At the McIntire School of Commerce, group work is essential to the learning experience. Working in groups is important because business professionals frequently collaborate with clients, stakeholders, and cross-functional teams. It helps you develop communication, time management, and conflict resolution skills and prepares you for the real business world. Working with others and learning from others also enrich your thinking and broaden your perspective. Below are a few practical strategies I’ve learned in the M.S. in Commerce Program that have made group work easy and successful (and enjoyable!).
The first step to working with your group is getting to know your teammates. Grab lunch or explore Grounds together. Start a group chat and meet up occasionally. In Professor Emma Zhao’s Organizational Behavior course (a core class that MSC students take in the fall), we learned the term “team cohesion.” Cohesiveness is when members develop strong emotional bonds with other members and the team. They share a collective identity.
The benefit of getting to know your team members personally is that you’ll feel more comfortable with them and like a close-knit team. Cohesive teams act as one unit. If a conflict or miscommunication occurs, you are more likely to quickly work through it compared to a group that has not developed a close relationship.
Working together will be more fun if you get to know your teammates. One of my most memorable interactions with my teammates was when the class was asked to role-play as a buyer and seller. One of my groupmates and I paired up. Our conversation veered so off course and took such a comical turn that the entire class laughed when we shared it with everyone. We got a good laugh, and this relaxed, fun energy carried through our group meetings. Cohesion and team bonding also create synergy during working sessions and a more relaxed environment where everyone feels more comfortable sharing their ideas.
In both the fall and spring, you will be placed in groups you will work with over the entire semester. This is why creating a solid group dynamic early on is vital in this program.
Trust and Healthy Debate
Have trust in your teammates and their work. Don’t take control and change other people’s work without consulting them first. If you have reason to question someone’s work, rather than outright changing it and risking offending them, talk to them about it. Explain what you think is wrong or what you think might be better. To have an open conversation, you and your team members must trust each other to give and accept constructive criticism. Everyone has a common goal, which is to produce the highest quality work, and this sometimes requires divergence and convergence. Team bonding, once again, can foster this open and trusting environment, as you are more open to giving and receiving criticism from friends than mere coworkers. At the end of the day, remember that your relationships with your teammates matter as much as your output.
Talking aloud together also enriches the quality of your ideas and spurs more creative outcomes than if you brainstormed and worked alone. Group discussion helps get everyone’s ideas flowing, since everyone can bounce ideas off each other, whereas thinking alone often draws a blank. It enables more diverse and robust thought. Multiple viewpoints allow for the vetting of weak ideas. One person may introduce risks that the other was not aware of before.
Though fostering a culture of open debate is imperative, ensure psychological safety so that task-related conflicts do not turn into interpersonal conflict. Normalize disagreements, be inclusive, make sure everyone is heard, and remain positive. One of my favorite aspects of my team last year was that we were mindful of each other. Even the more outspoken group members did not dominate the conversations and actively sought the quiet members’ thoughts. We had a comfortable and productive environment because of trust and healthy debates.
Planning and Time Management
Planning is crucial to working together successfully. Try to begin group assignments soon after they are assigned, and spread out your work so that everyone has ample time to complete their parts independently and integrate the final product. “Don’t procrastinate” is an obvious tip, but procrastination is easy to fall prey to. For instance, one group I spoke to shared that sometimes, many days would pass before anyone alerted the others of a looming deadline, and then everyone “met up two days before and finished it.” Working in a time crunch “was so stressful.” To avoid such stresses, spread out your group work. Everyone has different work styles, so you must adapt to your members. If your team is made mainly of people who don’t start early, it may be helpful to designate one “leader” who keeps track of upcoming deadlines and prompts the team to set up frequent meetings and check-ins.
Discuss the purpose and goals for each meeting beforehand. Some people may enter the meeting with different expectations if your group skips this. For instance, my partner and I worked on a case together last semester. Before our first meeting, she had read the case, but I hadn’t. We had different expectations of what we would accomplish in our first meeting: I thought we would introduce ourselves and discuss how to split up the work over the week, but she wanted to share her initial ideas and thoughts on the case. That taught me to always decide the meeting goals with my group before every meeting through a quick chat at the end of class or a text message. A simple “let’s read the articles ahead of time and talk about it together” or “let’s do the calculations together when we meet” will do. This will save everyone time and make the meeting more productive and seamless.
Divide and Conquer Versus Meeting Frequently
Divide and conquer can be an efficient and convenient strategy in many cases, but it does not produce the best outcome in a business class setting where each part is dependent on other parts. The output of case reports or presentations will likely not be cohesive if your group divided and conquered everything.
For example, my group spring semester was tasked with reading a case on a company’s dilemma, understanding the problems and pitfalls, offering recommendations, and presenting our findings. The case method is very common in this program. After reading the case, we met to create a skeleton of our slides. We then divided these headers among ourselves and completed them on our own. We timed ourselves and practiced our own speaker notes. Unsurprisingly, our presentation was not the most consistent. The recommendations that one member came up with did not directly solve the problems that another member emphasized. I learned then that everyone should be involved in every portion of the project, from recapping the main issues to devising the recommendations together. It is more effective to begin a group assignment by discussing everyone’s ideas before dividing the concrete work. When you start working on the project together, each person has less to do on their own, keeping everyone on track and engaged.
Meet up and check in frequently to share findings, update each other on everyone’s progress, and minimize any possible discrepancies. An illustration of this is when one of my team members found an article that claimed a company’s clothing quality is bad, while another member found online that the quality is good. Our paper could have included both contradictory statements if we divided the separate components, such as Consumer Perception and Brand Equities, and written our parts based on our research. Instead, we met to gather our findings and caught this disparity. This shows the importance of alignment and constant communication throughout all group work.
Communicate Responsibilities Early
As I mentioned above, my team found it helpful to have one designated “leader” who takes charge of keeping track of upcoming deadlines and booking meeting rooms. Another person could be the submitter who always checks if everyone’s done and submits. Alternatively, each person could rotate through each assignment and glance over it once before submitting it.
Not clearly defining roles, or at least communicating responsibilities early, creates gaps in understanding and last-minute issues, such as not knowing where to meet, not knowing if an assignment is complete, or not knowing if it has been submitted.
These practical strategies should make working in groups easy, especially when used together. If you find your group struggling in any way, which may happen during stressful and heavy work weeks, reevaluate your group dynamic and habits, and see if any of these tips may help.