Throughout college, students will most likely be faced with group projects. Working together as a team can be a daunting and uncomfortable task for a lot of people. For groups that struggle with such projects, there are certain strategies that can be implemented to turn a random collection of individuals into a cohesive, functioning team.

Associate Professor of Management Jason Kanov teaches a class in team management. He said that a major piece of what he teaches in the class deals with working on the actual team dynamics first as opposed to the final product.

“The management of the group is part of the work with being in a group,” Kanov said. “Teamwork isn’t just about doing things with people, it’s about working on the team.”

Though the two aspects of being social and working well on a team may seem to coincide with each other, Kanov said that some of the things we learn in our social lives, such as conflict avoidance, are not functional with team building and management.
“We have to develop skills in areas that we might not have them and some of the experiences that we have had may actually be orienting us to doing things that are dysfunctional,” Kanov said.

The best way to facilitate group development, Kanov said, is by being upfront and honest about each individual’s expectations of the group and class in order to develop a dynamic that will work with everyone. He said that students should be transparent about what grade they hope to achieve, how much time they’re willing to devote to a project, and the standards that each group member will be held accountable to. In some cases, it may help to draft a contract for the group that members can agree on and refer back to in cases of irresponsibility.    

From there, group members should have more practical conversations about reaching deadlines, scheduling meeting times, and allocating tasks amongst the group. By comparing each individual’s schedules, groups can lay out a system that works for everyone. Kanov said that this usually involves making tradeoffs  - all group members cannot get what they want.

“All teams are unique because they’re a unique mix of unique individuals,” Kanov said. “You can’t assume that the exact same system that worked on team last quarter will work on this new set of people this quarter.”

Two common personalities that can be detrimental to the group dynamic are slackers and dominators. Kanov said that these two roles, although at opposite ends of the same spectrum, are very similar and tend to perpetuate each other. By being transparent and honest upfront, groups can potentially eliminate the appearance of these roles throughout the group’s time together.

“With the slacker, some people are just by their nature are a little bit less conscientious; they’re a little less responsible,” Kanov said. “They may not be bad people, but we mislabel them pretty quickly and may end up not treating them very well. I think that usually when you have a slacker, there are some extenuating circumstances, there’s some reason that it’s happening.”

Senior marketing major Kathleen Esses has worked in multiple different groups tackling several projects throughout her college education. She said that working as a group is a skill that becomes easier with practice and more manageable as one progresses in their major.

“In lower level classes, when you’re put in groups, a lot of the times people are not in the same major or the same mindset,” Esses said. “We’re all taking the same foundation courses, so there might be a bit of disconnect between the way people think or what expectations are.”

Kanov said a common student criticism is that many things learned in school will not apply in the real world. Group work, he said, is about as real as it gets. Working well with a team is a critical component of many jobs available to graduates and the experience of practicing and potentially failing at this skill in college are far less severe than in the working world.

“The beauty of academic life is that eventually the quarter will end and the class will end and you’ll go on to different things,” Kanov said. “In the workplace, if you’re on a team, you might have to work with these people for years, even if you’re not on a team with them anymore.”

By working on group development and treating it as a final product itself, groups can make working together easier, more functional, and more fun.

“If teams are done well, they can lead to a better experience, they can lead to more individual learning, and they can lead to better team performance,” Kanov said. “It’s sort of like an investment; you put in a little amount of time upfront that hopefully will save you time in the long run.”