content, why one version has better you-viewpoint than the other. And if you’ve got the time, give them a chance to revise their messages to let the lesson sink in.

Trying to Get Real about Diversity in the BComm Classroom

School started today here at the University of Cincinnati, and if your academic year hasn’t started yet, I’m sure it will soon. What new topics or assignments will you be trying in your bcomm courses this year?

My major change will be to expand our discussion of cross-cultural communication to include communicating across different cultural groups right here in the US.  In our polarized and racially charged country, our students need, more than ever, to be prepared to work well with other Americans or US visitors who come from different backgrounds.

My Epiphany

Back in my hippie days, young people sang about the need to be “colorblind” and to ignore the color of other people’s skin. But having done a lot of reading about diversity and inclusion this summer, I came to realize, with some surprise, that that is not the view that diversity coaches promote nowadays. Such authors as Mary-Frances Winters (We Can’t Talk about That at Work!), Austin Channing Brown (I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness), and Tim Wise (Colorblind) point out that not acknowledging someone’s cultural heritage is actually a way of homogenizing everyone and thus promoting a “one-size-fits-all” attitude at odds with inclusion.

The Cross-Cultural Connection

I haven’t seen anyone in bcomm make this connection yet, but it seems to me that preparing students to understand their own cultural heritage and appreciate that of others is just as justified, and necessary, as teaching them to learn about other national cultures and avoid ethnocentrism. We are not all the same–but we still need to be able to work together civilly and productively, especially in environments where diversity is essential to solving business problems (as Scott E. Page discusses in The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy).

My Modest First Step

So, my unit on cross-cultural communication this time around will have student teams researching not only norms and practices in non-US cultures but also the cultural and communication styles of different groups in the US workplace. I’ll let them pick the groups they want to learn more about, whether white women, white men, Black women, Black men, Asian-Americans, Christians, Muslims, different groups of people with disabilities, homosexuals, transgender people . . . whoever they want to learn more about.

Is there a risk of stereotyping here? Yes, there is. So, when learning about and describing such groups, the students will need to be careful to note that they’re discussing general cultural traits, not necessarily the traits of any particular individuals (just as they need to do when discussing people from other countries).

The BComm Payoffs

I think activities that promote diversity awareness (not ones that just go through the motions–which, as the literature shows, can actually make matters worse) will help our students pay better attention to the dynamics in their workplaces, be stronger team members, and communicate more effectively. I expect raising their cultural awareness will also increase their sense of fair play and enable them to help change their organizations for the better.

There are bcomm teachers out there who are way ahead of me on this! Maybe you’re one of them–or maybe you’re not, and this post will get you thinking. Either way, let us know where you are on this issue, if you’re so inclined. It feels scary to me to finally be getting explicit about “difference,” but I’m going to push ahead. I welcome your insights and resources!




Making Exam Review Fun with an “Escape Room”

Recently, I was surfing Pinterest looking for a creative way to review for an exam, and I came up several pins for escape rooms. None of them were for exam reviews (or even for use with college students), but they did inspire the idea for using an escape room as an exam review in my beginning business writing course.

The primary goal of the exam review was to reinforce concepts from the textbook’s three chapters on business correspondence (routine, good-news, or neutral messages; bad-news messages; and persuasive messages). A secondary goal was to provide a punctuation review. Students worked in groups to complete the review.

Creating the Escape Room

The premise of an escape room, in general, is that participants work as a team to use logic, answer questions, or complete a puzzle to escape their room or situation, usually in a limited time frame. For example, a scenario might be that employees are locked in a conference room by a diabolical boss who plans to abscond with company secrets worth millions unless the team stops him. The team would then have 30 minutes to save the day by finding the clues in the room that lead to the security code that unlocks the conference room.

To adapt this activity for an academic purpose, I decided that, for each chapter, the groups would need to punctuate a set of sentences correctly to get a code that they would then use to unlock that chapter’s review. Upon completing all three chapter reviews, students could escape from the classroom. The time limit was the 50-minute class period.

