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​Why tomorrow’s leaders need to be part of diverse student teams today

Published on: 20-Oct-2020

Recent civil unrest has exposed serious divisions in our social fabric globally. Success for individuals, companies, and society at large depends on finding ways for diverse groups of people to work well together, no matter what differences they may have.

Business schools have a unique opportunity to prepare students for this reality—not just by providing knowledge and technical skills, but also by teaching interpersonal skills that will help students thrive in diverse organizations, says Catherine Peyrols Wu, lecturer at the Nanyang Business School and director of executive programs at the Center for Leadership and Cultural Intelligence, Nanyang Technical University Singapore.

“Students are likely to be part of diverse teams in their workplaces, so we need to prepare them for experiences they will inevitably have in their professional lives,” she explains.

Many organizations are moving away from traditional, hierarchical functions and are expecting workers to collaborate via cross-functional teams. “If we want to prepare our students to engage successfully in the workplace, then they need to have team engagement experiences in business school,” adds Deborah D. Hazzard, clinical associate professor and associate dean of diversity and inclusion and at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. “Given demographic trends and the rise of global corporations, workplace teams will likely be increasingly diverse. As professors, we can prepare our students for this reality with team assignments that provide opportunities to learn how to engage effectively across differences.”

We asked Hazzard and Wu to share their expertise on building and facilitating diverse student teams, discuss the challenges that might arise in such teams, and impart strategies educators can use to defuse problems and promote positive outcomes.

Q: Why is working in diverse teams so critical to students’ growth and development?

Deborah D. Hazzard: People who work in diverse teams tend to do a better job considering multiple stakeholder perspectives and using a broader lens when solving problems. They are more mindful of their own biases and willing to consider other perspectives. As a result, they may be able to reach better outcomes by developing more informed, thoughtful, and innovative solutions.

Being part of a diverse team can help students learn to discard stereotypes they may have of other groups. They learn that stereotypes can be inaccurate and incomplete, and that you really have to get to know people as individuals to build rapport through meaningful and intentional interactions.

I have students who have thanked me for the opportunity to socialize with people who are very different from them. They have learned to analyze their own perspectives, put their biases aside, and find common ground.

Catherine Peyrols Wu: I have found working in diverse teams minimizes students’ anxiety and builds their confidence toward working with people who are different from them. Because they have less anxiety, they take more active team roles—including in other classes.

I remember one particular student who used the skills he learned in my class to take on a mediator role in a different team and defuse tension between local Singaporean students and an international exchange student whose direct communication style had made the other students uncomfortable. This student from my class was able to facilitate a better discussion by explaining to his fellow Singaporean classmates that the international student did not mean to be rude or overly critical, but just wanted to improve the project.

Q: When putting together diverse student teams, what types of diversity do you consider?

Hazzard: I take many different dimensions of diversity into account when creating student teams—not just in terms of representation, but also diverse experiences, diverse personalities, and diverse mindsets. More specifically, I look at what are typically called “internal dimensions” of diversity—things like race and gender. I also consider some of the “external dimensions” of diversity, including socioeconomic background or other life experiences.

I do quick personality assessments such as True Colors so that I can include different personality types on each team. Recently, I’ve spent more time focusing on cultural competence and using tools like the Intercultural Development Inventory. In the pre-COVID era, I would typically have the students complete these assessments in class, and then we’d talk about the outcomes and the related implications for their team project engagement. Right now, I’m teaching classes online with a mix of asynchronous and synchronous learning modes, so I have students complete these assessments asynchronously, and then we talk about the outcomes when we convene in a synchronous collaboration session.

Sometimes I put student teams into virtual meeting room environments to discuss strengths and developmental opportunities and to craft a team charter informed by their assessment outcomes. The team charters allow students to figure out how they will engage with one another, considering variables such as work styles, personalities, preferred methods of communication, and other scheduled commitments including jobs and extracurriculars.

Q: What is the ideal size for a diverse student team?

Hazzard: My goal is to have teams with three people, although sometimes I do have four-person teams. Being transparent, I’ve found that smaller teams are less likely to have social loafers or freeloaders who have their name on the assignment without actually making much of a contribution.

Also, if you want the maximum impact from having students engage across differences, then the group needs to be small enough so that all the team members feel they have a chance to raise their voices and share their perspectives.

