Teamwork: finding a role and winning as a group

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Illustration by Lydia Wojack-West

Teamwork is one of the most important soft skills in the working world. Those who cannot work productively with others will not find as many opportunities as professionals who have learned how to lead, follow and succeed in an assigned role.

Succeeding as part of a team is one of the most important skills to develop during a college career. At Portland State, most students are given ample opportunities to learn how to be a contributing team member. Students who feel like they aren’t “getting it” can try out some new methods to jump-start this skill.

First, it is important to understand how a team should function at the start. Think of several people running around a track as an analogy: Everyone starts from the same point. Runners all start on the same signal and run at a pace they believe will get them to a strong finish. If each runner was waiting for the runner next to them to start before starting themselves, what would that look like?

The group might not get going at the same time, they might start later than they could have, or they might set an unrealistic pace based on the first runner to go.

When working in a team, it is important to start the work you know needs to get done when it needs to be started. Waiting for someone to begin means time lost to hesitation. Just start working.

Teams also have roles that dictate who does what, how it gets done and who listens to whom. In the professional world, leaders of teams are often designated ahead of time. The roles fulfilled are based on previous knowledge, specialty, departments or any other array of background information.

In school, team roles are usually decided by the members. This can be one of the biggest hurdles for college students. Here is an easy solution: Tell the group about any skills you have that will benefit the project and claim a part of it for yourself. Hopefully, the other students will follow suit. If everyone else still seems lost, start handing out roles.

Ask people what they do well. Does the group have any good writers? Who excels at research? Is anyone a better presenter than everyone else? How about graphic design skills? Figure out where people will have the best opportunity to excel.

The next hurdle for group work is the slackers and anyone who just throws their name in at the end. Here is an easy solution for these types: Make a group contract. Outline everyone’s roles. List meeting times, contact info and expectations. If someone is not handling their share of the work, send them a professional and calmly written email outlining what is expected of them, what the group perceives their misstep to be and how they can get back on track.

Give them a task. If they do not improve after the first email, keep contacting them and bcc the professor. If they never contribute to the project, the group will have a paper trail to show the professor, which will explain any shortcomings in the project. Protect the rest of the group’s grade from one bad team member.

If you feel like you have nothing to contribute to the group, develop a skill. Take a short online course for Microsoft Suite on a site like Coursera.org. Look up some methods for improving research, critical reading and note-making. Becoming a good researcher is an easy skill to develop.

To improve writing skills, just practice. Write one-page papers on subjects that are personally interesting. Look up a hobby. Write a brief paper about its history or the evolution of a sport—find something that makes the paper easy to write. Soon enough, writing will be the strongest skill you offer.

Leadership in groups can be a friction point. If a student pushes themselves into a leadership role in every group, they will never learn to follow. Learning good following skills is arguably more important than leading because your first couple years of a professional career will be mostly following instructions.

If a group is together all term, rotate leaders. If only one group member is a strong leader, they can help other members by supporting them and teaching them to lead. Let go of the reins sometimes and give others a chance to develop skills.

Group work can become monotonous if you don’t branch out and start working on new skills. Learn to follow, learn to lead, learn to dominate group assignments. The opportunity is there. Get after it.

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