How to do well in a group exercise (it’s probably not how you think)

In group exercises, points win prizes. Yes your team needs to come up with a good plan/ presentation/ pitch. But do you know what graduate recruiters do with your ideas at the end of the day? They throw them away. They do not matter. It is entirely about the journey. And while you do need to offer some good, commercially aware ideas, it is far more about how you interact with the other candidates. You can show off your business acumen in the interview, but this is your one and only chance to demonstrate that you can work effectively with other people. And as a law firm is a people-oriented business, this is pretty important. So let me run you through some really easy behaviours to adopt that will help you win some easy points.

Names and networking

Preparation for a group exercise starts the moment you step foot in the building. You will likely be waiting in the reception with the other candidates. Use this time to try to learn people’s names and get to know them a little bit. Build up a rapport, so it doesn’t feel like you’re in a group exercise with a bunch of strangers. You can also get a feel for the different characters in the group and what the dynamic will be like.

When you walk into the assessment room, everyone is going to look for their name on a card. What are you going to do? You’re going to look at everyone else’s. (You’ll find your own chair easily. Hint: it’s the one no one else is sitting in). Depending on your position (and your eyesight) there will be some name cards that you can’t see when you’re sat down (see diagram). You need to make a note of these, as you should address everyone by their name. It’s polite and people like it, and it won’t go unnoticed by the ‘examiners.’

table photo shop
Imagine you are the yellow circle. You are not going to be able to read the name cards of the orange circles. Awkward.

Leadership and scheduling

I have two, slightly contradictory pieces of advice. So first I’ll give you the advice I was given. When the whistle blows, there will usually be a moment’s pause. (It’s the cousin of the pause after someone says does anyone have any questions?’) Traditional wisdom says you need to jump in and suggest a structure. Something like this: ‘So as we have a limited amount of time, might I propose we spend five minutes reading through the material, ten minutes discussing ideas and then in the last ten minutes we finalise our ideas and write them down?

And this jump-in-quick technique works. I am by no means criticising this advice. However, from my personal experience, I have found that the people who name themselves ‘the leader’ by doing this actually tend to lack….gravitas….social oomph. It is often the people who need to prove they have leadership ability and are worried about being wallflowers. This then means that the plan is accepted, but not enforced, and the discussion loses its structure. And being a weak leader is worse than being a great team member. Additionally, if you’re like me and naturally lean towards being assertive, jumping in straight away can make you look domineering (especially if you are a woman because of sexism- look it up).

So what’s my signature move? Be an excellent second-in-command. Why? Because when the group starts to run over time, you can say, ‘I think Sarah’s timetable was a really great idea, but we’re running over, so perhaps we should move on to the next point.’ By doing this you can manage the group, without being all ‘me me me.’ You don’t have to establish yourself as the leader within the first three seconds, because if you act in an encouraging and inclusive way, people will naturally look to you for guidance.

Also, top tip: it is very important that you have someone keeping an eye on the time, and have the times written down. It’s pretty awful when you’ve all been talking for ages and someone says ‘how much time do we have left?’ and no one knows.

Be complimentary

“Build me up, buttercup…”

You are not in competition with these people. If your performance is good enough, you will get offered a place on the vacation scheme/ a training contract. Therefore, you should have no problem making the other candidates look good. You should endeavour to say, ‘James, I think that was a really good point you just made- I hadn’t thought of that’ as often as possible. Obviously not to the point James thinks you’re hitting on him, but enough that everyone starts running their ideas by you because they like how encouraging you are.

The first couple of times you give compliments, people will be really surprised. Barely anyone does it. (So few people do it, that if someone else does it you should ask them if they have also read this blog). However, giving compliments improves the group dynamic, encourages communication and wins you easy team-work points. Plus, it’s nice to be nice.

Pick on the quiet guy

If you are in a big group (8-ish) there will probably be about 3 people who dominate the conversation, 3 people who are quieter but still contribute and 2 mutes. The mutes will contribute only when they absolutely have to, by which I mean when they are reading out their information. That, or when you ask them a question directly and using their name.

If someone is silent, they’re clearly struggling to get in the zone. Maybe they are worried about talking over someone or have had a lapse in confidence. Either way, you are going to drag them kicking and screaming into the discussion. Politely, of course. You’re not doing it to help them get a vacation scheme (if they’ve been seriously quiet the whole time, that ship has sailed). But it shows that you can be inclusive and welcoming and a good team player. And that’s the aim of the game.

