Teamwork is an essential skill -- so why isn't anyone teaching it?

It's time for teachers to offer instruction on teamwork, and not have their students learn through only trial and error

Dear Bob ...

I'm a business professor in a university setting. One of my students pointed out your recent post, "Don't let matrix management exclude employee performance," with this comment:

You have us work on projects in teams. We're graded on these projects. Not all team members contribute equally; some don't contribute at all. Shouldn't you be doing this?

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"This," of course, referred to your advice that following a project, the project manager should meet with each team member and their administrative manager to review the employee's performance on a project.

I didn't have a good answer. It isn't something I've ever done, and it isn't something any of my colleagues have ever done either, to the best of my knowledge. The general thought process is that part of what we're grading students on is their ability to work on projects in teams, so if some team members don't pull their weight, it's a failing of the entire team.

What do you think?

- The Perfesser

Dear Perfesser ...

At the risk of offending you before giving you my answer, I think you and your colleagues are rationalizing. Pertinent to this discussion, there's a large body of research available on the economics of cheating in social systems. The short version: If cheating is profitable, lots of people will cheat.

In a team project assignment, when someone is able to slack off, knowing other team members will take care of their work in order to protect themselves -- well, what do you expect to happen?

So yes, I think that when you assign a team project you should appoint a team leader and set the expectation that at the end of the project you'll have these reviews, which will also include a discussion of the team leader's performance in their role.

This is just one piece of a larger puzzle, and it's something I've never understood: From middle school on, I know my kids were subjected to team projects, on the theory that they'll learn valuable skills this way. Yet, if working in team-based projects is such a valuable skill, why doesn't anyone spend any time, for example, teaching it, instead of expecting kids to figure it out through trial and error?

This issue extends to how businesses handle small projects, too. It's remarkably common to assign a project to someone with no training in the discipline, expecting them to figure it out as they go along. Talk about setting people up to fail!

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Since you're a member of the business faculty in your institution of higher learning, I'd urge you to add a mandatory class in project management. It's one of the most valuable skills anyone in business can master, and it is eminently teachable (I should know -- I teach it).

- Bob

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