If groupthink and e-communications present dangers to be avoided, they also present a tremendous opportunity to unlock, harness and develop your firm’s intellectual capital.
The value of teamwork has been emphasized for so long that it is hardly necessary to make a case for its importance. The basic essentials of a positively functioning team are a well-worn theme in books on management and leadership. What is less well-known is a growing, but highly important, body of research revealing the dangerous “groupthink” phenomenon that results from overfocusing on teams to the exclusion or diminishing of individual activity.
This article reviews and reinforces four essentials of good teamwork, explains the dangers of groupthink and offers some suggestions for achieving an optimal balance between team and individual activity.
FOUR ESSENTIALS OF GOOD TEAMWORK
Whatever the dangers of teamwork, teams are a fact of life. Many of the tasks we prosecute, in our families and much more so in our businesses, require multiple people to accomplish. It behooves us to make the most of these situations. With that in mind, let’s review four essential characteristics of a smoothly functioning team.
Most of us have heard the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. The No. 1 factor behind this problem is inadequate leadership. Without good leadership, it is nearly impossible to harness the activities of the group and point it in a common direction. A large project may require a team with multiple leaders, but even then, it is essential for those subleaders to report to a single person who assumes final responsibility to direct the group’s individual capabilities to achieve its goals.
The best leader for a team is often not the most senior or charismatic member of the team. Seniority and charisma may be factors in choosing a leader, but the primary criteria should be:
- Ability to communicate clearly
- Clear understanding of the goals to be achieved
- General familiarity with the variety of activities the team will engage in
- Available and dedicated time to carry out the duties involved in leading the project
A team functions best when tasks are allocated to the people who are most qualified and have the available time to execute them. Note that qualification is not the only factor. A 10-person team may have two members who are most qualified to prosecute all of the team’s tasks; but rarely will those two people have available time to accept that much responsibility. Therefore, qualification has to occupy a subsidiary position relative to the time commitments each member is willing to accept.
Even on the assumption of equal available time, it is sometimes appropriate to assign tasks to a less-qualified person. This commonly occurs when there is a desire to train an employee to acquire new skills. Nothing is wrong with this, and it illustrates that team goals cannot be carried out in isolation from broader corporate objectives. But much frustration can be avoided if this broader goal is specifically acknowledged at the outset so that the rest of the team acknowledges that the individual in training faces a learning curve and will thus require more time and support to execute his or her responsibilities.
Do not overlook the fact that this support function is itself a team task that needs to be assigned and acknowledged by the person or people who will be providing it. Otherwise, a negative pattern may ensue where assistance is grudgingly offered, resulting in the trainee not reaching out for assistance often enough and a subpar work product.
This characteristic is obvious enough but can scarcely be overemphasized. Nothing hinders the proper functioning of a team more than a failure to communicate frequently and clearly. One of the key responsibilities of the team leader is to ensure that lines of communication are established and remain open.
As helpful as electronic communication is, it should never take the place of oral communication via phone and face to face. Many people are not good writers, and they often are not good readers either. Written communication needs to be supplemented and reinforced by oral communication. Team members should also be encouraged to consider whether oral or email communication is more effective for a given purpose. Think about an hour-long string of back-and-forth emails that could have been avoided if someone had simply picked up the phone and engaged in a five-minute conversation.
People should also use caution and avoid unnecessary copying in email communication. Since one of the primary causes behind this redundancy is a “CYA” mentality, it is essential for teams to develop and retain an open and trusting environment. Encourage team members to use the “CC” and “Reply-to-All” functions judiciously. Failure to do so results in needless energy being consumed by team members and especially team leaders. It also develops a propensity to ignore or glide over messages, which can be highly damaging when a message comes along that really is important to the recipient.
Even the best of teams cannot completely avoid conflict. Team projects involve numerous decisions on which members often will not see eye to eye. Resolving these conflicts is one of the most important responsibilities of a team leader, though the responsibility does not rest solely on the leader. Here are some tips for minimizing and resolving conflicts.
First, stress to the team at the outset of the project that it is going to have some conflicts and that this is O.K. This will make the conflicts less personal when they do occur, and it will ensure that conflicts are properly aired and resolved. Few things render a team more dysfunctional than conflicts that remain under the table instead of being put on it. Since most of us are averse to conflict, our natural tendency is to mute our disagreement or, worse, engage in tacit resistance.
