How to survive group projects

Working together builds valuable career skills.

Thomas Aleman, a former Deloitte partner and global leader of analytics and forensic technology, can’t count how many projects he collaborated on over his 36-year career. But he can count how many projects he completed totally on his own.

It was three.

The professional world is highly collaborative, and undertaking group projects in your classes can be great preparation for it. But for many students group projects can bring along anxiety and uncertainty. Here are some tips to help you navigate, and get the most out of, collaborative learning.

Put it in perspective. If being asked to place your work — and, often, your grade — in the hands of others gives you the jitters, realize that working around those anxieties actually is a big part of the lesson.

Faculty assign group projects, in part, to “put students in uncomfortable situations, where they don’t know exactly what’s expected of them,” said James Willis, CPA, professor of the practice and associate dean of accountancy at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Sometimes students will complain about these assignments: “You didn’t tell us exactly what to do!,” Willis said. “Well, of course, I didn’t. It’s not the way the world works.”

Get to know your group members. Don’t make the project all business. Spend some time having fun with your groupmates and learning more about them.

“The best group projects I’ve been in [were the ones where] I felt a connection with the people,” said Sarah Lindsey Hansen, a Master of Accounting student at the University of Michigan. After getting to know them, she said, she felt more comfortable addressing problems that might have arisen.

Hansen said she likes to start each group project with 10–15 minutes of “getting to know you” time to create bonds within the group and to help better align each member with their best role. She makes a point to have each member talk about their career goals and expectations for the project. If one member has a strong interest in finance, or a better background in computers, for instance, it may benefit the group to let them fill those roles.

Know your objective. The first question your group should address is: “What are we being asked to do?,” said Aleman, who is now a professor of the practice at Wake Forest University.

After you’ve created a baseline, you can then discuss tactics, he said. Agreeing upfront on your “what” question can help your group stay grounded when working through the “how” questions.

Have a process for dealing with conflict. In any group setting, disagreements are bound to arise. Hansen said that though it’s easy to become protective of yourself and your ideas, it’s important to put your emotions aside when working through conflict.

She suggested settling conflicts by having each side explain their thought process, not just their conclusions. This helps team members feel they have had their full say, and lets the group better understand their position as well.

Ask the group members not involved in the conflict for their input as well, Hansen said, pointing out that the more heated a disagreement becomes, the more other members may clam up, not wanting to be seen as taking sides.

But Hansen said conceding a little ground is necessary to move forward, and that means team members will eventually need to speak up and take a side. Making sure everyone feels their opinion has been fairly considered is one key to keeping everyone happy with the decision.

Present your results first. Whether you’re presenting findings to your professor and classmates or to a client or colleague in a professional setting, Aleman said, follow the same principle: Lead with your results.

“The most important thing is answering the question first,” Aleman said. Just as the first step of your project should be agreeing on the problem you’re being asked to solve, he said, the first step of delivering your results should be to answer that problem.

After you’ve answered the question, he said, then you can explain how you came to that conclusion. “Don’t start with a lot of background or ‘We did XYZ,’ ” Aleman advised. Leading with too much detail, he said, can muddy your results.

By Matthew Philpott, a North Carolina-based freelance writer.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien.

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