In the classes I teach, I regularly assign group projects – much to the chagrin of my students. As they are all working adults, it is often much easier for them to work on their own schedule rather than trying to coordinate with a partner or two.

But group projects frequently offer teachable moments that go far beyond the assignment – as in how to deal with a team member who does not contribute a fair share of the workload. Allowing classmates to struggle with this scenario can help prepare them for when it is a colleague and the stakes on the project are much higher.

I recently had a situation where one person did essentially nothing and the other two team members were required to handle the full load. When they asked for advice on how to handle it, I suggested that the talk with the third person face-to-face if possible and clarify what the person could do, leaving space for them to be realistic about what they are actually able to contribute. It is far better for them to do nothing than to promise something and not deliver, so they need to make it safe for the third person to speak the truth. If they are unable to reach the person at all, they can create a path to move forward by letting the person know that if they don’t hear back by X date, they will be proceeding without them.

At the end of the day, you need to allow the person to save face in public and attempt to preserve your working relationship with them. Calling them out in front of the rest of the team or being passive aggressive about the situation does nothing in the long run to advance the work of the team. Nor does letting the project suffer because you couldn’t split the responsibilities fairly.

The bottom line is that work teams, as with any partnership, are never equal. Teams don’t operate as 50-50 so clear your mind of those unrealistic expectations. Hopefully, your group isn’t as lopsided as all or nothing, but sometimes you have to be prepared to contribute 100%.


About the Author leadership dots by dr. beth triplett

Dr. beth triplett is the owner of leadership dots, offering coaching, training and consulting for new supervisors. She also shares daily lessons on her leadershipdots blog. Her work is based on the leadership dots philosophy that change happens through the intentional connecting of small steps in the short term to the big picture in the long term.

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