Wu: I used to do teams of six, but I’ve shifted to four students, which I feel is an ideal group size to make the experience educationally challenging.

As teams get bigger, students have to manage increasingly complex interpersonal relationships. For example, in a two-person group, each individual only has one relationship to manage, for a total of two relationships in the group. In a group of three students, there are six total relationships. By the time you get to a five-person group, there are 20 total person-to-person relationships. Each relationship represents an opportunity to forge a friendship, but also contains risks of conflict and disagreement. As the teams get bigger, the students have to rise to the challenge of managing all these relationships and working through any clashes that occur.

Teams of four students also give members a natural environment to practice cultural intelligence skills and learn firsthand about the relationship between group composition and intragroup dynamics. For instance, these teams may fracture along fault lines—obvious divisions between group members based on visible demographic characteristics such as gender, race, nationality, age, or language. If fault lines develop, they must be managed to prevent conflict. For example, if some team members start speaking to each other in a language that other members of the team do not understand, that is likely to generate tension and frustration within the group.

Q: How—and why—should educators assemble and facilitate diverse teams?

Wu: Working as part of a diverse group does not come naturally to most people. We tend to feel more comfortable interacting with people from a similar background to our own—who think alike, look alike, and who laugh at the same jokes. Similar people who see things the same way tend to reach alignment easily. Diverse multicultural teams often need to go through multiple loops just to figure out how to work with each other.

For this reason, it’s not enough to throw students into diverse teams and let them figure it out. In fact, if you do this, I feel you are setting the teams up for failure. In fact, multicultural teams generally do not work well unless you facilitate them. Diverse teams are good at generating all kinds of ideas, but they find it hard to converge and choose which idea to pursue.

That is why it is critical to provide support—especially during the days and weeks at the beginning of the semester when the teams are just starting to work together. If you delay, whatever discomfort the diverse groups feel working together will only grow as they begin to face time pressure and project deadlines.

This facilitation and support can take many forms. For example, in a traditional in-person class, I might walk around the room and notice that a team of four students always has the same seating arrangement, with two Singaporean students sitting together and two international exchange students paired up. This seating arrangement can create division by making it easy for pairs of students to converse in their own language, shutting out other members of the group. When I ask the students to change their seating arrangement, it can instantly change the team dynamic.

Now that many of us are teaching online, we must be even more intentional in setting up our student teams for success. For online teams, I focus my efforts on improving students’ sense of connection and coordination processes. Connections are essential to teams. When we like our team and when we feel connected, we are more willing to give people the benefit of the doubt when things don’t go as expected.

As I do with face-to-face teams, I first try to create connections in the online teams by assigning students to design their own team-building activity. Students are very creative and they know how to harness technology. One of my teams this semester organized a world mystery breakfast. Each team member ordered a special breakfast to be delivered at someone else’s home. Then they met online to discover the food and eat together. This was a great way to kick off the teamwork. Second, I use breakout rooms to give teams time to share ideas and impressions with one another during online classes.

Coordination is a challenge in multicultural teams, even more so when people do not interact as much. To help student teams, I first share with them about the science of intergroup dynamics and multicultural teams. Students want to do well, so when they understand why certain solutions work, they are willing to give them a try. The challenge is to remind them along the way because it’s easy to fall back to our old habits. Second, I encourage students to break down the group project into smaller tasks and to work in diverse pairs, rather than alone or in the larger team. It is easier for students to align their approaches with diverse peers when working closely with one partner at a time.

Q: How can educators ensure these teams are actually diverse?

Hazzard: Be careful when forming teams. You can assemble a diverse team of people that is still not inclusive. For example, some team members with unconscious or explicit biases might end up shutting down or marginalizing other members and not allowing their voices to be heard. You can have a bunch of diverse people who have a lot to bring to the table, but if the environment is not receptive to their active engagement and participation, then all the diversity will be for naught.

To avoid this problem, I have found it’s very important to talk early on about inclusion—starting on day one. Team members must ensure that everyone on their team feels visible, valued, respected, and has a sense of belonging.

My students and I then collaboratively develop what I call agreements for engagement (see sidebar). I’m careful not to call it rules of engagement, because that can sound adversarial or confrontational. We work on developing these agreements together to create a framework where students will be respectful, avoid being judgmental, and show empathy to others. These agreements guide our engagement throughout the class and within the teams.

Source: Harvard Business Publishing, 20 Oct 2020

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