The Teamwork Myth

I was thinking of doing a general introduction but then I stumbled upon a german radio feature and decided to jump right into what most of this blog will be about: the challenges we face in our work life and hacks to overcome them. The topic of the radio show touches upon so many aspects of modern life that it is hard to imagine someone building his or her business not being affected by one of the points the feature makes.
The German title of the piece is “Mythos Teamarbeit” (The Teamwork Myth) and was aired on german public radio station BR2. For all of you who speak german or want to practice your listening comprehension, give it a go.
For all the others, I hope my short summary below helps to clarify the line of argument.
The whole feature uses the soccer team analogy and starts with soundbites from the female soccer team of Wacker Burghausen. Just two examples: “You never win a match alone” or “team spirit helps to give the last bit in a match”.
It then makes a point that in modern times many business people use team sports analogies. Obviously, the modern private and business world is growing more interdependent by the day which is eventually leading to more and more team work. And it is common sense that working in teams provides a wealth of synergies. The only thing is – when we look at our experiences in the workplace, at home or with fellows in cluns and NGOs we kind of get the feeling that there are quite a number of pitfalls to navigate when working in teams.
The authors move on to dissect four of the most common myths about teamwork.

Myth number 1: The whole is greater than the summ of its parts

Straight away, this myth is declared busted. Teams are actually more inefficient when it comes to tasks that could be solved by a single individual. This has been prooved as early as the 1910 in experiments including rope pulling teams. These experiments showed that the performance per team member declines with every member that is added to the team.
One factor that is to blame for this decline is a loss of coordination: one team member might pull a little more to the left, one a little more to the right, they don’t pull at the same time, etc
But there are also loss of motivation where individuals hide and loaf in the group. (This is known as the Ringelmann-Effect)
The interesting thing for the readers of this blog who are concentrated in China is that loss of motivation is only observed in groups comprised of members from western cultures. Especially in asian cultures, individuals show a stronger performance in the team than as an individual.
The feature quotes a scientist explaining the main differences in mindset: In some cultures, people want to show their skills as an individual whereas in others they rather contribute to the success of a team. As a consequence, some people would even disguise their individual prowess when performing alone in order not to embarass others.
The authors make a point of saying that it is possible to form teams who perform better than the individual members combined even in western cultures. The problem is that this is far from being the rule. The phenomenon of free riders in western cultures is well-documented.

Myth number 2: Brainstoming in a group achieves the best results

This idea was introduced by Alex Osborne (founding member of BBDO and father of “brainstorming” ) in the 1950s. He was convinced that people in teams produce more and better ideas than individuals as long as certain basic rules are followed. One rule: withhold criticism in the brainstorming session and reserve it for a later stage in the process.
The problem is that scientists have been unable to proove this thesis in experiments. As a social psychologist Michael Diehl puts it: there is no proof of a quantitative or qualitative increase in output of groups as compared to individuals. Researchers fopund that two people in a team still produce about the same output as when combining the individual results. But when the number of team members increases, the productivity per person decreases. The main reason seems to be that to develop your own ideas and keep track of them while listening to the stream of thought of another team member is an extremely difficult double task for the brain (I personally would like to reccommend Daniel Kahnemanns’ fine book “Thinking fast and slow” for everybody interested in how the brain filters information and tries to make decisions). This is illustrated by the fact that as soon as a group obeys the “one person talks at a time” rule, productivity decreases dramatically. As a way to increase output per team member the feature suggest to let them gather their ideas seperatly beforehand or at the beginning of a brainstorming session and then collect these ideas for critical editing.
After that Michael Diehl continues to explain the illusion of the team effect: In normal business life there is no controll group of people working at the same task individually. If it then turns out that four members of a team achieved 300% of the output of an individual there is a strong sense of achieving more than an individual, which is technically correct. The sad truth is however that you have been 25% less productive than when working alone.

