HOW TO COPE WITH HITCHHIKERS AND COUCH POTATOES ON TEAMS

BY BARBARA OAKLEY

You will usually find your university teammates as interested in learning as you are. Occasionally, however, you may encounter a person who creates difficulties. This handout is meant to give you practical advice for this type of situation.

To begin with, let’s imagine you have been assigned to a combined homework and lab group this semester with three others: Mary, Henry, and Jack. Mary is okay-she’s not good at solving problems, but she tries hard, and she willingly does things like get extra help from the professor. Henry is irritating. He’s a nice guy, but he just doesn’t put in the effort to do a good job. He’ll sheepishly hand over partially worked homework problems and confess to spending the weekend watching TV. Jack, on the other hand, has been nothing but a problem. Here are a few of the things Jack has done:

* When you tried to set up meetings at the beginning of the semester, Jack just couldn’t meet, because he was too busy.

* Jack infrequently turns in his part of the homework. When he does, it’s almost always wrong-he obviously spent just enough time to scribble something down that looks like work.

* Jack has never answered phone messages. When you confront him, he denies getting any messages. You e-mail him, but he’s “too busy to answer.”

* Jack misses every meeting-he always promises he’ll be there, but never shows up.

* His writing skills are okay, but he can’t seem to do anything right for lab reports. He loses the drafts, doesn’t reread his work, leaves out tables, or does something sloppy like write equations by hand. You’ve stopped assigning him work because you don’t want to miss your professor’s strict deadlines.

* Jack constantly complains about his fifty-hour work weeks, heavy school load, bad textbooks, and terrible teachers. At first you felt sorry for him-but recently you’ve begun to wonder if Jack is using you.

* Jack speaks loudly and self-confidently when you try to discuss his problems-he thinks the problems are everyone else’s fault. He is so self-assured that you can’t help wondering sometimes if he’s right.

* Your group finally was so upset they went to discuss the situation with Professor Distracted. He in turn talked, along with the group, to Jack, who in sincere and convincing fashion said he hadn’t really understood what everyone wanted him to do. Dr. Distracted said the problem must be the group was not communicating effectively. He noticed you, Mary, and Henry looked angry and agitated, while Jack simply looked bewildered, a little hurt, and not at all guilty. It was easy for Dr. Distracted to conclude this was a dysfunctional group, and everyone was at fault-probably Jack least of all.

The bottom line: You and your teammates are left holding the bag. Jack is getting the same good grades as everyone else without doing any work. Oh yes-he managed to make you all look bad while he was at it.

What this group did wrong: Absorbing

This was an ‘absorber’ group. From the very beginning they absorbed the problem when Jack did something wrong, and took pride in getting the job done whatever the cost. Hitchhikers count on you to act in a self-sacrificing manner. However, the nicer you are (or the nicer you think you are being), the more the hitchhiker will be able to hitchhike their way through the university-and through life.

What this group should have done: Mirroring

It’s important to reflect back the dysfunctional behavior of the hitchhiker, so the hitchhiker pays the price-not you. Never accept accusations, blame, or criticism from a hitchhiker. Maintain your own sense of reality despite what the hitchhiker says, (easier said than done). Show you have a bottom line: there are limits to the behavior you will accept. Clearly communicate these limits and act consistently on them. For example, here is what the group could have done:

* When Jack couldn’t find time to meet in his busy schedule, even when alternatives were suggested, you needed to decide whether Jack was a hitchhiker. Was Jack brusque, self-important, and in a hurry to get away? Those are suspicious signs. Someone needed to tell Jack up front to either find time to meet, or talk to the professor.