What Good Are Groups, Anyway?
I’m writing this on a Wednesday at noon. I have just come from my 10th meeting of the week, have another one this afternoon, five on Thursday, and three on Friday. (This is an occupational hazard of being an Assistant Provost.) Most of these meetings are a half-hour, so the time commitment is not bad, but it’s mentally exhausting. Fair play, a typical week for me does not include 20 meetings, but the norm—10 to 12—is still a lot. Looking at my calendar for this week reminded me of a quote from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak: “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.”
That quote likely seems odd coming from a leader of Division 49. But Wozniak raises a good point—do we really need to do everything as a collective? Some of the meetings I’ve attended could have been avoided if the convener would have just sent me a summary document and let me read it. One of my favorite emerging lines of research comes out of the Marketing literature, where Terri Barr, Andrea Dixon, and Jule Gassenheimer have documented a “lone wolf” trait. Quite simply, a lone wolf is someone who prefers to complete a task alone, even if that task could be easily divided among group members. The lone wolf well-understands the difficulty of the task s/he is taking on, and devotes full attention and resources to completing it with quality comparable to that which a group would produce. Further, force a lone wolf to work in a group, and s/he will be essentially useless: Motivation goes to zero, s/he refuses collaboration, and may even become obstructive. Barr and colleagues have shown how to measure the tendency, and have found it to be predictive of behaviors in education groups and sales teams. My students and I are in the process of testing it with ad hoc task groups, and are getting the same results.
There are thus some tasks that can be completed just fine by a single, motivated person. We don’t need groups to do everything. But we do need groups to do a lot of things, hence the motivation for this column: We need to make sure the baby doesn’t get thrown out with the bathwater, in that the growing reaction to unnecessary group tasks doesn’t become a reaction against groups.
If you have read Susan Cain’s 2012 book Quiet, you will know that she calls for better support of those who prefer to work alone (like Wozniak), and argues that in at least American culture, there is an overemphasis on group work, beginning in elementary school, to the point where we are biased against the lone wolf. The book is an interesting read, well-grounded in science. Now that the book is three years on, I recently ran some searches to see what kind of impact it is having in both the scientific literature and popular writing on group work. What I found dismayed me. One of the top human resource management web sites used it to argue that group work is nothing more than “shared incompetence” and that one should question the capability of anyone who suggests a collective approach to tasks. A leading publication for math educators identified group work as a prime culprit for the decline in interest in mathematics among students, suggesting that kids are so used to working in groups that they get frustrated when they discover that math is ultimately a solitary enterprise. (Indeed, I was especially bothered to come across a number of trade publications for K-12 educators that questioned whether group-based learning overall does more harm than good.) A trade publication for nurses suggested that the emphasis on being able to work in groups can blind mental health nurses to the needs of introverted adults and children. I could provide more examples, but these serve the point. Much harder to find was the argument that groups are perhaps overused, a point that Cain herself makes.
Trying another line of inquiry, I contacted a friend of mine who is a leading researcher of virtual groups and has an active consulting business helping organizations set up and manage such groups. What he told me was no more encouraging. His work has dropped considerably, replaced by requests to help set up and manage dropbox systems whereby individual workers can upload their ideas and input on an issue for a project manager to collect and use, or to implement a best method for disseminating information and conducting electronic votes via a secure listserv.
In my last column I talked about my interest in offering workshops on group-related phenomena. I think the discoveries I’ve shared with you here underscore how important such outreach is. Let’s talk to the health and business and education practitioners about the many situations for which we know, empirically, that collective effort is preferable to individual effort. Let’s help them find a balance between having too many meetings and not enough. Let’s try to give them tools that will identify who will thrive in a group setting, and who is best left to go off and work alone. Making connections in these worlds will not be hard to do, and we should give it a try.
I’d love to write more, but I have to leave for my next meeting. Fingers crossed that it’s productive.