Team Is Also a Verb

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Monday, May 29, 2023
By Molly Kern, Allison Lehr Samuels, Sara J. Welch
Photo by iStock/gpointstudio
Baruch’s Zicklin School of Business launches the Teaming project to help students learn to collaborate effectively, whether remotely or in person.
  • When students learn to work well in groups, they deepen their learning, develop their networks, and acquire a highly valued real-world skill.
  • Zicklin’s Teaming initiative provides a turnkey process along with templates and tips that help all team members contribute, no matter what their experiences or backgrounds.
  • Among the activities sponsored by the Teaming project are murder mysteries and escape rooms that must be solved by diverse teams.

Most students initially see their undergraduate educational experiences as individual endeavors that will help them fulfill personal goals. However, one of the most important competencies they will develop is the ability to work in teams with diverse colleagues.

This skill is highly valued in the workplace. For instance, in a 2022 employer survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than three-quarters of respondents said they looked for teamwork skills when recruiting recent college graduates. And according to Monster’s 2022 Future of Work report, teamwork is the No. 1 soft skill employers seek—and one of the skills that job candidates most often lack.

When students participate in group projects during their college classes, they not only develop teamwork skills, but they also build relationships. During team projects, students get to know each other; they support each other in the moment and become part of each other’s professional networks in the future.

During the pandemic, when universities transitioned to remote learning, it was challenging for many faculty to fully translate their in-person group-work assignments to an online environment. While students completed such assignments, they found it harder to generate moments of connection and engagement with their classmates as part of the process. At the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) public university system, we discovered that our students missed these interactions when we surveyed them about their experiences during COVID.

To enhance students’ opportunities to work in teams, we launched our Teaming project, which outlined impromptu and casual ways students could get to know each other before starting group work. It also was designed to support faculty as they translated group work into an online environment. Although the Teaming project was born out of a crisis, it has become a pedagogical tool that makes diversity a source of strength and ensures that students and faculty can engage in collaborative work no matter what their background experience might be.

The Power of Diversity

While being able to work effectively in groups is a critical skill for any student, we believe it’s even more essential for a diverse student population such as ours. Our students hail from different ethnic, religious, educational, and experiential backgrounds and exhibit vastly different expectations and aspirations.

Among them, they speak more than 110 languages and come from almost 170 countries of origin. Most of them also are time-crunched commuters who are juggling school and work, which makes it difficult for them to find casual moments to connect with their peers.

While being able to work effectively in groups is a critical skill for any student, we believe it’s even more essential for diverse student populations.

In addition, many of our undergraduates are first-generation college students, and most come from low-income families, as measured by the percentage of students receiving federal Pell Grants. According to a 2020 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds stand to gain more from learning the skills of strategic collaboration than do people from more affluent backgrounds.

Paradoxically, less-advantaged groups tend to work together communally rather than collaboratively. Students from such backgrounds may prefer to preserve a sense of group harmony rather than disagree with one another.

Yet for collaboration to be effective, all team members must be able to fully participate and engage in constructive disagreement. They must learn key skills such as communication and compromise, and they can’t shy away from expressing their opinions and hashing out their differences. If our students are to be successful in the workforce, we must provide ample opportunities for them to engage with each other while they’re in our classes.

An Evolving Approach

Over the years, our curriculum has evolved to include many activities based on group work. For instance, students might brainstorm ideas for new businesses, an activity that is relatively low-stakes in terms of assessment; or they might work on teams in high-stakes endeavors such as capstone projects. These activities enable students not only to learn content, but also to practice communication and analytical skills.

But students approach group work with a range of different perspectives, depending on how often they’ve participated in team projects in the past. Those with some prior experience often bring a task orientation to the project. They frequently will “divide and conquer,” delegating separate tasks to each group member and combining the results for the final deliverable. However, students who are new to group work or who have never had positive experiences with it might not naturally contribute as much to the project.

Once the pandemic arrived, we knew we needed to change the way we approached team-based work. Our goal was to design a skills-based and process-oriented foundation that intentionally counteracted potential disparities in group work so that no one would be at a deficit and everyone could contribute fully. Under this evidence-based system, all students could achieve meaningful learning and generate deeper personal connections.

One of our first steps was to create the Teaming website to serve as a platform of collaboration tools, and we made this website accessible and customizable for anyone in the Baruch community. The creation of the website was supported by a CUNY Open Educational Research Initiative Grant sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning, which is directed by Allison Lehr Samuels, one of the co-authors of this article. This support enables all materials created for the website to be available for sharing and adaptation at no cost, under a Creative Commons license.

