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Case Studies of Two Poorly Functioning Teams

by Thomasina Borkman
December 17 1996

Also see Case Study of Two Well-functioning Teams by Leslie P. Friedly and Case Study of Well Functioning Group in Learning 572 - Taming the Electronic Frontier by Emily Miller, both students in Thomasina's Small Group Dynamics course.

I conducted an informal research project with Valeria Castleman and one of her fellow students in the GMU course Management 600 fall semester 1996. We were intrigued by issues of communication and group dynamics in Brad Cox's graduate PSOL course Taming the Electronic Frontier, an electronic course broadcast over Cable TV in Northern Virginia or accessible Tuesday evenings 4:30-7 PM in the GMU TV studio in King Hall (or videotapes of the sessions could be viewed in the Johnson Learning Center on campus). Brad was interested in how teams functioned in order to improve the structure and directions he gave to teams. How do members assigned to a team in an electronic course communicate, develop into a functioning group, and cooperate to produce a digital product that can be bought and sold on the web within the 15 weeks of a semester? What factors known by research on face-to-face (hereafter f2f) groups apply or do not apply to electronic teams? How is communication and group formation and performance different in cyberspace than it is f2f?

This paper reports preliminary findings on two of four teams selected for study: the poorly functioning teams. In fact, both teams completed the assignment of producing a digital product and a team home page by the deadline Tuesday December 3. However, a lot of anguish, uncertainty, frustration, and unequal division of labor accompanied this process. In both teams, a subgroup of four members of the team consistently did their work or more than their share of work. Other team members on both teams did not fulfill their commitment to help the group in a timely fashion.

Social Context of the Teams

The teams operated as follows. The instructor Brad Cox assigned people in Learning 572 Taming the El Frontier to teams early in the semester. Those taking the same version of the course who were in the Northern Virginia area were assigned to one of seven teams (other teams were in Norway, Italy, and so forth) primarily on the basis of an equal distribution of self-ranked experience with computers (each team has some newbies who ranked themselves low on computer programming experience and others who ranked themselves high). Each team was assigned 5 to 8 members.

The course was advertised as teaching internet literacy and some/many students entered the course thinking that it would emphasize computer technology. However, the instructor designed the course to not only to teach technology but also to provide an opportunity for students to work as a team to develop a digital product. The humancentric aspect of the course was described as important especially after the first five weeks when the computer technology was the intensive focus of work. By the end of the first five weeks, students were connected with a web browser to operate on the internet, knew how to find and install software, icons or other material from the internet, had an operating email account, and had built their own home page.

Students grade in the course were based on their individual effort (completing assignments and exams) and on their team effort»-team grades were given for (1) seeing that everyone on the team had satisfactorily completed the tasks during the first five technologically intensive weeks; and (2) completing a digital product on the internet that users could buy by the deadline Dec. 3. The two tasks constituted 30% of an individual's grade. Team members were asked to privately evaluate each other's contribution to the team work (1 and 2 above) on a scale. The instructor used the team rankings as one element in calculating an individuals grade for the course.

The teams were task groups that had specific goals, a specific deadline for completing the two group tasks, and the incentive to complete the goals satisfactorily in order to obtain college credit and a grade. The teams were relatively unstructured. Little instruction was initially given the teams on how to get acquainted, communicate or develop into functioning work groups; here and there throughout the semester some instruction was given. I made some suggestions during class time now and again about communication, the Tuckman's five stages of group development, conflict and leadership. The team members were assigned the tasks of developing group norms and an organizational plan but the assignment asked for individual's perceptions of norms and plans. The task was not a group task that required the members to negotiate norms and develop some consensus.


Four of the seven electronic teams (Taming l through Taming 7) whose students were in the Northern Virginia area and who were completing the course during the semester were selected for study around the end of October. With our limited time and resources, we chose to study four of the seven in some depth rather than look at all seven teams more superficially. We decided to choose two well functioning teams and two poorly functioning teams based on our appraisal of team performance gained from reading the Discussion tool (and the volume of messages on the Discussion Tool) and our conversations with a few team members around the middle-end of October.

