October 29, 2013

There’s No I(dea) in Team

You see them on office walls around the country: framed posters of rowing crews heroically photographed in the early morning light, their oars in perfect unison, the word TEAMWORK emblazoned below in size 200 pt text. This is the aspiration of every office, every meeting, every brainstorming session: to work together to find the best ideas and solutions. Even if you roll your eyes at motivational posters, this message is indisputable, right?

Maybe not. Author Susan Cain sees an issue with what she has labeled the “New Groupthink.” Society, she says, has lost the respect it once had for working in solitude and replaced it with the idea that everything must be done in group settings. Cain writes in the New York Times:

“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…

The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work, too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

She goes on to cite a study of programmers at 92 different companies that found the biggest difference between the programmers who were most and least productive was not experience or salary—it was who had the most uninterrupted privacy each day.

But how do we reconcile this call for less group interaction with the fact that ideas have always flourished best in areas with lots of people? After all, there is a reason that cities have always fostered the greatest number of creative projects and personalities. As Steven Johnson argues in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From,” the best ideas come from old ideas interacting with and building on other ideas. And those ideas can only collide if people are meeting other people.

The answer, Cain says, lies in finding a balance between the essential need for social interaction and the productivity of working individually.

“To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone.”

How should your company find this balance? The answer will vary greatly depending on the work you do and the needs of your employees. It’s not always easy to change how the workday is run or to separate areas of interaction from areas of privacy. It is becoming increasingly clear, though, that it is an issue worth looking into. You don’t have to throw out the TEAMWORK poster, but finding room in the office to encourage individual effort will make everyone’s work stronger.