Teams: Communication and Conflict

By Martha Rush, Chief Educator-in-Residence

Tales and Tips From the Front

For many high school students, working on group projects is torture. It always seems to go one of three ways:

  • No one does any work. And, at the last minute, a few group members make a weak effort and submit something that’s lower quality than what they would have done on their own.

  • One group member (or maybe a few), fearful of a low grade, takes over and does the whole project single-handedly, resenting all of the freeloaders.

  • Multiple group members vie for control of the project, resulting in ego conflict—and possibly lost friendships.

It’s no wonder students object when we ask them to work on teams for their entrepreneurial ventures. It’s so tempting, as the teacher, just to let them fly solo. But listen to these words from Sam Lerdahl, a successful young entrepreneur who was both my student and a Quarter Zero participant. He’s now a co-founder of Pikup, a startup that got him into the TechStars Retail Accelerator last year.

“Even if you’re the best developer in the world but you’re not a good people person, not good with teams, you’re far less valuable. I wish I had been more aware of that. I hated group projects [in high school]. But the reality was, the A doesn’t matter—what matters from those projects is you guys worked together.” – Sam Lerdahl; co-founder of Pikup

Learning to work in teams does matter—it’s a skill our students need in the future—so we need to teach it more effectively, not avoid it. Here are 5 tips for cultivating strong, effective, communicative venture teams:

#1 Build effective teams starting on day one.

If you haven’t read it, check out this blog post on creating an entrepreneurial classroom. During problem-generation (also a blog topic), make sure that:

  • Everyone’s ideas are heard

  • Everyone has a voice in which problems are selected

  • Everyone gets to choose which problems they work on

Like adults, students work better in teams when they buy into the group’s mission.

#2 Use team-building activities and help students develop clear group norms.

Remember, teenagers do not instinctively know how to collaborate, any more than they know how to pitch an idea or use a 3-D printer. Ask them to be honest with each other about their work habits, their accountability preferences, their strengths, and their weaknesses. From there, create team norms that everyone will abide by. =

#3 Anticipate the barriers.

A major barrier for students is communication. Unanswered texts. Not showing up for video calls. Names left off of email chains. Midnight meetings when some members are (sensibly) asleep. Ask each team to create a communication plan making sure that everyone has access to shared docs, and everyone is using the same tool, whether it’s Google Hangouts, Slack, GroupMe, Facebook, texting, carrier pigeon, or something else. If teams meet in class every day, this isn’t as critical, but, for a weekly club, staying in contact between meetings is critical.  

#4 Be prepared for conflicts over ownership and control.

The most damaging teamwork problem I ever had was a contest of wills between two very smart, highly motivated student leaders. Each one believed they were the sole inventor of the team’s product, and they argued bitterly over who would retain the IP once the school program was done. I was not at all prepared for this. Since that experience, I have been very clear with students that their product belongs to the whole team—not to any one individual.

In a few cases, with ventures that have continued post-graduation, students have even consulted with lawyers, written ownership agreements, and bought out some partners. You don’t expect this to happen, but it can.

#5 When you have to intervene, act like a consultant or a coach—not a dictator.

Students learn to navigate thorny team conflicts by having to work them out together—not by having the teacher lay down the law or break up the team. Insist on open communication, active listening, and goal-setting together. 

Soon, the students will learn to resolve conflicts without you, and that’s the goal.


Martha Rush

Martha, founder and CEO of NeverBore Education Consulting and author of Beat Boredom (Stenhouse, 2018), is a nationally recognized teacher with 25 years of classroom experience. She has worked as a professional curriculum writer since 2011 and a workshop consultant since 2013. She founded NeverBore in 2015 with a mission to provide teachers nationwide with hands-on strategies to overcome boredom and improve student engagement and motivation. She now serves as Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero and has compiled the QØ Teen Startup Handbook.