A recent survey found that 91 percent of high-level managers believe teams are the key to success. But the evidence doesn’t always support this assertion.
There are insidious disadvantages to teamwork, notes Professor Heidi K. Gardner in her April 2012 Harvard Business Review article, “Coming Through When It Matters Most.”
“Just when teams most need to draw on the full range of their members’ knowledge to produce the high-quality, uniquely suitable outcomes they started out to deliver, they instead begin to revert to the tried and true,” she writes.
Under pressure, teams gravitate toward safe ground. While most start out highly engaged, inviting input from everyone, members become risk-averse as they push toward project completion. They maneuver toward consensus in a way that blocks paths to critical information.
Groupthink, originally researched by Yale University psychologist Irving Janis, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups. It’s a mode of thinking that occurs when a decision-making group’s desire for harmony overrides its realistic appraisal of alternatives.
Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus, without critically evaluating additional ideas or viewpoints.
The negative cost of groupthink is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. Organizationally, these consequences lead to costly errors in product launches, service policies and competitive strategies.
The New Groupthink
In “The Rise of the New Groupthink” (The New York Times, Jan.13, 2012), corporate attorney and author Susan Cain explains:
Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.
There’s a problem with the view that all work should be conducted by teams. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. As Cain writes:
Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about.
It’s one thing when each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from coworkers’ conversations or gazes.
The False Benefits of Brainstorming
Brainstorming is a creative technique through which group members form solutions to specific problems by spontaneously shouting out ideas, without censoring themselves or criticizing others.
But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and performance worsens as group size increases. Groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which function worse than groups of four.
The one exception is online brainstorming. When properly managed, groups that brainstorm online perform better than individuals—and the larger the group, the better it performs. What we fail to realize is that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude unto itself.
Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming:
1. Social loafing. Some individuals sit back and let others do all the work.
2. Production blocking. Only one person can talk or produce an idea at a time, so the others are forced to sit passively.
3. Evaluation apprehension. Even when group members agree to welcome all ideas, people fear they’ll look stupid in front of their peers.
Introverts vs. Extroverts
One’s attraction to working in social groups may be culturally influenced. In the United States, for example, we tend to idealize charismatic extroverts. (Think celebrities and media-savvy CEOs.) Because extroverts usually talk the most (and often the loudest), their ideas are heard and often implemented.
Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast and sometimes rash decisions. They are comfortable with multitasking and risk-taking.
Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They prefer to focus on one task at a time, and they dislike interruptions and noisy environments that interfere with concentration.
Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening and are comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.
Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy some parties and business meetings, but after a while they wish they were at home with a good book. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak and often express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict.
Leaders must understand each team member’s strengths and temperament. The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts.
Better Ways to Work in Teams
Teams are not inherently bad, but they can be refined and adjusted to provide better results. The way forward is not to stop collaborating, but to do it better.
• To guard against groupthink, use checklists or ask certain team members to play devil’s advocates.
• If you need to stimulate creativity, ask people to come up with ideas alone before sharing them with the team. If you seek the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically or in writing first.
• Face-to-face contact is important because it builds trust, but group dynamics contain unavoidable impediments to creative thinking. Don’t mistake assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas.