I’m going to let you in on a little secret…
… I hate group work, and the truth is, so do most people.
Group work is a frustrating part of human existence.
On the one hand, most of our species’ major accomplishments would never have been achieved without it; we are, compared to our primate cousins, quite vulnerable to attack and starvation with our relatively hairless skin, small muscles, thin claws, and weak jaws. Instead, we use the power of numbers.
Though the advent of social media has highlighted again the continued salience of Dunbar’s number, we rarely note that our primate cousins tend to maintain smaller groups. Collaboration is part of what makes us so unique, part of what helped ancient humans to survive and even thrive – no one ever took down a mammoth on their own.
However, humans are also frighteningly likely to be killed by other humans – and most often, by other humans they already know. Indeed, humans are the second most deadly (to other humans) animal, just behind mosquitos.
Being a social animal is inherently dangerous, and human history can be told through incidents of interpersonal, intercommunal, and international conflicts.
Ok, you say – but what has this got to do with group work?
Think about your recent experience: you’ve probably had to pull together a team to go after a big client, case, or project, hoping that your collective skill and knowledge will improve your outcomes.
At the same time, one recent survey found that 40 percent of people who have been part of a team in the workplace have seen or been involved in a verbal confrontation amongst team members. Another 15 percent have seen an argument turn physical.
Being part of a team is part of being human – it has clear, evolutionary benefits, but it also has real drawbacks including the risk of conflict. I want to suggest that it is time to question the assumptions we have about the role of teamwork in organizations, namely, that the benefits generally outweigh the risks.
The idea that teamwork and collaboration are necessary skills is instilled in us very young through several vectors. We are socialized to play together and punished when we don’t share.
Starting in grade school we begin to force group learning, even when it may be detrimental to the development of other skills. It’s not just that group work encourages something called ‘social loafing’ but that it actively disrupts other cognitive functions that are linked to things like critical thinking and memory.
Whilst it seems clear that collaboration does add value to work in some ways, for instance, by increasing the diversity of thought, perspective, experience, and ways of thinking brought to bear against the defined problem or opportunity – studies suggest that this diversity can be more effectively harnessed by asking members of a group to ideate and contribute separately, and to review together.
For instance, whilst it is true that a group will remember, on the whole, more shapes on a paper than individuals alone, if you pool those same individual’s results after the fact and control for overlap, you will find that they have remembered more shapes than the group.
Apply this to a group project in which a team is asked to produce several creative ideas.
A group with 5 members might come up with 10 ideas versus an individual’s 2 – but ask those individuals to generate their own best ideas, and you may well end up with a pool of 15 solid contributions, with each individual generating 3 ideas. Your final pool still includes all of the diversity of thinking, but it is more efficient and effective because it places more responsibility on the individual for the outcome.
Sure, the group environment should theoretically lend itself to a natural competition that encourages the best of those 15 ideas to get whittled down to a more manageable number.
Only, that’s rarely how group hierarchies work. Instead, your most senior, or most strident, employee will dominate the selection process to the detriment of quieter colleagues, and to the detriment of your final product.
So how do we maximize teamwork, and when should we really use it?
Research increasingly suggests that working in a team is not as important as the makeup of the team itself. For example, social psychologists suggest that teams need to mix demographics as well as types of thinkers and types of socializers. More concretely, this means that you not only need to consider things like gender, education, and even social class, but also:
- Familiarity – teams do best when they know each other and interact frequently both in and outside of work. This doesn’t mean, however, that teams need to work face-to-face to be functional. In fact, in 2009, a research team led by Frank Siebdrat assessed the performanceof 80 software companies around the world and found that more dispersed teams often outperformed “co-located” teams
- Extroverts & Introverts – you need both for a team to function, but you have to balance their inputs effectively. Extroverts have a tendency to dominate.
- Big Picture v. Analytical Thinking – like introverts and extroverts, an effective team needs both. Expect tension.
As the list above suggests, just bringing the right people together isn’t enough. You have to ensure that they are being directed in such a way as to be successful. For instance:
- Ensure that everyone contributes equally. Human collaboration is based on the principle of equal participation, and we have evolved to want to socially select against ‘cheaters’, despite being incentivized by social work to shirk responsibility. Call it ‘tragedy of the commons’ or ‘social loafing’ – it’s a conundrum. Don’t let your employees fall into it.
- Ensure that communications channels are clear and delineated – either everyone uses a virtual workspace, or they all use phone calls. They all meet in person, or they communicate via email. Whatever the mode – keep it consistent. Do not fragment communications over various platforms or you will encourage tribalism within the group.
- Encourage camaraderie – include jokes in emails, silly videos, whatever it is that gets your team laughing together and producing happy hormones to encourage bonding. We don’t groom one another anymore, but human closeness requires the release of bonding hormones like oxytocin. If you aren’t prepared to pick fleas, brush up on your funny cat memes.
- Don’t force introverts out of their comfort zone. Introverts are critical to groups because they process inwardly. They often see trends and insights before extroverts, who are outward processors. We’ve been socialized to believe that extroverts are better team players than those who keep to themselves – wrong. Moreover, remember that introverts’ social status tends to be lower, initially, than extroverts. Over time this is likely to even out, but ensure your team lead knows how to make space for introverts to contribute without being dominated by higher status extroverts.
- Big thinkers need analytical thinkers – don’t let the big idea people force everyone in line with their charisma or social dominance. Analytical thinkers tend to problematize existing options in an attempt to synthesize the best idea on the table. This can be deflating to a big picture person, but it’s critical to group process and keeps groups from falling prey to messianic thinking.
With all of that said – the most important thing to consider is that it may just be time to stop valorizing group work. Sure, most companies are interactive and social environments – but we don’t need social solutions to every workplace challenge.
Moreover, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that we must force employees beyond their comfort zones for their own personal development. Some of the best teams are those that self select, and some of the best work is produced by individuals working alone or in collaboration with one or two trusted advisors.
We inherently know this because most of us recognize the frustrations of team work – but as a society (and possibly, as a species) we feel obligated to replicate the social pattern.
It’s time to stop, and really think about what it is we are trying to accomplish.
It may be that group work should be reserved for secondary brainstorms. Ask employees to bring a list of prepared ideas before a group unless you want the brainstorm itself to limit the participation of less outspoken, lower status members.
Group work can function well when the list of tasks is easily divisible, and individual objectives and responsibilities are tailored to member’s unique strengths and made very clear.
And at the end of the day, group work just doesn’t work for every employee. Instead of seeing group work as normative and necessary, it should be seen as just one modality, of many, through which work can be accomplished.
Before you divide up, ask yourself if the work really needs group input, or if individually driven ideation and collaboration will get better results.
Most importantly, if you can’t take the time to make sure the group is filled with the right people, working in the right way – than it’s not worth the conflict it is likely to produce.
After all, we aren’t hunting mammoths anymore.
Melyn McKay is a sociocultural anthropologist and a partner with Monticello LLP