The trouble with teamwork

by Swimmer963 4 min read23rd Mar 201156 comments


I've hated group projects since about Grade 3. I grew up assuming that at some point, working in groups would stop being a series of trials and tribulations, and turn into normal, sane people working just like they would normally, except on a shared problem. Either they would change, or I would change, because I am incredibly bad at teamwork, at least the kind of it that gets doled out in the classroom. I don’t have the requisite people skills to lead a group, but I’m too much of a control freak to meekly follow along when the group wants to do a B+ project and I would like an A+. Drama inevitably ensues.

I would like to not have this problem. An inability to work in teams seems like a serious handicap. There are very few jobs that don’t involve teamwork, and my choice of future career, nursing, involves a lot.

My first experiences in the workplace, as a lifeguard, made me feel a little better about this. There was a lot less drama and a lot more just getting the work done. I think it has a lot to do with a) the fact that we’re paid to do a job that’s generally pretty easy, and b) the requirements of that job are pretty simple, if not easy. There is drama, but it rarely involves guard rotations or who’s going to hose the deck, and I can safely ignore it. Rescues do involve teamwork, but it’s a specific sort of teamwork where the roles are all laid out in advance, and that’s what we spent most of our training learning. Example: in a three-guard scenario, the guard to notice an unconscious swimmer in the water becomes guard #1: they make a whistle signal to the others and jump in, while guard #2 calls 911 and guard #3 clears the pool and does crowd control. There isn’t a lot of room for drama, and there isn’t much point because there is one right way to do things, everyone knows the right way to do things, and there isn’t time to fight about it anyway.

I’m hoping that working as a nurse in a hospital will be more this and less like the school-project variety of group work. The roles are defined and laid out; they’re what we’re learning right now in our theory classes. There’s less of a time crunch, but there’s still, usually, an obviously right way to do things. Maybe it gets more complicated when you have to approach a colleague for, say, not following the hand-hygiene rules, or when the rules the hospital management enforces are obviously not the best way to do things, but those are add-ons to the job, not its backbone.

But that’s for bedside nursing. Research is a different matter, and unfortunately, it’s a lot more like school. I’m taking a class about research right now, and something like 30% or 40% of our mark is on a group project. We have to design a study from beginning to end: problem, hypothesis, type of research, research proposal, population and sample, methods of measurement, methods of analysis, etc. My excuse that “I dislike this because it has absolutely no real-world relevance” is downright wrong, because we’re doing exactly what real researchers would do, only with much less resources and time, and I do like research and would like to work in that milieu someday.

Conflict with my group-members usually comes because I’m more invested in the outcome than the others. I have more motivation to spend time on it, and a higher standard for "good enough". Even if I think the assignment is stupid, I want to do it properly, partly for grades and partly because I hate not doing things properly. I don’t want to lead the group, because I know I’m terrible at it, but no one else wants to either because they don’t care either way. I end up feeling like a slave driver who isn’t very good at her job.

This time I had a new sort of problem. A group asked me to join them because they thought I was smart and would be a good worker. They set a personal deadline to have the project finished nearly a month before it was due. They had a group meeting, which I couldn’t go to because I was at work, and assigned sections, and sent out an email with an outline. I skimmed the email and put it aside for later, since it seemed less than urgent to me. ...And all of a sudden, at our next meeting, the project was nearly finished. No one had hounded me; they had just gone ahead and done it. Maybe they had a schema in their heads that hounding the non-productive members of the team would lead to drama, but I was offended, because I felt that in my case it wouldn’t have. I would have overridden my policy of doing my work at the last minute, and just gotten it done. It’s not like I didn’t care about our final grade.  

My pride was hurt (the way my classmate told me was by looking at my computer screen in the library, where I’d started to do the part assigned to me in the outline, and saying “you might as well not save that, I already did it.”) I didn’t feel like fighting about it, so I emailed the prof and asked if I could do the project on my own instead of with a team. She seemed confused that I wanted to do extra work, but assented.

I didn’t want to do extra work. I wanted to avoid the work of team meetings, team discussions, team drama... But that’s not how real-world research works. Refusing to play their game means I lose an opportunity to improve my teamwork skills, and I’m going to need those someday, and not just the skills acquired through lifeguarding. Either I need to turn off my control-freak need to have things my way, or I need to become charismatic and good at leading groups, and to do either of those things, I need a venue to practice.

Does anyone else here have the same problem I do? Has anyone solved it? Does anyone have tips for ways to improve?

Edit: reply to comment by jwendy, concerning my 'other' kind of problem. 

"I probably didn't say enough about it in the article, if you thought it seemed glossed over, but I thought a lot about why this happened at the time, and I was pretty upset (more than I should have been, really, over a school project) and that's why I left the group...because unlike type#2 team members, I actually cared a lotabout making a fair contribution and felt like shit when I hadn't. I never consciously decided to procrastinate, either...I just had a lot of other things on my plate, which is pretty much inevitable during the school year, and all of a sudden, foom!, my part of the project is done because one of the girls was bored on the weekend and had nothing better to do. (Huh? When does this ever happen?)

So I guess I'm like a team #2 member in that I procrastinate when I can get away with it, but like a team#1 member in that I do want to turn in quality work and get an A+. And I want it to my my quality work, not someone else's with my name on it."

I think it was justified to be surprised when the new kind of problem happened to me. If I'm more involved/engaged than all the students I've worked with in the past, that doesn't mean I'm the most engaged, but it does mean I have a schema in my brain for 'no one has their work finished until a week after they say they will'.