A student recently submitted the following question to the Ask Isa inbox:
"Group projects really stress me out because I like to be 'in control' of my work. It also seems a few of us always have to pick up the slack for others, which adds to my stress.
"I also don't like the idea of someone else's work possibly impacting my grade. Right now I am in a group with one other hard worker, one so-so worker, and two major slackers. And that is the best group I have been in so far!
"I found out that the majority of my remaining classes involve group projects; I enjoy school except for this! Most of the students I have talked to about group projects despise them. What should I do to get through this? Sincerely, Group Project Hater."
Dear Group Project Hater,
I love people, and love working with other high achievers to produce something spectacular. In my current consulting job, I get to work with amazing people; and the things we come up with together are truly greater than anything I would come up with on my own.
But I am 100% with you on this one; the announcement of a new group project in college caused my breath to shorten and blood pressure to skyrocket. Noooooooooo!!! I'd think. I too hated a project not in my full control.
Working with people who do not share your work ethic or enthusiasm is downright painful.
So what do you do to manage the stress and get a good grade, without doing all the work yourself?
Below are the steps I took to always ace my group projects, even when I was working with others who weren't interested in working very hard:
1) Set your priorities. If your first priority is to make sure everyone does exactly the same amount of work, you are going to feel stressed. Instead, set priorities in an order that will ensure you get the best results with little stress. My group project priorities were always:
a) get a good grade
b) enjoy the experience
c) empower everyone to do their part
2) Enjoy. Don't forget to have "enjoy the experience" somewhere on your priority list.
Group projects that are all stress and no fun will not produce the best results. Let creativity flow by enjoying each other's company along the way (e.g. set up group meetings at favorite hangout spots; set aside time for conversation just to get to know your group members.)
3) Become the project expert. When assigned the project, decide to become the expert on the assignment directions and the best process to easily get the job done.
On the first day assigned, read the project directions carefully, meet with the professor for any needed clarifications, and then draft a process that you think will best divide the project up.
Do not wait until the first group meeting to come up with a plan of action together - come prepared with one.
Consider how many people are in your group, what aspects of the project need to be completed (e.g. research, writing, formatting, PowerPoint slides, etc.), and how things could best be divided and yet still come together into a cohesive whole.
When you establish yourself as the expert and make the project more manageable for everyone else they will love you for it and will look to you to help guide the work. Not only does this help you ensure you will get a good grade, but it also divides the work and empowers everyone in the group to contribute their part.
3) Use the professor as a last resort. Leave the professor out of the interpersonal conflicts as much as possible. Try to work things out among yourselves, and only go to the professor when you feel like you have tried everything else.
If you do have to go to the professor, do not start by complaining. Professors are more than aware that group projects cause interpersonal difficulty, and will probably not have a ton of sympathy for your situation.
Instead, approach it maturely, expressing your understanding that this is a learning process, but that you are concerned chiefly about your grade because you are working hard and want to do well in the class.
Ask your professor for advice about what you should do, and inquire if there is any kind of "group grading" process at the end (e.g. some professors have each group member anonymously "grade" each other based on how well they worked and how much effort they put in, as well as documenting what each person did).
If not, take any advice your professor gives and try to work things out. If, when you get your project grade back, it is not what you believe you deserved, set up an appointment the professor and express your concern and ask what can be done.
While I have worked with some difficult people throughout college group projects, in the end my grades were never negatively affected (because I always used the process explained in steps 1-3). But I know on rare occasions there will be situations with group members that are completely out of your control.
4) Grow. Use every group project as an opportunity to develop your management and interpersonal skills. It will be painful, but you will get better. .
Because no matter what major we choose or what kinds of jobs we take, collaborative work will always be a part of our lives (e.g. ever tried to plan a vacation with your family?).
I hope my strategy helps you, but feel free to tweak it and come up with whatever works for you. You'll know you have it right when you find yourself laughing during a group meeting, enjoying yourself and the people around you, confident in the product you all are creating.
If you have a question you'd like to see answered on the blog, submit it anonymously in the Ask Isa inbox. You'd be surprised how many other students you will help by asking :)