One response to “3 steps to forming cohesive teams”

  1. Elizabeth,

    As a graduate student in training and development at Roosevelt University in Chicago I can very much relate to your comments. I do not think that I exaggerate grossly when I say that study group experiences in my current program as well as a prior MBA-program have been one of my most character-forming learning units in higher education.

    I fully concur with two of your three suggestions. Setting ground rules and getting to know your team members and their commitments are two important foundations of successful teamwork. However, my own experiences as well as research I conducted for a reflective paper at Roosevelt University have taught me that you can put teamwork on an even broader basis.

    For one, team members should be outspoken and clear about what they expect from themselves as well as from other team members. Every team member should clearly announce their intentions about what they are planning to contribute to a project. A team charter should not only define the ground rules, but also the ramifications for the case that they are not adhered to. And yes, that can include the right of the team to vote a member “off the island”. Of course, firing a team member should be the last resort. To avoid this, team members should give each other ongoing and structured feedback. The emphasis here is on “ongoing”. Grading each other at the end of the project for obvious reasons has limited feedback and improvement possibilities.

    I am somewhat critical of your third recommendation: Of course, “stepping up” is a commendable course of action for any group project. But research has also shown that consistent “stepping up” by one person or the same small group can actually trigger “slacking” or “free-riding”. Worse yet, students can become adversarial of teamwork altogether if they consistently experience these types of dysfunctional group behaviors.

    Schools and course instructors play a vital role in mitigating these impacts. For one, they must make it perfectly clear to students, in particular those with little experience in academic teamwork, how challenging teamwork as an instructional strategy can be. Teambuilding courses at the beginning of the project can be of great help in this endeavor. These should include the message to the students to clearly communicate each other’s expectations.

    To avoid “free-riding” in particular, instructors should also be cognizant that different types of assignments have varying degrees of suitability for teamwork. Simple tasks and tasks that are easy to subdivide are generally more appropriate for work in study groups. So-called optimizing tasks (e.g. solving a math problem) are typically less suitable for teamwork than maximizing tasks (giving as many examples regarding an issue as possible). Last but not least, instructors should choose group sizes that allow group participants as well as themselves to identify and assess individual contributions.

    Jürgen Juffa

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