How to Deal with Unproductive Group Members | GUTS Tip

Often, when working on group projects, there is a group member that is unproductive and not doing their work. This behavior creates “a real risk of social contagion that drags down the morale and productivity of those around them” including you, and also can result in a lower grade for you (Carolyn O’Hara, Harvard Business Review). So what can you do about it? In this article we discuss some steps to deal with unproductive group members, hopefully resulting in better performance for the group overall, and a better grade for you.

Define the Problem

Unproductively can manifest itself in many different ways, so you need to figure out what is the particular problem. Some common types of unproductively are rooted in:

  • indifference (they simply do not care),
  • lack of time (your group mate has conflicting priorities),
  • pessimism (they are always finding a reason something won’t wrong, thus slowing the group down), and
  • distractions (your group mate cannot focus on their tasks at hand),
  • confusion (they have little clear direction).

Recognize what it is your group mate is doing, or not doing, and how that is affecting the group. Leigh Espy says to “identify the behaviors, the impacts, and the full picture of the situation” (Project Bliss).

Communicate with Them

After reflecting on what is the specific problem, now you need to communicate with the group member to determine the cause of the problem and to make the group member aware that their performance, or lack thereof, is causing the group to be less productive.

It is critical that you do not make assumptions nor accusations about your group mate’s behavior. You do not know what they are experiencing and thinking. Instead, have an open and honest conversation with them, listening to them and reflecting on their perspective and experience.

Ask Directly

The best way to approach the issue of having an unproductive group member is approaching them about the problem. Do this away from the team, otherwise your group mate may feel very uncomfortable. Also, focus on the behavior and its impact. Leigh Espy says, “don’t use labels or blame” (Project Bliss) and Carolyn O’Hara recommends approaching with friendly questions, rather than accusations (Harvard Business Review).

Clear communication is always helpful in reducing conflict and this is a critical step in seeing real change and improvement in your group.


When you have this conversation with your group mate, remember to engage in active listening skills. Pay attention to what they say, reflect, and summarize to show understanding. Effective listening shows that you respect them and are interested in their perspective of the situation which will ultimately make them more willing to be helpful and open to making greater effort.

Clarify Roles & Devise a Plan

After determining the problem, and learning about the cause and the experience your group mate is having through clear communication with them, now is when you being making steps toward getting them to stop the behavior.

If your group mate is confused, clarify their roles and what expectation you have for them. Emphasize that you will support them but are also relying on them to complete their own work. Even if a group member is not confused, clarifying their role can motivate them to put more effort in because they will understand the importance of their work.

Also, consider working with them to devise a plan to get all the work done. Ask your group member if they have any ideas, and perhaps suggest some of your own. If the person helps come up with a solution, they’ll be more motivated in following through and completing their work (Leigh Espy, Project Bliss).

Know When to Escalate

After all of this, you do not see any effort for improvement and the situation is worsening, it’s time for you to escalate the issue to your professor. There is only so much you can do and at this point after you have already tried to resolve the issue, it is time for the professor to talk with the group member and handle the issue from there. When contacting your professor about the problem, keep it to the facts:

  • describe what is it the group mate is doing (or not doing),
  • how this is affecting the work and the group environment,
  • what you have done to try and fix the situation, and
  • why it is important to you that they take action (or the risk involved if nothing changes).

It is always challenging working with a difficult team member and in taking up with them the problem. With these steps, hopefully the issues can be resolved quickly, effectively, and amicably resulting in everyone doing their part.

Written by Cole Navin

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*This is an opinion post. While the topics described here are mostly based on research, please keep in mind not to assume all of the information described above is factual.

Sources Used:

Harvard Business Review:

Project Bliss:

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