Saturday, 25 September 2010

Group Exercises: "just be yourself" - the right advice?

One of the most intimidating parts of an assessment centre for a lot of graduates is the group exercise. The interview and inbox exercises are within your own sphere of influence so there is less of the unknown about them. But the group exercise, with up to 8 other unpredictable individuals that you don’t know, can be very difficult.  It is also the one that is often a 'deal-breaker' for recruiters and hiring managers. Ultimately on a day-to-day basis, you will be working in a team in the job and so your ability to work constructively with others will be fundamental to your success as an employee.

There are many good websites who document very well the different types of group exercise that you might face and what to expect for each, so I don’t want to cover that again here. (At the bottom of the article, I have provided links to some sites that do this).  What I want to go over is how to act during the exercise to really show yourself in the best light. Everyone always gives the advice of 'just be yourself', but in a pressurised environment with everything riding on it (if its your dream job…) then that is more easily said that done.

If at all possible, try to participate in a group exercise before you attend one that is for a job that you really want. If you're invited to an assessment centre that probably isn't for your ideal job, definitely go along. The experience will be invaluable. It is extra challenging if the first g.e. that you participate in is the one for the job you really want.

Typical group exercise competencies. 
Group exercise can be used to measure a number of competencies, but the core ones will almost always be teamwork, communication and problem solving/analytical ability. Let's look at some practical examples of how you can demonstrate these:

Demonstrating teamwork: 
- Make sure everyone is comfortable. Be the one who breaks the ice. You can start this long before the exercise itself - e.g. waiting in the lobby downstairs. A group that are comfortable / have gotten to know each other a little will often do better as getting to know the personalities gives you an idea of how to work with people.
- Make sure everyone is equipped. If there are post-its, paper, highlighters, pens, etc, in the room then they are there for a reason. If no one has touched them, then bring them to the centre of the circle and distribute
- Remember peoples names and address them by name through-out the exercise - this is pretty simple and really puts you in a good light in the eyes of the assessors. I highly recommend it.
- Bring in the quieter members who are not participating. I've met some grads who think "well I definitely did better than him" because they spoke a lot more than someone else. But what would have made them look good would be getting that person to talk more, not talking more than them….
- If you're strong enough, trying to timebox the talking of the really loud members of the group, especially if they are causing the group to get off-point or are clearly intimidating other
- realise your own strengths and weaknesses and don't take on a task that you are unlikely to deliver on

Show yourself to be a good communicator: 
- REALLY listen when others are talking. Don’t be writing, don’t be thinking of what you are going to say next, just listen. It is very clear to the assessors when someone isn't listening. It takes real concentration on your part because there are so many things going on, but it makes a big difference to the impression of you that the assessor take away.
- When you contribute, add real content / new material. Don’t repeat what others have said, don’t always just develop the ideas of others. Add some new material.
- Try to express your ideas concisely. 
- Be open to others disagreeing and accept that occasionally you might say something incorrect. We all do. It is a sign of a good communicator who can accept and move on from this.

Be a good problem solver:
- If there is numerical analysis involved, there is an opportunity to undertake calculations to come up with the data the group need.
- If there is a lot of 'material' to analyse, coming up with an approach or methodology rather than just jumping into the task
- Agreeing a template / data capture methodology before jumping into a task
- Asking the right questions of the group throughout the exercise in order to facilitate getting to the right answer

Want to take a risk?
There is a tendency amongst graduates to want to take on one of the 'roles' that often are necessary in the team exercise - the scribe, the timekeeper, or of course, the leader/project manager. There is of course an element of being able to demonstrate your capabilities if you have one of these roles. However, sometimes forgotten is that they are also all fraught with danger. If you do take on one of these roles, take care not to fall into the following traps:

- Reminding people of the time at inopportune moments. You need to judge carefully the moments that you interrupt to do this. Lots of times in wash-up sessions with hiring managers after the exercises, I have heard comments like "they were almost there, almost at the answer, and Joe Bloggs kept saying 'we need to move on'… how frustrating for them!"
- Doing it wrong - it happens all the time. "We have 10 minutes left" when infact you only have 5 can really cause the group to miss their deadline and fail a task. If you're going to do it, make sure you have a good watch/phone and do it right.
- Getting hung up on it. You still need to contribute a lot to the discussion/activity above being timekeeper. I guarantee that this alone will not get you through the exercise with flying colours.

- If the scribing is on a flipchart/whiteboard and you have to stand up, you are immediately out of the 'circle' of people. It is extra-difficult to be included and heard if you are physically away from the group.
- Writing notes / slides / flipcharts is a very personal thing - everyone will have a slightly different style / way they would do it. Inevitably there will be someone who says "no, do it this way, or that way" and try to take over. Do not let them do this! Stand your ground. If you are the scribe, be the scribe. Don’t be a pushover.
- Not leaving enough time to create a tidy presentation / taking too much time to create a presentation - both dangerous territory.
- Writing notes quickly on what everyone is saying will keep you extremely busy. But again, this alone will definitely not get you through the exercise. You also need to be participating. You need to be a very strong multi-tasker to scribe and participate to your full ability in the exercise.

Project manager / leader:
The dangers of being the project manager are well-documented (just watch a couple of episodes of The Apprentice! - why do you think they always include the project manager in the boardroom? Even if failure is not your fault, the blame will often lie with you regardless). Key things to watch for are:
- Forcing your own ideas on the rest of the group 
- Listening to other people's ideas, but then when it comes to implementation / presentation, just using your own anyway
- Major danger: appearing culturally unaware and not including people from ethnic minorities to the same levels as those from the same ethnicity/background as yourself. Likewise for gender equality.
- Putting in place a project plan that because of the time it allows for each task causes the team to fail despite the fact that they had the right ideas and the right skills.

If you keep in mind all of the above (ok, so that's a lot to keep in mind, but hopefully I've given you some ideas of how to act in the exercise…), then you should shine in the group exercise. Be careful in particular of any exercises that involve talking about diverse groups of people - e.g. the common one of 'only 3 places in the lifeboat, who shall we save'. If you hear yourself using language like "too old" "too young" etc, then you are on dangerous ground… be careful!

Any particular questions on the intricacies of the group exercise, just let me know….


  1. Good article! Just a quick question, can you provide any specific examples of exersizes you might have to do in a group? The links you gave don't really provide specific examples.

    Reading your site, and the contact I've had with you via email, has been super helpful - thank you!


  2. There are a few common types:-
    - plan something (e.g. an event) within budget and certain timelines - requiring you to do financials and timeline planning
    - debate something - not usually something with a straight/right answer - so that what comes out is your ability to talk with others and understand their perspective
    - analyse something - e.g. everyone given what looks like the same information, but there are subtle differences between what everyone has - and you need to work together to bring togther all the information and find the solution

    These are a few of the more common ones, but there are quite a few variations on them out there. A lot of companies change what they use year-on-year as with so many people going through the process, word quickly leaks out as to what they have.


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