Lessons Teaching Management - The #BlackLivesMatter Edition


“We didn't find a solution for the conflict of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, or the strong disagreements between political camps, or any other conflict between groups—not even close. But we did get to experience first-hand a small, small sense of what it feels like when the rules are not the same.”

During my MBA program at George Mason University, I worked as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate management course. After graduation, I’ve continued serving as an Adjunct for Management 303: Principles of Management. I love being the recitation instructor for this course, because:

  1. The course covers practical topics that we encounter every day in the work place

  2. It keeps me up-to-date with management best-practices

  3. I learn constantly from the experiences shared in the classroom by my incredibly diverse students

And my classrooms are always very diverse. I have 37 students per section of countless backgrounds—many for whom English is a second language—plus gender, income, and age diversity.

The Game

Last week we did a classroom activity to get at the heart of why we study cultural differences in management. The game is called “Barnga” and it’s simple:

  1. Students got into small groups of 4 or 5

  2. They received card game instructions and a deck of cards

  3. They taught themselves how to play the game and practiced

  4. (It’s a game of “tricks” similar to Spades or Hearts)

Then the tournament began and there was ZERO TALKING allowed. At the end of the round, the player with the most tricks rotated tables clockwise, and the player with the least tricks rotated counter clockwise. Then it was time for round two. Still no talking.

The catch? The students didn’t know that the rules given to each group were slightly different. Sometimes ace was high, sometimes low. Each table had a different “trump card” or suit. So with no talking allowed, conflicts emerged. Noises of exasperation. Frantic whispering. Fists slamming on desks. Students reaching over to handle another player’s cards. I kept the students playing three full rounds even though they sometimes struggled to find the winner and loser of each round.

The Debrief

I feel bad tricking my students, but it’s for learning! Many (most?) of the students figured out eventually that the rules were not consistent at every table. But that didn’t mean they knew how to fix it without their easy way of communication: talking. Some students gave up and just accepted not knowing the rules to win. Other students forced their rules on the others. Some felt satisfied for winning multiple times, other students felt frustrated, anxious… or even felt “dumb” for not understanding how to play.

Of course they didn’t understand how to play—they had never been told the rules of the table!

As a class we discussed how this mimics doing business in another country—you may not know that the rules of doing business are different in another country and act inappropriately by accident. Or you may be able to tell that the rules are different, but not know how to figure it out. It can be frustrating, but this is why we study cultural differences and global management: so that we know that we need extra preparation to do business globally.

But in our discussion it came up that this kind of conflict happens within our own country all the time—even when we speak the same language. It was the week of the protests and rioting in Charlotte: we all thought about how rules can be different for different groups, how not all the players necessarily know that the rules are different, and no one seems to know how to get on the same page.

It was a poignant learning moment. I’m confident everyone in the room felt it. We didn't find a solution for the conflict of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, or the strong disagreements between political camps, or any other conflict between groups—not even close. But we did get to experience first-hand a small, small sense of what it feels like when the rules are not the same.

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