The Power of Group-Work
I’ve written many times about the commonality – even the necessity, in some cases – of working with others (and I’ve given some suggestions here about how to do it well).
This time I’d like to lay out some specific benefits (and dangers) of working with others when compared with working on your own.
Experience – and science – shows that people working in groups generally achieve better results than people working alone.
There are various reasons for this:
- Pooled knowledge and perceptions.
- Canceling out or overruling any individual’s bias.
- Extra time and energy available from the contributions of all the group members.
Groups choices and other outputs may not always be better, of course. But over many instances, groups will generally outperform any individual member.
Disagreements Yield Better Thinking
Another reason groups tend to perform better than individuals is the members of the group often have divergent ideas and prefer different choices. In most groups, this leads to discussion and even arguments (which can and should be good-natured, rather than heated and divisive).
Group discussions lead to better decisions, in part, because:
- To communicate and persuade, group members must think through their ideas and preferred choices in more detail and depth, which helps them strengthen and solidify what they advocate.
- Most people are better at poking holes in other people’s ideas and preferred choices than in their own, so group discussions tend to unearth more flaws and weaknesses.
- The process of well-intentioned argument helps members of the group “buy in” to whatever ideas and choices ultimately emerge from the discussion, which adds to everyone’s motivation to work toward successful implementation.
An interesting note, here, is that social scientists have discovered the best predictor of an idea’s ultimate success is the number of ideas brought forth in the group discussion that led to it. Apparently, even wrong, bad, or worthless ideas in a group discussion can help generate a superior idea.
Diversity Brings Benefits
Like any group, a team of like-minded people from similar backgrounds will generally outperform any one team member. However, a more diverse group will almost always do even better.
One reason is that diversity brings a wider range of experience, knowledge, and perception to the task, project, or goal. This provides a richer pool of resources the group can apply to its efforts.
Another reason is that diversity itself is energizing, particularly when group members are working together for the first time. Everyone in the diverse group seems to operate at a higher level of intensity, creativity, and motivation to perform well.
As a by-product of this, when team members are diverse, they will often work harder to “sell” their ideas and preferred choices, and may look harder and deeper for flaws and weaknesses in other team members’ offerings.
And let’s not overlook the tendency, after team members have bonded with each other, for a diverse group to feel more motivated, compared with a homogeneous group, to produce a successful outcome.
None of this is a given, of course. Some groups fail miserably. The best groups outperform individuals because they are supportive of a positive group dynamic.
For example, groups under the thumb of a strong leader are unlikely to allow individuals to press for their own ideas and preferred choices or share all their individual knowledge. Most often, the strong leader’s ideas and preferred choices prevail, and others in the group relegate themselves to the role of “sidemen” who mainly support what the strong leader wants.
Also, even without strong leaders, many groups do not consciously strive to provide a “safe” environment where all the members can voice their opinions and argue against others’ proposals. Without this psychological and emotional safety net, only the strongest voices emerge, greatly diminishing the power of group-work.
According to studies by Google and others, the most important factor in team effectiveness is this feeling of psychological safety, because it supports open sharing and whole-hearted collaboration among team members.
Another difficulty arises from communication problems, which – ironically – can be more severe as diversity increases. When differences in experience, knowledge, perceptions, cultural touchpoints, and even language interfere with clear communication, groups will struggle much more to be effective.
The group dynamic also changes over time, so that even diverse groups begin to think and feel more alike. Hence the term “group think,” and the advantage of rotating people in and out of any long-established groups that cherish high-level results.
For these and other reasons, there’s a lot of truth in the saying “Two heads are better than one.” And I would add, for tasks, projects, and goals in both your work and your life: three heads are often better than two!
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