How My Students Faced Their Team Project: Guest Post by Jeff Birdsell

“I thought ‘as soon as you get a team together, half of the job is done and everything else will systematically fall into place’… until now it never occurred to me that everyone in the team must take responsibility to make the project a success.

Had I known this was one of my students, I would have contacted Christopher Avery much sooner. Having been assigned two sections of Professional Communication Skills where the enrollment was limited to students in the McCombs School of Business, a competitive school within a competitive university — The University of Texas at Austin — I wanted to ensure that the lesson they received about how to perform well as a team would have an impact not just on their grades but their future organizations.

Most of the students rolled their eyes at the thought of being stuck in a group where, as the common refrain goes, “I end up doing all the work because I’m the only committed one.” Many of them imagined that doing it all was the responsible approach. Having heard Christopher speak as a guest lecturer in a class last semester, I knew this was far from the truth.

Christopher warned me I would likely experience a higher average score as the result of introducing my students to The Responsibility Process — and he was right.

Additionally, their self-reflection papers (turned in one week after their team presentation and after they watched a recording of their presentation) were a stark contrast to last semester when I had a number of students who, disappointed in their grade, chose to spend three to five pages arguing that they were the leader of the group.

I still don’t understand why someone wants to claim the captaincy on a team that loses, but I digress.

As predicted (see Christopher’s post on the framework I followed), no student group reported a desire to distribute the grade unevenly. Equally predictable was that the most negative experiences came from the students who were the least engaged in the lecture when they found out I wouldn’t be reading the chapter to them (no, it won’t be on the exam, unless life is a test).

One student even expressed the desire to “save as much time as possible. I believed (and still do) that preparing a 20-minute presentation should not take more than 3 hours.”

While I could argue with the idea that 20 minutes of performance should only take 3 hours (and so would this study group), my greater concern is that this success criteria went un-communicated with the team, in stark contrast to the admonition that they “call it out, drive it forward, and negotiate it.” This student’s teammates, at the time their papers were written, were still unsure why their teammate made a habit of arriving late and leaving early. I understand why. It’s not malice, it’s irresponsibility.

My most successful groups:

  • had responsible conversations early and often
  • recognized teamwork is an individual skill
  • and answered the questions “What is our task?” and “What’s in it for me?”

Some students even learned to reject the notion that silent consent is teamwork. Each member became “more of a verbal leader so I could ensure I am either satisfied with our direction or that my group is aware of my concerns before we continue.”

It is common for communication scholars to be concerned with the voice of individuals, organizations, and communities.  I’m confident that by recognizing their Leadership Gift many of my students have been empowered to use their voices responsibly as they change the world.

Jeff Birdsell is the 2nd most popular Jeff Birdsell on Google. For updates about collegiate athletics, what’s on the grill, and class cancellations, you can follow him @ProfBirdsell.

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