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Engaging emotions

Shimul Melwani felt like an outsider when she started her first job after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Mumbai.

The company placed her on a team of people who had been working together for a long time, and she felt excluded.

Unanswered questions about other everyday uncomfortable, ambiguous work interactions galvanized her return to graduate school – a master’s degree in industrial and labor relations from Cornell, and a master’s and PhD from Wharton– and an academic journey exploring the intersection of emotions and interactions at work.

Melwani joined the UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty in 2011, and the associate professor of organizational behavior has made her mark as a researcher and teacher.

Why emotions matter

Melwani shows that emotions have functions and purpose, and can be channeled to improve your productivity and connection with others. 

Melwani has studied what happens when friendships dissolve in the workplace, how guilt – especially for women – affects and sometimes holds people back, and the influence of ambivalent relationships or “frenemies.”

She has investigated how emotions such as ambivalence, contempt, compassion and anger influence performance and relationships at work.

She’s also examined creativity, including the positive role that multitasking can play in increasing it and factors that could make decision-makers less likely to identify creative ideas.

The research closest to her heart was developing a model for understanding how Black employees respond at work to highly publicized acts of violence against Black people by the police.

Shimul Melwani

Leigh and Melwani

“My former doctoral student Angelica Leigh (PhD ’20) compelled me to embark on what I knew would be the most important research of my life,” says Melwani. In “#BlackEmployeesMatter: Mega-Threats, Identity Fusion and Enacting Positive Deviance in Organizations” they address how these major events affect our emotions, interactions and how we act at work.

Diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) are important – personally and professionally – to Melwani.

They matter to her as an immigrant, a woman, a person of color, a teacher and scholar, and a mom. After the murder of George Floyd, she and Leigh asked: What can I do?

They propose an answer in their research. “We all should engage in acts of positive deviance in our workplaces and communities. Positive deviant behaviors are risky acts of courage that go up against existing norms, disrupt the status quo and create spaces of discomfort that force others to confront new realities. If you don’t feel ready to be deviant yourself, show up and support others who are brave enough to do so.”

Melwani hopes her research findings will make managers more compassionate and expand traditional definitions of professionalism. “More accepting organizations will make it possible for employees to bring more of their whole selves to work.”

Teaching what matters

Melwani brings her research into teaching courses on leadership, including Foundations of Leadership to Assured Admit students, first-year undergraduates pre-admitted to UNC Kenan-Flagler, and Leading and Managing, a core class in the Undergraduate Business Program.

“I hope all students leave here understanding the value of having an empathic focus and deeply understanding others’ perspectives. You can be an investment banker or a consultant and impact the people you work with in a positive way.”

She also teaches skills needed for career success. “In my undergraduate class, I help students prepare for success in their first jobs – how to make the right decisions, impress the right people, be a better leader and a better manager,” she says.

In a class for Assured Admits, Melwani created a team project experience to introduce the myriad aspects of their future business school experience. She gives student teams the goal of starting and actually running their own businesses to raise money for a charity of the winning team’s choice. They receive seed funding, and have six weeks to market and sell their services or products.

The startup Late Night Bites was born in that class in 2017. It generates money for nonprofits by selling late-night food outside of UNC dorms. It has generated over $10,000 in profits for local charities focused on improving the lives of the homeless in Chapel Hill, says Mary Laci Motley (BSBA ’21), a co-founder.

“We never go through a single class without engaging the students in some kind of experiential exercise that translates to a real-life example. It goes beyond what you might think of as ‘typical’ business school tasks,” says Melwani. “In any kind of job, you have to bring creativity, empathy and openness, and a lot of classes are designing projects that enable students to engage in these kinds of ways.”

Those skills are essential, she says, because Carolina students are driven not only to achieve professional success, but also to become better human beings — to take the hands-on experience they gain as undergraduates and to apply it to the world in ways that make a difference.

Motley went on to found and lead EATS2SEATS LLC, which provides fundraising opportunities for nonprofits by partnering with stadium concession businesses and has funded over $20,000 toward community development organizations and nonprofits.

Melwani is gratified by the students. “We have a group of really smart, but also very humble students, which is a unique combination and not something you find at most top institutions,” she says. “From a teaching perspective, it’s a pleasure to find students who are amazing at everything they do, but also think deeply and are kind and empathetic.”

The admiration is mutual. Her students’ nominations earned her the 2018 Weatherspoon Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Undergraduate Business Program and Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, a University award.

They lauded her for going above and beyond as a mentor, and for the impact she has had on their lives. Melwani “not only has a passion for teaching but also loves the students she teaches. She is deeply invested in every single one of her students,” a student wrote. Another wrote that Melwani “made a profound impact on my development as a UNC Kenan-Flagler business student and as an aspiring professional woman of minority descent,” one student wrote.

The award ceremonies were the best nights of her life. “I told my husband that it was better than my PhD graduation, and that is saying a lot because it took me six years to get that PhD,” she says.

After she earned that PhD, she interviewed at UNC Kenan-Flagler, and immediately knew it was “the place I was meant to be,” she says. “My goal after graduate school was to be someone who was not only a successful researcher and a successful teacher, but also a good citizen,” Melwani says. “The fact that everyone I met here seemed to demonstrate success in these three domains was very exciting to me and was one of the reasons I decided to come here.”

Connecting with the UBP

To help new business major starting building community from the very start of their Business School experience, the UBP created a new orientation called Spark. Melwani partnered with the UBP team to identify and launch a new set of guiding principles that bring the School’s core values – excellence, leadership, integrity, inclusion, community and teamwork – to life for UBP students.

The guiding principles are: Be curious. Be agile. Be purposeful. Be kind. Be humble. Be true. Students use them to guide their decision-making on how to spend their time at UNC Kenan-Flagler – and their careers.

With the pandemic and racial reckoning, she struggled with how to truly make a difference. “I knew our students were struggling mentally, emotionally and financially,” she says. Determined to find a tangible way to help, she decided to create a belonging fund – also known as the Melwani Belonging Fund. In its first year, the fund helped 18 students (and spent close to $8,000) on emergencies like rent and groceries, tech supplies and interview attire.

Never forgetting what it was like to feel like an outsider at her first job, she’s determined to prevent that from happening to her students.

“In this small way, I hope to help students enhance their experiences fitting in at the Business School and the wider business world,” she says.

Read more about Melwani in profiles by Poets & Quants when naming her in a top business professor and in Endeavor’s Finding light in the dark.