Trouble-shooting Cases


Case 1

You are waiting for a cooperative learning group meeting to start. One of the members, Hugh, has been working in the group for the past two months. It is well into the semester and although Hugh is the quietest member of the group and doesn't socialize outside of class, he has been an especially good project and task coordinator. Hugh missed the last group meeting and is late arriving today. Ethan observes that Hugh has been slacking off, not producing his usual caliber or volume of work and has not been keeping activities coordinated. The group agrees that you need to find out what the problem is, but how?


Answer the following questions as you analyze this situation.


Feedback and Suggestions for Case 1

Hugh's sudden slacking off and lack of production for the group may seem behavioral, but addressing the issues requires communication. Once Hugh feels comfortable talking about what is going on, how it affects the group, and how the group can help deal with it, the logistics of the solution will work themselves out. Hugh is pretty reserved, so getting the required information may not be easy. Even the very best managers and supervisors who are skilled in these areas sometimes have difficulty with this type of situation. In any case, don't ignore the problem.

The discussion should focus on the information the group needs, not on Hugh personally. If possible, choose a group member who has a good relationship with Hugh to talk with him. Explain to Hugh that his friends have noticed the change in the work he has been producing and that it would be good if together you could figure out how to get things back on track. Unless you are seeking specific times, dates, or events ("What other time-consuming courses are you taking this semester?"), try to avoid questions that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." Instead, ask open-ended questions to keep the conversation going. Questions may be prefaced by something positive like: "You've been great with coordinating all our tasks and activities since the beginning of the semester, what's changed?" Don't be confrontational. Assume the best about Hugh; that he is dealing with a personal or academic issue that is consuming his time and hindering his efforts. Be friendly, smile, make eye contact, agree, and nod as Hugh responds. Make sure he knows he is being heard. Encourage him to keep talking.

For example, tell Hugh that he is liked and respected and is a valued part of the team. However, he has not been well prepared lately, has been late, and has missed a meeting. For the team to function effectively and efficiently, his contribution is needed. So how can the team help?

Look for explanations but not excuses. There is most likely a reasonable explanation, such as illness in Hugh's family, a roommate problem, or a point in the semester when major projects are all due at once.

At the end of the conversation, make sure everyone involved understands what has been said. Restate Hugh's comments and position. Summarize the key points. Then, the group should brainstorm about alternatives, priorities, or changes of assignments (temporary or permanent). The team must decide what performance is expected, what is acceptable in this situation, and if there is a way the team can help - after all, we can all use a little help from our friends once in a while.


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Case 2

Your group has had a few meetings and things are going pretty well, except for one significant problem. Frances always has to have her own way about everything. No matter what, it's a struggle between her way of doing things and what other members of the group think should be done. Consequently, the group's progress is slow, decisions are hard to come by, and people are getting frustrated. What are some ways to work through this situation?


Answer the following questions as you analyze this situation.


Feedback and Suggestions for Case 2

The group should not be deciding or choosing who gets his or her way but should be trying to figure out the best way for the group. Frances seems to be looking at things from a "me-versus-you" perspective and has a really strong desire to be in control. Perhaps she has experienced a time when a partner or other group members failed to do their parts, and she paid for it with a low grade or hurt feelings.

Effective groups have an atmosphere of partnership. The group must be clear about seeing its work as a process where everyone needs each other (remember positive interdependence?). Frances' strong need to be in control can be weakened by focusing on shared power to meet collective needs. The group should avoid power that is negative (i.e. "power over") and instead seek positive aspects of power ("power with").

Ask Frances to describe what she thinks are the needs of the group or what the situation really is. Keep her focused on the needs of the situation, not on controlling the situation. Help her come up with things that she can accomplish based on those needs. During the discussion, try to establish a strong sense of partnership with Frances. The idea is not to break down, but to build up and agree on what will help the group make progress on the assignments.

For example, make a list of things that need to be done to accomplish a group assignment. Set aside items that people disagree on, and make a list containing similar and viable options. Write these down and discuss them once the list is complete. Put similar items together and narrow down the list. Think about how each item would play out for the group.

The idea is to focus on key items or options that meet the shared needs of the group and have the best chance of working successfully. By doing this, it weakens and defuses Frances' personal needs and focuses the group on developing agreements and seeking out shared goals.

The group could also assign Frances the "Praiser" role for a while. This assignment would complement the idea of having her work in partnership with what is mutually beneficial for the group as a whole.

Finally, if the group is not able to succeed on its own with Frances, a coach or facilitator may be able to accomplish what the group couldn't. The faculty member with whom the group is working could help with the coaching duties, or the faculty member could recommend someone else on campus with experience and expertise as a coach who could be help with the group dynamic.


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Case 3

You like your group. Everyone gets along just great! You all have a variety of complementary skills and talents. No one dislikes anyone else. Everyone comes to meetings. You have terrific discussions.

There's just one little problem. The group can't make a decision. When it comes down to making a choice, sticking with it, and taking action, it just doesn't happen. And, there are due dates looming on the horizon. This has to change - but how?


Answer the following questions as you analyze this situation.


Feedback and Suggestions for Case 3

No matter how well the group interacts with each other, having a terrific conversation doesn't count as teamwork and it doesn't help you make decisions that are critical to taking action and completing assignments.

If you aren't making progress, maybe you just need to stop and take a break. Order a pizza. Set a specific time to reconvene and get down to business; or maybe it isn't that simple.

There are ways to facilitate making decisions in groups. First you have to understand the problem, which is sometimes more difficult than you think. Then clarify the issues, figure out their scope and complexity - what's involved, what other issues might be affected, what is the context, what information do you still need? Basically, gather the relevant data. Next, generate a list of ideas or solutions.

You don't want to lose everyone's good thoughts, so you might want people to work in pairs or individually to generate ideas that might otherwise get lost in the group atmosphere. However you do it, talk through each idea or alternative. Realize that you may have to make some intelligent guesses. Then, implement! Identify what needs to be done and what materials or resources are needed, develop a backup plan, and lay out the project.

Understand that things will be chaotic, unclear, and imprecise. You'll have to deal with that so you can alleviate some of the frustration. Make sure you allow enough time to examine the problem adequately. Ask each other about the best way to organize the group.

Use the group evaluation form to talk about the effectiveness of your organizational scheme. Make sure the problem or task is clear, you have sufficient information or data, you've used decision-making procedures, and you have a good balance of agreement and disagreement.

There are ways to structure decision-making activities. Among these are brainstorming, nominal group technique, and consensus mapping.

Brainstorming helps to evoke many creative solutions or alternatives. Encourage everyone in the group to throw as many ideas on the table as possible. Even though the ideas may seem weird or wild, keep your minds open to new thoughts and ideas. Suspend all criticism and evaluation; you can organize them later.

Nominal group technique involves having each group member create a list of ideas in writing. There are lots of variations on this technique, but basically go around the group and have each member state one idea. Discuss each idea until it is clear to everyone and its pros and cons are understood. Keep going until everyone's ideas have been recorded. Then, take a preliminary vote. Discuss the results and do a final ranking.

If the group is still having trouble agreeing on the problem, try consensus mapping. Have each person write down the key dimensions of the problem on individual pieces of paper. Cluster and re-cluster these notes until there is general agreement on the problem and its dimensions.

Other things to think about:

If you've tried these techniques and you're still stuck, then consider bringing in a coach or facilitator. Sometimes introducing a person who is external into the group provides a catalyst and inspiration.