The Best Ways To Deal With Challenging Group Members

Say it with me… I hate group work!

I’ve never met anybody that’s said differently. Group work is inevitable for many academic programmes. It’s one of the reasons that mature students choose to enroll in online courses. Most part-time [mature] students prefer to be in complete control over the quality of their project submissions and their final grade.

The truth is, it’s difficult to trust anyone other than yourself when your pass or fail depends on their contribution – or at least can be affected by it. This is a real issue for me. I am not alone in saying that I have trust issues because of group members 😥

Still, I’ve been in MANY group projects and I have always come out victorious in the end. Full disclosure, for every group project I have been involved in, I got an A; well, WE got MY A. I still hate group work though. I just found a way to deal with the group members and use my people skills to my advantage.

In this post, I’ll suggest 7 ways to deal with challenging, lazy or unresponsive group members while understanding how to deal with group dynamics practically.

Let’s go.

#1 Set Expectations And Determine Team Guidelines

From the moment you have your first group meeting, set your expectations. By this, I mean to be brutally honest about what the group should be aiming to achieve. You want to avoid or lessen any opportunity to encounter conflicts.
In group projects, conflicts arise for several reasons: personality differences, schedule clashes, poor or lack of communication, uncommitted or uninvolved group members… the list can fill up a scroll.
You should talk them out. You know, like the best ways, times and mediums to communicate with each other.
But here’s the deeper approach – expose your strengths and weaknesses. Yes, initiate the conversation about what (and how) contributions can be delivered. This will include the best ways, times and mediums to communicate with each other, methods to keep focused and overall constraints of the group. I also recommend that you discuss what the ramifications would be if someone does NOT meet their deliverables.

Here are some invasive, but insightful, questions to ask:
Who is the academic procrastinator? Who has problems citing references? Which one of you is very good at research? Are you a horrible public speaker, but good at graphics?

Read: How to beat academic procrastination in a practical way

These are the REAL questions that should be asked. Once the team knows what skills can be optimised and what shortcomings can be mitigated, there is a greater chance that people won’t feel “set up” when that final submission is compiled for submission.

And on that note…

#2 Create Group Roles And Responsibilities

Roles? Yes, groups have roles. Let me suggest some for you to consider:
Team Leader – Delegates, keeps everyone on track, does most of the correspondence between the group members and with the lecturer.
Recorder – The one who records agreements, ideas, submissions.
Time-Keeper – pays attention to deadlines for contributions, drafts and final due date.
Editor – The one responsible for refining the final version of the submission to meet the grading criteria.
Researcher – Someone responsible for compiling the information and data necessary to populate the document or support the presentation.
Lead Presenter – The person that can carry an oral presentation best.

Your group can create its roles and responsibilities. Also, if it’s a heavy project, members can accept roles and contribute to other aspects of the project. It’s a good place to start, especially after discussing expectations and hashing out the team guidelines.

Please note, that group members should also commit to giving constructive critiques and motivating other team members whenever possible. If someone falls short, never make assumptions. Always seek to know and understand a situation before jumping to conclusions. Remember, it’s a short time-frame for a group project, you most likely will not have to live with or work with these individuals after. If you do, ask the ancestors for strength.

#3 Delegate And Coordinate By the Assignment Rubric

It’s a nifty trick I’ve used since I discovered its magic! There is always a rubric for assignments. This is how your lecturer measures how to grade your submission. So, aim for the “A” block. Identify the key areas of focus and follow up with the roles and responsibilities derived from the set expectations and group guidelines. It’s a sure way to shoot for that A!

Here’s a little ninja trick. If you see someone not doing quite as good as you would like them to do, ask another group member (who you believe can deliver) to just do a little work on their part. Be civil. Tell them that a little bit more information is needed on X and ask them if they won’t mind giving you a paragraph or two on the topic (if they can). This can supplement the word limit for the project, with the right information.

#4 Use Teamwork Tools

To do your work, enter the virtual space that makes collaboration easy. Common platforms include Whatsapp groups and Google Docs.
There are alternatives, however.

Telegram is a great alternative for Whatsapp. It’s like Whatsapp on steroids.

There are nice alternatives for Google Docs. I recommend these two FREE options:

  • DropBox Paper – Uses a DropBox account, accessible on all devices, one of the best alternatives to Google Docs.
  • ONLYOFFICE – Compatible with Microsoft, connects with cloud storages like Google Drive and DropBox, can be used online, offline and on iOS and Android.

#5 Set Ghost Dates (and review dates)

It’s always a good thing to set what I call “ghost dates”. What’s that you ask? Well, don’t focus on your due date – ever. The due date should be considered a grace period date or an extension date. If your project is due in 2 weeks (14 days), set the group due date for at least 3 days before that date. Also, schedule the dates for reviews (check-ups). Within that time frame.

I propose that you use the review dates to solicit feedback for further guidance (if you can). This way, everyone’s submissions can be intermittently evaluated and refined. Use the feedback to measure the group’s progress against the assignment rubric and you’ll be well on your way to that A.

Read: Get a grade A when you do this surprising hack!

#6 Set A Draft Date And Then Take Control

This tip is for my twin – the one with the trust issues. I’ve done this where I saw the crash and burn coming rapidly. Sometimes you have to take over. If you are confident that you can get the project where it needs to be and you group members are not doing what they have agreed to do, then, give them a date to send drafts and complete the assignment by yourself.

At least, you’ll have a foundation to build on. At most, you’ll have control of the final submission.

Some words of caution though. That final grade will depend on you, so be ready to take the flack if there is a fail or a lower mark than is expected. Also, only do this once. DO NOT do this for a group that you may be assigned to be a part of for multiple projects. This could cause members to develop a habit of dependency and they could become lackadaisical. Everyone must be held accountable for their contributions. They should be reminded about the impact of negative peer reviews, or provisions for direct communication with the lecturer (if there is allowance to bring up issues with them). These are measures you can take if the situation is too much for you. But, that’s why you should follow the steps above FIRST – this is one of the “last resort” strategies I offer. The next step gives the other.

#7 Do it Yourself

You’d hate this one. But, sometimes, you have to do what you have to do – for YOU. I have had to do this a few times. You do this when all else fails. You do not ask for and/or wait on drafts to complete. Just do it. It will hurt, it will make you exhausted. You will be angry because that means others who do not deserve a grade, will get it.

But, if you want that pass, or higher grade, there are times you just have to suck it up and take complete control. Again, only do this if everything is falling apart. This is the last resort, last resort. Do your peer review and lodge that complaint if you wish, but meet that submission deadline at all costs. Do your best and be proud of your efforts.

Final thoughts: Group work is a simulation of what is to be expected in the workplace. Whether you recognise it, or not, group work is a representation of many scenarios in our lives. The methods you use to handle group work challenges can be transferred to real-life situations. The 7 tactics I presented can be used all together, or you can choose one or two of them. Some people are fortunate to be in groups that have high productivity and that’s wonderful (and rare). More than often, though, this is not the case. So, if you are on the verge of cussing out your group members, review my recommendations. If any of them seem doable for you, take your shot.

Quick note: If you are an introvert, speak up! Don’t be bullied into getting anything less than what you deserve, ok? Ok.

If you found the information in this post helpful, please feel free to share it 🙂