The Student Side: The Virtue of Patience in Groups

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I hate working in groups. I think working in groups is one of the most annoying and unpleasant parts of my college experience.  

In high school, you pretty much know everyone. You know your friends, the smart kids and the slackers. You know which people you want in your group when you have a 10-page paper and a presentation due in four weeks.

In college, you might not know your roommates, let alone any of the hundreds of other people you share some of these combined lectures with. But then, your professor tells you to form a group with four to six of these strangers to complete something that will take two semesters and is worth a letter grade on its own.  

Of course, I somewhat exaggerate to make a point. Group projects are one of the most effective ways of preparing students for real life because so much real-life work can only be done in collaborative groups, depending on the company and industry. 

Learning to effectively work in groups with other people, even and especially complete strangers, is a necessary skill of anyone who plans to join the professional workforce or play an active role in society. 

However, group projects are some of the most loathed and frustrating assignments possible for a student because it force us to do just that: work with people.  

When it comes to schoolwork, I’m a control freak. I need to have total control of the input, so that I know that a good grade was the result of my effort and mine alone. The drawback of this is that any mistakes are entirely my own fault, a cost I’m happily willing to pay for the freedom of self-agency. But in a group project, a quarter of your grade, if not more, usually depends solely on the contributions of the class, sometimes including those who never respond to emails and who never read the group chat.  

Again, I somewhat exaggerated. Thankfully, there’s some justice in the world and most professors don’t bring the hammer down as harshly, as I’ve described, if you reach out to them and plead your case. But regardless of the outcome, being forced to work with people who routinely test our patience always feels unfair.  

When we enter a collaborative effort, no matter the scale or the significance, we expect two things to happen: that our contributions will be valued and recognized, and that the others will pull at least as much weight as we do ourselves. 

When the former is untrue, we feel foolish and insignificant because no one seems to care. When the latter is untrue, we feel foolish and angry because the others are seemingly getting a free ride. When both are untrue, the frustration can simply overwhelm us into either quitting or resigning to failure. It’s just not worth the time and wasted energy to work with people who don’t seem to care.  

But note the word I keep using: seem. No one is a mind reader and nobody knows exactly how their work is valued by the group unless they ask. And by the same token, what may seem to you to be laziness maybe someone’s way of expressing their cluelessness and their need for guidance. 

Despite how cathartic and natural it feels to let the frustration get to us and to self-righteously blow our respective stacks in anger, that never gets anything done in the long run. In fact, it does the opposite. In addition to prolonging group progress, it sows bad blood that doesn’t abate unless everyone agrees to let it. In short, it makes an easy project difficult, and a difficult project impossible.  

Instead, the only way to productively deal with such problems is to have patience. Don’t let the quirks or deficiencies of your group members get to you, but instead take the high road. Help them when they need it instead of condemning their incompetence. Ask for help instead of protecting your pride or biding your time until the meeting is over. Do your part first, don’t take all the group’s problems on yourself, but be the positive influence that makes a group project feel more like a hangout session.  

If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, at least make sure it isn’t you.

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