To generate the content, another co-author, Molly Kern, collaborated with Minna Logemann, an expert on global and virtual teams from Baruch’s communication studies department. Together they leveraged their research and teaching expertise to curate tools and ideas to benefit the entire community.

Strategies for Collaboration

The website offers helpful tips and exercises that enable students to harness the collective energy and experience of the group. For instance, we have found that, when assigned to group projects, students tend to jump right in, which is far less effective than taking a moment to discuss their plan for the task. Students will have a greater chance of success if they take about 90 minutes to complete three tasks that are outlined on the website:

Develop a team mindset. In a round-robin discussion, students share what has worked well during past group projects, as well as what challenges they have encountered. Drawing on these examples, they articulate the guiding principles for how their team will work together. Even with only 10 or 20 minutes of conversation, students can crystallize these ideas into an inclusive team name, slogan, or meme—and every team member has contributed.

The Teaming website offers helpful tips and exercises that enable students to harness the collective energy and experience of the group.

Create a team charter that outlines roles and responsibilities. Students are encouraged to be transparent about the skills they have or would like to develop, their goals and motivations for completing the assignment, and the ways they will back each other up as they work together.

Discuss communication styles. Even if all team members speak a common language, they may have different comfort levels with expressing emotion or being direct. Taking a round-robin approach again, students share their own communication styles. This allows group members to anticipate the challenges they might face when there is a conflict or a need for constructive criticism. After this discussion, they are less likely to be taken aback by a teammate’s direct style or emotional response.

Outside Opportunities

We know that learning is enhanced when students can put their new knowledge into practice outside the classroom. Therefore, as part of the Teaming project, we have launched two new activities:

Team Days. These voluntary events, held once a semester both virtually and in person, bring together undergraduate and graduate students from business and nonbusiness programs for competitive experiential opportunities. Between 50 and 100 students sign up for each event.

In one activity, students are randomly assigned to teams that must work together to solve a murder mystery. Each participant is given a role to play and background information about that character. Before they dive in, groups spend 25 minutes building a team mindset, creating a team name, and drafting a charter. Once they understand their roles and goals, they pool their informational resources to determine who among four possible subjects is the likeliest murderer.

The exercise forces them to draw on their collective knowledge—they never know which teammate might have that one piece of evidence that will prove decisive. They come to realize that every person is of value and that they need to engage each team member for all to benefit.

An escape room. This team-building activity, called “One Hour Until Filming,” was created in collaboration with Elizabeth Minei, also from Baruch’s communication studies department. While the escape room is a requirement for some classes run by Minei and Kern, other students—and faculty and staff—are invited to form teams that allow them to pit their skills against others in the Baruch community and get to know each other in a different context.

Participants have an hour to solve a series of puzzles that will let them out of the room. For instance, one task might have provided them with a set of coordinates that they can apply to a map they find on a wall. The locations based on the coordinates provide another clue that is used for a different puzzle. Some of the solutions can be discovered independently, but some require input from more than one person. Many require collaboration across people and puzzles so the group can make sense of the whole, which builds a sense of teamwork.

Reflections and Plans

Whether team members are solving fictional murders, finding their way out of locked rooms, or simply putting their heads together to write business plans for hypothetical companies, it is imperative that they pause both during and after the process to reflect on what they’ve learned.

The Teaming website offers several resources that support reflective learning. These include a template that guides students through after-action reviews, self-assessment tools that gauge their sense of psychological safety, tips that cover how to deliver feedback and resolve conflict, and reminders that encourage them to celebrate their successes.

The strategies we use in our Teaming efforts are designed to teach students how to be inclusive leaders who respect and listen to their colleagues. This objective dovetails perfectly with Baruch’s mission of providing a transformational education and its strategic goal of elevating diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In essence, this initiative teaches our students that, in business, the word “team” is more a verb than a noun—it’s among the most important skills that they will learn in their courses. All students can benefit from learning to be effective teammates, especially those who, like ours, are largely commuters and first-generation college students.

But any campus will bring together vastly different individuals—introverts, extroverts, immigrants, and native-born residents. Through team-building activities supported by reflective learning, these individuals can learn how to work together to advance common goals.

Molly Kern
Organizational Psychologist and Professor of Management, Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College
Allison Lehr Samuels
Director of the Center for Teaching & Learning at Baruch College, and Lecturer in the Management Department at the Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College
Sara J. Welch
Associate Director of Marketing and Communications, Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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