9 Ways to Work Well in a Group

Image shows a group working on a collage.

Group work can be among the most frustrating tasks to be faced with at school.

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It’s easy enough to see why it’s required. It’s hard to get exact figures for how many people’s jobs require them to work with colleagues, but given only 15% of British adults in employment are self-employed, it’s certainly the vast majority of us. If school is to be a good preparation for the workplace, then learning how to work in a group of people is an essential skill to gain.
All the same, group work in school is frequently awful. It seems to turn your normally intelligent, helpful peers into bossy control freaks, lazy coasters happy to let everyone else prop them up and people who are extremely enthusiastic but not very good at carrying out the task in hand. And it all gets so much worse if it’s a task that contributes to your final grade.
Part of the problem is that group work in an adult work environment makes sense. If you’re part of a cereal company trying to decide on which new product to introduce, it’s logical to involve the CEO, someone from accounts, someone from marketing and someone from your cereal development team in the decision; everyone has different knowledge and skills to contribute to the process. By contrast, if you and the other group members are all in the same class at school, if all has gone well, you should have roughly the same level of knowledge and skills – eliminating a key advantage of group work and making the organisation of the task much harder.
In this article, we’re taking a look at nine things you can do to make group work easier, less stressful and more successful for all involved.

1. Allow extra time

Image shows an old-fashioned alarm clock.
Always allow more time than you think you’ll need.

We’ve all got that friend who is twenty minutes late to everything. (If you don’t, consider the possibility it might be you). The friend who you tell a film starts at 5pm if it actually starts at 5.30pm, to ensure you won’t miss the start. The friend who leads you into the habit of being twenty minutes late as well, to ensure you won’t be standing around waiting for them all the time.
There’s a decent chance that working in a group, you’ll end up working with at least one of these people – the people who tend to hand in work two days after the deadline, with excuses about broken printers and corrupted memory sticks. So, if you can get the team to arrange to nothing else, get them to arrange to building in some redundancy into your planning. Perhaps you could do this by getting everyone to proofread everyone else’s work two days before the deadline (so if one person’s work only appears the day of the deadline, it won’t be proofread, but at least it’ll be done). Better yet, ask your teacher to look over the work, so anyone handing in late won’t just be disappointing the group, but also inconveniencing the person ultimately marking it all.

2. Trust your teacher

Image shows a teacher pointing at one of her students.
Your teacher knows you and your capabilities.

Let’s be honest: the one biggest fear most of us have about group work is that we will get someone in our group who is either lazy or incompetent, and we will be judged (and marked!) on the standard of their work rather than our own. That one rubbish person risks bringing the marks of the rest of the group down unless someone does their work for them – and then it’s not exactly group work any more.
There’s only so much that can be done to mitigate this fear if everyone in the group gets the same grade. But if you are graded separately, then don’t worry. Just like teachers can spot plagiarism or the use of Google Translate miles away, any reasonably competent teacher can also identify which member of a group was responsible for what task – and not just by identifying their handwriting. So you should still be sure of getting the grade that you – and you alone – deserve.

3. Adapt the task to the group

Image shows a portrait of the Tudors.
Have you got a particular expert on Tudor portraiture in your group? Make the most of it!

This is the solution to the problem we discussed above. Imagine you’re doing a group project on the Tudors after 12 weeks of studying them. If all has gone well, you should all know roughly the same amount about the Tudors. The differences in your knowledge might be that one person went on holiday in week 6 and so has a slightly hazy understanding of the reign of Edward VI. This is not the kind of thing you can really use when trying to play to your strengths.
All the same, it is worth trying to adapt the task to the group. Is there a talented musician who could open the presentation by playing some Tudor music? Chances are there is someone who is better at writing, someone who is better at presentation skills and someone who is better at graphic design – try to think of ways that you could divide up the work to play to everyone’s strengths. The initially obvious division (e.g. one monarch per person) might not be the best way to get everyone to work to the best of their ability.

4. Try active listening

Image shows a dog looking at a row of bone-shaped treats.
Were the instructions clear enough for you?

Active listening is a communication technique that – to be honest – can sometimes sound a little silly. It involves the listener repeating and paraphrasing what the speaker has said, to check they’ve understood. It works a bit like this, where Linda is using active listening:
Harriet: Hey, would you mind feeding my dog at the weekend?
Linda: I think I understand – you’d like me to come round to your house, and give your dog some food?
Harriet: Yes, that’s it. He needs a couple of spoonfuls of the wet food and his bowl filling up with dry food. Twice a day.
Linda: So I should come on Friday evening, Saturday morning and evening and Sunday morning and evening, and fill up his bowl with dry food, and give him maybe 100g of wet food as well?
Harriet: Yes… would you mind doing that? Jim’s going to be walking him, so you don’t need to worry about that.
Linda: You’re asking me if I’m OK with feeding him, but you’re not asking me to walk him as well? Got it.
At this point, Harriet could be forgiven for asking Linda if she’s feeling OK.
In a group scenario, especially where lots of ideas are being thrown out and discarded, these techniques are much more useful. If someone suggests something you don’t quite understand, you can ask them to clarify, or you can rephrase and ask if that’s what they meant – which can produce a more nuanced answer as well as ensuring that everyone is on the same page.

