group work

In college, as a marketing major, I was exposed to endless amounts of group work.  Nearly every class syllabus had some sort of monster “group” project included in it.

And here is the thing that I’ve learned about “group” work: it’s never really an effort of the whole, it is an effort of the determined.

The best group work assignment I ever had gave everyone in the group a $100 in fake money at the end to distribute as a bonus to their fellow group members.  Students were urged to distribute the money based on how much each person contributed to the group.  I remember feeling a great sense of satisfaction when I could reward my fellow teammates who pulled their weight, while acknowledging that we had some dead weight in the effort.  Yes, the group may have earned an”A” for the project, but truthfully, it was because of the work of a determined few.

And what I’ve found in life, at various jobs I’ve had, is that group work in college was probably the single best preparation for life that I had in college.  Yeah, the statistics and algebra helped.  Yes, it is helpful that I can create a flow chart and write a presentation.  All good skills.  But survival of the fittest is really based on how well you manage in group work.

There are still people at every job who have figured out ways to  contribute with the least amount of effort without getting fired.  Some of these people are so expert at it, they even manage to get raises and promotions out of it. These are the group coasters.  They just cruise along, disengaged and generally uninterested. And unfortunately, in every job, there are always the negative nellies.  These individuals want to direct the group without any responsibility of being a leader.  These are the folks at church or in circles of friends that are constantly giving feedback (generally negative) and never offering a solution (or at least a solution that includes something that they would do).

But the people I’ve grown to admire are of two groups: skilled followers and skilled leaders.

Skilled followers are abundantly more important than leaders.  Who cares where we’re being led if the group is comprised of negative nellies and group coasters?  It’s like getting in a car that is pointed in a direction, with zero fuel in the tank.  Frank and I have had to learn to be better followers in different volunteer situations.  I’m not even saying that we’re good at it yet, but it’s a skill we work on and we’ve made progress with.  We’ve learned that good followers bring problems and solutions.  They look at their leader and figure out when they need encouragement, when they need help organizing/distributing work and suggest helpful solutions.

Skilled leaders are important, too.  They cast a vision, they encourage the followers, they set goals and move towards them.  The put a lot on the line – time, effort and pride.

But what I’ve noticed for both skilled followers and skilled leaders is that the outcome is more important to both of those groups than their pride.  True group work is humbling for everyone because leaders often have to get into the trenches and followers often have to pick their battles.

Followers have to be able to determine what is a “strategic” difference versus a simple “style” difference – and if it is worth bringing up.

The best examples of strategic vs. style differences are often found in churches.  There are a lot of people who attend churches that love the mission, vision and direction of the church.  They love the teaching or the programs or the worship or the children’s ministry, but often they do not love ALL of the programs.  Or perhaps they don’t love the style of how something is done – perhaps they would prefer that more percussion would be used during worship or that the children’s ministry had more outdoor activities.  But at the end of the day, the church as a whole matches most of their important criteria.  They go to church, often staying silent on their style preferences because they want to build up the church, not tear it down.

Life is essentially all about group work.  Even if you think you’ve escaped group work, you probably haven’t if you are in any sort of long-term relationship or part of a family.  The question essentially boils down to what kind of group member do I want to be?

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