What if he’s in your group next time?

Seems like no group project is immune: one or two teams in the class will be dysfunctional in some way.

It’s inconvenient but not always bad… sometimes tension can lead to effort and creativity that too much harmony might otherwise smooth over.

When conflict stifles or obstructs performance, though…. That’s bad. It might be a case where somebody doesn’t do their work. Or someone refuses to hear others’ ideas… or refuses to share their own.

Sometimes these issues go unknown until I see end-of-the-course evaluations. More often, I can tell just by watching how the team members interact, their body language, their withdrawal or tone of voice.

When this is the case, I’ll sit in on in-class team meetings to offer encouragement and reminders of the team’s common mission. Doesn’t always work but often it does help.

In many cases I’ll be made aware of a problem by a member of the team. I offer an online peer evaluation form throughout the project, not just at the end, so I may find out that way. Many times students will come to me to share their frustration.

Here’s a life lesson that tastes bad going down but ultimately proves to be good medicine.

“Do you know if he has anything going on, in school or at home?”

This provokes empathy. Maybe there is something going on that, while it might be hard to relate to, will shed a new light on the situation.

If there’s no apparent explanation, I’ll ask a different question:

“What if he’s in your group next time?”

This forces the unhappy team member to start thinking about solutions instead of problems. Could you have prepared for this somehow? Can you think of any different way to allocate responsibility, assignments? And if so… why not start right now?

One time, a student told me “I wish I thought of that question last semester… because he WAS in my group last semester, too.

So, what if the difficult student, or another one like him or her, is assigned to your group in another class?

(As a side note, I assign my class teams, generally by random or alphabetically. Students self-selecting… Nope. Good friends don’t always make good group project teammates, and there’s always one or two folks on the team NOT among the initial friendship squad)

(Another side note: I don’t allow teams to fire members… peers don’t fire peers)

There are lessons I’ve learned from my colleagues and from experience, including:

  • Have teams do an “asset inventory” early in the semester, so everybody has an idea of what they can offer and expect from their teammates
  • Make it clear that meetings are and will forever be difficult to schedule. Use online sharing tools and email to communicate
  • Set deadlines
  • Buddy up… don’t leave work to just one person. A group of four, if my math is correct, can form six pairs of buddies for six elements of a project.
  • Don’t worry about the other guy’s grade, just worry about your own.
  • But don’t let anybody ruin your project.

Those last two don’t always go down easily either. Why, my students ask, should I work harder than her but she gets the same grade?

My answer: is your grade, your outcome important to you?

Of course it is.

Then focus on your outcome, not theirs.

I’ve seen this approach restore peace of mind to some students. For others, I’ve seen them recognize an opportunity to grow and to lead their team.

How do YOU handle difficult team members, at work or at school?


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