Second, establish a method for resolving and (where necessary) escalating conflicts. Encourage members to resolve conflicts among themselves before escalating them. Third, encourage the airing of differences of perspective in team meetings. Fourth and finally, it is essential for leaders to resolve conflicts impartially, based on what most contributes to the accomplishment of group goals. Members will reconcile themselves more easily to resolutions that go against their opinion if they feel that their opinion has at least been given a fair hearing and that the leader is doing his or her best to resolve conflicts with the goals of the group rather than personal prejudices in mind.
To better grasp how some of these four guidelines work, consider the following example of an internal meeting a contractor is having about how to chase a big project that will be hitting the street a year from now (italics indicate what the person is really thinking):
Team Leader, Bill: “Jack used to work for this owner, so I think it makes sense for him to lead the chase for this project. And then, Tom, you can come behind Jack and bring in others as needed.”
Regional Controller, Jack: “Sure.” [I just hope Ricky or Sue is not on the decision committee. I didn’t get along with Ricky, and Sue wasn’t happy when I left.]
Business Developer, Tom: “Yeah, be glad to help.” [But I know Jack was not universally liked by people at this client. That was one of the reasons he left. And we don’t even know who’s going to be on the committee yet!]
Project Executive, Joanna: “Sounds like a good start.” [I really like Tom, but he is not the best person to come behind Jack. He has the “gift of gab” but doesn’t know how to ask questions. He spends too much time talking about himself instead of asking questions and listening.]
Lead Superintendent, Jerry: “Just let me know when the target is ready to dive into the details of this project.” [If they were smart, they’d get me in there right from the start. I will bet you anything Lisa is going to have the strongest voice on the decision committee, and she and I had a fantastic experience together on that project I did for her at Jamestown when I was with my previous employer.]
Here is a progressive and proactive contractor that rightly understands how important it is to build a relationship with the prospective client. However, key issues likely to derail the chase are being swept under the rug. No one is aware of the influential role Lisa is likely to play, nor of the prior positive experience Jerry had with her when he worked for another contractor. Jerry thinks to himself, “If they don’t care enough to ask, there’s no reason for me to tell.” Tom and Jack both recognize that Jack’s prior relationship with the prospect might hinder the pursuit instead of helping it, but Jack does not want to make himself look bad and Tom does not want to hurt Jack’s feelings. Joanna usually speaks her mind but does not want to damage her friendship with Tom.
There are broader organizational issues here, of course. The contractor clearly lacks a culture of constructive criticism. It also has not taken the initiative to compile a database of relationships its key personnel had with prior employers (frankly, it has difficulty keeping up with current relationships.) There is a “make-it-up-as-we-go” mentality — crafting and enacting a plan on insufficient market intelligence. Jerry’s thoughts indicate that the company probably suffers from the typical conflict between sales and operations.
Those are large hurdles to overcome, but Bill might be able to surmount them with better team leadership skills. Potential roadblocks are not being identified because he has not previously conditioned the team to air conflicts. Since the team does not see the healthy side of conflict, personal relationships are getting in the way of honest feedback. Jerry’s communication policy, which is quite common among field personnel, is “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Nor is Bill making the necessary effort to solicit and probe for feedback. He simply assumes that if no one objects, he or she must be on board. The result is a misallocation of tasks, a temporary burial of conflict and probably an unspoken cynicism that is already seeping into the team. At a bare minimum, he could conclude the above discussion by asking, “So does anyone see any potential problems with this approach or have some suggestions about how to improve it?”
THE DANGERS OF “GROUPTHINK”
Can there be such a thing as too much teamwork? Aren’t well-oiled teams that adhere to good rules of teamwork all that is necessary for achieving success?
The answers are “Yes” to the first question and “No” to the second. Sociologists and organizational psychologists have increasingly become aware that too much focus on teamwork can dramatically reduce workplace productivity. Their most obvious finding — and one most of us can probably relate to in our personal experience — is that mental focus has a marked tendency to dissipate in group settings. Although group conversations can certainly stimulate thought (more about this later), our more common reaction is to park our brains in neutral or semi neutral and let the group do the thinking for us.