The research was briefly described during one class session over Cable TV. Valeria and I requested permission from each of the four teams to participate in the research. Each of us asked two teams to participate, either over email or in person. We promised confidentiality and anonymity, that no names or other identifying information would be used. The data for this informal research include: (1) messages on the Discussion Tool, (2) private conversations with a few team members throughout the semester, and (3) 30-60 minute open-ended telephone interviews with each team member after the Dec. 3 deadline for the team product, and (4) information from each team member's home page and biography on the virtual school. Valeria Castleman and I each developed open-ended questions for the interview which we consolidated.

In preparation for the telephone interviews, I read each member's biography (and some home pages) to get a sense of them as persons as well as the messages on the discussion tool. I telephoned each team member requesting a time and day to interview them and reiterated the anonymity of the interview. In the telephone interview I asked the general open ended questions that pertained to the entire team as well as more specific questions about the individual's role and performance on the team. For example, with members who did not participate regularly during the semester I asked extra questions to identify where the person had received his/her information, what the person knew about the team by hearsay, and the like.

For Team A, six of the seven team members were interviewed; the seventh person apparently travels a lot and did not respond to messages left on his telephone answering service. Two team members were interviewed on the spot, at the time I telephoned for an appointment, as they were available to talk then and there. Team A members were interviewed between December 6-8. For Team B, all six of the team members were interviewed including the two that were dropped from the team the night before the deadline; they were interviewed between December 12-15. I deliberately chose to interview all of one team in the same period of time so that I could focus on the perceptions and events as those team members saw it, hopefully to get a better sense of the whole team. If I had interviewed members of two teams at once, my chances of focusing on the team as a whole would have been decreased.


As I write this paper, I encounter places where I realize that I could reveal the identify of these teams if I became too specific and detailed in my descriptions. For example, if I recount the specific ideas for the project that a team considered, then rejected, I could reveal the identity of this team to anyone somewhat familiar with the course this fall semester 1996. So I tread a fine line between specifics and details and disguising information sufficiently to preserve the anonymity of these teams.

Overall, both teams completed their assignments on time but at great personal cost to some members because other members could not be counted on to do their work in a timely manner, among other factors. I characterize both teams as poorly functioning. A number of factors are involved in the lack of effective functioning of the team.

Team A

A subgroup of four of the seven members of Team A consistently worked on the team project throughout the course of the semester. The other three members appeared briefly in the beginning and then dropped out for shorter/longer periods in the middle. One of these three members assumed an ambiguous leadership role at the beginning of the course, then dropped it, which was confusing to other members. His idea for the project was accepted reluctantly after several other project ideas had been debated. He then became unavailable to guide the development of his project idea. He will be named All Talk (little action) in this paper which is how his teammates characterize him.


Were there too few leaders, too many leaders or a lack of legitimate leaders (whose authority as leaders was agreed upon by the members)? Interviews revealed that one had the opinion that there were too many leaders, others that leadership was problematic, or team members had different perceptions about who were legitimate leaders of the group. When members of a group have such different perceptions of what is going on, it indicates a problematic area and a lack of consensus. In well functioning groups, members agree for the most part on what are the authority, role and communication structures of the group and how they operate.

At a face-to-face (f2f) meeting early in the semester that was not attended by everyone, consensus was reached among attendees that two women, the Caretaker (who telephoned people about activities and urged them to keep participating), and the Organizer (who kept the group moving forward with its project) would be the leaders. Nonattendees did not necessarily know about this consensus of leadership and one isolate never did realize two women had been "elected" to be leaders.

All Talk's idea for the project was reluctantly accepted after several other ideas were discussed, and one idea at least discarded. The Functioning Subgroup (see sociogram discussion below) expected All Talk to take the initiative in guiding the development of the project since it was his idea and others had no clear idea of his vision and how to implement it. He then disappeared and did not perform a leadership role of guidance which became very frustrating to the Subgroup.


The members had different perceptions about whether or not the instructor encouraged teams to interact only on line or whether or not he encouraged or sanctioned f2f meetings. The female nerd had a difficult schedule and had selected the course partly because she would not have to show up on campus; she did not regard f2f meetings important until late in the course when so much nonaction, conflict, and problematic group functioning changed her mind. She did meet at least once f2f. However, she kept in touch with the group otherwise. She complained that people who did not attend f2f meetings were not notified on the discussion tool as to decisions taken at meetings.

