College & Education

Why American B-School Students Can't Stand Teamwork


(Corrects spelling of Darden faculty member's name in fifth and sixth paragraphs.)

When business students are instructed to comb through case studies or pitch new product designs, three dreaded words often follow: “Work in teams.”

That dread is especially deep for American MBA students, according to a Graduate Management Admission Council survey released on Wednesday. Only 13 percent of American citizens listed team projects as their preferred teaching method, compared to 25 percent of students from Africa and the Middle East and 20 percent of Chinese students. (More than any other region, 35 percent of American students chose a mix of lectures and discussions as their favorite approach to learning.)

Why do Americans grimace when professors sort them into groups? It’s a cultural thing, says Bradley Kirkman, head of the management, innovation, and entrepreneurship department at North Carolina State’s Poole College of Management. Poole’s MBA program emphasizes teamwork, reporting to Bloomberg Businessweek last year that team-based instruction accounted for 37 percent of its curriculum.

“Americans resist the notion of their success and livelihood being tied to someone else’s performance. People want to know that when they work hard, they get the reward. Other cultures are about harmony in the group,” says Kirkman, who has published research about teamwork. “That’s why you’ll see push-back in U.S. MBA programs.”

Administrators say they’ve heard plenty of student complaints about working in teams. Students find themselves doing all the work for the rest of the group, or struggling to find time to get group members together, said Peter Rodriguez, senior associate dean for degree programs at Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Rodriguez says international students are rarely the ones complaining about group projects. “What I know about international students is most of them came here seeking closer networks with U.S. students, so they enjoy the opportunity to do close-up work with them,” he says.

American MBAs might well want to follow that lead. The corporations that hire them listed communication and teamwork as their preferred skill set in a GMAC survey (PDF) last month.

“Employers are still very persistent and consistent in their feedback about the importance of teamwork. We need students to figure out the effective ways of being in a team,” says Praveen Aggarwal, a professor of marketing at University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Labovitz School of Business & Economics who has researched the challenges of group projects. “The response that MBA programs are putting forward to that problem has evolved.”

Mark Broadie, vice dean for curriculum and instruction at Columbia Business School, says professors have become craftier at holding students accountable in group projects. Lately, professors have waited until the day of a presentation to tell the group which student would be required to present findings, which forces everyone to prepare.

At North Carolina State’s Poole, Kirkman says, orientation expanded from five to 13 days last year, in part to fill the knowledge gap about how to work well in teams. Students now have to draft “charters” about team expectations, and Kirkman’s job is to “sell” the fact that working in teams is an effective strategy, he says.

Faculty members are partly to blame when students loathe team projects, says Kirkman. Students start to resent professors who team them up for assignments better done independently, such as writing papers. “People often scratch their heads and ask, ‘Why are we in a team doing this task, when I can do it by myself?’”

Weinberg is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek covering business schools.

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