Beginning in kindergarten, people have to learn to work in teams. Some like it, and some hate it. But teamwork isn’t going to go away anytime soon, so it behooves us to find the most efficient way to be a team player.
Typically people work in groups because packs produce better ideas. “You need to develop a team mind,” Benjamin Voyer, a marketing and psychology professor at ESCP Europe Business School in London and the London School of Economics, and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, tells the Economist. “Teams all need the three Cs: Collaboration, Co-ordination, Communication. Collaboration is the shared perspective you need for a shared understanding of what you have to do. Therefore, close collaboration is key—you have to understand that everyone’s perspective is important.”
But groups may actually crush innovation rather than encourage it. Studies have indicated that people can be less likely to bring up new or unusual ideas, or to criticize other people’s ideas, because they feel intimidated about going against the will of the group—a phenomenon known as “groupthink.”
“Sometimes when you put people in a team they take a more extreme decision than they would have taken individually, either more conservative or more adventurous,” Voyer says. “A lot of decisions are based on this group phenomenon, one that produces a distorted perception of reality. When you stop thinking in terms of ‘I’ and start thinking ‘we,’ things can change dramatically.”
What are other best practices for maximizing teamwork? Not surprisingly, groups with more intelligent people do better, Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie write in their new book, Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. “The evidence unequivocally shows that groups with smarter members perform at higher levels,” they write. “This is not exactly a remarkable observation. But it is a good point to keep in mind when you’re putting together a group of people.” (In another unremarkable observation, teams work better when they’re made up of people who like working on teams, the authors note.)
But intelligence, as it turns out, doesn’t necessarily correlate with the best group performance. Instead, it is something called “Factor C,” Sunstein and Hastie write. It’s comprised of three factors, the authors explain:
1. The ability of people in the group to judge the emotion that someone in a photograph is feeling, based only on the eyes—a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes.
2. The evenness of participation. In other words, if just a few people dominate the discussion, it tends to have a negative effect on the group performance.
3. The inclusion of more women in the group. It’s not diversity in general that produces the better effects, but specifically having more women, note Sunstein and Hastie. “This correlation was not simply a diversity factor,” they write. “Rather, the more women, the better the performance.” Voyer points out that women tend to have a more democratic style of leadership while men a more autocratic style.
In fact, the woman factor feeds back into the first factor. Women tend to do better than men in tests such as Reading the Mind in the Eyes, Sunstein and Hastie write. “The finding may be explained by the observation that women are also consistently better than men at a variety of social perception and social judgment tests (like the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test used in these studies),” they explain.
In short, when designing teams, managers should pay particular attention to the following traits:
- Being able to participate
- Being able to listen
- Preferring to work on teams, especially when the preference is linked to social skills
- Being able to read other people’s emotional states
That doesn’t mean that everyone on the team has to be a good team player, Sunstein and Hastie note, calling to mind examples such as Steve Jobs. “Many tasks can be ‘crowdsourced,’ in the sense that individuals can work on their contributions independently until the ultimate stage in the task requires integrating or selecting a contribution,” they write. This is true in several kinds of tasks, such as:
- Forecasting (“take an average”)
- Tournaments (everyone suggests his or her individual best solutions and anyone can see which solution is the best)
- Elections (each voter seeks out some information, perhaps with social deliberation, and then submits a vote or conclusion independently)
- Aggregation devices (prediction markets), which integrate individual, independent solutions into a collective answer
This type of group doesn’t necessarily work so well, though, when the group is “assembling” something, whether it’s something tangible like a product or something intangible like a lawsuit, the authors add.
Finally, there’s the size of the team. “The optimal number of people in a team is five,” Voyer declares. “If you have large teams of 10 or 12, people don’t have the same impression of accountability. Everybody—and therefore nobody—is responsible. You also get “social loafing” where you think everyone else will do the job.”
Or, to use Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ rule, no team should be larger than two pizzas can feed. And if they can’t decide what pizzas they want, you may want to rethink the team altogether.
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