Creating the Code

I used the punctuation exercises in our textbook to create three sets of exercises. I color coded each exercise so I could more easily monitor each group’s progress, but the color coding is probably not necessary in a small class. Students had to work together to punctuate each sentence correctly and use the number of punctuation marks to create the codes. Thus, if students punctuated the sentences correctly, the first set of questions and the resulting code looked like this:

  1. Our company was founded on the principles of trust, honesty, and ethical business practices.
    The number of commas in this sentence: _2__
    The number of colons in this sentence: _0__
    The number of semicolons in this sentence: _0__
  2. Many companies allow employees to work from home; however, other companies question whether these employees can be productive if they are not working from the office.
    The number of commas in this sentence: _1__
    The number of colons in this sentence: _0__
    The number of semicolons in this sentence: _1__
  3. Employees who attend the training sessions will likely pass the certification exam.
    The number of commas in this sentence: _0__
    The number of colons in this sentence: _0__
    The number of semicolons in this sentence: _0_

The code to unlock the Chapter 8 review is

_2__   _0__   _0__   _1__   _0__   _1__   _0__   _0__   _0__

Completing the Review Questions

Once the students had the right code, they could unlock the 10 multiple-choice chapter review questions, which were located in Connect, the online learning platform that accompanies our textbook. The questions were taken from the chapter quiz bank and were password protected—and the password that unlocked the quiz questions, of course, was the code created by punctuating the practice sentences. If the students did not punctuate the sentences correctly, they could not access the review questions and had to revisit their punctuation. Once students accessed the review questions, they were required to earn a 10/10 on the review questions before I would give them the punctuation exercise for the next chapter.

When a group had they finished all of the review questions for each of the three chapters, they could leave class. The first group finished in just under 30 minutes; the last group finished in 50.

The escape room is adaptable to any learning environment. For example, course management systems such as D2L or Canvas allow for password-protected quizzes. If you prefer not to use digital materials, you could always have students present the code to you to get a hard copy of the review questions.

My students enjoyed the exercise. I hope yours do, too.

Do you have any creative exam review ideas? If so, please share them with us in the comments.

What Can You Learn from “The 17 Best Advertisements of All Time”?

In my email inbox recently was a link to a post on the Hubspot Marketing Blog that discussed the (arguably) 17 best ads of all time. Before you go look . . . see if you can guess what they are! And see if your students can!

This great post displays the ads and explains why the author, Lindsay Kolowich, chose each one (here, too, you can ask your class to guess why first). Taken together, they illustrate many important principles of good persuasion. Plus, in the middle of the post is a nine-step process for creating a great ad.

Students love talking about ads, and they can learn a lot from these. Enjoy!

A Class Exercise: How Do You Make Your Boss Happy?

I find myself in the fortunate position this semester of teaching Professional Writing Capstone, the culminating course for our professional writing program’s graduating seniors and MA students. In addition to doing projects for clients, we’re discussing how to make the transition from being a student to being a professional.


Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

And that’s how the topic in the title of this post came up. When a group of our advisory board members came to the class to share their advice on professionalism, one guest led off with “Make your boss happy.” Once the panel discussion was over and the guests had departed, I asked the class how they felt about this advice. More than one student said that it had rubbed her the wrong way, and I could see why: Especially nowadays, most students seek to work for organizations that embrace creativity, engagement, and the free exchange of ideas, not places that still abide by a strict, formal hierarchical structure.

And yet, unless our students plan to be entrepreneurs, they will be assuming a role in a hierarchical organization when they become employed, even if the organization has a relatively relaxed culture. They will have bosses, and their bosses will likely have bosses. So what does it mean in today’s more informal, employee-friendly workplace to “keep your boss happy”?

I asked the class to write answers to this question, as fast as they could, for about 5 minutes. Then we went around the room to hear at least one response from each student, with one student taking notes.

Here are the results:  How Do You Keep Your Boss Happy.

What do you think of this list? What answers do you think your students would come up with?

I’d recommend that you try this activity in your class. See how many of the items on our list your students come up with–and see what new ones they can add. Doing so will enable you to discuss important workplace lessons with your students–lessons that will strengthen their professional communication and help them smoothly cross that bridge from academia to the workplace.