Badly Designed Group Work is Detrimental to Introverts

Last year I finally worked out that I am an introvert (and what that meant). This was one of the most useful discoveries I have ever made and hugely conducive to helping me understand the way I can be more effective in social, creative and working situations.

I have since been reflecting on parts of my education, the things that I struggled with and ways I might have been able to work better if school/university wasn’t so extrovert-centred – or perhaps if I had at least known something about my temperament during this time.

Although there are obviously huge developmental benefits and gains to be made from being pushed out of your comfort zone I think some of the educational practices that went on (I assume still go on) were often un-conducive to real meaningful learning and discovery. The notion of group work, and at university my general experiences within the seminar environment, is a prominent example of this.


Working Alone
I come up with my best work when I’m alone. Not out of choice, but it’s just what happens, especially if I am trying to get my head around a new topic, skill etc. I am far more creative when I’m on my own, in my own space, with self-regulated time constraints.

Before I am comfortable sharing with a group I like to know exactly what I am talking about, be confident that I can deal with questions about it and be sure I can hold others to account for what they are saying too.

Group-work situations rarely allow for this – you get thrown into a group of a few, perhaps half a dozen people and then given a project to do/questions to think about and then quite probably a presentation to give at the end. Obviously not always, but invariably these sorts of things will happen.

One person takes charge and starts demanding ideas, getting impatient and rushing thoughts onto paper. It feels like a race against time as the naturally awful (early, un-evolved) ideas start to trickle off the marker and onto the page.

I don’t come up with ideas very fast and this is always the bit that alienates me and can remove my heart and belief from the entire project before we even properly start. Extroverts might generally want to get moving quickly and might inadvertently and unknowingly leave the introverts about 20 steps behind.

‘What do you think?’ the question comes.
‘I don’t know really’, comes my response, misinterpreted as disinterest rather than a need for brain space.

I really don’t enjoy thinking in front of people like this, especially when someone is pushing me to come up with something on the spot. I need to go through the process of brainstorming ideas alone so that I can laugh at the bad stuff that comes out, filter it and then take a slightly more reasonable list to the group after much time pondering and the building of self-confidence.

So often we become forced into making rash decisions based on the self-confidence of those in the group who are happy thinking out loud and don’t mind going with their instincts. The decisions get made and then everyone who is still grappling about on the first page is forced down a road that they haven’t agreed to.

‘I’m not sure that’s the best idea’ you might say if you manage to pluck up the courage.
‘Oh OK’ the self-designated leader will respond defensively, ‘have you got any better ideas?’
‘No, I haven’t come up with anything yet’
‘Well then, I think we should probably go with what we have come up with then. Everyone agreed?’

Everyone nods half-heartedly. Sorted. How often after this sort of situation do you get a little way down the line to find bitching and bitterness around the chosen direction?

It’s not that anyone is in the wrong.

It is just that everyone works differently, and throwing them all together doesn’t necessarily lead to a constructive teamwork situation because you can’t force introverts into extrovert behaviour. I’m not saying the extrovert shouldn’t behave in their natural way either, for this is just natural behaviour.

The problem however is that the whole situation more often than not works against the natural tendencies of the introvert. From the beginning of the process to the presentation at the end, the introvert is not only out of their comfort zone but they are being encouraged to work in ways that are completely counter to their natural temperament. They will therefore not produce anything like the quality they are capable of.

I think group work is probably a nice easy thing to do from the perspective of the teacher and it certainly has its place, but from the perspective of an introvert it can really damage self-confidence and belief in your own creative spirit if used wrongly.

It seems to be becoming more and more prevalent, so consider this a call for us to calm it slightly if we want to develop real and deep critical thinkers and rational change makers, which are both things we desperately need right now.

Over to You

How do you find working in groups?

  1. Idea: introverts and extroverts together in a group could possibly work in a cycle. The extroverts would primarily brainstorm during a meeting, and the introverts would primarily work out their ideas outside the group and present them first thing for the next meeting, thus providing new input and the starting point for the next discussion. This way, they could feed off each-other, and probably get into a good rhythm, each working during the others’ down-time.

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