Working in groups

Problems you may encounter and how to address them

In most groups, when working on a task, there will be some form of problem, disagreement, conflict or hiccup. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your group is poor, or problematic; in fact, it’s natural to have to negotiate differences between members. There are a number of common problems that arise during group work:

  • misunderstandings about responsibilities
  • perceived lack of commitment in some group members
  • one person doing all the work
  • personality clashes

For further information about each of these, read on below…

Misunderstandings about responsibilities

In most cases, misunderstandings about responsibilities can be avoided by following some of the guidelines discussed in the 'model' of groupwork, for example:

  • At a group meeting, identify all specific tasks and allocate them to team members
  • Then, agree on a timeline for each task by arranging future meeting dates
  • Finally – and crucially – keep notes during the meeting about everyone’s tasks and circulate those notes to all members

This should help ensure that all tasks are covered and that all members will be held accountable if they forget or ignore their responsibilities.

Perceived lack of commitment in some group members

As mentioned earlier, each person’s objectives may be very different from yours, so it’s important to establish varying levels of motivation early in the group process. If there are some group members who are more committed to achieving high grades, for example, they may have to be prepared to do a greater share of the work. It’s better to know this up-front than to have group conflict later on!

If conflict does arise, for whatever reason, rather than assuming that the other members are ‘wrong’, it’s often helpful to adopt the following philosophy:

“I cannot control their attitude or behaviour, but I can control my response”.

There are only two useful responses to varying levels of commitment in a group, and neither of them involve complaining:

  1. Approach the member/s in an assertive way (see below) and discuss your feelings openly and respectfully
  2. If that fails, or is not an option, accept the differences and move on

In a discussion based on an assertive approach, you would mention to the group member/s that you feel they are not contributing as much time and energy as the other members and that you feel that is unfair. Then, encourage them in a supportive manner to explain why they are contributing less than the other members.

Remember, the aim here is to express your feelings honestly, but also to hear and respect the other person’s values and situation. Once you’ve cleared the air, ask them for suggestions for a solution that is WIN-WIN.

Sometimes this approach will still fail, so you have little choice but to move on positively, working productively with the other similarly-motivated members. It is likely that your lecturer or tutor will be aware of imbalances in group contributions, so it’s possible that any students deliberately ‘bludging’ will have that reflected in their grade.

One person doing all the work

For a number of reasons, one group member will sometimes take on the responsibility of doing the bulk of the work. This is generally not a good idea, and it is unfair, both to that person, and the other group members who stand to benefit from working on the project.

Again, take an assertive approach when working out a solution to the problem. Approach the person in a respectful manner, being ready to hear the other person’s reasons for their behaviour. Suggest the importance of group collaboration, with regard to:

  • troubleshooting potential problem areas
  • utilising special skills
  • respecting other’s ideas
  • including everyone in the process

If this still does not work, and you are feeling like the group member is entirely dominating the process, it might pay to talk to your tutor. Again, try to be mature, calm and respectful—your lecturer won’t step in if he/she thinks you’re just complaining.

Personality clashes

To avoid these problems occurring, you need to adopt assertive, not aggressive, behaviour. Assertive behaviour means looking for win-win outcomes in communication in which everyone ends up feeling good about things. It does NOT mean getting everyone else to behave in the way you would like them to behave - this is aggressive behaviour. It does NOT mean allowing other people to let you do all the work and have all the worry - this is passive behaviour.

Take a moment to consider the following chart. It should be noted that aggressive behaviour can often be disguised be apparent politeness. In other words, just because someone is speaking softly and smiling, does not mean they are not using aggressive tactics.




In group discussions…

keeping quiet for fear of upsetting other people

getting your point across at other people’s expense

being clear about your point

not expressing your feelings

manipulating people by using silence or sarcasm

expressing your feelings honestly and with care

apologising excessively

being loud and interrupting others

listening to and considering other people’s points of view

inwardly burning with anger and frustration

respecting other peoples values and ideas

being vague about your ideas and needs

When making decisions…

appearing indecisive

pushing your own ideas as the ‘right’ ones

being prepared to negotiate solutions

avoiding conflict

putting people down

showing understanding of other people’s situations

going along with things you don’t agree with

finding solutions to difficulties