We Need to Rework Group Work

Group work. We all know it. Some of us even loathe it from our high school and college days. Reminiscing back to classrooms filled with heavily-caffeinated students glancing around at their newly-assigned brothers-and-sisters-in-arms for the following months.

This experience of working with a group is more important than you think.

Whether you are the group leader who always ends up completing the project on your own, or the slacker who lets everyone else take the reigns, group work is an important exercise in working with others from different background towards a common goal.

Do you know what we call group work in the real world? Everyday life. I can’t think of many jobs that allow you to work in a vacuum without interacting with someone else. When considering the next team you’re on, think about these aspects of successful group work:

This may be your first experience in terms of working with others who are not like you. It’s easy to stay in cliques or bubbles that are categorized by interests or extracurriculars, but in order to actually get things done, you will need to navigate all type of barriers, cultural and otherwise. When working with others from different backgrounds, communication style can be another big pain point. A lot of things can get lost in translation. The more you experience this friction, the quicker your sense of empathy will grow.

Stop and think about all of the groups you’ve ever worked with. Did you trust everyone on those teams? In high school and college, it can be difficult to establish trust because you are still figuring out who you are, let alone worry about someone else’s feelings. In an ideal setting, there is enough trust to speak your mind and share your individual insight. This is when diversity becomes even more of a strength. Our different backgrounds and experiences are ammo for the group’s task at hand. When people don’t trust each other, this ammo is wasted and can even become a detriment to the team.

Interdisciplinary Skills
All teams have some level of interdisciplinary skill. Even a baseball team has a mix of hitters, fielders, pitchers, catchers, all from different cultures and countries. In a group work setting, you have people from various backgrounds with different skills. If harnessed correctly, the sum of the group will always be stronger than the individual parts. The most difficult task is identifying individual strengths in the group and applying them all equally.

Common Goal
Whether you like the people in your group or not, you are all in the same boat, working toward a common goal (usually receiving an “A” on the project). As important as this may seem, the stakes are exponentially higher after you graduate. Instead of a grade, you may be trying to create value on a startup team, or introduce a new product through an internal team at a company. In these settings, anything other than an “A” can mean catastrophic failure.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a natural go-getter or a passenger who’s along for the ride. When working in a group, some level of leadership is inevitable. If the teacher doesn’t assign a group leader, someone usually takes the mantle of leadership on their own. Like it or not, this also happens in the real world. Those that lead may not always be the most qualified or empathetic, but they’re usually the ones who take it upon themselves. If you’re reluctant to work with them, there’s only one other option: take the lead and prove why you are more capable.

These points are all equally important to a fully-functioning team. So why are some of them only emphasized once you reach college? College can already be a jarring time for young adults. Why make it even harder by waiting to expose them to collaboration in a team setting?

Interdisciplinary group work needs to be considered and emphasized as a building block during early education. We need to expose students to group work as soon as possible so they can experience the stages of team building (forming, storming, norming, performing) sooner.

Do you agree? What was your experience with group work in high school or college? Did it carry over into your professional life? Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below or reach out on Twitter at @williamfrazr.

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