4 learnings on graduate emotional management

Aug 11, 2021 | Development

Dr Ruth Kitchen shares insights from The Emotional MBA on how graduates have been coping. 

This generation of students has been exposed more than any before to wellbeing techniques – meditation, mindfulness, the benefits of exercise and organic, healthy lifestyles. They are already a long way along the path that was forged by previous generations thanks to a parenting style that is more open, reflective and conscious.

I have been privileged to work with elite university students on emotional management for the last two years. My students are dispersed across the globe – Europe, North America, Asia, Australia, Africa – they come with an array of cultural and linguistic insights, curiosity for learning and a passion for personal and professional development.

The students and I lived through a global shift together – the work we did provided a sounding board and place for connection through a period of immense uncertainty. And I learned a great deal from them. Here are four key learnings from The Emotional Management Bachelor Program.

1. Connected…but not connected

This is the first global generation. They have been ‘connected’ since birth. The need and requirement to be always online – results in a concern about ‘not missing out’.

According to a survey I carried out of early career training programmes in nine global companies, this generation seeks out companies that can demonstrate real Corporate Social Responsibility and effective inclusion and diversity policies. These elements are being built into graduate schemes and pathways.

Interestingly however, although students espouse environmental, identity, and societal awareness, they also point out that sustained commitment to causes is less easy.

In a world that offers an ever-broadening array of choices, students are vegan, ethical, ecological but beyond this, they are also concerned with securing a financial future. They value the ability to have a balanced lifestyle. They are not interested in working 24/7.

And while students are aware of wellbeing techniques and many integrate these into daily or weekly routines, tackling ethical conundrums, whether personal or societal, requires a more specialised approach – working on self-awareness, identity formation and relationship management is foundational. As well as looking at how to draw boundaries, say no and feel more comfortable with communicating choices without feeling hypocritical.

2. Used to being the best – and how to cope when you’re not

This was a major reason for enrolling on the program. It manifested in several ways. In-keeping with all the literature on imposter syndrome, the students affected were extremely high achieving. They had been the brightest in their class at high school and had not previously questioned their ability to achieve the results they desired. Studying at elite universities, where most students were in the same category, meant that suddenly their self-perception as ‘super smart’, ‘capable’, ‘successful’, dramatically shifted.

This surfaced as a result of average or under-average results. It fostered a reluctance to participate in class discussion and feelings of inadequacy or resentment towards classmates who appeared more knowledgeable, who had elite educational backgrounds, higher socio-economic status or had gained greater cultural capital through family/homelife.

For students affected by imposter syndrome, the challenge is to let go of perfection and the ‘top of the class’ self-image that they previously identified with. Negative comparison and self-criticism lead to shut down – silence, secrecy, hiding – the outer layers of shame.

Learning to manage expectations of oneself and others and to share challenges provides pathways towards re-integration, self-acceptance and an ability to personally define achievement.

3. Education in isolation

Covid-19 introduced a new topic. Motivation had not previously been a burning issue in the Emotional Management Program.

Students knew they had stronger university subjects and other areas in which they were less interested. They were at ease with the discrepancy between energy- and time-expenditure and the implications on results. The impact of studying online changed that.

Faced with hours of remote work – lectures on Zoom, Teams, and other platforms, plus seminar time and online group work, pretty much every student hit a wall.

On top of this were questions of isolation for those living alone. Those who had returned home had to manage moving back in with family members and carving out a suitable study space. Shared accommodation agreements had to be renegotiated around home study requirements. There was a sense of being far away from classmates – in other countries, continents or cities. And a question of whether real learning was taking place – at a certain level of onscreen saturation – what benefits are to be gleaned?

Restoring a sense of balance and structure to the days was important – dedicating time for sport, socialising, downtime and study. Prioritisation proved an effective way of imposing boundaries on the endless hours and feeling pride at having achieved something with each day. And, resoundingly, reconnecting students to the value of their studies was key in reigniting engagement.

4. Emotional upgrading

Whatever our upbringing, however positive, there are elements that stick with us and weigh us down. In my work with clients, I have found that the issues that emerge or start to become blocks for people in their late teens and early twenties worsen progressively throughout our professional life and can become major hindrances to career progression and overall life-satisfaction.

Some of the students participating in the program were under immense pressure from their families to ‘be successful’ – get excellent grades and a ‘good’ job. Students of high-achieving parents/guardians felt burdened by living up to their impossible standards. Others struggled with the fixed view that ‘success’ applies only to specific job categories.

For some, having a sick family member meant that they had less time for studies than other students and were concerned for long-term health outcomes and the emotional and financial impact of illness.

Many students felt the economic pressure of having embarked on an expensive program of education that needed to result in a financially viable job. Students expressed their concerns about achieving this. Others felt anxious about expressing uncertainty about future direction. Some felt guilt for taking time out. Others were dealing with their parents’ anxiety about studying, working and living in different cultures and countries. The emotional aftermath of divorce was also a major topic for students.

In order to address these issues, trust and vulnerability within the groups was essential. We had already established confidentiality ground rules in the opening session, however, the groups’ attention to safeguarding and supporting each other enabled a freedom of discussion that led to immense leaps forward in lifting blocks.

We worked on understanding and channeling emotions and energy and on how to become conscious of triggers, shift perceptions, and move beyond blocks. Further steps included conflict management and future planning. From this work, the students learnt tools to take forward for professional self-management and for working sensitively but productively in teams/groups.

New start

Thanks to the questions and challenges posed by students, the Emotional Management Program continues to evolve. I am enjoying the process of reworking the Bachelor course and the Emotional MBA for Early Career Professionals for the September intake. And, as ever, I look forward to the insights that the new semester and new students will bring.

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