The idea of using the Discussion Tool as the primary means of communicating group decisions was discussed and agreed upon by some members. An assumption was made that the other members agreed to this decision and would abide by it. But they did not and the Discussion Tool was only sporadically used as a major means of communicating group decisions. Decisions taken at f2f meetings with only a few members present were not reported on the Discussion Tool to update missing members.

All Talk appears to have almost unilaterally decided to have f2f meetings at his house near campus without consulting members about preferences for where to meet, how often to meet, etc. A number of times f2f meetings were scheduled at his house at the beginning of the semester but people were not notified in time, or they could not come and no accommodations were made to their schedule or they did not notify anyone they were not coming to the meeting. A lot of chaos! In one case Organizer female showed up at All Talks house for a scheduled meeting and even he was not there! Part of the chaos stemmed from not following through on the agreement to use the Discussion Tool as the primary means of communication to the entire team.

The experience of this team with inadequate and missed communication illustrates that even if a team develops a norm to use the Discussion Tool as primary team communication, that if they don't in fact use it for team communication, they might as well not have the norm. This appears to be the situation with this group.

The Sociogram

A sociogram was made of the team which reveals who liked to work with whom. Each person is asked "Who are the three team members you most liked to work with?" A diagram is made from the answers. Choices are indicated with an arrow. From the diagram you can identify if there are isolates (who are chosen by no one), stars (chosen by most members) and subgroups (with reciprocal choices).

The findings of the sociogram are an indication that the qualitative comments during the interviews are consistent. The sociogram replicates what people expressed about each other in the interviews. The sociogram is below.

The team has three isolates and one subgroup of four. One isolate was not interviewed so his choices were not known. Pseudonyms were given team members based primarily on the role they played in the group. All Talk, Undergrad Nerd and Smoothy were the three isolates, all male. The four in the subgroup were: Caretaker, Organizer, Female Nerd, and Introverted Nerd.

When the interviews are examined, the perceptions and information from the four members of the subgroup are more likely to be similar to each other than are the perceptions and information from the isolates. Most probably, the subgroup members discussed various issues among themselves coming to some informal consensus on the way they perceived the situation. One or more isolates were likely to have quite different interpretations of events or their meaning (such as who were the leaders).

Conflict and the Too Nice Syndrome

According to Tuckman's five stages of group development, conflict occurs as the second stage, after the orientation phase, in ordinary groups. In my experience with undergraduate groups in Sociology 305, Sociology of Small Groups, they are very likely to skip the conflict stage as a second stage. If they go through that stage in any noticeable way or admit to going through it, it is usually right at the end when they are performing with looming deadlines to complete their projects. Often then the conflict is ugly and contentious with name calling and hurt feelings.

Team A appeared to experience some conflict almost from the beginning but it was not dealt with up front and honestly or strongly confronted until the last week or two of class. Part of this seems to be due to what I will call the

Too Nice Syndrome

The Too Nice Syndrome (hereafter TooNice) I have observed in my small groups classes year after year. People are so concerned about "not hurting someone's feelings." They are "so nice" and only indirect in negatively sanctioning people who do not do their part. In the process of being TooNice, they endure extensive anxiety, anguish, and over work all in the name of not hurting someone's feelings. Instead of being firm while respectful by holding people to the agreed norms and performance/attendance standards as they go along, they avoid any direct discussion or confrontation of conflict. Sometimes it explodes at the end erupting into ugly and angry verbal conflict which results in hurt feelings and negative consequences for the group as a whole.

In Team A the three isolates had not been doing their part when the situation became critical more than a week before the deadline. Part of the group grade depended on everyone completing their individual computer tasks assigned during the first five weeks. The leaders phoned Brad, the instructor, about what were their rights...could they kick people out of the group. Brad apparently suggested they email the offending parties warning them that if they failed to complete their tasks and failed to show up for the mandatory Friday meeting, they would be kicked out. The Organizer also posted this message on the Discussion Tool Monday Oct. 25.

On Friday and again on Saturday the three isolates showed up at one time or another. The Undergrad Nerd appeared for an hour or less on Friday, making an appearance so that the TooNice subgroup thought that they could not terminate him even though they thought he was obeying "the letter but not the spirit of the law."