Problem-solving skills also are diminished. The most ingenious solutions are often the product of sustained concentration. Even if members of a group are not downshifting their mental apparatus during a meeting, the fact that multiple people are speaking means that trains of thought are not likely to persist for long before being interrupted, especially if the group is marked by the (otherwise positive) characteristic of sympathetic listening.
Group settings also tend to hinder creativity. This is particularly true for the most creative personality types, who are generally introverts and thus tend to work far better in private than they do around others. This rule seems to hold for other personality types as well. As Susan Cain observes in a fascinating New York Times article published last year, when it comes to generating ideas, “decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases.”1
One of the biggest reasons for this phenomenon is the social conformity bias that comes into play in group settings. In her 2012 book, “Quiet,” Cain summarizes a 2005 study led by Gregory Burns, a neuroscientist at Emory University. Burns was well aware of the classic studies conducted during the 1950s by psychologist Solomon Asch, which showed that conformity bias could dramatically reduce the percentage of correct answers given by group members to relatively simple questions. Burns wanted to conduct a similar experiment using brain imaging in order to find out the extent to which group members affected by conformity bias committed their errors wittingly or unwittingly.
The subjects in Burns’ experiment demonstrated the same conformity bias participants in Asch’s study had exhibited, and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) revealed that when they made their errors under the influence of this bias, heightened brain activity occurred not in the prefrontal cortex associated with decision-making, but rather in regions associated with spatial and visual perception. This indicated that errorprone subjects were not simply selecting an answer they knew to be wrong in order to fit in with the group, but actually had their cognitive perception reshaped by group factors.2
Group settings, then, are hardly a panacea. They have a demonstrated tendency to dissipate mental energy, interrupt concentration, diminish creativity and cloud objective thinking. The larger the group, the stronger these tendencies will be.
TEAMWORK WITHOUT GROUPTHINK
One clear conclusion that emerges from these studies is that teamwork comes at a price or, at the very least, with dangers that need to be taken into account if teams are to function at their highest level. Here are four rules for doing that.
Create Space and Time for Your People to Work Alone
This is the most important lesson to learn from studies on groupthink. Anyone who has spent much time visiting businesses will have seen the tremendous shift toward the use of cubicles in office-space design during the last decade. The shift is partly attributable to cost-cutting measures, but the bigger driver by far has been a desire to encourage more interaction among employees. Cubicle walls have grown lower or made transparent. An increasing number of companies are doing away with partitions altogether and moving to open floor plans.
Great recipe for teamwork, right? Wrong. A forthcoming study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Erik Altmann, et. al., lays out the tremendous downside to these open environments: constant interruptions and distractions that hinder concentration, reduce productivity, promote mental exhaustion and dramatically increase the likelihood of employee errors.3 One of the most striking findings of the study is that after an interruption, it takes employees an average of 25 minutes to resume their tasks and 15 additional minutes to return to their previous level of concentration. As one might expect, this phenomenon is heightened when employees are working on a task they regard as tedious or unpleasant.
If the average employee needs time alone, this is all the more true for leaders and other figures within a company who shoulder a larger share of responsibility for innovation and strategic direction. A recent Wall Street Journal article bore the headline, “Logging How 500 CEOs Spend the Day; Little Time to Think.” The article summarized the results of a joint study by the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School that delved into the day-to-day activities of 500 CEOs. The researchers found that during an average 55-hour week, CEOs spent a measly six hours working alone. Three times that amount was consumed by meetings.4
The lesson to be learned from this organizational research is that it is essential to create space and time for both yourself and your employees to engage in sustained focus on daily tasks and on strategic issues facing your company.
Interruptions Gone Wild
Coworkers are not the only threat to organizational creativity and productivity. Even a perfectly designed office plan cannot guard against the intrusion of email and cell phones. “The frequency of interruptions is higher than it’s ever been,” says Altmann in an interview with FMI. “And with the ones that come electronically, there’s no sensitivity to the state of the person being interrupted. No one’s looking at you and making a decision about whether the importance of the communication outweighs the consequences of the interruption.”
Indeed, for all the benefits of these modern communication tools, numerous studies have shown that if they are not intelligently managed, they have a tremendous potential to fragment our concentration, reshape our brain patterns and even create genuine addiction.
