What are Group Exercises?
The group exercise is a central and crucial element in the assessment centre. Group exercises are used to assess how you interact with others and to gauge your impact and influence when working in a team. Typically, you will be given a problem or scenario which requires a collective decision to be taken. This is usually presented in the form of a brief, which also includes a strict time limit when the result of the discussion will need to be conveyed to the assessors.
This type of exercise is often the only one that explicitly examines your behaviors with regard to group work, for example:
• Your ability to work in a team
• Your social skills
• Your ability to take initiative and influence others
• Your manners and emotional intelligence
• Your independent mindedness
In addition to these, the exercise may also require you to demonstrate: planning, organizing and strategic thinking skills. However these are usually secondary to the interpersonal communication and social skills shown above.
It is very rare for someone in any job to work alone so interpersonal skills and teamwork are absolutely essential to almost every role. This may be the only opportunity during your Assessment Day to show the assessors your competencies in these areas. It is not easy to practice this type of exercise, but you can ensure that you are familiar with all the appropriate behaviors you need to exhibit.
You can also make sure that you have a thorough understanding of your new organisation’s ethos and the values it considers important.
The majority of group exercises are done with a group size of 4-8 people as this will give everyone the opportunity to contribute. It also makes it possible to assign one assessor to each candidate, which makes detailed observation and marking easier. Some Centres’ do have groups larger than 8 but it is rare for the group size to be much larger than this because of the problems of creating a unified group within the time frame of the exercise.
There are three basic formats that can be used at your Assessment Centre:
The structure of the group is left entirely to the group itself to work out. The group will be given a problem to solve or a situation to resolve within a set time frame.
Advantages – You can choose your own role within the group, which best displays your strengths. Your contribution to the group is totally under your control.
Disadvantages – depending on the group of people you find yourself with you could spend more of your time competing for certain roles or an over politeness in deciding how to progress. Either of these could result in your group rushing into a decision or not achieving the required goal of the exercise.
Each candidate is set a specific task on which they must lead the discussion. This task forms part of the problem or solution. For example, each candidate is assigned a role within a special project team who have been ask to report to the board of the testing of a new product.
Advantages –The clearer terms of reference make it easier to know when you can contribute to the overall decision or solution.
Disadvantages – The task you have been given may not play to your strengths so that it is more difficult for you to illustrate them. Each candidate may become so absorbed with their specific task that the overall group objective is forgotten or neglected and a hasty decision is the final outcome of the exercise.
A role is assigned to each member of the group and is the role they perform during this exercise. For example: chair person, secretary, finance controller, personnel, sales, public relations or production. These roles may be assigned at random or there may be some logic to it. For example, if your experience lies in the financial area and you are assigned the role of personnel officer, this may be done deliberately to assess your man-management skills, which are an important aspect of the new role.
Advantages – You know exactly who and what you need to do within the group. From the outset you are aware of the other candidates’ roles and how you should interact with them as if you were in the new job already.
Disadvantages – Being assigned a specific role may limit your contribution if most of the discussion time is spent on areas other than your own.
Types of Scenario
The type of scenario used in group exercises vary from physical problems, for example: how to build a bridge over a stream using materials provided, to purely theoretical problems which can be solved by discussion. The letter inviting you to the assessment centre will make it clear if you need outdoor clothing or not. The agenda may also provide so clue as to your type of group exercise by its location e.g. meeting room, sports studio, the woods, etc.
The main themes of a ‘Group Discussion’ exercise often take one of the following forms:
The group will be presented with a critical incident that has occurred and be asked to respond to this event. It could be an operational issue that needs to be resolved i.e. your supplier has just doubled the price of your product’s raw materials or new legislation will affect tha way that you do business in the future. The group have to decide how this change impacts on the business or organisation and present their findings.
The scenario may be more strategic, for example: There has been a leak to the press on your organisations future direction, or your share price has seen a dramatic fall. You are asked to present or prepare your groups response and show how you would minimise the impact on the organisation.
You will be provided with a full brief on what the Organisational issue is and a clear objective you have to meet. Your group may have to address the personnel issues of a re-organisation, the financial implications of a merger or the operational impact of an acquisition. The exact nature of the issue you will have to address will be directly related to the nature of the role, for example: technical, strategic, operational etc.
The group will have to assess what impact this particular change will have on the organisation and put forward suggestions as how to address this issue in the best way for the Organisation. The level of position you are applying for will influence whether or not you prepare a presentation or a report.
