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This is the secret to doing more productive group work

One of the biggest drawbacks in group work is that often members act as if everyone working on a project is the same.

This is the secret to doing more productive group work
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Many of the habits you develop that influence your work productivity are shaped by your education. Unfortunately, for most of us, education was an individual sport, while our professional life is a team sport. As a result, we have to learn to work with others more effectively. (Just ask anyone who’s gotten stuck doing the lion’s share of a group presentation.)

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One of the biggest drawbacks in group work is that often members act as if everyone working on a project is the same. This is particularly true in workplaces that see themselves as friendly, because people don’t want to order their colleagues around or give people jobs that may feel like they have lower status.

But any successful team needs people to take on roles. Not everyone in the band can be the lead guitar player (and as a sax player myself, I can assure you that playing a more supportive role in the horn section is a blast). That means that you need to be aware of some of the key roles that people have to take on and then to make sure those roles are filled with people who can do them well.

The five roles on any team

One key role is the decider. One person needs to have responsibility for being the final judge for key questions that arise. The decider might opt to let the group vote on certain things or to have discussions with team members to reach a consensus. But the group has to have someone who is ultimately given authority to make a decision that the rest of the team will accept.

A second key role is the editor. When groups present their work to others, there is often a report that goes out with it. While several different people may contribute sections to the report, it ultimately needs to read as though it has one voice. One person needs to take the lead on weaving the report together coherently so that it does not feel like it was patched together haphazardly.

Groups also need a scribe. Groups coordinate their activity in meetings. Unfortunately, in many meetings, everyone is engaged in discussion, and nobody records the discussion or catalogs the decisions that were made. The group scribe needs to keep good minutes for every meeting. If someone volunteers to take an assignment, they should be reminded about it later. If a key decision is made, it needs to be noted. The scribe should then post the results of the meeting somewhere where it can be accessed by everyone else.

Good teams also have a scheduler. There are two elements to scheduling—one is obvious and one less so. The obvious aspect of scheduling is that there needs to be a clear list of tasks that have to be performed, and one person needs to be responsible for making sure that at least one person on the team is addressing each of these tasks.

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The less obvious aspect of scheduling is that people differ in their resting level of motivational energy, which psychologists call arousal. High-energy people tend to get things done early, because they channel that energy to whatever they have on their to-do list. Low-energy people often need external pressure such as a deadline to make sure they complete the things they start.

The problem is that there is an ideal level of energy for completing work. Too little energy, and it’s hard to get started on a task and to sustain interest in it. Too much energy, and people descend into panic and don’t work effectively. This U-shaped relationship between energy and performance was discovered in the early 20th century and is called the Yerkes Dodson curve.

One of the hardest jobs a scheduler has is to try to keep everyone working at the sweet spot of this curve. That means that low-energy people need to be given artificial deadlines to complete tasks in a timely fashion, while high-energy people need to be protected from having to do work too close to a deadline when they might become too energized.

Finally, every group also needs a presenter. This person is the one who shares the work of the group in public settings—whether those are meetings, external presentations, or conferences. The presenter needs to be someone with good public speaking skills who is able to internalize the work of the group and to talk about it concisely.

An important side note: It’s valuable to have a presenter who is not a narcissist. When narcissists serve as presenters, they often hog the limelight and don’t ensure that all the members of the team get credit for their contributions. It saps morale when people work hard and then see other people get rewarded for what they accomplished. Presenters need to find ways to highlight the influence that key team members had on the project and to make sure those individuals get recognized.

How to pick roles

Though it’s tempting to assign these roles once and then to have people adopt the same role for every project, there are several reasons to avoid this. For one, people need to get experience with different roles, so that they can learn new skills. For another, some roles are more visible than others, and those visible roles lead people to get more credit than they deserve for the success of a project—even when visible people do a good job of spreading accolades. Thus, while each project needs people to take on clearly defined roles, those roles should not define the way someone works every time a group is convened.

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