Research has confirmed that the familiar buzzes and bells alerting us to a new message actually trigger a small release of dopamine in our brains because we associate these alerts with the pleasure of finding out something new and interesting. As Matt Richtel, technology reporter for the New York Times explains:
When you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you get a ring — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline. Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You’re conditioned by a neurological response: ‘Check me, check me, check me, check me.’5
Once this addiction is in place, it reduces our capacity for sustained concentration because our brains have become wired to anticipate, and even crave, an interruption.
Most of us are all too familiar with the way this phenomenon constantly invades the workplace, to say nothing of our personal lives. It is rare to attend a meeting in which all the attendees are “really there” all the time. Combine this phenomenon with an undisciplined embrace of group culture, and the result is an organization whose collective capacity for serious strategic thinking and innovation will be significantly diminished.
Create a Culture of Preparing for Meetings by Thinking
The concern here is not the ordinary, functional preparation for meetings we are all familiar with, but rather, the preparation of thinking. This is a particularly important point for team leaders. When you lay out the agenda for the meeting, write a few bullets, or one bullet, summarizing the key questions that will be on the table and specifically encourage the team to spend time to reflect on those issues in advance.
Create a culture where people who attend meetings will be expected to share with the group the results of their prior thinking. Once that expectation is firmly in place, it will fundamentally change the way people prepare and will vastly improve both the liveliness and quality of the meeting. It will also counteract the conformity bias. People who have thought out and articulated their ideas in private will be much less likely to adopt the ideas of the dominant personalities in the group.
The best kind of brainstorming results from individual brainstorming followed by group brainstorming. As discussed above, the value of individual brainstorming is that it tends to produce more and better ideas than would be the case if a person does his or her brainstorming while in the company of a group.
The value of the group, of course, is that it provides a forum for individual ideas to be compared, critiqued and refined.
This may even require a reconfiguration of your office space. As Erik Altmann, the lead author of the aforementioned study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology advises, “You have to make it easy for people to have privacy, and you have to make it equally easy for people to have informal conversations. They are both really important. Probably the best thing you can do is give people offices that are soundproof when the door is closed so they can block out interruptions and distractions, but also have the offices arranged in such a way that when the doors are open, coworkers can see each other and stop in.”
Educate Your Teams
As the old adage goes, identifying the problem is half the solution. A first and simple step management can take to avoiding the dangers of groupthink, email and cell phones is teaching its employees about those dangers. People who are aware of the common pitfalls of group interaction will be less likely to fall into them. Employees who are educated about cell-phone addiction will be less likely to be victimized by it.
Do not overlook practical matters, such as tips provided by your IT group about how to alter cell phone settings. The default setting on many iPhones is a buzz or a bell whenever a new text message or email arrives. Some employees do not know how to change these settings unless they have specific instructions to do so.
If groupthink and e-communications present dangers to be avoided, they also present a tremendous opportunity to unlock, harness and develop your firm’s intellectual capital. Because so many companies are unaware of these dangers, and fewer still are addressing them, the potential gains are far from incremental. Transforming your organizational culture in this way will not occur overnight and will require strong leadership that practices what it preaches. However, once accomplished, it will fundamentally differentiate your company and create an advantage competitors will not be able to replicate easily.
Wallace Marshall is a consultant with FMI Corporation. He can be reached at 919.785.9279 or via email at email@example.com.
1 Susan Cain, “The Rise of the New Groupthink.” New York Times, 15 January 2012, page SR1.
2 Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Crown Publishing 2012), 90-92. Numerous studies have shown that women are more susceptible to this bias than men are, though the causes for this divergence are a matter of some debate. See Steven Breckler, James Olson and Elizabeth Wiggins, Social Psychology Alive (Belmont, Calif.: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006), 318-319.
3 Altmann, E. M., Trafton, J. G., & Hambrick, D. Z. (in press). “Momentary interruptions can derail the train of thought.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi:10.1037/a0030986.
4 Rachel Emma Silverman, “Where’s the Boss? Trapped in a Meeting: Logging How 500 CEOs Spend the Day; Little Time to Think.” Wall Street Journal, 14 February 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204642604577215013504567548.html.
5 “Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets.” Matt Richtel, Interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, 24 August 2010. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129384107.