General Engineering Introduction/Communication/Hitchhikers

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From an article by Barbara Oakley "It Takes Two to Tango," Journal of Student Centered Learning, Volume 1, Issues 1, 2003, pg 19-28

Negative Example[edit | edit source]

You will usually find your university teammates as interested in learning as you are. Occasionally, however, you may encounter a person who creates difficulties. Imagine you have been assigned to a team with three others: Mary, Henry, and Jack. Mary is okay-she's not good at solving problems, but she tries hard, and she communicates well. Henry is irritating. He's a nice guy, but he just doesn't put in the effort to do a good job. He'll sheepishly hand over partially worked taskss and confess to spending the weekend playing video games. Jack, on the other hand, has been nothing but a problem. Here are a few of the things Jack has done:

  • When you initially tried to set up meetings outside of class time, Jack just couldn't meet, because he was too busy.
  • Jack infrequently documents his tasks in the wikiversity weekly report. When he does, it is obvious he spent just enough time to scribble something down that looks like work.
  • Jack has never answered a text, canvas or voice message. When you confront him, he denies getting any messages. Or he is "too busy to answer."
  • Jack misses every meeting outside of class. He always promises he'll be there, but he never shows up.
  • His writing skills are okay, but he can't seem to do anything right on wikiversity. He forgets deadlines, accidentally deletes stuff, doesn't re-read his work, leaves out tables, or does something sloppy like force you to edit his work.
  • Jack constantly complains about his fifty-hour work weeks, heavy school load, bad textbooks, and terrible teachers. At first you felt sorry for him. But you've begun to wonder if Jack is using you.
  • Jack speaks loudly and self-confidently when you try to discuss his problems. He thinks the problems are everyone else's fault. He is so self-assured that you can't help wondering sometimes if he's right.
  • Your group finally was so upset they went to discuss the situation with Professor Distracted. Professor Distracted talked to Jack, who in sincere and convincing fashion convinces the Professor that others on the team are the problem.

Dr. Distracted decides the problem must be the group was not communicating effectively. He notices you, Mary, and Henry looked angry and agitated, while Jack simply looked bewildered, a little hurt, and not at all guilty.

It was easy for Dr. Distracted to conclude this was a dysfunctional group, and everyone was at fault-probably Jack least of all.

The bottom line: you and your teammates are left holding the bag. And Jack managed to make you all look bad while he was at it.

What this group did wrong: Absorbing[edit | edit source]

This was an 'absorber' group. From the very beginning they absorbed the problem when Jack did something wrong, and took pride in getting the job done whatever the cost. Hitchhikers count on you wanting to get the job done. They also count on you wanting to be friends, to act in a self-sacrificing manner. However, the nicer you are, the more the hitchhiker will be able to hitchhike their way through the university-and through life.

What this group should have done: Mirroring[edit | edit source]

It's important to reflect back the dysfunctional behavior of the hitchhiker, so the hitchhiker pays the price-not you. Never accept accusations, blame, or criticism from a hitchhiker. Maintain your own sense of reality despite what the hitchhiker says, (easier said than done). Show you have a bottom line: there are limits to the behavior you will accept. Clearly communicate these limits and act consistently on them. For example, here is what the group could have done:

  • When Jack couldn't find time to meet in his busy schedule, even when alternatives were suggested, you needed to decide whether Jack was a hitchhiker. Was Jack brusque, self-important, and in a hurry to get away? Those are suspicious signs. Talk to your instructor as a team.
  • If Jack begins to summarize your wiki pages rather than do his own work, talk to your instructor immediately. You risk losing all credit (push points) for the work. Do not let Jack threaten transparency. No matter what Jack says, stick to your guns! Talk to your instructor.
  • Set your limits early and high, because hitchhikers have an uncanny ability to detect just how much they can get away with.
  • If Jack doesn't respond to e-mails, answer phone messages, or show up for meetings, don't waste more time trying to contact him. Talk to your instructor.
  • Keep in mind the only one who can handle Jack's problems is Jack.

You can't change him. You can only change your own attitude so he no longer takes advantage of you. Only Jack can change Jack. He will have no incentive to change if you do all his work for him. He will never reciprocate and in a few years he will not remember your name. People like Jack can be skilled manipulators. By the time you find out his problems are never-ending, and he himself is their cause, the semester has ended and he is off to repeat his manipulations on a new, unsuspecting group. Stop allowing these dysfunctional patterns early in the game-before the hitchhiker takes advantage of you and the rest of your team!

Henry, the Couch Potato[edit | edit source]

But we haven't discussed Henry yet. Although Henry stood up with the rest of the group to try to battle against Jack's irrational behavior, he hasn't really been pulling his weight. You will find the best way to deal with a couch potato like Henry is the way you deal with a hitchhiker: set firm, explicit expectations-then stick to your guns.

Although couch potatoes are not as manipulative as hitchhikers, they will definitely test your limits. If your limits are weak, you then share the blame if you have Henry's work to do as well as your own.

But I've Never Liked Telling People What to Do![edit | edit source]

If you are a nice person who has always avoided confrontation, working with a couch potato or a hitchhiker can help you grow as a person. Learn how to be firm. Learn to set boundaries. Just be patient with yourself as you learn. The first few times you try to be firm, you may find yourself thinking: 'But now he/she won't like me-it's not worth the pain!'

It is worth the pain to learn this skill. It is painful and troubling the first few times one is firm. Show compassion for the hitch-hiker/coach potato for your own sake and your team mates even if it has no effect. Just be firm and stick to your guns.

Someday it will seem more natural and you won't feel so guilty about having reasonable expectations for others. In the meantime, you will find you have more time to spend with your family, friends, or schoolwork, because you aren't doing another's job along with your own.

Characteristics they take Advantage Of[edit | edit source]

  • Unwillingness to allow a slacker to fail and subsequently learn from their own mistakes.
  • Devotion to the ideal of 'the good of the team'-without common-sense realization of how this can allow others to take advantage of you. Sometimes you show (and are secretly proud of) irrational loyalty to others.
  • You like to make others happy even at your own expense.
  • You always feel you have to do better-your best is never enough.
  • Your willingness to interpret the slightest contribution by a slacker as 'progress.'
  • You are willing to make personal sacrifices so as to not abandon a hitchhiker-without realizing you are devaluing yourself in this process.
  • Long-suffering martyrdom-nobody but you could stand this.
  • The ability to cooperate but not delegate.
  • Excessive conscientiousness.
  • The tendency to feel responsible for others at the expense of being responsible for yourself.

You are doing all the work[edit | edit source]

As soon as you become aware everyone is leaving the work to you-or doing such poor work that you are left doing it all, don't worry. The assessment process of this course will make this clear to the professor. Keep communicating with your professor.

Later[edit | edit source]

You will meet couch potatoes and hitchhikers throughout the course of your professional career. Couch potatoes are relatively benign, can often be firmly guided to do reasonably good work, and can even become your friends. However, hitchhikers are completely different people. They can work their way into your confidence and then destroy it. Occasionally, a colleague, subordinate, supervisor, friend, or acquaintance could be a hitchhiker. If this is the case, and your personal or professional life is being affected, it will help if you keep in mind these lessons.