I am a student in charge of overseeing a team of about 30 fellow students (divided into subsections) with the responsibility of creating a robot for a school competition. Everyone is required to participate in order to receive a grade, but they are otherwise not receiving any compensation for their efforts.

Unfortunately, only 3 or 4 show any sense of responsibility regarding their work. Due to some restrictions imposed by the instructor I have no way to punish unmotivated participants, or reward those who do carry their weight, not to mention that of the rest of their team.

How can I encourage the remainder of the team to actually work rather than waste time and appearing to be productive even though they clearly aren't working?

  • 2
    Were the remaining "employees" forced into joining the team? By the way, I don't think employee is the right word to use unless you are paying people for their efforts. In that case, I am not so sure this question even belongs here.
    – Masked Man
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 3:08
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    @MaskedMan they werent forced in robotics but they are forced to do an academic competition (science fair, academic decathlon, robotics, bridge design, Destination Imagination). Also, id argue it is still relevant as it involves workplace skills Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 3:15
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    You have your answer right there ... they are being forced to work on something for which they don't receive any payment or reward or course credits or any benefit. In a Workplace setting, it would be a non-issue because the solution is as easy as "if you don't work, you don't get paid", which serves as a good enough motivation for people to work (whether they "enjoy" it or not). "How do I make people work for nothing in return?" does not involve Workplace skills.
    – Masked Man
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 3:21
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    "... they are forced to do an academic competition (science fair, academic decathlon, robotics, bridge design, Destination Imagination). Also, id argue it is still relevant as it involves workplace skills" Unfortunately for you, on this site, you're preaching to the choir :) Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 4:12
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    Vietnhi Phudan already explained why your current setting is flawed : you have no leverage over them. Can't you have a professor supervising the project ? It's pretty hard, as a student, to get into a leader role concerning other students. Also, from my student experience, most of the time, whatever size the group is, most of the work will be accomplished by 3-4 people.
    – Thalantas
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 8:36

6 Answers 6


You're screwed. They aren't volunteers. Rather, they've been "volunteered". 90% of your team doesn't want be there. They don't think it's their fight and they don't even have a dog in this fight. And your team has been put together with the love, care and planning that your school's detention classes are put together.

Take a page out of Gideon. Make a list of those who want to fight, ignore the rest. Do what you can with the people on this list: they are your team, for better or for worse. Leave the rest to their own devices. You have only so much time and energy and you'll need every ounce of energy you have and every minute of time that you have for your team to even be competitive let alone win.

I won't sugarcoat it, the prospects of your team winning are close to nil. Given your "mission:impossible" task, your leadership of your team going down fighting will be a matter of pride for you for the rest of your life. Fight with whoever wants to fight - you have no choice, beggars aren't choosers and right now, you're begging. Make that, you're on your knees begging so for you, even self-respect is a luxury you can't afford. You're never going to win a conventional battle with this team. instead, think "guerrilla war". Define your victory conditions independent of the contest. For example, a victory condition might be "we'll put an operational robot into the contest". Just make your victory conditions are doable.

Good luck to you, Caleb "Harry" Houdini :)

Note: ... and since you added that your team of 30 is divided into subsections: your team is not only going to have to shed the dead weight, they are going to restructure around the 3 or 4 that you have that you can work with - you can't organize a team of four into five subsections and expect anything to come out. Your instructor can babysit the rest of the team.

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    Sure. I would cut the last paragraph though, it's a bit sensationalist. If the competition is chosen similarly, but fail to trim the crap, this could be the OP's winning edge. Add to that, 30 is a huge number, and it would be tough to coordinate even if they were motivated.
    – Nathan
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 7:16
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    @NathanCooper - I won't. You are hoping that the competition is operating under the same constraints. The way the OP's school has entered the competition is incredibly stupid and you are hoping that the competition is just as stupid. Hope is not a strategy. If I represented another school and the school were to charge me to field a team, I'd make mincemeat out of the OP's team. I hope that the OP's team realizes that they are but a handful, that their backs are to the wall and that they have to make a huge effort to even achieve being competitive let alone win. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 12:57
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    @VietnhiPhuvan I wouldn't cut the last paragraph. Your analysis is 100% accurate +1 Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 13:28
  • The other solution is to go to faculty and say "There doesn't seem to be enough interest in competing this year. Should we try with the few who are interested, or should we skip it and try again next year? Or should we ask the supposed team this question and see if it makes them any more motivated?"
    – keshlam
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 14:58
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    I believe the term here instead of "volunteered" is "volun-told"
    – pay
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 17:28

This answer is posted in the full knowledge that your chances of success are slim to none. Still; it might be a very valuable learning experience for you.

