The Power of Inclusion

Rising star Jen Dannals, named a best 40-under-40 professor by "Poets & Quants," shows how organizations bring out the best in their people—through her research, teaching, and her own example at Tuck.

When Jen Dannals joined the Tuck faculty as an Assistant Professor of Business Administration in 2018, she was precisely the median age of the students in the organizational behavior course she teaches. The very next year, the curriculum committee gave her license to redesign the course, a pillar of the MBA core called Managing People.

Working with professor Daniel Feiler, who also teaches the class, she re-imagined it to be more experiential, using a powerful mix of group exercises, debriefing and lecture. Students and colleagues gave rave reviews. 

Dannals, now 29 and the youngest honoree on Poets & Quants magazine’s best 40-under-40 list of outstanding young business faculty, still marvels at the faith Tuck placed in her. “The committee gave some direction about content but also gave us a lot of freedom,’” she says. “That’s an incredible amount of trust to put in someone so new.”

Judging from the more than two dozen faculty and students who wrote the magazine in support of Dannals’ nomination, that trust was well-placed. “Her ability to convey information, captivate a classroom, and connect with her students is something one would only expect from a very tenured professor,” one student wrote.

Colleagues were equally complimentary. “Professor Dannals took the lead on the changes in these areas and delivered a new course with absolutely blockbuster ratings, unheard of for a relatively new professor in the MBA core at Tuck,” one wrote.

Dannals also is making waves in the field of social norms and organizational behavior. Her research sheds new light on how factors such as hierarchy, social norms, and gender dynamics affect important aspects of organizational behavior. Her work provides new evidence showing that diversity and inclusion are fundamental to organizational success, and that teams thrive when leaders encourage new voices to be heard.

This was testing a very basic premise of social norms theory in a pretty epic way, and so I took away from that a recognition of how much is still there to be researched and understood.

Dannals studied psychology as an undergraduate at Princeton, and discovered an abiding love of research while working on her senior thesis. After graduation she worked as a research assistant with Prof. Betsy Levy Paluck, a mentor whose fearless approach to research inspires her own work. For that project, the researchers created the equivalent of a nonprofit consulting firm to study social norms around bullying at 56 New Jersey Middle Schools. The work gave Dannals a taste for ambitious research and a lasting interest in the field.

“Social norms are one of the oldest topics within social psychology, but that project impressed upon me how little we actually know about them,” she says. “This was testing a very basic premise of social norms theory in a pretty epic way, and so I took away from that a recognition of how much is still there to be researched and understood.”

Dannals tore into the topic at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where she earned her PhD in 2018. The groups division of the American Psychological Association honored her Essays on Social Norm Perception as dissertation of the year. She continues to present and publish at a steady clip, coauthoring several well-received papers and opening new lines of inquiry. Her forthcoming projects include collaborations with Tuck colleagues Feiler and Adam Kleinbaum, examining how a person’s place within an organization—whether they are central to the social network or on its fringes—influences their perceptions of norms.

As a keen observer of organizational culture, Dannals naturally wondered what to expect when she first came to Tuck. After settling in and finding her academic stride, the researcher in her has had occasion to analyze why Tuck works as it does. Though she hasn’t subjected the school’s secret sauce to a full scientific analysis, a discerning taste test confirms its potency and key ingredients.

A student came to me and said, ‘I was a White House intern, and President Obama ran all of his meetings just as you described.’ That’s what I love about teaching MBA students—the experiences that they bring with them.

She was taken by how profoundly size and location impact Tuck’s organizational chemistry. Those factors could go a long way toward explaining Tuck’s collegiality and continuity, says Dannals. She has coffee with colleagues from different departments nearly every day, providing a kind of academic cross-pollination rarely seen at larger institutions. “There's much more of a family feel, and there’s less churn,” she says. “You end up with people like Sally Jaeger, who knows everything and everyone, and serves as a kind of grand historian of Tuck.”

She also found the academic schedule conducive to teaching and research. “I like the idea of teaching intensely for a period of time and focusing on doing a good job at that, and then switching back to research and giving that my full attention,” she says.

The name Dannals and Feiler chose for their revamped organizational behavior course, Managing People, describes both the course content and the reason it is part of the MBA core. Managing people is a foundational business skill, yet it’s one that is not easily conveyed with traditional teaching methods. “It's a different kind of skill set to learn,” Dannals says. “It’s not something where I can tell you how to do it, and then you can apply that formula forever.”

Dannals and Feiler designed a course that imparts theory and best practices, and then allows those variables to play out in group exercises. The course design allows students’ own work experience to contribute to the learning experience, Dannals says. She recalls giving a lecture in which she said one way to avoid an influence cascade—the phenomenon of team members going around the table repeating what they think the boss wants to hear—is for the leader to speak last during brainstorming. “After that class,” Dannals says, “a student came to me and said, ‘I was a White House intern, and President Obama ran all of his meetings just as you described.’

“That’s what I love about teaching MBA students—the experiences that they bring with them,” she says, adding the broader lesson is that successful leadership is about bringing out the best in those around you. The approach values diversity and inclusion. It allows good ideas to flourish, no matter where they originate.

There’s a corollary in Tuck’s secret sauce. Dannals knew Tuck’s reputation as a small, inclusive and supportive environment before she arrived in Hanover. Still, she didn’t expect the leadership to put so much faith in her so soon.

“I was surprised that Dan and I were given so much license to change our class, a core class, after my first year,” Dannals says. “It felt a little crazy to have only taught MBAs once, and then have the curriculum committee say, ‘Go ahead. Make something new.’”

The result has validated the committee’s trust, and the inclusive experience that has long been a Tuck hallmark. “It meant that I could include things in the course that I feel are really important and that I'm really passionate about,” says Dannals. “That’s such an important part of teaching.”