Group Projects, Yay…

Just hearing the word “group” is enough to make me cringe a bit. I think it is safe to say that we have all been involved in some sort of a group before. Fairly often we find ourselves in group situations, think about your job or a friends group. Be sure to think about those school projects where you were divided up into groups and were assigned a task. Sure, some of them worked out well and you were able to collaborate to accomplish the task. However, I would think that we all have some memories of group projects that were a disaster, nothing was sweeter than finally being done with that group. But, why is this sometimes the case? How can they be so toxic and draining?

There are many things that could lead to a bad experience when in group settings. Role conflict can play a part, where not everyone is on the same page with regard to the task at hand and the roles that each member play. Sometimes there are personality conflicts. But, the one that stands out for me the most, is the bad leader… I think that it is fair to assume that most people have dealt with a leader that was a jerk; they are bullies, they are selfish, they know everything, and they undermine the group members and their ideas. Bottom line, they are the worst and they need to be stopped.

First, let us look into the formation of groups, as I believe there are ways to prevent these personality types from being put into leadership positions. Bruce Tuckman proposed that there are four stages to group development: forming, storming, norming, and performing (Tuckman, 1965). Let’s look more into the first two as they are where I believe the leader will emerge. Forming is the first stage and it is basically what it sounds like, this is the stage in which the group structure will be tested and the dependence on the group will be assessed (Tuckman, 1965). I believe this to be the most critical when it comes to the adoption of roles. In the earliest of stages in group formation it is critical that all within the group are on the same page and everyone’s ideas and thoughts are being discussed. This stage should not be disregarded as it is where the group members will begin to get a feel for who the other members are, it is here that the toxic members will begin to emerge and show themselves. Something that we have all more than likely noticed is that these toxic/bully types are pushy and will try to put themselves into a role, probably the leader role. The earliest stage is your first glimpse at what the members will be like throughout the course of the group, so pay close attention. Storming, this is the stage where roles will be determined and there will most likely be some intragroup conflict (Tuckman, 1965). Take what was learned from forming, communicate between group members. This is the stage where your toxic member will become the leader if everyone does not express concerns and talk about member’s strengths. Again, there might be some conflict, but better now than in the middle of the task when no one has a say in the direction the team takes because you allowed the toxic member to be the leader. By the end of this stage all of the roles should be assigned, hopefully in ways that work for everyone. But that does not always happen… So, now we look at Tuckman’s third stage. Norming is where new standards will evolve, and new roles are adopted (Tuckman, 1965). Think of this stage as post-beta, the idea has been out there, and it is time to assess and make changes before the performing stage. If the leader role isn’t working out, this is the time to speak up and try to make a change. In all, there are many opportunities to weed out the bullies, but it takes a lot of communication in the early stages of group development.

All of that sounds fine and dandy, but there are instances where the bully will emerge as the leader or they may be assigned as the leader by a higher up and it is important to have policies in place that try to eliminate or minimize the way that these bullies treat others. Management scientist, Robert Sutton has spent some time looking into these toxic, bully leaders and he suggests a zero-tolerance policy for destructive aggression and selfishness (Sutton, 2007). The adoption of a zero-tolerance policy would certainly help deal with terrible leaders and would also send a strong message about how certain attitudes and actions will be dealt with.

Overall, groups are an important part of not only businesses, but schools, friends, families, and many others. They can allow us to accomplish amazing feats and challenges with incredible efficiency, but they can also be very toxic. Bruce Tuckman showed us the stages of group formation, it is our job to make the most of those stages to help prevent roles being improperly assigned. Also, if you are constantly having to deal with horrible leaders, speak to a higher up, express your concerns, and maybe suggest Sutton’s approach to dealing with jerks.

