There are three things employers despair about finding in the workplace today: Employees in their midst (1) who are capable of critical thinking, (2) who can negotiate difficult emotional territory and (3) who can write. In short, employees who can cogitate, navigate, communicate.
It doesn’t often occur to hiring managers to turn to humanities departments as a source of qualified young professionals. Yes, you read that correctly: humanities departments, where studies focus on analysis and literacy—solving problems through critical thinking, understanding culture and motivations and, of course, learning to communicate.
If it doesn’t hit you right away how closely the study of the humanities and the needs of business leadership are aligned, consider for a moment the professional workplace. Despite its rational, left-brained public persona, the professional workplace is a hotbed of emotional agendas. Competition. Insecurity. Pride. Pressure. Repression. Achievement. That’s what people at work bring to the job every day. Human Resource professionals, when generous in their assessment, call it “passion.” Pop psychologists call it “baggage.” Readers of literature know it as “motivation.” Whatever you call it, these are the drivers of human behavior on the job.
When business leadership despairs about a lack of critical thinking and people who flail in the face of difficult situations, this is what they’re on about: Employees who never see what’s coming, managers who don’t recognize pride or insecurity when it’s right in front of them, and employees who can’t read between the lines, or won’t, or who think there’s nothing to be found there. But the simple fact is leadership and business acumen require being knowledgeable about such difficult terrain and able to navigate it.
So back to the humanities departments. These are disciplines that align with business careers in ways many people overlook. Yet those who came from the humanities into business leadership attribute their success to three things: the ability to think critically, handle ambiguity and write.
Humanities students, those who really get what history and language and literature puts in front of them, will study one thing that no MBA student will ever find in class: motivation. Why do people do what they do? How can you tell by watching and listening what human behavior might mean? How can you anticipate reactions, gauge others, move people to action? How do others respond to strife, conflict, change, power, fear?
They don’t teach that in the College of Business. They teach that in the College of Arts and Letters.