There’s always one

Try saying something like, ‘Sam I found the information that you read out really interesting, do you have any ideas on how we could organise the re-launch?’ Or, ‘Sam, I thought your point on X was really important – could you expand on it a bit more? Could you go into some more detail?’ You might feel mean putting them on the spot (and they will probably look surprised), but really you’re just giving them a platform on which to voice their ideas. And not everyone is good at doing that for themselves.

This is also an excellent way to shut someone up if they’ve had far too much airtime. Some people talk and talk, and you need to be able to manage them. If someone is in the middle of a lengthy soliloquy, carefully cut in and say, ‘those were all really important points Matthew. Sam, what do you think about that plan?’ Or, ‘I would be really interested to hear what Sam thinks about that idea.

Obviously don’t pick on the quiet guy constantly, but one or two times on each quiet person would be good.  Perhaps it will be just enough to ease them back into the discussion. Either way, it will show you are an encouraging and inclusive team player.

Suggestions as questions

My favourite thing to do is to frame my suggestions in the form of questions. Instead of saying ‘well, I think we should go with option A’ and inviting confrontation, I prefer to say ‘what do we all think about option A and option B? I think B might be cheaper but I’m leaning towards A.’ Because do I actually care which option we go for? No. Our final decision is wholly and totally irrelevant. What I do care about is that the examiner sees me putting my ideas forward in a way that facilitates constructive discussion.

It’s also great to use questions to lead the group. You can say, ‘so we’ve decided that we’re going to go for option B. Has anyone got any ideas about how we’re going to finance it?’ You can move the group on to talking about something you think is important, without saying, ‘I think we should talk about finance now.

Common mistakes

Speaking informally. I’ve seen great candidates undermine their own performance by saying things like ‘yeah’ ‘cool’ and ‘dunno.’ You know, the phrases most of us use every day. But this isn’t every day, this is a professional environment and you need to get your professional voice on. If you were ever going to use the word ‘moreover’ in real life, now would be the time. Will you get away with saying ‘cool’ once or twice? Probably. Will you get away with saying cool and yeah repeatedly? No.

And it is really hard to change how you speak, particularly when you’re under pressure. Lots of people say ‘um’ out of nervousness. But it is so distracting for everyone listening, and as soon as the recruiters pick up on your informal language they start looking for it. And suddenly they can’t see you as a future-solicitor anymore.

Not active listening. Look. I get it. You have a ton of information in front of you and you need to come up with some good points. You are under pressure. But please do not be one of those candidates who shuffles through documents when people are speaking. You need to be making eye contact while smiling and nodding. (And let’s be real here for a second: some people have resting-bitch-face. It is a legitimate thing. If that’s you, it’s not your fault. But you need to make sure you are constantly smiling, even just a little bit, to stop yourself looking like you’re glaring).

grumpy cat
If your neutral face looks like this cat, you’re going to have to work on it.

You need to look engaged the whole time, even if your mind is somewhere else. And if you do need a statistic or a fact to make your next point, why not ask? ‘Does anyone have the number of X in front of them? Because I think it’s really important to what Matthew was just saying.’ That is far better than looking as though you are ignoring your team mate as they speak.

Interrupting. I am guilty of this. I find myself doing it all the time. And I’m not even meaning to be rude, it’s usually just because I’m really excited by the conversation. But it is rude. And you need to make sure you never interrupt anyone. If you do, stop and say, ‘oh I’m sorry, please continue’ or ‘no please, you first.’ Because it is more important that everyone thinks you are polite than they hear your point.

Mixing up details. I have royally messed up by doing this as well. Right at the end of a discussion, I confidently announced that no, Mr Brown could not run the new department because he would be in Barcelona at the time. Unfortunately for me, that was wrong. It was Mr. Black. And everyone was quick to correct me. But all you can do is (equally confidently) say, ‘oh, my mistake. Thank you for pointing that out.’ And smile like you don’t feel like the biggest idiot in the room. Ideally you wouldn’t make any mistakes. But they happen. And what is important is how you recover from them, and that you don’t go quiet because your confidence is shattered. You’ve got to get back in the game.

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