I’m raising some questions about the problems with groupthink in teams in this series of posts. Most work gets done by teams, but then some aren’t as creative or efficient as others. We need to understand what makes a team effective. Groupthink results when a team starts to agree on everything.

In “The Rise of the New Groupthink” (The New York Times, Jan.13, 2012), corporate attorney and author Susan Cain explains:

“Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.”

In my view, based on my experience working in organizations, there’s a problem when managers think that all work should be conducted by teams. That’s not always the case, and we need to be mindful of when a team works well together and when individuals need to work on their own. Research  suggests that some people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. As Cain writes:

“Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about.”

It’s one thing when each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from coworkers’ conversations or gazes.

False Benefits of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a creative technique through which group members form solutions to specific problems by spontaneously shouting out ideas, without censoring themselves or criticizing others. The term was popularized by marketing expert Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1953 book Applied Imagination.

But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than teams in both quality and quantity as group size increases. Groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which function worse than groups of four.

The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” writes organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming:

  1. Social loafing. Some individuals sit back and let others do all the work.
  2. Production blocking. Only one person can talk or produce an idea at a time, so the others are forced to sit passively.
  3. Evaluation apprehension. Even when group members agree to welcome all ideas, people fear they’ll look stupid in front of their peers.

What do you see happening in the teams you participate in? I’d love to hear your opinion on this. You can reach me here or on LinkedIn. Let’s talk!