Pam Bourjaily in her office
Monday, April 24, 2017
Tom Snee

The class exercise asked Abby Haynes to think about what sets her apart from others, which isn’t something she’d really considered before.

“It was unlike any assignment I’d done, and one of the most difficult, because it forced me to dig deeper into myself and think about myself differently,” says Haynes, a University of Iowa sophomore from Brookfield, Wisconsin, who was taking the Business Communications and Protocol class in the Tippie College of Business in the fall of 2016.

But the exercise is designed not just to force students to see how they are different from others. It also asks them to see how those differences are a strength, and how they can help build a higher-performing work team.

Pamela Bourjaily, adjunct lecturer and director of the Judith R. Frank Business Communications Center in the Tippie College, designed the exercise, which has been used every semester since the fall of 2015. In the exercise, instructors in the class assign three or four students to teams based on where they grew up, expected major and graduation date, speaking and writing ability, and previous team experience. The students talk with their new teammates until each finds a characteristic that sets them apart from the rest.

The students then discuss how these differences will help their team on its group assignments throughout the semester. For instance, a student who has a severe food allergy and is used to examining food labels or asking about ingredients might make sure all the assignment details are taken care of, while someone who had to help raise children at a young age might volunteer to make sure the team doesn’t miss its deadlines.

Bourjaily says the exercise forces students to go beyond the usual interpretation of diversity as racial, ethnic, or gender-based and to see how all of us have ways in which we are different from each other. That difference could be moving a lot as a kid, having four grandparents with dementia, becoming an uncle at a young age, attending Catholic schools as a child, coping with depression, or growing up with siblings who have autism.

“We want (students) to experience that bringing their differences into their teams is actually a strength and can provide a lever for their success,” Bourjaily says. “You don’t just accommodate each other’s differences; these differences are what will enable the team to succeed.”

For Haynes, that difference is that she isn’t afraid of failure and likes to take chances, whereas one of her teammates brought analytical ability, and the other a high level of flexibility derived from a cross-cultural background.

“I ended up being the facilitator on the team because I was the extrovert, and things fell into place from there,” says Haynes, an economics and management major and rhetoric minor.

Bourjaily admits that the exercise is uncomfortable for some because it puts them in vulnerable a position, but that’s exactly the point.

“It’s easier to trust each other after the exercise, which makes it easier to give honest, critical feedback and consider new approaches to the assignment,” she says.

In the end, she says that by requiring students to think about what makes them different, they start to understand how other people view them. Once they see how their own difference contributes to the team’s strengths, they see how others’ differences do the same.

And once they’ve built a basic level of trust, it’s easier to work together as a high-functioning team.

Haynes says she’s seen that happen on other teams she’s been a part of when students don’t consciously think about their own diversity.

“They don’t work as well,” she says.