How to succeed in group projects at University

University group projects.

You either love 'em or you hate 'em.

But they're a fact of University life.

And because they're integral to many University modules, the sooner you can learn not only how to survive, but thrive when completing group tasks, the better.

Many people find group work problematic. It’s not surprising because it can be difficult to work closely with other people you don’t know very well, especially as they may work in a different way to you.

Group work is based on trust and mutual respect, as are most relationships at University and in the workplace. Today, I’m going to share why learning to work in groups is so important, why different doesn’t have to mean difficult, five of the common characters you may find yourself working with and how to get the best from teammates.

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The importance of group projects
Working in groups is an important transferable skill because in most careers and professions you'll find yourself in situations where you need to work alongside other people who will have a different approach to you. Being able to manage any friction or conflict between you and others is a valuable skill which will set you apart in the workplace as someone who is flexible, amenable and can get results in all circumstances. There are many more benefits to working in groups at Uni:

  • You can share your ideas on the subject
  • You can hear other perspectives
  • You can benefit from each other's collective knowledge
  • You practice building and refuting academic arguments
  • You learn how to work with others

Working together on a joint task, whether that's an in class presentation or an assessed piece of course work, can be a successful way of increasing and enhancing your understanding of a topic by combining and evaluating knowledge.

But group work can create issues for students when there are differences of opinion, personality and, let's be honest, work ethic. If you find yourself in a group with someone who has a very different approach to you, then you can find it tough.

You may feel angry, frustrated, anxious, misunderstood and/or thoroughly hacked off! But it is possible to feel the experience is positive, productive, helpful and enjoyable. Here's how...

How to make sure your group project is a positive experience
This is the good news. You CHOOSE to make it a positive experience.

Okay, so you can't always choose who you find yourself in a team with. Often you'll be assigned a group by the lecturer and even if you DO choose your group, you can find those folks you enjoy heading to Starbucks with after the lecture and you've CHOSEN to work with, have some completely annoying habits that don't fully emerge until you're working alongside them on a task.

When I was studying for my MBA I worked with a group of students on a project to evaluate digital image recognition technology to see whether it could be used commercially, as it wasn't common practice at the time. The group was formed from students from Japan, Russia and Malaysia and the UK and we all had assumptions about how each other would behave!

It opened my eyes to how some behaviour might be a problem for one person, but acceptable or even valued by another. What might be considered blunt to a student from Japan was simple straight talking to the student from Russia. Saying yes in discussions was valued and considered polite by the Japanese students but was frustrating for me because I assumed people would only say yes if they were happy to take on a task!

I soon realised people act in accordance with their values and beliefs and unless these are understood their behaviour might seem inappropriate and even downright peculiar.

Why different doesn’t mean difficult
How can you choose to be have a positive experience? Well, the most fun way in my opinion is to decide it will be and then treat your group project as an experiment in understanding and working with others. Now, I must caveat this by saying: I'm not a psychologist. My background is business and management, which some might argue can be an awful lot like being a psychologist, but when I say experiment I mean it informally - try an approach, record the results and decide whether to continue, change or stop a method you're using.

I have had enormous success in creating my own 'study experiments' both when I was an undergraduate and during my MBA and PhD. Many of the results of those and subsequent experiments form the process for improving study skills I teach to students today.

By treating your group projects like an experiment, it makes the process and outcome seem less personal. It becomes less about 'what he did' and 'how she made me feel' and more about becoming curious about the way your and your group mates' beliefs, thoughts and values influence their behaviour.

Most problems in group projects are a result of two people seeing a situation differently. Much of what we see and hear from other people is on the surface. Without understanding what goes on underneath it can be easy for us to get angry and frustrated with the behaviour of others which seems nonsensical to us, but makes perfect sense to them. When you can see the situation from the other peoples' perspectives, you're well on your way to a successful result.

Different does not automatically mean difficult. If one person holds a particular view, yours may be different. Yours is not better, or right, just different. There is nothing wrong with you or the other person, but situations can go wrong in the way you relate to one another.

Avoiding group member conflict

Conflict is caused when one person satisfies their needs at the expense of someone else's needs. If you impose your values on others, or they impose that impose their values on you, then you will encounter conflict. The only truly difficult people are those who are inflexible about their beliefs and behaviour!

When you understand more about the people you're working with, you can choose how to ACT instead of REACTING when ever you are triggered by a person or situation. Being triggered happens when you're prompted to act or react in a certain way to a situation because certain aspects of the situation invoke a strong emotional response like fear. Fear of failure in particular has a big part to play in driving group projects and can be the catalyst for conflict.

Now, let's get down to talking about personality and behaviour. As you read the following descriptions, think about people you may know or work with who behave this way.

The five people you'll meet in groups
I'm going to introduce you to some of the common characters who you'll meet when you're working on group projects and explain how to work with them so you can succeed in your project, both as an individual and as a group.

Here are five different personality types that can present a problem when you're working in a team:

  • The Perfectionist (Task Focussed)
  • The Diplomat (People Focussed)
  • The Achiever (Results Focussed)
  • The Entertainer (Social Focussed)
  • The Escapologist (Comfort Focussed)

These are my observations on personality and behaviour, there may well be other types of people you encounter. Feel free to let me know in the comments below!

