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hitchkers questions Questions1a. Reflect on the points raised by this article. Have you ever encountered a hitchhiker? How did they make you feel? How did you deal with these individuals? 1b. Have you ever encountered a couch potato? How did they make you feel? How did you deal with these individuals? 2a. Reflect on your past experience working on teams. Are there any other team member behaviors you have found that contribute to positive team experiences? 2b. Are there any other team member behaviors you have found that contribute to negative team experiences? 2c. What behaviors (e.g., timely attendance at team meetings) will be important for team members to exhibit in order for the team to be successful?

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Questions
1a. Reflect on the points raised by this article. Have you ever encountered a hitchhiker? How
did they make you feel? How did you deal with these individuals?
1b. Have you ever encountered a couch potato? How did they make you feel? How did you
deal with these individuals?
2a. Reflect on your past experience working on teams. Are there any other team member
behaviors you have found that contribute to positive team experiences?
2b. Are there any other team member behaviors you have found that contribute to negative
team experiences?
2c. What behaviors (e.g., timely attendance at team meetings) will be important for team
members to exhibit in order for the team to be successful?
Coping with Hitchhikers and Couch Potatoes on Teams
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 class team this quarter with three others: Mary, Henry, and Jack.
Mary is okay—she’s not great at solving problems, but she tries hard, and she willingly does
things like get extra help from the professor. 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 completed
work and confess to spending the weekend watching TV. Jack, on the other hand, has been
nothing but a problem. Here are a few of the things Jack has done:
• When you tried to set up meetings at the beginning of the quarter, Jack just couldn’t meet,
because he was too busy.
• Jack infrequently turns in his part of the group work. When he does, it’s almost always
wrong—he obviously spent just enough time to scribble something down that looks like
work.
• Jack has never answered any email or text messages. When you confront him, he denies
getting any messages. You e-mail him, but he’s “too busy to answer.”
• Jack misses every meeting—he always promises he’ll be there, but never shows up.
• His writing skills are okay, but he can’t seem to do anything right. He loses drafts of the
team’s work, doesn’t reread his own work, or leaves out important information. You’ve
stopped assigning him work because you don’t want to miss your professor’s strict
deadlines.
• 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 recently 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.
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. Dr. 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 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
†This essay is a brief, adapted version 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.
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:
• 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. Someone needed to
tell Jack up front to either find time to meet, or talk to the professor.
• If Jack turns nothing in, his name does not go on the finished work. (Note: if you know your
teammate is generally a contributor, it is appropriate to help if something unexpected
arises.) Many professors allow a team to fire a student, so the would-be freeloader has to
work alone the rest of the quarter. Discuss this option with your instructor if the student has
not contributed over the course of an assignment or two.
• If Jack turns in poorly prepared work, you must tell him he has not contributed
meaningfully, so his name will not go on the submitted work. No matter what Jack says,
stick to your guns! If Jack gets abusive, show the professor his work. Do this the first time
the junk is submitted, before Jack has taken much advantage—not after a month, when you
are really getting frustrated.
• Set your limits early and high, because hitchhikers have an uncanny ability to detect just
how much they can get away with.
• 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— and he will have no incentive to change if you do all his work for
him.
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 quarter 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 TV 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 he/she 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
• 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.
A related circumstance: you’re doing all the work
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. Many professors allow you the
leeway to request a move to another team. (You cannot move to another group on your
own.) 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.

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Tags:
Solving problems

Dysfunctional Group

Couch Potatoes

Coping with Hitchhikers

university teammates

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