The MBA halfway slump – working with apathetic syndicate members

I started the MBA in April 2014 and completion of this current term brings me exactly to the halfway point. I have come to notice an interesting phenomenon, which for lack of a better diagnosis, I will deem the ‘halfway slump’. It probably hasn’t affected everybody, but there are an overwhelming number of fellow students I’ve spoken to who are experiencing burn out and a lack of motivation towards the MBA. I suspect there are a few factors at play:

  1. For the people who have stuck to the recommended plan, the end of this term marks the end of the compulsory core subjects. This, in its own, is a huge achievement and many of us had this as a checkpoint in our minds. Now that it’s almost here, perhaps people are giving themselves permission to take their feet off the accelerator and take a breath.
  2. For the first 6 core subjects we completed, it was a requirement that we obtain a 70 average (and only achieve under a 65 for one subject) in order to continue. Therefore, good grades were at the forefront of everybody’s minds at the start.  Now, it depends on each individual’s goals and objectives as to how much effort they put into the MBA. For example, if you are completing the MBA to obtain a more senior position within your current workplace, arguably grades will be less of a deal-breaker for you than in the case of someone looking to transition into management consulting.
  3. I’m enrolled in the part-time MBA program and the next phase of electives will be undertaken with a mix of part-time and full-time MBA students. The majority of part-time students are already also working full-time jobs, whereas the full-time students obviously are not. Full-timers are also halfway through the MBA when they begin electives, however many of them would have already secured internships or graduate positions. I imagine that for some, the prospect of a paying job takes the focus off the need for a stellar performance in the MBA.
  4. The second year slump is a known occurrence in most university programs, it has been well covered in the US however less so in Australia. The first year is for settling in, establishing relationships and understanding the system.  Studies have indicated that students become generally less satisfied with their university experience in the second year, and their priorities change. By the second year, students are well aware of their university’s shortcomings, having come to develop expectations (or grudges) about the teaching style of lecturers, quirks of student administration or even realities of job prospects come graduation.

Of course, this ‘halfway slump’ wouldn’t be as significant if the MBA wasn’t completely loaded with syndicate assignments and other group work, which at the best of times can be a test of patience. The late nights and sedentary solitude I can handle, but there’s nothing like a difficult syndicate group to sap the joy out of learning. In my MBA program, syndicate work can amount for up to 40% of an overall course mark, so if your group is dysfunctional, it is very hard if not impossible to make up for it in a meaningful way come exam time. Here are some tips on dealing with apathetic syndicate members, otherwise known as free riders. To be clear, I’m not talking about people who genuinely contribute but may not be strong academic performers, I’m only talking about team members who don’t contribute for no good reason.

  • Take the lead. Make suggestions, facilitate planning discussions and ensure that you involve everybody. Suggest an allocation for assessment pieces and ask people to suggest alternative proposals. Once allocations have been decided, ensure everybody has their name against their task and that deadlines are clear. Ask people to confirm that they are happy with the plan or ask them to suggest alternatives. This ensures that everybody is accountable and free riders have nowhere to hide. Ensure that the team discusses the expectations of the work produced, from significant things like the content to be covered to the administrative things, like the referencing style, format and word limits. Ensure that the work allocation, deadlines and any related correspondence is documented because if worst comes to worst and the group falls apart, you will need a reliable account of what exactly happened.
  • Arrange face to face meetings. Clear communication is essential and often, getting people to show up is the hardest part. If you need to have a tough conversation with a group member, it’s much easier to do it face to face than risk having them misinterpret you over email or text. A huge part of group work is building the right team environment and the right relationships to work together well. This is much easier to do if you actually see your group members once in a while.
  • Ask questions. Seek feedback. You will soon find out who has turned up to that syndicate meeting totally unprepared.  Further, asking for feedback about your own sections of the assignment shows that you are not there to simply to boss everybody else around and that you genuinely want the work to be the best it can be. It also encourages the group to be accountable for the assessment as a whole, rather than focusing on their own contribution.
  • Build in some buffer time. It’s all well and good that everybody has been allocated a section, but what if the work sent through is below average? Building a week or a few days (depending on the weight of the assessment) for the group to pull together the work and review it is critical. If everybody is submitting their pieces of work at the last minute, there will be no time to address any areas of improvement or call out work that is glaringly lacking.
  • Stick to your guns. Sometimes because you’ve taken the lead on the assignment, other group members expect that you have taken on an administration role. I’ve experienced receiving work from my team members without any referencing or formatting, despite previous discussions that each group member was responsible for this. I politely wrote back asking them to amend the work. It can be frustrating if you find yourself giving in easily to the demands of group members and doing all of the work. Like you would need to in the workplace, be assertive when you are being treated unfairly or taken advantage of.
  • Speak up at the right time. If there are many small assessments throughout the term, you may want to give the offending team member the benefit of the doubt and see how they perform for the next assessment. If you only have one major piece of assessment, it’s important to recognise a free riding member early and manage them, or confront them. There’s no point allowing the behaviour to continue without saying anything, and then complaining to your lecturer after the fact.  Address the problem early and if it can’t be resolved, speak to your lecturer early. If you’re not willing to confront the person, then be willing to work extra hard to achieve your desired grade. However, I recommend speaking up, because free riders are banking on the fact that nobody will call them out on the behaviour.
  • Ask your lecturer whether there will be a peer evaluation process. A peer evaluation requires each syndicate member to complete an anonymous assessment of every other group member. This is considered by the lecturer when determining the final mark. I found that this was a requirement for some courses and not for others, however even the mere prospect of such a process can be a useful deterrent against free riding.
  • Lastly, if you’re hell bent on achieving a certain grade, be willing to do more than your share. It’s not exactly fair but it’s better than being stuck with a mark you’re not happy with. Hopefully the time comes when you are able to pick your own groups for syndicate assessments. Those who have developed a reputation for free riding (and trust me, people do talk) will be in for a rude surprise when they find themselves all together in the one group.

Good luck with those assignments.

That Career Girl

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    1. Same to you!
      Right now until the end of August it’s Accounting and HR Management. You? 🙂

    2. Global business economics, I’m only doing one subject this term and it has been amazing. Ramping back up to M&A and strategy next term though! Luckily it’s winter in Australia so I’m happy to put my head down and suffer 🙂

  1. Just went through it in the last semester, but on top of that I also had three courses more than recommended and two of them were very hard economics courses, that I had to pass, because I am planning a semester abroad in Brasil.

    But you know the best thing about passing the halfway slump?
    It’s seeing the light at the end of the frigging tunnel 🙂

    Wish you the energy to power through and good fellow students on your group assignments !

    Take care

  2. I saw “MBA” and “slump” and immediately clicked “follow”

    Master degrees are the new rite of passage and tie-breaker for promotions and jobs in general.

    The biggest thing I learned was you learn how to ask more questions. (And then find those answers)

    1. It took me 17 years to finish my bachelors due to military priorities. The MBA was knocked out in 2. I was shell shocked when it was over. The Masters program was actually fun most of the time because I could focus on something outside of work.

  3. Your article is amazing! I wish you had written this article years ago, the day when I had just started my MBA program. My MBA was such a fun program, I wish I were still at the class and learning new things from my lecturers. Now I have to struggle by myself in order to catch up with the latest academic theories and news.
    Good luck to you and all other friends who are doing the Master program! Wish to hear good news from you all soon!

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