What to do when you don’t like your group

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All projects need a leader—could it be you?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. May 4, 2016
We’ve all been in a group project where we felt that we’ve drawn the short straw. In every classroom there are the students who are the workhorses, there are those who are naturally gifted, and there are those who are simply slackers. At one point or another, you’ll get the last pick and end up in an indecisive group where progress is agonizingly slow. Most likely, you’ll be waiting for someone else to finish his or her part before you can complete yours. This pushes the workload further and further towards the deadline, causing a lot of stress for those who genuinely care.

I’ve been in those types of groups, and I’ve been both a diligent worker and an idle procrastinator at different times. I’m sure there are people in the world that will vow to never work with me again, or even talk to me. However, there are people who I have a great working relationship with. Why does one environment cause me to retreat into my shell and another allows me to meet or exceed expectations?

Group projects, without a measure of respect within the group, are volatile environments where people’s emotions and the idea of fairness harm the process of the assignment. When a group of students is left to govern and motivate themselves to finish a project—one where the only guidelines are written on a piece of paper—there are bound to be disagreements. These disagreements can sustain themselves throughout the length of the project and go unresolved until the very moment you hand it in. Why?

The problem with bad group projects is that nobody rises up and takes a leadership role. With no guidance, what ends up happening is that the collective begins to resent each other, as work is not being completed, or is being completed in an unsatisfactory way. I know we all think of ourselves as adults who are capable of taking on responsibility and following through with it—but I don’t believe that maturity or seniority has anything to do with a successful project.

At school, we think of the teacher or the instructor as the boss, but that is not the accurate way of thinking about it. The teacher or the instructor is actually the market—the ones receiving the goods you are making. They are the consumers and you are trying to please them. But if that’s the case, then who is the boss?

A leader should always be a member of the team, one who is closely entwined in the happenings of the project. It should never be someone external. It’s the reason companies of all sizes have a president, CEO, and managers at every level. Some groups will function fine as a democracy. But if you are dealt a shitty hand and end up with a group of people who aren’t motivated, a fair voting system isn’t going to work. Someone needs to lay the hammer down, make decisions, delegate work, and make sure there are repercussions if the tasks aren’t completed at a predetermined time. In your next group project, make sure that happens.

Thanks for nothing

Image from Thinkstock

Why we shouldn’t give credit unless credit is due

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in the Other Press. September 16, 2015

Now and then we find ourselves sending praise to someone who doesn’t deserve it. This tends to happen in environments where you have to work as a team or as an ensemble. It seems when bad work is done, blame is passed around and fingers are pointed. That’s a destructive attitude, solving nothing. Alternatively, the reverse problem is as bad. It seems that slackers in a group with success would also join in and receive praise. I believe the second scenario can be as harmful as the first.

Riding on the coattails of others is a survival strategy that should have been eradicated at some point during human evolution. We all know someone who does the bare minimum, or little to nothing, and allows others around him or her to pick up the slack. The same way you would cut out a cancerous tumour, you should do the same for that member of the team.

They might be nice, kind-hearted, or have some positive trait. They might have personal issues that stop them from excellence. Regardless, you want to give them the benefit of the doubt and help them along. Still, nothing is more infuriating than someone getting praise for work they didn’t do.

There is a Douglas Coupland quote from the novel Hey Nostradamus! that has always stuck with me: “[I] was raised to believe that the opposite of labor is theft, not leisure.”

The person who doesn’t perform is essentially stealing from the collective. They might not be stealing anything tangible and in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter, but if you allow them to take what isn’t theirs, you are feeding a wild animal, causing them to become dependent on others. You are not helping them. You are not a charity. You are enabling a lazy attitude and that is a benefit to nobody.

One common problem, especially in a professional environment, is when a superior takes credit for work their subordinate had done. While this is indeed a bitch move, I also believe that subordinates allow this to happen by displaying weakness. We need to stand up and defend ourselves without seeming entitled or arrogant.

If you notice someone taking your work and soaking in the praise themselves, you’d need to understand that they might never see their own self-righteousness. They may be a pathological liar or a narcissistic asshole. Don’t call them out immediately, keep a record, and approach their boss. Alternatively, you can try to empathize. Ask: why do they need to lie and steal your efforts? Often it is because of their insecurities and failings. If that is the case, give it time, and be patient. If your work is good and your aim is true, you’ll shine.

Taming the control freak

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How to be a leader without alienating yourself

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

Formerly published in The Other Press. October, 2013

Throw a bunch of humans together and see who turns into an animal first.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a workplace environment, a table of friends, or a packed car on a road trip—there will always be a project manager, a storyteller at the dinner table, and a driver in the car. Although the leadership role is sometimes appointed, most often it’s just imposed upon the individual, and from there they have to control the manic, power-hungry beast inside.

We’ve all been or interacted with a control freak. Sometimes their behaviours are so subtle that we don’t even notice them manipulating us; other times they’re aggressive, confrontational, and abusive.

A famous study by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo showed that when given power, anybody can behave in a cruel and unusual manner. The 1971 Stanford Prison experiment was intended to simulate two weeks in prison. Twenty-four students volunteered to participate, with 12 appointed as guards and 12 as inmates. The experiment was halted after six days, when prisoners began to passively accept abuse and harassment from the guards.

Deny it all you want, but there’s a monster inside of you. Although it might not erupt in the same capacity as the prison guards, it can still roar unintentionally at your peers, colleagues, and friends.

Perfectionists and control freaks may not see themselves as the villains. They might feel like the only one who cares, and that they’re merely trying to get the job done in the most efficient manner. In doing so, they create separation—an alienating aura, a souring reputation.

If you ever find yourself resisting compromise or unable to delegate work, you must step back for a moment and recognize the control freak brewing inside you. Only then can you properly assess the situation and your relationship with the group, and have the demon exorcised.

To eradicate the “my way or the highway” attitude, you must be willing to listen. Stay silent for a moment and hear what others have to say. The voice inside your head will try to jump in, but don’t let it. Allow the others to finish and then give your point of view. This way, it becomes a discussion and not a lecture. Control freaks feel these types of interactions slow the working process, but in fact it builds a relationship. By understanding how others think and work, you as a leader can then begin to employ them in the most effective areas.

Don’t interfere with others’ working processes unless they ask for help. The objective might be getting from point-A to point-B, but the journey isn’t up to you. Allow others to work at their own pace, even if they’re slowing the process down. A good leader will communicate and address displeasure, but a good leader will not do the work for them.

The best way to kill the control freak inside is to wing it: whatever you are doing, just wing it and see what happens. Spontaneity is control freak cyanide and a quality leader’s magic potion. Those who can handle improvising and thinking on their feet will be revered by their peers in a way that commanding and demanding leaders can’t be.