Problem Solving & Simulation
You will be given a detailed description of the problem you face and as a group you will have to agree on a form of action to resolve the problem presented. The type of problem or simulation will have a direct correlation with the role for which you are being assessed. So technical roles will be faced with problems of a technical nature to solve, management will have a resource issue to address etc.
Your group may be asked to address a particular aspect of a prospective business venture e.g. transfer of staff, or to assess the appropriateness of a possible future strategy. Whilst for certain high level positions a written proposal may be the required outcome it is more likely that your group will have to present their findings.
The majority of the scenarios you will be presented with during your assessment centre are too complex to be solved within the time frame allowed for the exercise. Don’t be put off by this - you don’t have to solve the problem or issue presented. What you are being assessed on is how you deal with it, how you behave within the group and how you ensure that an outcome is arrived at.
Whilst you are preparing for your group exercise it is important to keep in mind the behaviours that the assessors will be looking for.
Group discussion exercises involve candidates working together as a team, to resolve a presented issue. These exercises commonly measure interpersonal skills such as group leadership, teamwork, negotiation, and group problem solving skills. Group exercises may range from 'leaderless group discussion' formats to problem solving scenarios.
Employers are looking for management skills, one of which is the ability to get the best out of your co-workers. Your social skills will be included in the assessment so listen to other people, be friendly and participate. Employers don’t usually want people who are withdrawn, or those who are aggressively dominant.
In group test exercises try to forget the assessors, give your attention to the task and the group. You will be assessed on the quality of your contribution and how you relate to the other participants.
You will be also assessed on your ideas, leadership, involvement and co-operation. Remember that your participation and reasoning is more important than the substance of your ideas and decisions.
If you are invited to an assessment centre then it will probably involve at least buffet lunch or in some cases an evening dinner. This is the part of the recruitment process that is not formally assessed and is meant to be an informal way for you to find out more about the organisation and its values.
However, these social events do provide the assessors with an opportunity to see how you engage with your peers and to see what questions you ask incumbent managers and recent graduates. They also provide an opportunity for the assessors to see how you act in an informal social environment. The assessors need to be confident that you are going to be a good ‘ambassador’ for the organisation, particularly if your role is likely to involve socialising with clients or people from other organisations.
No one is expecting you to display the wit of Oscar Wilde or the etiquette of a Victorian courtier, but the ability to engage in polite conversation with strangers and to behave socially within the conventional norms is essential.
It is all too easy to disparage small talk and etiquette as being irrelevant, out-of-date and at odds with modern notions of unbridled self expression. This attitude is fairly common among people who have not spent much time outside of their own peer group and who therefore fail to see the relevance of a more or less universally agreed ‘code of behaviour’ which transcends age, background and social class. Whatever the merits of this argument, the fact remains that employers want people who know ‘how to behave’ socially.
Approaching Other People
If there is a coffee break or buffet then your main aim is to chat with as many people as possible in order to show off your social skills.
If you are being introduced to someone, first look at the introducer and then at the person you are meeting and if offered shake hands. Listen carefully to their name and repeat it in conversation as soon as possible to help you remember it.
If someone approaches you, then you should give them your full attention. Listen for any information that you can use to formulate a question and get the conversation going.
If you wish to approach someone or a group of people, do it from front so that they can see you coming. Say the other person’s name if you know it; if not, smile put out your hand and say ‘Hello I’m ………’ then add some information that will identify you and /or outline the reasons for presenting yourself.
If you want to move on to another individual or group then you need to do this politely and take into account that the people you are with should be acknowledged before you move on.
It is a good idea to indicate your empty coffee cup or glass and say ‘I think I’ll go for a refill, it was nice speaking to you’ or something similar.
If others have joined your conversation and it is not possible to move on without interrupting things it is still important to make eye contact and leave with a smile or a wave.
If you are being selected for a management or graduate level position then it is a good idea to brush up on your knowledge of current affairs and global news. The international publication ‘The Economist’ is probably the most useful publication to study for this purpose. It is published weekly, is widely available and covers world & business news in an appropriate level of detail.
You should also read the most recent copies of any relevant industry specific magazine or newspaper. This will enable you to discuss any topical issues that crop up over lunch or coffee. You may feel that this level of preparation is 'over the top'. If so, then try to imagine yourself engaged in a discussion where you don't have the faintest idea what the other participants are talking about, and knowing that the assessors are listening critically to your contribution. At the very least, this kind of experience will undermine your confidence and cause you to under-perform, even on exercises that you have prepared for.
In addition to being up-to-speed on the latest industry and world news, being good at small talk is an impressive asset. It creates the impression that you are a relaxed and confident person and that you would be a good representative for the organisation, especially if your future role involves client contact.