The Line - Self Leadership - Development

Life is a Group Project

“A boat doesn’t go forward if each one is rowing their own way.” – Swahili Proverb

by Kat Schulte | June 2024

As a parent of middle schoolers, I have recently been reminded about the school reality of group projects.

I HATED group projects. And I have a funny feeling I am not alone. Tell me if you remember thinking any of these thoughts as you were going through school:

      • I hope we get to pick our group!
      • If I want this done well, I will need to do everything.
      • [Insert name] has done NOTHING for this project and is going to get the same grade as me.
      • All we do is talk over each other.
      • They will think my idea is dumb.
      • [Insert name] is bulldozing over everyone else’s ideas.
      • I hope someone else does all this.
      • How much of my grade is this? 

Have I said that I hated group projects?

I remember being so so excited to graduate, start working, and be DONE with group projects. Wow, the joke. was. on. me. It turns out most of work, and most of life really – insert any meaningful action in a family or in a community – is a group project.

The group projects just never stop. And honestly, a lot of times even though we are all more grown up, the same issues that riddled us in the group projects of our youth still plague our workplaces, families, and communities as adults.

Most of the time in a working group, we do not get to pick our groups, so it feels even more eerily familiar to those classrooms where we are forced together with random humans to create something meaningful together. Sure, the names we use to describe our group projects may change, but we aren’t fooled. We know that the new “task force,” “action committee,” or “project team” is just a jazzed up version of the old group projects we all know and hate :).

 

Group Project Dynamics at Work

 

If anything, as adults there are even more dynamics in our ‘group projects’ to complicate them. These groups do not happen in a vacuum. Many workplaces have dynamics around hierarchies and siloed functions – some explicit and some implicit. When your “bad” group mate happens to be the senior VP or from that part of the organization that “is just impossible to work with,” it makes the project extra challenging. We have each also had years to grow into our tendencies that may be helpful or unhelpful. Maybe you overachieve, or people please, avoid confrontation, or take on too much responsibility. Those habits get ingrained over time, and can become second nature, even when they don’t serve us.

So why do we even bother working with other people (where are my fellow introverts?!). Because – and I think we’ve all seen glimpses of it – even if it is not our norm – there is magic created when a group of people come together well. When we each bring the best of us, our distinctive gifts and perspectives, and use them in service of our greater collective goal. In those moments, we are more than the sum of our parts; what we create is exponential. And when we create something with other humans we also create something between each of the individuals we worked with that adds meaning and purpose.

 

How to Make Them Suck Less

 

As I reflect on my own current group projects as well as the teams we are hired to work with, I have a list of group-project-advice I wish we were taught in school, but we might as well learn now:

Different is good – Every single person brings a different perspective on the problem – and that can help us see the issue more clearly if we are open enough to hear each other.

Play to your strengths – Each person also brings different skills. We don’t need to split the work equally to delegate the work fairly. What is drudgery to me, might be energizing for a teammate. We can more effectively delegate tasks if we are each clear about the pieces of work we feel more excited/equipped for.
As Mother Teresa said, “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”

Slow down to go fast – Taking some time to align on the front end can save us time in the long run. There is power in establishing clarity around the goal, timelines, and expectations. Put them in writing and revisit them often.

Listen deeply – Everyone has something to offer, and even if we do not agree with one hundred percent of someone’s idea, there is likely a morsel of goodness that can move us farther. And by hearing and honoring their add, we win their engagement and often their willingness to hear us out.

Speak clearly – On the flipside of the coin, sharing our own ideas is equally as important. It may feel vulnerable to put an idea out there, especially if it feels really out of the box. But if we decide to believe that others have value to add, we must also believe it about ourselves. Creativity and innovation thrive when a group of people dare to say the weird thing.

Name the hard things – Miscommunication and conflict are natural parts of any group. Instead of viewing these as problems to be avoided, we can normalize that we will occasionally miss each other and meet these moments head on as opportunities for growth and clarity. Naming when words or actions hurt or naming when we feel accountability was not held can help us clear the air and get back on the same page more quickly.

 

In general this collaborative work is just the practice of being human together.
Often we pay more attention to the “what” we need to accomplish together rather than the “how” we are together. And it is in this “how” that we unlock our power as a group.

Many of us “know” these things in our head, but they are easier said than done. Most of us need more practice on these skills of being together precisely because we didn’t learn them growing up.

One of the reasons I love the CliftonStrengths tool so much is because it gives individuals and teams language and access to so much of the advice above. If you also hate group projects and you would like to explore how to make them less horrible and more valuable, we’ve got your back.

CliftonStrengths for your team

By simply learning their strengths, employees are 7.8% more productive, and teams that focus on strengths every day have 12.5% greater productivity.

Ready to launch your team into a new realm of productivity, collaboration and connection? Check out our CliftonStrengths offerings.

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