Myth number 3: Unity makes us strong

The radio piece acknowledges that from the outset teams seem to be more intelligent than an individual person because they bring together a wealth of diverse experiences and specialties. Researchers proofed however that unshared knowledge is not shared in teams. The sentence might sound self-referring but it is not. What it is trying to explain is that groups only discuss knowledge that is shared by all members. So when team members meet, they normally spend most of the time discussing stuff that everybody can contribute to instead of briefing each other about their personal special knowledge and points of view. And gone is the assumed informational advantage of teams!
One experiment that is given as an example is of a fictional HR selection committee: when every member knows that applicant A does not have a lot of humor and creativity then other, positive traits that only one member was informed about is not shared. Instead, everybody only talks about the knowledge that is already shared with the other committee members.
The explanation the authors are trying to give is mainly along the lines of:
– there is a higher statistical probability that these points are mentioned
– then everybody feels comfortable contributing
– there is a strong built-in confirmation bias in our brain that only wants to hear things which confirm our biased point of view (this again leads us to Daniel Kahnemann)
So what can be done to overcome this dysfunction?
The first recommendation given is to introduce a moderator/facilitator for important team meetings. This external role can focus on keeping track and inquiring about stuff that has not been mentioned. In an ideal world, teams would combine not only members with different background, experiences and knowledge but also dissenting opinions. Because – again – experiments have shown conclusively that team members with divergent preferences for sub-optimal options achieve better results than teams where all people share the same preferences. In other words: if all team members go into a meeting and mentally are already settled for option A, they will not consider advantages of option B or C in enough detail. A team that has no clear-cut idea in the beginning will explore more options and will make a more informed decision.
And with this notion, we arrive at the fourth myth about team work that is busted:

Myth number 4: the most important thing is harmony within the team

This myth prooves to be wrong because teams that are too focused on an harmonious atmosphere and not ready for conflict are more likely to sweep problems under the rug and to delay critical decisions. Unfortunately such unadressed problems develop a life of their own.
When a leader does not encourage dissenting opinions, delivers orders and reduces feedback to a short “any questions?” lip-service at the end of meetings then the team members will discuss unsolved questions at the water cooler or during their cigarette break. Small groups whispering in cubicals are a strong indicator for unadressed conflicts within an office.
The makers of the feature cite social psychologist Michael Diehl again who goes on to explain that a strong focus on team spirit and harmony creates an atmosphere where teams are more likely to make mistakes and are more hesitant to correct their errors. As a result there is more investment in suboptimal solutions. This phenomenon has been studied by Irvin Janis with the decision making process of the US governments during war time. He was able to show that “groupthink” – as it was later called – produced non-optimal results. Groupthink describes a situation where team members are very cohesive and insulated from external expertise and input.
One approach to minimize the effect the authors suggest is to rotate team members or let two teams work on the same problem.
In the next section, the feature is zooming in on the the often-heard notion “I don’t want to hear about problems, I want to hear solutions” and states that this approach is very dangerous. In this kind of environment team members will not dare to raise any difficult topics because they are afraid of being criticised for having no solution at hand. As a result, the authors suggest to make clear and open communication on of the main pillars of your team culture. Ask yourself for which tasks team meetings and workshops are actually necessary and when it is better to work as individuals.
The final statements refers to our nature as social beings which makes us feel comfortable in a group. This might be one more reason why the productivity of teams is overrated. We just want the cosy team to be a valid option. But successfull team work is a challenging and complicated management task. Constant fine-tuning of the group setup as well as processes and rules is necessary to make sure the whole actually gets bigger than the sum of its parts.

I loved the half-hour feature and it confirmed my distrust in lengthy meetings. (Is this my own confirmation bias making a point here?) But on the other hand I have seen incredible productive and helpfull workshops and brainstormings. I agree however that they have been most productive when it was a team jumbled together from lots of different backgrounds and ervybody was ready to listen and to share unshared knowledge. Facilitators or moderators always contributed a lot to the success of these kind of meetings.
A very important point is the observation of the strength of team in asian cultures. Thias is definetly a point to consider when working in teams in China. People pay a lot of attention to the dynamics and balance of teams in their work environment. And they can be incredibly motivated in team efforts.
One more thought that came to my mind when I listened to the last section about group think is the idea of the advocatus diaboli. A nice example how this could work is the episode about Israel in Max Brooks “World War Z” (big horror movie fan blogging here. The movie is fine but the book is much better. The Israel episode is featured in both). The israely character explains that the Jewish people had learned from history that they can never be sure of anything. Because of the constant threat of annihilation they supposedly set up a system where even when everybody in an advisory team agreed on a given explanation or solution, nevertheless one member was appointed to evaluate all other possibilities. This is definetly not a bad idea and the role of the Devil’s Advocate could be actually quite fun when implemented in a team with an open mind.
I notice that a lot of time is spent in meetings. Hell, sometimes I have the feeling that my day consists of nothing more than meetings. Let me know if the abovementioned facts helped you with making at least your team meetings more productive!
Thomas