Making "Group Work" Work for You

Amrita Dixit Headshot.jpg

by Amrita Khanna, Class of 2019

Do these anecdotes from your classmates (names changed) surprise you?

  • Kate’s team for a lab course scheduled check-in calls with their client. One of her teammates was late to each call or cancelled last minute. Kate eventually just picked up her friend’s slack, after realizing how busy she was with recruiting.

  • Oscar’s group was in a heated debate about their case homework. He had previous work training on the subject and thought he might know the answer, but his teammates were headed in a different direction. He didn’t want to get into an argument so decided not to bring up his thoughts.

  • When Paula became a co-chair, she learned how to use Booth Groups email and how to reserve classrooms. While other co-chairs received recognition for leading fantastic events, Paula found herself typically relegated to tasks like sending emails, booking rooms, and getting supplies.

It’s clear that an MBA program is a whirlwind. As we’re pulled in at least four directions at a given time -- from academics, to extracurriculars, to career planning, to networking – we frequently stumble into challenging group dynamics that we’d prefer to avoid facing head-on.

Think back to why you decided to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for an MBA program: was it for the 2-year vacation from your corporate grind? Or the chance to broaden your knowledge across business functions? Perhaps you aspired to pivot your career to a new industry? Whatever the original reason, most applicants also note that they would cherish the opportunity to spend two years sharpening their leadership identity – honing strengths, pinpointing weaknesses, and experimenting in a secure environment. In fact, Dean Kole presented a finding from the 2018 year-end survey that the Class of 2019 is highly interested in developing leadership skills: 60% say it’s essential, 30% say it’s important, and 10% say it’s preferred. Communicating persuasively was one of the most common factors that students said they sought to do. However, once we kickoff our MBA at Booth, we forget that there are instances in our daily hustle-and-bustle that we could use to push ourselves to be better leaders.

Leadership Coach Mary Reid Ervin

Leadership Coach Mary Reid Ervin

Mary Reid Ervin, Leadership Coach in the Leadership Development office at Chicago Booth, stated, “I find Booth to be just this amazing opportunity to test leadership capacities in a really difficult environment, because there’s no formal hierarchy…it challenges you to think about how you’re managing the different dynamics of a team. In situations like these, you leverage your leadership skills to activate the energy of others to create meaningful change. It has incredible long-term implications.” Ervin identified two reasons why stepping up as a leader in group work is particularly challenging here at Booth. The first is that we exist in a flat structure in that no single business student has designated power over another, making it difficult to organize groups towards a common goal. Secondly, we are motivated to build positive relationships during the MBA experience that we’ll sustain over our lifetimes, so it seems that there’s an opportunity cost to pointing out when the relationship isn’t going smoothly.

We will face these same two challenges in the workplace when we have partnership-based projects. Whether as a cross-functional team member, a board member, or even a family member, a flat structure and potential for long-term relationships are present. Our time at Booth is like a sandbox – within the guardrails of being a student, we can experiment with new ways of accomplishing a goal, including how we work with and influence others. Sure, the process may be awkward the first few times, but after practice we can take learnings of what works well back into the “real” world where the stakes are much higher.

In a survey conducted with 121 full-time Booth students, we found that 80% of those surveyed never or almost never set expectations before kicking off a meeting. Informal discussions such as level of commitment expected, goals, and communication standards could raise the level of your team’s efficacy and prevent frustrations from developing down the line. The survey also revealed that the respondents do not spend as much time challenging each other’s ideas than they do initiating or supporting ideas. In other words, we could improve the way we approach due diligence in our work to ensure that problem areas or alternative views are fully discussed. Finally, we also found that over 50% of both men and women feel that administrative work is not divided fairly on teams. Assigning the administrative work on a rotational basis ahead of time could mitigate this feeling of unfairness.

These results revealed that we have several overlooked opportunities to step up as leaders in our daily activities here at Booth. There is no better time to start putting more effort into developing this key management skill than during the Booth MBA experience.

Our Marketing Strategy team is still friends after enduring 10 tough case assignments, especially because 2Y Michelle Kim helped us set expectations about priorities for Winter Quarter during our first meeting. This was the ultimate “D.R.E.A.M.” team (Dallas Cullen, Rachel Enright, Louis Ernst, Amrita Khanna, and Michelle Kim).

Our Marketing Strategy team is still friends after enduring 10 tough case assignments, especially because 2Y Michelle Kim helped us set expectations about priorities for Winter Quarter during our first meeting. This was the ultimate “D.R.E.A.M.” team (Dallas Cullen, Rachel Enright, Louis Ernst, Amrita Khanna, and Michelle Kim).