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Key skills: making a difference
Key skills: making a difference

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9.1.1 About working with others

Very few people study or work in complete isolation. Some courses now set projects and assignments that need to be completed in pairs or groups, either face-to-face or using e-conferencing. Even if your course does not formally require you to do this, working with others is an important part of your skills portfolio. Most jobs require you to work as part of a team, and employers value individuals who can demonstrate this.

In working on a work project or an assignment with others – in pairs or in a group – you will be learning two different things at once. You will be learning about the task or project that you have been set and you will also be learning about how to work with colleagues. The methods you choose to use to communicate and work together will relate to your particular circumstances, but the processes are similar.

Each member of a group influences how that group operates, even if only by remaining silent. The success of the group depends largely on whether everyone is prepared to take some responsibility for how the group operates and whether everyone feels free to contribute fully. Group working skills are not the sort of skills you can learn just by reading about them. To develop the skills needed to be an effective team member you need to practise them in a group setting with a real task.

Working in a group is not just about getting a job done. It is about communicating effectively, contributing ideas and listening to those of others, and receiving feedback approximately, keeping the level of interest and excitement going, and leading or following the lead as appropriate.

Because it is difficult to arrive at one definition of a group that is acceptable to all, it may be best to think instead of characteristics that describe a group. A collection of people is likely to be a group when it possesses the following characteristics:

  • a definable membership – a collection of two or more people;

  • consciousness of membership – members think of themselves as a group, have a collective perception of unity, and have a conscious identification with each other;

  • a sense of shared purpose – members have the same goals or ideals;

  • interaction – members communicate with one another, influence one another, and react to one another;

  • ability to act in a unitary manner – the group can behave as a single organism.

Although each group will have its own particular qualities, most effective groups have the five general characteristics listed above.

A group then is a collection of people who interact with each other, are aware of each other, are working towards some common purpose, and perceive themselves to be a group. Groups are the building blocks of the larger organisation and most decisions in organisations are made by groups.

Some people tend to adopt particular roles within a group, such as, for example, individual dominance, when one individual dominates the group. This is not always helpful, since the most effective group members are those who are aware of what is going on at a social and emotional level – not just at a formal level – and can adapt their behaviour to suit the needs of the group at that moment, such as, for example, taking the initiative to lead when others are floundering; encouraging the more reticent group members to contribute; diffusing potential flash points; or suggesting a compromise that will allow others to move on without losing face.

One problem is that when you work with a partner or in a group, you are usually so caught up in the task or the problem to be solved that you do not always notice your own performance or think about the best ways of working. To improve your own effectiveness, you need to become consciously aware of what you are doing and how you are doing it while the group is operating. Then, when the group work is complete, you should take time to look back both on how the task has been accomplished and on how you have contributed as a group member. The dynamics of the group and the ways people work together on the task will inevitably affect your performance as an individual. So, to improve your own performance you also need to understand more about how groups operate and how you might be able to help the group function more effectively.

When you are faced with a project or an assignment that requires you to work with other people, it is easy to plunge into the task without considering what is involved and how you, individually and as part of the group, can help to achieve it. As with most complex tasks, the secret is not to try to tackle everything at once but to break down the task into manageable chunks. No one is good at everything; there are likely to be some aspects where you feel able to cope and some where you need help. Being able to work successfully with other people is such an important skill that it is worth taking time to think about how you work with others at the moment and how you might improve on this.