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“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Sound familiar? This famous quote from Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC) is applicable when people are working together to reach a goal. With more brain resources and perspectives, there’s the opportunity for more success than if each person worked alone. Said another way, “Two heads are better than one.”

Group work is everywhere; collaboration happens in every academic major and in every career. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, nearly 40 percent of students reported working in teams on academic projects or other activities at least once a week, and another 21 percent do group work a few times a month.

In these situations, the people involved have a shared purpose or mission. This is different than when people congregate in one place, but are focused on different things, like in a study group.

According to Dr. Vanessa Shannon, assistant professor of sport and exercise psychology at West Virginia University, in Morgantown, “Students benefit greatly from learning how to work effectively in a group before getting out into the world in their first career.”

The ability to work effectively with people who have different communication styles is seen as essential by most employers.

Here are five strategies for successful collaboration:

1. Keep Communication Open

If you’ve ever been to summer camp, you probably remember the activities that sneakily helped you get to know other campers. Icebreakers are still fantastic for adults: they not only help a group learn one another’s names, but also loosen everyone up, and start the creativity flowing.

Robert Palmer is a senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm in Arlington, Virginia. He explains, “You must create an open forum for communication to increase the overall pool of thought. I notice in groups that certain members have strong opinions and attempt to force them onto their colleagues, who then get defensive, and other great ideas are not heard. Every environment has diversity in terms of working styles and personalities; you need to be sensitive to these.”

The best part about a group is that everyone gets to contribute, and your peers are surely considering ideas that you wouldn’t have.

Remember this quote from Greek philosopher Epictetus (55 AD–135 AD): “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

2. Know Your Strengths

Your team will be most effective when everyone uses their strengths, which means you need to know your own. What types of task do you succeed at the most?

Knowing the answers to this kind of question can help you have a satisfying experience, and will boost your confidence in other aspects of your life. Check with your school’s career center or counseling service to find out if a “strengths evaluation” is available.

Assessing Your Strengths

The University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, in Philadelphia, conducts research on strengths and how they are expressed. The Center offers training and information that is available to anyone, including a Brief Strengths Test.

To learn more about this assessment tool, CLICK HERE.

You can also check with your school’s career center or counseling service to find out if a “strengths evaluation” is available.

3. Be Responsible

No matter their goals, teams and ensembles perform at their peak when all members are committed to the same values. Once you say you will do something, hold yourself accountable. Not doing your part isn’t just hurting you, but it could bring the whole team down.

Of course, there may be times when members of your group aren’t pulling their weight.

Pointers on addressing potential conflicts

Conflicts may arise when you’re working on a group project. Sometimes team members disagree, people aren’t clear about their responsibilities, or someone doesn’t seem to be pulling their weight. Remember that resolving these issues is a process and an opportunity for greater team cohesion. Below are some tips to keep in mind when tension occurs:

  • Encourage open communication. Set ground rules for listening and treating everyone respectfully, and encourage people to offer their opinions and share challenges.
  • Discuss the cause of the conflict with all members of the group present. This allows each person the chance to offer his or her perspective and suggest possible solutions.
  • Revisit goals and expectations. If an individual is not contributing, there may be confusion on his or her role, or perhaps it does not play to his or her strengths.
  • Confront the matter before it becomes a larger problem. Look for warning signs of trouble, such as limited communication between team members, disrespect or disregard of diverse opinions, lack of participation, or uneven workload.
  • Determine specific responsibilities for each person and make the group aware of everyone’s piece in the project. These may need adjustment if the scope of the project changes.
  • If conflict persists, consider involving an outside mediator. You could reach out to your instructor, a classmate, or a peer mentor. A neutral party may help to diffuse any hostility that results from personality differences or role confusion.
  • Create a solution that works for everyone. Make sure that it is realistic and obtainable for all individuals involved. Once determined, agree to stick to it.

4. Take Charge

If your team seems to be losing focus, consider a management role. Being a leader doesn’t mean doing everything or ordering people around. Instead, it’s about listening, delegating, and assessing people’s interests and strengths. Flexibility is a big part of leadership.

If too many people try to take charge at the same time, confusion and resentment can follow. To avoid this, have each person take the lead role on a distinct set of responsibilities.

For example, one person can coordinate meetings, another can focus on the resources needed for your project, and a third could organize your group presentation.

5. Keep Calm and Be Patient

Nearly 90 percent of respondents to the Student Health 101 survey said they experience some amount of worry when working on a team.

Address nerves proactively by showing up to team meetings prepared with notes or ideas and using relaxation techniques, such as taking a few deep breaths before the work begins or if you feel yourself getting tense. This can also be useful before a class presentation, or if someone is “pressing your buttons.” Not everyone has honed his or her team-work skills as much as you have!

Before pouncing on someone behaving in a frustrating way, stop and think about how you would want to be approached. Ask an open-ended question or that the person clarify what he or she is saying, rather than lose confidence in the group member.

Techniques to address group work anxiety

Nervous about working in a group?

Working with others and making group presentations can be nerve-wracking, and anxiety can hinder your ability to express your great ideas or communicate with others effectively. Here are some ideas for overcoming your fears:
  • Seek out workshops on assertiveness and communication skills, which are often offered through campus counseling or career centers.
  • Toastmasters International is a great resource. This organization very often has chapters at colleges and universities that are run by students. They have an organized structure to facilitate development of public speaking skills through practice and feedback from peers.
  • To calm yourself before a group meeting, try taking a few deep, mindful breaths. Even 3–5 slow breaths can give your body and mind a chance to relax. You might also want to learn some other relaxation techniques to help ease your mind.
If you consistently feel nervous or anxious when working in a team setting, you may benefit from visiting your university’s counseling center or speaking with another trusted resource. Your school’s career center may also offer sessions designed to help students develop collaboration skills.

Teams are everywhere, and the root of a successful one begins with you. With group work skills in your toolbox, you’ll be able to work smoothly and effectively with people in many settings.

Take Action!

  • Listen to all group members and make sure everyone is clear about their responsibilities.
  • Join group meetings prepared with ideas.
  • Try some teambuilding exercises or icebreakers.
  • Actively work on being more accountable, which is great now and will be essential in your career.
  • Understand how different group roles are all important.
  • If you are nervous about working in a group, try some relaxation techniques.

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