 

References:

Sutton, R. (2007). The No Jerk Rule. Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders, Season 2, Episode 22. Retrieved from: https://ecorner.stanford.edu/podcasts/the-no-jerk-rule

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). American Psychological Association. Psychological Bulletin, Volume 63, Number 6, Pages 384-99

3 comments

  1. Nicole Thibodeaux

    I cringe at the thought of doing a group project as well. I did a lot of group projects in high school, and a lot of the time, I was stuck with people who didn’t hold up their end of the deal. So a lot of it fell on one or two of the other group members. However, now that I am here at PSU, it isn’t nearly as bad. Although, when I took CAS 100C over the summer, that was terrible. We had to do a group project, and in this project, we had to meet in zoom weekly and record ourselves doing our speeches. We also had to do it individually. I think recording myself was way worse than ever being apart of a group.

    But anyway, more to the point. When you mention dealing with a leader who is a jerk or a bully, I know that feeling all too well. I currently work in sales. The previous manager has moved but boy was she mean. We have had a customer complain about her and swear to never come back to the store because of her. Which stinks because that is a loss of profit and also potentially more customers not wanting to come to the store either.

  2. I also cringe at the thought of group related work, especially with school work. It stresses me out at the thought of trying to converse with other people to get something done and having to fulfill a portion of a task all on my own. I fear that if I mess up my part, I’ll look dumb in front of the rest of my group members. Sometimes, if everyone in the group is friendly and engaged in the work together, it’s not as bad but there have definitely been instances where things didn’t go well. There have been personality conflicts within groups I’ve been a part of but I agree about bad leaders being horrible to work with. I was part of a group project for a class one time when I took classes in person years ago and I was terrified when we were told we’d be doing a project. I ended up paired with two other people that I’d never spoken to in my life and my anxiety was through the roof! One of my group members immediately decided that she’d be the group leader. Me, being a quieter person, didn’t object and was actually thrilled that she had taken initiative to be the leader without any issues. She was really talkative at first and got mine and my other team members names, phone numbers, and emails. She really made me believe that she was really into doing the project and made herself look like she was born to be a leader and that she’d be so good at it.
    As the project went on, we were all assigned our tasks and we were supposed to do our parts and then come together and put it all together for the finished project that we’d have to end up presenting in front of the class (yes, double frightened at that thought!). The leader said she’d let us know when we’d meet up to do the project but she didn’t inform the rest of us and eventually it got to the point where none of us were able to meet up in person anymore so we had to do everything via email. I finished my part and I needed the leader’s part to have it fully completed but I suddenly couldn’t get in contact with her. It was as if she had disappeared into thin air. I asked her a few times when I saw her on campus but she’d brush it off and say she’d do it. A day or two before presentations, I came into class and my professor pulled me aside and told me that our group leader had informed her that I wasn’t doing my part for the project and that she had ended up having to do everything. Thankfully I had proof of my end of the project but that was just unacceptable behavior from someone who was supposed to be in a leader position for the group.
    I like that each stage is broken down and based off of a leader’s position to grasp what is being said about the importance of that position. All roles of a group are important and need to work together to get efficient results but a leader role is seen as higher than a majority of the rest of the positions so it’s good that the possibility of the toxic side existing was also described as well. Some people are better suited for one position, possibly more than another individual and that should be decided amongst the entire group so that a mutual consensus can be made as to who will take part in what role, as to avoid/prevent issues such as these.

  3. Reading over your post immediately made me think of someone I work with. I work with a small group there is 9 of us. Most days there is 6-8 people working and Friday everyone is here. Well I have been with this company for some time so I have seen people come and go and there was one particular person that I had worked with for a while and I wasn’t a fan just because of the micromanaging and the “bully” as you discuss. Upon a new position opening up she applied and moved into an assistant manager position and I knew as soon as it happened I had to get out. I knew before in her lower level how she tried to take charge of everything and look over your shoulder with every task you completed and find a problem with everything that was done. I knew this new role of a higher power was going to go to her head and things would get bad and things would be rough so I ended up leaving and going to another location with the same company. I think it was unfortunate in this situation that nobody else noticed this about this person. I think some people did but they were at my level or below me so we felt like we had no power to make a change. However, all of those above her didn’t see what we saw. It wasn’t fair and it made coming to work and having to deal with the negative things very difficult for a short time. But as you discuss when the bully emerges as the leader, which she did in this case, it makes it almost impossible to be able to do anything, especially when you are in a position of much lower power.

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