An apparently nasty and very upsetting verbal conflict occurred Friday and Saturday between most of the subgroup and All Talk during the f2f meetings and over the phone. The versions of what happened differs considerably from the subgroup and from All Talk. All Talk thought that the quality of the digital product was poor and could quite easily be remedied; he thought the group had plenty of time to fix the product and post it to Brad. Undergrad Nerd agreed with this assessment and was willing to help do the programming job to remedy the product that would take only an hour, according to him. The subgroup who had worked so hard to finish the product and with so much frustration because the three isolates had dropped out at the crucial time were determined to hold firm to the deadline of Friday. Some interpreted All Talks conversation to be discrediting the work of the subgroup members which made them very angry. They did not want to change the group's deadline and held firm. The Organizer and other subgroup members were supportive of each other in being tough against All Talk, repeatedly saying no, they were not changing the product or slipping the deadline.

The subgroup members appeared to be left from these encounters with actual fear of All Talk because of his seeming irrationality and perseverance of trying to change the product at the last minute. All Talk had the job of making the Team Home Page but the subgroup no longer trusted him to do his work by the last week and they made a dummy copy of the team home page. Female Nerd stayed up all night Monday night before the Tuesday deadline to complete and post it, missing work the next day due to exhaustion. The distrust of All Talk was massive after the ugly conflict. Some of the subgroup actually regard him as violent and threatening to their personal safety. All Talk did make a Team Home Page but it was ignored by the subgroup.

Lack of Commitment

In the interviews the subgroup and All Talk alike attributed much of the team's poor functioning to a lack of commitment among the members. Each had different people in mind. The three isolates did not complete their commitments in a timely fashion although all three did by the last week, after strong negative sanctioning. The team had not communicated adequately in the beginning or throughout with everyone to know what was each individual's situation. Caretaker apparently telephoned and emailed Smoothy and Undergraduate Nerd regularly to keep them informed of the team's progress but she seemed unaware that Undergraduate Nerd had been sick with Hepatitis A which was described in his biography.

Would the situation have been less stressful for the subgroup if they had not expected consistent attendance (showing up) and effort from everyone? If disappearing members had communicated upfront that "I will be unavailable to do my share the next two weeks," or the equivalent, would that have eased the situation? Was it lack of commitment or inability to function consistently throughout combined with poor communication skills and not notifying the team that produced the accusation of "lack of commitment?"

Awareness of Group Dynamics

At least one member of Team A was very aware of communication problems, leadership problems, and the problem personality All Talk by halfway or so through the semester. She spoke privately to me in class and over email, concerned about her group. In the interviews, other team members did not reveal any explicit awareness of problems in group dynamics on their team.

Team B

Team B was slow to get started with several key members describing the team as "laid back." After three weeks few messages had been posted on the Discussion Tool and these messages consisted of people reporting that they just got their computer set up or a seventh person in the team dropped the course. Apparently after a month or so of "laid back" inaction, one member proposed a f2f meeting at the university at which a handful showed up. The organizer had recent surgery and was not too mobile; he suggested meeting at his house which was near the university and convenient to everyone. At the second meeting, all six showed up for the first and last time. The team met probably 8-10 times f2f and used the Discussion Tool very little. All members appeared willing to contribute their share in the beginning. The Technical Leader was slow in beginning to contribute and had to be firmly told that his contribution was necessary. The two that became the dropouts appeared to be willing to participate but in the performing stage toward the end of the class, neither contributed. On the last available evening before the deadline with their group grade threatened due to the lack of contribution of two people, a mandatory meeting was called and the decision was made to drop both members from the group. One, referred to as Overwhelmed, agreed to voluntarily withdraw. The second one, Unavailable, no one knows her reaction to this. She claims that she was barely informed of the existence of the mandatory meeting and thinks she should have been involved in deciding whether or not and when and where to hold such a meeting.


The organizer assumed the leadership position without much discussion or consensus building but most team members were appreciative that he assumed this role. The person labeled Unavailable was not too happy that the leadership was assumed rather than discussed and mutually agreed upon but she never said anything to anyone. Toward the end when the intensive work on the project had to be done, the most technically proficient who had been a slow starter, took charge technically and provided leadership in the technical aspects of the project and building the Team Home Page. Two leaders thus emerged during the course of the semester...the Organizer and the Technical Leader.

