Coping with Hitchhikers and Couch Potatoes on Teams

Adapted from “It Takes Two to Tango: How ‘Good’ Students Enable Problematic Behavior in Teams,” Barbara Oakley, Journal of Student Centered Learning, Volume 1, Issue 1, Fall, 2002, pp. 19–27.

Assignment: Read the brief essay below. Then write a brief response. Your response should be formatted as one page, 12 point Times Roman font, double spaced (i.e., about 250 words). The topic of your response should be how you feel the essay applies to your past experiences with team work.

Assessment: We will check to see whether you wrote a response. We won’t grade the content of your response. But later in the semester if your team raises your (lack of) performance to the professor’s notice, your response will be read with great interest by the professor to see whether you actually read the essay and internalized what it said.

A Scenario

You will usually find your university teammates as interested in learning as you are. Occasionally, however, you may encounter a person who creates difficulties. This handout is meant to give you practical advice for this type of situation.

To begin with, let’s imagine you have been assigned to a team this semester with three others: Mary, Henry, and Jack. Mary is okay—she tries hard, and she willingly does things like get extra help from the TAs. 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 implemented code and confess to spending the weekend watching binge-watching Netflix. Jack, on the other hand, has been nothing but a problem. Here are a few of the things Jack has done:

Your group finally was so upset they went to discuss the situation with Prof. Distracted. He in turn talked, along with the group, to Jack, who in sincere and convincing fashion said he hadn’t really understood what everyone wanted him to do. Prof. Distracted said the problem must be the group was not communicating effectively. He noticed 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 Prof. 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. Jack is getting the same good grades as everyone else without doing any work. Oh yes—he managed to make you all look bad while he was at it.

What This Group Did Wrong: Absorbing

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 to act in a self-sacrificing manner. However, the nicer you are (or the nicer you think you are being), the more the hitchhiker will be able to hitchhike their way through the university—and through life. By absorbing the hitchhiker’s problems, you are inadvertently training the hitchhiker to become the kind of person who thinks it is all right to take credit for the work of others.

What This Group Should Have Done: Mirroring

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:

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

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. (If you think of yourself as tired and bored and really more interested in watching Youtube than working on your homework—everyone has had times like these—you begin to get a picture of the couch potato.)

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!

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 and learn the important character trait of firmness. Just be patient with yourself as you learn. The first few times you try to be firm, you may find yourself thinking, “but now they won’t like me—it’s not worth the pain!” But many people just like you have had exactly the same troubled reaction the first few (or even many) times they tried to be firm. Just keep trying—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 someone else’s job along with your own.

Common Characteristics that Allow a Hitchhiker to Take Advantage

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, you need to take action. Talk to your professor about the possibility of moving to a different team. Your professor will probably ask some questions before taking the appropriate action.

Later On—Out on the Job and In Your Personal Life

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—ones who can work their way into your confidence and then destroy it. (Hitchhikers may infrequently try to befriend you and cooperate once you’ve gained their respect because they can’t manipulate you. Just because they’ve changed their behavior towards you, however, doesn’t mean they won’t continue to do the same thing to others.)

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 the techniques suggested above.