The Perfectionist

This person is concerned with getting things right, sometimes even at the expense of getting them done! They will tend to keep a close eye on what other people are doing because they worry that others will not complete the work or be able to do the work as well as they would. They have high standards and an eye for detail and this means they may often come across as critical or picky.

Team mates who are more focussed on people can find the perfectionist aloof or uncaring and those who are more focused on completion may feel the perfectionist slows them down and spends too much time on planning and checking rather than the task itself.

How to manage the Perfectionist:

The perfectionist’s strengths lie in their ability to pay attention to detail and spot errors and inconsistencies. Encourage this type of person to maintain the group standards. Ask them to provide the group members with an overview of what they need to do to make sure their part of the project is completed to an acceptable standard. They will also excel if you allow them to organise pulling the final project together and proofreading the final draft.


The Diplomat

This person is warm and friendly and tries to accomodate others. They seldom criticise and often have a lot of praise for the work of others. They can spend a lot of time on gaining consensus and making sure everyone is happy. On occasions they get resentful if they suspect they are being dumped on because of their good nature. 

Team mates who are more results focussed may find the Diplomat frustratingly slow and indecisive, while those who have more of a social focus may think the Diplomat gets too bogged down in people's problems.

How to manage the Diplomat:
This sort of person is great at getting people to work together as a team and can often spot potential problems early on. They are genuinely interested in how everyone is feeling and performing. Their strengths lie in keeping the team motivated and ensuring workload is fair. Encourage them to check to make sure everyone is getting on okay. And be sure to even out the tasks so the Diplomat doesn't get allocated all the jobs other people don't want - just because they're being nice!


The Achiever
This person wants to get the project done quickly and efficiently. They are energetic and get straight to the point but can sometimes be a bit blunt in their conversation. They can be impatient with others who want to take their time and can be intolerant of people if they seem to be making an excuse for not doing the work. 

Team mates who are more focussed on the task can find the Achiever takes too many risks for their liking and can find their approach slapdash. People who are more people or socially focussed might find the Achiever pushy, uncaring or abrupt.

How to manage the Achiever:
Allow the Achiever to create and manage the overall plan for the project and keep track of what needs to happen. They will enjoy managing deadlines and will be happy to make sure everyone knows what they're doing and when and understand what tasks are interdependent.


The Entertainer (Social Focussed)

This person is easy going and relaxed. They have creative ideas and innovative ways of working. They don't like being boxed in and they can get bored and restless if they are working on the same task for too long. They are happy to be in the limelight and they're the first to volunteer to present back to the class or wider group!

Team mates who are task oriented may find the Entertainer too laid back and disorganised and get frustrated as they jump from one task to the next. Those who are more focussed on people may find them irresponsible in their actions and unreliable.

How to manage the Entertainer:

Entertainers thrive on freedom so give them a task which requires imagination and don't manage them too tightly. Having someone in your group who isn't afraid to speak in public can be a advantage, so ask them to work on tasks which require gathering data from others such as interviews or market research. Let them mentor others in group presentations which is an area in which Entertainers shine.


The Escapologist (Comfort Focussed)

Ah, the Escapologist. These people will try and get out of any situation where they feel uncomfortable, whether it is because they don't want to work, have other priorities or prefer to spend time alone. This manifests as not showing up to group meetings, not completing the work or looking and acting disengaged while the group is working together. 

Team mates may consider them to be lazy or freeloaders who want to receive credit for work where they have had little input. Or they may not be able to weigh up their character at all because they fail to turn up and may as well not be in the group!

How to manage the Escapologist:

This can be the trickiest of all the characters. Understanding why the Escapologist wants to avoid the group project is the key to getting along with them. It may be that they have other issues which are distracting them, they may be chronically disorganised or even shy. The first step is to talk with them about the situation and how it is affecting the group. You can point them in the direction of Student Welfare Services if you they have a problem which is interfering with their work. If their problem is they fail to show up to the group meetings, don't do any of the work or you have serious concerns about their well being then don't hesitate to speak to your tutor or professor about the situation.


Don't forget YOUR contribution

These are the five characters you will most often meet and you'll find most groups contain people matching some of these descriptions. You may also find that you have a group made up mostly of Achievers or Perfectionists and in those circumstances you'll want to make sure you pay attention to the areas where you all have a weakness as it may be a blind spot for the group as a whole.

Remember, your personality has a part to play in how the group dynamic works. Depending on your values, beliefs and preferred ways of working, you may have a smoother relationship with some of these characters than others. Keep thinking of it as an experiment and be mindful of how your character interacts with others. Focus on making a stronger group instead of assuming people should approach it your way. Take a closer look. Do you see yourself reflected in any of these vignettes? Could you be somebody else's nightmare group member? It's a point worth reflecting on!

Now, you are equipped with the knowledge that group work does not have to mean difficulty and conflict. You can go into your next project with your eyes open for opportunities to understand and get the best of others and this will give you the best grade and learning experience.. 

Tell me in the comments below which of these characters you relate to most or who you find most difficult to work with.