Apr 12 Business Administration Faculty

How the Gies iMBA helps you learn and lead with a diversity mindset

Originally published on SmartBrief.com.

Master’s degrees and graduate certificates may signify one person’s achievement, but those skills are gained as part of a group effort. The classroom — whether in person or online — enables learners to discover more about other people, different points of view, and how to interact successfully. It’s a key element of the University of Illinois Gies College of Business framework for preparing business leaders for any situation with all types of people.

Denise Loyd Teaching"Part of our responsibility and our desire as educators is to prepare learners for the environment they’re going to engage with once they leave the classroom, wherever that is,” explains Denise Lewin Loyd, an associate professor in Gies College of Business and associate dean for equity.  “We feel that it’s incumbent on us to help students engage through teamwork and other experiences with individuals who come from backgrounds that are different than their own.” 

More than 50 years ago, mainstream air travel brought people from around the world together in a way that hadn’t been possible before, opening up new avenues for business and cultural knowledge, Lewin Loyd points out. The enormous increase in video meetings sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most recent step forward in blurring the boundaries and building a more multicultural world, she says.  

Today’s workplace — which is in “one of the most multicultural landscapes that we’ve ever experienced” — more frequently requires leaders to interact with people from different geographies, cultures and backgrounds, says Lewin Loyd, whose research focuses on the relationship between diversity, teams, and positive outcomes. 

Online master’s degrees and graduate certificate programs at Gies College of Business help illustrate the benefits of diversity and the importance of inclusion and respect, as well as understanding differences from so many perspectives. That’s why teamwork is a cornerstone of advanced studies at Gies College of Business. 

The perils of sameness

When a group has only people who are similar to one another, they draw from the same experiences and knowledge base. That impedes the ability to think about things in different ways and come up with better ideas,  Lewin Loyd explains.

On the other hand, a group with more surface-level diversity and broader differences in age, gender identity, race and birthplace is more likely to see situations and possibilities with a wider lens.

Classes focused on multiculturalism

Differences among people aren’t just physical or cultural. Business leaders are more likely to solve problems if they consult people from all company levels and different departments. The potential of diverse teams comes from their different perspectives and knowledge, as well as the awareness that their colleagues, competitors, customers, or audiences are not homogenous. The differing perspectives yield broader concerns, better ideas and better decisions.  

“The presence of difference also helps us be more open to sharing and hearing those different perspectives,” Lewin Loyd says.

Homogenous teams tend to generate pressure to conform, leaving out the crucial devil’s advocate position.

The minivan exemplifies the benefits of differing views, Lewin Loyd points out. It was designed in the mid-’70s and quickly became a favorite of moms, though it was built to suit men. It wasn’t until the late ‘90s that Ford asked female engineers to look at the vehicle from a woman’s point of view. That yielded lighting that could be turned off so as not to wake babies, cup holders children could reach in the back seat, smoother-gliding side doors, lower armrests, a pull-down handle on the lift gate and much more. 

Why teamwork, interactions can be hard

When people are different, they are more likely to disagree. 

“Disagreeing is challenge. As important as it is, it doesn’t always feel fun,” Lewin Loyd says. But that doesn’t mean the interactions have to be contentious. 

Finding ways to disagree successfully is part and parcel of many of Gies College of Business’ classes. Classmates from many backgrounds and ages allow for different perspectives, thus enriching the conversation, she says. 

The business professionals taking the classes learn by doing, in the safety of a classroom setting, to not take everything they’re familiar with for granted and recognize how things are done differently in different parts of a state, a country and the world. “Until you see that different thing, you never even question your reality,” such as discovering that some cultures consider small talk and getting to know one another — not getting down to business right away — an important part of interacting. Gies College of Business learners find out more about inclusion, respect and understanding differences from so many perspectives.

Exploring interactions in an online classroom

In one of Lewin Loyd’s classes, students plan a simulation as a team, work together, schedule time to conduct the actual simulation, engage in it together, and then create an infographic based on it. The product of that teamwork is graded.

Some classes, like those in the online MBA, feature a team project or team assignment, and online learners can expect “a very realistic experience of working in a multicultural team across different time zones and cultural differences” — just like they would for a corporation for a multinational firm, Lewin Loyd says.

“It’s one of the things I love about teaching in that program: the richness of the conversations, the different perspectives that are brought. Most of the students are currently working, so they’re bringing their real-world immediate questions and challenges in the workplace to the conversation.“

“What’s wonderful to me about this program is, in part, because of the structure, the price point, and even how you apply. We have created an extremely high-quality and accessible program that has a lot of diversity and is a space where the learners can really engage quite richly — in spite of what people think of as online learning,” she says.

“This is a very rich space where they really can experience those benefits of diversity first-hand in a learning setting. It’s not courses specifically about teamwork. It’s the experience in real time of engaging in this way.

“Diversity exists. We have it. And it’s a tremendous source of strength and value,” Lewin Loyd says. “If we recognize that and manage it effectively, we’ll all benefit."