Norms and Communication

Were norms established of what communication tools to use to transmit group decisions, of the division of labor of tasks, of expectations about attending meetings and contributing and so forth? Team members disagreed about whether or not norms had been agreed upon. Some said yes, we agreed upon what we were going to do but few followed the norms. Others thought no clear expectations for communicating, division of labor or participating had been established by the team. One leader sarcastically said, yes, we agreed on norms such as: It is okay to miss meetings. It is okay not to communicate with anyone in the group for weeks.

The Sociogram

A sociogram was made of the team which reveals who liked to work with whom using the same procedure described in the section on Team A. Team A also had a subgroup of four people, the two leaders and the Procrastinator (who eventually did his work) and Did What Told who faithfully did what he was told but not anymore than that. The two members who were dropped from the team are isolates who were not chosen by anyone (a couple of people said they really did not know Unavailable as she had been around so little). However, a couple of people in the subgroup indicated that they personally like Overwhelmed and found him agreeable at meetings but he just did not deliver at the end.

As with Team A, when the interviews were examined, the perceptions and information from the four subgroup members were more similar and consistent with each other than with the two isolates which is an indirect way of indicating consensus.

Awareness of Group Dynamics

Two members of the group explicitly discussed what they thought were problematic with their group dynamics. Procrastinator attributed the group's problems to the equivalent of what I call the TooNice Syndrome. He was very aware of the social context of the course and how students do not easily assume an authority role over their fellow students in a class context. He thought that the consequences of poor performance are not that serious in a class group in comparison with groups on the job where your paycheck and livlihood may be dependent on achieving group goals.

Unavailable thought that the group would have functioned more effectively if team building and consensus had been tried instead of Organizer rather arbitrarily assuming the leadership position the part of Organizer or arbitrarily setting the date and time of the mandatory meeting without consulting anyone. She thought that it was a failure on her part to keep quiet about these group dynamic issues and not to bring them up to the team as a whole.

Conflict and the TooNice Syndrome

Conflict appears to be defined by Team B members as expressed hostility, anger, or fighting. When asked about conflict in the group, several subgroup members claimed there was none. In the face of nonperforming members they jumped in and did what was necessary to get the job done without resentment or anger. Other subgroup members would describe these same people as angry and frustrated. Procrastinator talked at length about the subgroup members being too comfortable and polite and the difficulty in getting tough with nonperforming members.

Unlike Team A which had several angry, contentious and very upsetting verbal bouts with one member in front of the team during the last days of the project, Team B avoided active expressed conflict.

During the last class, each team made a presentation to the whole class and to the instructor. The Organizer gave the presentation for Team B. When asked if they agreed with the way he described their team, several subgroup members and one isolate thought that he had been too negative about the team, that in fact the subgroup and Overwhelmed had worked well together for most of the semester and were very compatible. Most team members have had quite a bit of experience working in groups both in school and at work.

Payoffs to Individuals

Although two of six members were dropped from the team at the last possible minute, the subgroup members seemed to have been a little frustrated but not very upset with the turn of events. The Technical Leader thinks that the product was not as high quality as it could have been if the noncontributors were known about earlier and the others had more time to perfect the product. The Procrastinator thought the product's quality suffered at the end. Unlike Team A, members were not left with some very negative feelings as a result of the conflict at the end of the course. Several Team B members did more than their share of work but regarded that as okay and similar to what they have to do in work groups.

The subgroup members and even Overwhelmed expressed receiving a lot and learning a lot from the course. When asked how they would rank themselves now in terms of computer experience, several explicitly talked about increased internet literacy, but not more knowledge of programming. They ranked themselves higher than at the beginning of the course by 1.5 to 3 rankings (that is, from 3 to 4.5 or from 3 to 6 on an 0-9 scale).


Unfortunately, my time at this point has evaporated and I want to achieve some closure...something is better than nothing!

Several items I want to highlight

HTML Markup by Brad Cox (bcox@virtualschool.edu): Various markup errors repaired 97Feb19