5. Get someone to be in charge

Image shows a duck with her ducklings.
Groups can work by consensus, but having a leader is usually quicker.

Some groups end up with one outspoken leader who interrupts people and tries to force their own ideas on them. That can be hard to deal with. However, potentially more difficult is the situation in which the entire group are like shy people at a comedy gig, with no one daring to sit in the front row. It does become necessary to pick someone to coordinate, if not to lead; group projects go very slowly if everyone tries to do everything by consensus.
The danger, of course, is that the group’s leader – having effectively taken responsibility – then ends up doing everything that everyone else can’t be bothered to do. One way of avoiding this is to ensure that whoever would be most likely to be the person picking up the slack doesn’t also end up with the leadership role, so that the burden becomes better shared.

6. Find a suitable space

Image shows a smart meeting room.
Your school might even have a designated meeting room that you can use.

A lot of schools require that their students carry out group projects, but don’t provide much easily accessible space that’s suitable for carrying them out. Perhaps you’re lucky to have booths in the library or specifically designated study rooms for group work, but if not, it can be a struggle. Libraries are usually too quiet for group work, whereas other spaces – like canteens or common rooms – are too loud. It may be that no one in the group lives close enough to school for their house to be a feasible place to work at. And no decent group work ever got done outdoors.
Often the solution to this simply requires that someone is a little proactive. Can you book an empty classroom to work in at lunchtime? Is there a music practice space that you could borrow for academic work? Formally booked spaces are particularly good for this because they require that the whole group pulls together at a particular time to make use of the opportunity while you have it.

7. Use appropriate technology

Image shows a smartphone.
Your smartphone might have helpful apps for collaborative work.

In the modern age, group work should never be dependent on everyone scribbling overlapping things on the same piece of dog-eared paper. A functioning collaboration no longer requires everyone to be in the same building or even all working at the same time. Considering using:
Skype and similar software, so that you can all get online at the same time during your homework time and chat about the group project.
Google Chat and other messenger software can also help if voice calls are impractical.
Google Docs and similar software, which allow everyone to collaborate on the same document, showing edits, suggestions, comments and chat in real time. All revisions are saved, so if one person makes a change to the document that everyone else would like to undo, it’s easy to fix.

8. Be aware of subjective error

Image shows a mop in a bucket.
This is a danger in schoolwork as well as chores.

Imagine two people who live together, and who split chores evenly. Ask one of them what percentage of the chores they do. Chances are, they will say something more than 50% – 60%, perhaps, or even 65%. Their partner will say the same. Given that they are presumably not doing 120% of the chores, there is something else going on here.
In fact, it’s pretty clear. We tend to overestimate the things we have subjective experience of, and underestimate everything else. You know all about the half hour you spent with bleach and a toilet brush yesterday; the fact that your partner did an hour and a half with the hoover is more easily dismissed.
Remember this in group scenarios. If four people in a group each aim to do 25% of the work, it probably won’t all get done because each of them will overestimate their own contribution. If everyone aims for 30%, there’s a much better chance that will work out to 100% of the work being done overall.

9. Use your emotional intelligence

Image shows people sitting at a cafe table and working.
If you’re aware of difficult group dynamics, put that knowledge to use.

The value of group work is that it doesn’t just test your general intelligence; it also tests your emotional intelligence in interacting well with others. Unfortunately, when there’s a deadline to hit and people to impress, this can be something we forget, instead focusing entirely on the pure intellectual challenges of the task.
Does this conversation sound familiar?
Harriet: I’m just really annoyed because Becky didn’t pull her weight. We all knew that sorting out the PowerPoint would be too tricky for her.
Linda: That sounds really infuriating.
Harriet: It really was. And I knew Paul would just try to take over, and he did, he was really bossy…
If it does, it raises the question: if you knew from the start what the problems would be, why didn’t you fix them? Using your emotional intelligence demands that just as you identify the core of a Maths problem and then fix it, so you can identify the core of an interpersonal problem and then work out a solution – possibly using some or all of the tips above. Not everyone will necessarily have the skills to spot the problems in the first place, as it takes emotional intelligence to work out which members of a group might – for instance – row, or try to take over, or not pull their weight if nudged. If you do have those skills, then you should use them, just as much as the group’s Maths whizz should have the first go at the equations.
Do you have any more tips for effective group work? Share them in the comments!

Image credits: banner; clock; teacher; Tudors; dog; ducks; meeting room; smartphone; mop; group.