“Insanity in individuals is something rare, in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule” (1) wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who himself suffered from episodes of dementia in the final years of his life, tragically converting himself into the exception to his own rule.
He would have been unaware of the term, but in part, what Nietzsche was talking about was groupthink, a dynamic that’s been variously defined as what happens when group members trying to avoid conflict reach a consensus decision without properly evaluating other viewpoints, whether by isolating themselves or suppressing dissent.
Due to the complex nature of the tasks companies must carry out, the need to integrate specialist activities or to internationalize operations, most work within them is carried out by teams. Team work is part of the DNA of all types of organizations, and business schools are keen on getting their students to work in small groups with the aim of preparing leaders able to lead them and make them productive.
But I sometimes wonder if we don’t over estimate the results of team work and that maybe there is something to be said about letting somebody who prefers working alone to do so more often.
Sometimes, teamwork’s very virtue can also be the seed of its destruction. Tightly knit teams, flexible, with a strong spirit of cooperation and a winning spirit, all positive in themselves, can also generate a feeling of invulnerability and a tendency to converge, which often leads to rejecting other opinions, information and data that contradicts supposedly agreed positions, as well as demonizing anybody who disagrees, while blinding the team leader to undesired outside ideas. (2)
Have you ever seen a sales team “unanimously” reject the launch of a popular product, using the excuse for example that it might cannibalize existing products, or perhaps resisting raising the price of a clearly differentiated product? Or perhaps you have come up against the wall of resistance that the IT department can show when it refuses to outsource a particular service.
Critics of teamwork say that the great works of art, along with many scientific discoveries, were the work of one great person, even though they may have benefitted from the collective efforts of their culture or society. None of the 100 greatest novels of all time was written collectively, (3) and neither were any of the great paintings or symphonies. (4) Some might argue that Mozart’s collaboration with Da Ponteproduced his finest work, but his creative talent far outshone that of his librettists.
Susan Cain says in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, “”research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted (…) They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.” (5)
She is referring to the Coding War Games survey, which analyzed the results of the work of 600 computer programmers in 92 countries, showing that the companies with the best results were not those that with the oldest or that paid the best, but those that provided their employees with privacy, personal work space, and that interrupted their programmers less often.
She also quotes Apple co-founder Steven Wozniak, who writes in his autobiography: “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
Another criticism frequently leveled at teamwork is that it can encourage some members to sit back and let others do the work, as well as providing a great excuse for when things go awry. In Japan, if a team gets something badly wrong, then it is expected to resign as a unit, taking collective responsibility, but in the West, at worst, the group leader will stand down, while the other members of the team are somehow protected by their having taken decisions jointly.
Despite its inherent weaknesses, teamwork can generate excellent results, and seems unavoidable in the current corporate world. What practices could be adopted to avoid the risks of groupthink, as well as to promote individual creativity, or to empower the team to assume collective responsibility, for success as well as failure?
– In the first place, decision-making procedures need to be effective and avoid over-simplifying issues so as to reach agreement. They must also involve the search for a common denominator, as well as looking for innovative solutions. I tend to recommend groups taking big strategic decisions not to do so by majority, because this approach can often lead to conventional outcomes or the continuity of the status quo. Instead, I believe they should designate a leader from the group according to their specialist skills, give them all the input necessary, let everybody have their say, and then allow that person to decide.
– It is a good idea to rotate leadership of the group frequently, or on an agreed timeframe. Regardless of whether some of the team’s members have more evident leadership skills, rotating leadership can add a new dimension, highlighting unexpected ideas. It is also an opportunity for those with greater leadership skills to learn from their colleagues.
– Diversity is essential in successful groups. The presence of women in groups tends to lead to more empathy and consensus, but it is also important for the mix to be cultural and ethnic. The point of a working group should be to bring together people who think differently from each other, and with a range of views on business or a particular sector. Logically, the role of the leader is to make as much as possible of this diversity, and to be able to propose specific solutions that the others in the group will sign up to. Sameness among team members is one of the leading contributors to groupthink.
– Benjamin Voyer of the London School of Economics calls for three Cs when working in teams (6): Collaboration, so that all are working toward the same goal, regardless of individual viewpoints; Coordination, which tends to be the job of the leader, and so that the tasks in hand are carried out according to schedule, and that everybody contributes; and Communication, which is essential to avoid misunderstandings, which can be the cause of conflict between group members.
– Working in a team means taking a constructive, can-do approach. One of the main risks is that some members will sit back, something the team leader needs to keep an eye on. It is important for leaders to cultivate a spirit of generosity, empathy, diplomacy, and avoid being brusque, talking too much, and instead find a way to implement the decision that has been taken, even if not everybody was initially in agreement.
On occasion, when talking to the members of a team on our MBA programs that hasn’t gelled properly, or that is underperforming, they tell me that this group is worse than the others and that its members are not contributing equally. I tend to reply that their group was potentially just as good as the others, and that the problem lies with its capacity to lead. At IE Business School, when assigning groups we always aim for diversity in the hope of sparking learning synergies and personal interaction. The training and intelligence of its members, based on their academic merits and admission tests, is also taken into account.
We also work with our groups, particularly in the early stages of the program, through exercises, role-playing, feedback, and sessions on team work, with the aim of boosting their chances of success. Nevertheless, on occasions, some teams just do not work, either due to personality conflicts or common errors. In such cases I usually remind those involved that the problem was not the team itself, but the lack of leadership and emotional intelligence. servir de coartada para diluir responsabilidades en el caso de incurrir en fallos.
– Finally, a proposal to help strengthen highly diverse teams. Our experience at IE Business School is that working in a blended format, combining classroom sessions with online studies generates better results in work teams than purely face-to-face teaching. Teams that work online develop a series of skills and tend to be more respectful than those that work together in the classroom. Each member’s contribution tends to be more balanced, perhaps because it is more tangible and permanent in a digital format. In a classroom situation it is easier to take a back seat. Online interaction also allows for a deeper intellectual experience between members, which helps cement relationships and encourage greater openness.
Unsurprisingly, Susan Cain is also an advocate of the advantages of working online, such as getting the most out of the diversity, given that “introverts are more likely than extroverts to express intimate facts about themselves online.” (7) A lot of companies could benefit from hybrid or blended programs that combine face-to-face teaching with an online teaching component as a way to identify introverts with leadership potential. Cain adds that brainstorming in online groups produces better results than individual work or face-to-face groups. It is the best combination of individual work with a team effort.
Albert Einstein wrote: “I am a horse for single harness, not cut out for tandem or team work. I have never belonged wholeheartedly to country or state, to my circle of friends, or even to my own family.” But for many of us, given that teamwork is probably unavoidable at some time, and while we mustn’t give up our right to work alone sometimes, knowing how to work well in a team can be a highly rewarding experience. In short, why not enjoy the best of both worlds?
(1)Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter IV
(2) Harvard Business Press: Managing Teams: Expert Solutions to Everyday Challenges; Pocket Mentor Series, Boston Mass., 2010, p. 45.
(5) Susan Cain, The Rise of The New Groupthink, The New York Times, January 13, 2012
(7) Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, (Penguin: New York, 2013), p. 88.