Did I say that?

Dealing with losers?!?!?!


Here’s the email I sent to  student who wrote to me upset about how poorly her project group was working together.  The material between  the six hyphens is copied from the project instructions.

Comments, criticisms or diatribes from any blog readers?  I’m always worried about  being too hard on my students.  But, as I tell my students: I’ve rather have you learn about these things here in college than on the job, because I’ve failed a class and I’ve also been fired from a job.  And the F was easier to take and easier to recover from.

She also, before the assignment was due, offered an excuse as to why she wasn’t able to do her best on the assignment (she was at scout camp with her daughter).

Some people may think that I was either too cold, harsh or pedantic bringing in the self-handicapping issue.  But again, I’m a psychologist and that’s what we do.  Consulting I/O psychologists  would point out maladaptive behaviors.  The research shows that people use self-handicapping often thinking that it will help with their impression management.  The research also shows that the intended targets usually see through the self-handicapping (I need to edit the Wikipedia page to include this side of self-handicapping).


Dear xxxxx,

I understand your frustration with your group, I am frustrated with both groups’ work on the project.  Group work is difficult and I’ll remind you of what I said in the assignment:

Why bother with this?

But there’s the larger question: why do group work if it’s so hard?  In surveys of employee recruiters teamwork skills usually rank in the top five skills recruiters are looking for in college graduates.  There is no need to say more.  If you cannot work with others on a simple project like this, then you have no ability to work on a group in a company.  If you work with others on this project, you will develop your teamwork skills.  This is critically important for your employability in the future.

One important teamwork skill is working with losers.

I’ve been on groups full of people with professional degrees (college professors, MBAs and lawyers) which have been more dysfunctional than what you describe.  In one way, this is good practice for you for your professional career.

But you do two things in your email: you criticize your groupmate’s work and then offer an excuse for your poor performance also.

Look up self-handicapping.  You are identifying a handicap (being at camp) for your potential (individual) failure.  One thing the Wikipedia article doesn’t say is that:

while self-handicapping may make people feel better about a failure, observers can see right through self-handicapping strategies (that is, observers can easily identify that you are trying to manipulate them).  So self-handicapping strategies like this only call attention to your poor performance and create a negative impression of you to the observer.

I’m only mentioning this because:  In your future professional career after York, you do not want to do this.  An important element in your success is how well you manage the impression you present to your boss.

Best wishes,



About William Ashton

I'm an associate professor in the Behavioral Sciences Department and the Director of the York College Honors Program. I'm a social psychologist and currently my research project is in attribution theory, blame and sexual assault. I teach Social Psych, I/O Psych, Organizational Behavior and Research Methods.
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2 Responses to Did I say that?

  1. Dear Keith,

    I think the effect was positive.

    After this the student (let’s call her J), at two different points in time, took a leadership role in her group.

    The second time was very interesting: another student in her group submitted — to the group — a paragraph which was much less than college quality. J _suggested_ to the student that she should review and rewrite the work. The author of the paragraph then wrote an somewhat mean spirited email attacking J. J.’s response was to go through the author’s paragraph and identify spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, typos and the content which didn’t make sense.

    After the semester was over, J. sent me this email:

    Thought you might find this amusing:

    Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Pettry amzanig huh?

    I thought it was. Have a great summer!


  2. This was a great response William. I am curious about the result. How did this resonate with your student if I may ask? Was this direct approach successful?


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