While conflict in the workplace can be unpleasant, a new course at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in Ithaca, New York, is teaching students conflict can be healthy if managed well. In an eight-session elective, “Dialogue Across Differences,” which launched last fall, students learn how diversity can lead to differences in opinion and how they can move past discomfort to reap diversity’s benefits.
The course was funded by a grant from the President’s Council of Cornell Women, a group of Cornell graduates who wish to support women at the university. It was modeled on a program founded at the University of Michigan called the Intergroup Dialogue Project. Cornell already offered a similar course to undergraduates.
Class size is limited to 20, so that students can better share personal experiences; they also will complete historical and contemporary reading assignments that give more perspective on the issues of diversity and conflict—and especially on how privilege affects interactions in society and at work.
In their capstone project, students will focus on making a positive change in the community. For instance, in the undergraduate course, students once wore pins supporting the LGBTQ community for a week. During that time, they documented both when they felt uncomfortable wearing the pins and when they had to explain to others why they were wearing them. The capstone doesn’t just enhance students’ self-awareness and experience, but also promotes their experience to the community, says Tyi McCray, who directs the school’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
McCray points out that the course is designed to promote more meaningful discussions. She adds that, for the course to be successful, “the students have to be willing to be vulnerable, share something personal about themselves, hear things that they may or may not agree with, and respond.”