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Help! How do I deal with my project teammate?

In a prickly project work situation? NTU experts offer some advice on handling difficult teammates
by Chrystal Chan
Illustrations: Vivian Lim

1. An egoist

Traits: He thinks he is better than everyone else. He hardly attends meetings as he thinks it is a “waste of his time”, and when he does, he is always critical, especially towards me. He shoots down my ideas, amends 90% of my presentation slides, and talks to me as though I shouldn’t be in the group.

“Sometimes, people aren’t aware that their behaviour can offend others. Deal with this as a group instead of between the both of you. Keep the discussion focused on the behaviour rather than on the person.” – Assoc Prof Trevor Yu

“Ask him some factual questions about the changes he has made to your work to find out his motivation. Take a step back to evaluate the situation before jumping to conclusions. Try to see things from his perspective.” – Counsellors from the University Wellbeing Centre

“It’s okay to tell him that his behaviour is hurtful and that you do not like it. For future group projects, I recommend that you and your team spend time getting to know one another outside of school before you start working on the project. This helps the members become comfortable with each other. For now, take this as an opportunity to learn about yourself and how you react in these situations.” – Dr Catherine Peyrols Wu


2. A princess

Traits: She always seems to get preferential treatment. She doesn’t do her part, even with more than a week to do the work. Then she asks for the meeting to be rescheduled to suit her but it’s not a good time for me as I have a test the next day. I wouldn’t be so upset if my teammates were at least fair about it.

“Decide early on as a group how the meetings should be held. Lay down the rules of when, where, who and what. These are the fundamentals of good project management. The group should also decide on appropriate and fair penalties for members who violate these rules.” – Assoc Prof Trevor Yu

“You can plan to attend the meeting for a given amount of time and then leave early to return to your revision. Propose an agenda ahead of the meeting to make it fruitful and efficient. Fix the subsequent meeting dates and get everyone in the team to agree to keep those dates.” – Counsellors from the University Wellbeing Centre

“You can plan two types of meetings. First are large group meetings for review and next steps. These are meetings that everyone agrees to attend. You should schedule these meetings early in the semester and block out people’s calendars.

Then, have small group meetings where people meet to work on specific items. The timing can be more flexible because not everyone is required to be there, only those assigned to the specific task. Those who cannot join can work on other items with other group members.

As for now, as you don’t feel that your team treats you fairly, you can offer to partner someone in the team to do the work. This way, even if you can't attend a meeting, your partner will have your back and can share your views on your behalf.” – Dr Catherine Peyrols Wu

3. AWOL

Traits: Like a ghost, this person doesn’t seem to exist. He hardly replies to emails, doesn’t appear at meetings, and never replies to text messages. We heard that he is someone who leaves things to the last minute. Should we trust that he will do his part before the deadline or should we just go ahead and do his part so we don’t have to panic at the end?

“Find out if he is facing any difficulties (such as juggling a part-time job with school) that might cause him to leave things to the last minute. Perhaps he hasn’t realised his behaviour is causing frustration and stress to the team. Your group leader could approach him privately and tactfully to give him feedback and offer help. If there is no improvement after your efforts to engage him, then you may want to speak with your professor about the situation.” – Counsellors from the University Wellbeing Centre

“In my experience, when a member becomes a 'ghost', there is often more to it than the person simply being a free-rider. I have seen serious students disengage and even disappear from teamwork for a host of reasons including difficulties coping with work, personal problems, health issues and so on. International students can become discouraged in group discussions due to culturally different work habits. There’s no easy fix to make your friend reappear, but you could try asking him if everything is okay and extend help if he is having a hard time.” – Dr Catherine Peyrols Wu


4. A control freak

Traits: He quietly makes changes to our work without letting us know or explaining why he has to be the final “overseer”. He only explains the amendments if we ask him outright. We have tried to tell him the changes aren’t needed, but he says our original work sucks and would not get us a good grade. This need of his to control everything even extends to our presentation. He tells us how to speak and what to say. I can see where he’s coming from and I appreciate the effort he has put in, but the fun of learning gets sacrificed.

“Treat such challenging experiences with an open mind and learn from them. With that, you can develop better group work tactics and advocate for them with your new group members. Some examples are: have clear lines of communication, map out mini deadlines and use a good project management tool to track the progress of the team.” – Counsellors from the University Wellbeing Centre

“Occasionally, you’ll have to work with people that you find hard to deal with. My advice is to assess the costs and benefits of continuing with the relationship. In this scenario, the cost is feeling constantly drained and discouraged. The benefits, on the other hand, may include learning new ways to work better and improve your presentation skills. Your decision to continue the work relationship depends on your personal analysis.” – Dr Catherine Peyrols Wu


The panel:
Counsellors from the University Wellbeing Centre

Dr Catherine Peyrols Wu

Dr Catherine Peyrols Wu, who researches the role of cultural intelligence in teams

 
Assoc Prof Trevor Yu

Assoc Prof Trevor Yu, who teaches classes on organisational behaviour and has done research on how teams can work more effectively