Working in groups: Unwelcome problem personalities

Do you know any of these problem group members?

Busy      |      Wily      |      Smugly      |      Clock      |      Absently      |      Quietly      |      Slacky      |      Jokey      |      Whiney      |      Wordy      |      Bossy      |      Tardily      |      Edgy      |      Pokey

Students in classes and people on mission trips often find themselves a part of a group or team assigned to a specific task. In the classroom, such groups may digest case studies, discuss textbook material, and even prepare presentations to be given to the rest of the class. Those on a church missions council or committee may be charged with putting together certain events and carrying on a program of education and inspiration. All of these groups have two dimensions: the assigned task and the interpersonal dynamics that nourish us in all kinds of ways.

Unfortunately, not all teams or groups work well. Groups may wind up frustrated, stuck, or squabbling. Some find it difficult to retain focus and motivation because some people are preoccupied with their personal agendas. Groups may be troubled by a lack of cohesiveness, by cliques, or by one-upmanship. Or, the behavior of one member can sometimes drive all the other group members "up the wall."

With apologies to Snow White and her dwarf friends, here's a list of problem characters who can damage study and work groups.

cartoon drawing of harried person
Busy can't make the meeting, no matter when it's scheduled. She says she's willing to contribute but has a busy schedule and lots to do. So, she tells the group to carry on without her. She will do her part, she says, as long as they let her know what that is.

cartoon drawing of Wily
Wily is an alibi artist. He makes excuses for all the responsibilities he doesn't fulfill and all the meetings he misses. Some suspect he's a bit of a conniver or con artist.

Smugly doesn't much trust other people and their ability to do things the way she thinks they ought to be done. So, she does everything herself. Whenever someone offers to help, she smoothly puts them off: "It's no problem. Everything is under control. Not to worry."
The less others in the group are involved, the happier Smugly seems to be. Delegate is not a verb she uses. No one knows whether Smugly acts the way she does because she is a perfectionist or because she is an egomaniac.

cartoon drawing of a
Clock comes to meetings and participates, but he always has to leave early for some other engagement

Quietly comes to group meetings very well prepared, but she is so quiet that people often forget she's there. Her ideas would really help the group, but unless someone calls on her, Quietly doesn't say anything.

Nobody has seen hide nor hair of Absently. He isn't even coming to class anymore. He hasn't tried to contact anybody else in the group. As project deadlines loom ahead, the other members ask themselves: What should we do about Absently?

Lacking motivation and initiative, this listless group member is a sloppy contributor at best. At worst, he's dead weight.

Jokey enjoys being with people. He's always there when the group gets together. The trouble is, he gets the group off track. He cannot stay focused on the task.

cartoon drawing of Whiney
No matter what she is asked to do, Whiney complains. She definitely knows how to find clouds in silver linings!

cartoon drawing of
talkative person
Wordy monopolizes meetings. He has good ideas, but he talks and talks and talks. An outsider observing the group would see Wordy doing eighty percent or more of the talking.

Bossy definitely "contributes" to the group. His ideas are good and he's always ready to offer them. However, Bossy doesn't listen to the ideas of others; he's an obnoxious jerk who forces his solutions on the group. At the first meeting, this know-it-all tries to take charge and push and push until the group goes in the direction he thinks best (even though others in the group may not agree).

Bossy has no idea there's a difference between "being the boss" and leading people.

cartoon drawing of Tardily
Tardily always shows up late. Sometimes, she doesn't show at all. She never quite gets her share of the work done on time. Even on the day her group has to do some kind of presentation in front of an audience, Tardily will probably show up late.
Edgy's negative attitude -- about what she's supposed to be doing at the moment, about group project ideas, and even about life in general -- drags down group morale. Edgy can be a temperamental terror.

Pokey hasn't developed good brainstorming skills. Pokey doesn't listen real well and her powers of discernment need honing. Groups find Pokey lagging far behind when creative juices are flowing.

Dealing with unacceptable behavior by participants in study and workgroups

Discussion questions on the topic of dealing with problem group or committee members [ more on conflict resolution ]

  1. Have you worked in groups that had one or more problem people?
  2. Has your own behavior ever made you an unwelcome group member?
  3. What special problems do "unwelcome members" pose for the rest of the group?
  4. What workable strategies can be used to deal with the problem types listed above?
  5. How does one light a fire under goof-offs?
  6. How do you clamp down on horseplay and banter in a group without damaging morale?
  7. How can a group with one or more problem members get productivity and results without incurring resentment or damaging relationships?
  8. How can a group plagued by problem members keep creativity and innovation alive and flourishing?
  9. How does one open dialog with a difficult group member?
  10. How do you discuss someone's problem behavior while minimizing defensive reactions on their part?

What do students look for in their group members?

A study by management consultants Mary L. Connerley and Fred A. Mael, which was published in an issue of Journal of Management Education, indicated that the following attributes matter:

Does your group have these "willingness traits"?

Attitude check: Is your work or study group headed for success or failure because of the participants' frame of mind?

A bi-weekly pamphlet titled The Professor in the Classroom said that, for a group of students or learners to be successful, each of its members needs four "willingness" traits:

Willingness to . . .

  1. Willingness to accept everyone in the group.
    Good group members don't wait to see who measures up.
    They don't wait to see where someone stands before accepting him or her.

  2. Willingness to learn from each other.
    Good group members recognize that everyone brings strengths to the group. They are not control freaks like Bossy

  3. Willingness to share ideas, power, expertise, and the floor.
    Good group members don't talk people to death like Wordy

  4. Willingness to stay focused.
    Good group members commit to staying on task. They are not like Jokey.

drawing of fish all headed the same way
except for one going the opposite way

How to brainstorm

Advertising executive Alex Osborn coined the term "brainstorming" in 1941 to describe that widely used creative problem-solving technique. Osborn said four rules were essential to the group dynamics of effective brainstorming:

  1. No criticism of ideas. People have trouble thinking creatively if they believe they will be judged.
  2. Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas. If anything goes, group members can feel free to make connections they might not have considered before. This can yield surprisingly insightful results.
  3. Go for large quantities of ideas. Don't give people time to self-evaluate or discard ideas before they are spoken.
  4. Build on each other's ideas. A whole group can be "smarter" than its individual members. Applying several brains to an idea can expand the concept in exciting ways.

Groups in an academic setting or at a workplace can be very effective even if they may seem messy and not very efficient.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

How do you deal with conflict in your group?

arrow pointing rightDo you use owl, fox or turtle strategies to manage stressful conflict? [ read more ]


The ideal group member possesses a combination of qualities that contribute to effective collaboration and successful project completion. Here are some key characteristics of an ideal group member:

Overall, the ideal group member combines technical skills with interpersonal qualities to contribute positively to the group's dynamics and help achieve its goals efficiently and effectively.

Issues related to ministry, study, and work groups