You are working with a group of people who currently have no motivation to work. They lack both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Since I doubt you want to be paying 30 people out of your own pocket, giving them extrinsic motivation is pretty much out (unless you can threaten to fail the, which I don't think you can). Then again; extrinsic motivation in a build-and-design challenge isn't very good anyway.

The real question is why they don't have intrinsic motivation. I'm assuming this course is related to their study; so these are engineering or IT students of some sort. Or at least people with an interest in such.

You would have to have a meeting with all of them, separately, and talk to them about why they aren't motivated to put in real effort. Ask what is keeping them from putting in good effort, and see if there's any way you can deal with that problem.

You'll probably get a set of diverse answers, and likely there's not much you can do about a lot of them, but you might be able to figure out some issues that are fairly easy resolve and get some more people in on the project.

Maybe they need some coaching because they don't understand the subject matter. Maybe they prefer working on a different part of the assignment. Maybe they just don't care about the specific competition. Maybe they just have too much stuff to do. Maybe they have personal issues. Maybe they just don't care about school. Who knows. You'll have to find out.

Engage in honest, open dialogue and listen to them. A group of people only becomes a team when the individual members all care about and are motivated to accomplish the same goal. That means a lot of listening. (Not talking. Listening.)

If you're really interested in making the most of your role as a leader (here, and later) then take some time to read up on intrinsic motivation and how to encourage it in people and consider this project a good practice session.


You can't really worry about making the grading fair, because that's not how real life works anyway. Here's what you do, since your prof wants to play 'bureaucrat'. Everyone has to participate, right?

Give the dead weight people some trifle of a task that will clearly show how much they've participated. For example - I don't know how big the robot is going to be, but allow your dead-weight folks "decorate" it with little stickers with their names on them. That's participation, technically. Make sure the rest of the team DOESN'T take part in this stupid task. Turn your work in. Let the chips fall where they may.


Everyone is required to participate in order to receive a grade, but they are otherwise not receiving any compensation for their efforts.

Isn't that sufficient motivation? Don't they want their grade?

Take initiative to track who is participating. Invite everyone to a meeting to establish leadership (you?) then afterwards send minutes saying what criteria you you will be using to judge participation, then start the work of breaking the requirement down into tasks.

If they don't work, they don't get their grade.
If your team wants to do well in the competition they'll have to pick up the slack from others.

  • Presumably, if they turned up once or twice, they can claim to have participated.
    – Simon B
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 23:38
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    If that's the extent of their "participation", they get a grade... But that grade is F. This needs to be made clear to them, and it has to be done by the one who will be evaluating them for grading.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 2:25

Another view is that the problem is the team size is too large. With a team of 30 it's easy for a less-motivated individual to do nothing assuming others will pick up the slack.

Consider splitting into teams of ~5, each with their own task. This alone may be sufficient to motivate slackers; their input to the team is suddenly much more visible.

  • I have tried breaking the main team into smaller sub teams with different tasks that make up the whole, but have encountered the same results as I originally did Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 15:26
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    I can't help thinking that 4 to 5 people ought to be plenty to build a robot anyway. What could you do with 30 people if they did all turn up?
    – Simon B
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 23:40

Whatever level of reinforcement they're getting, remove it. They show up, but they don't work. Make them leave. This takes away any enjoyment they get from hanging around and believing they're fooling someone into believing they're actually a contributor. Take this away.

There will be some who don't care and would rather be somewhere else, but at least these people who hang-around doing nothing are not a constant reminder to those who are working.

Feel free to discuss this with those who are working. They may not want to take any responsibility for this, so they may not want to vote in favor. I would present it as, I told the people who aren't working to leave, do you mind? They'll probably be non-committal. Good, don't mention it any more and let everyone get back to work.

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