Richard Hackman and former Harvard University colleague Nancy Katz are leading researchers in the psychology of small groups. (You should click his name just for the picture caption.) Though written for other scientists, their chapter on “Group Behavior and Performance” in the latest edition of the Handbook of Social Psychology points to some practical advice for nonacademics like you and me. But mostly it should raise questions about whether you are asking the right questions when you think of team best practices.
Take a section titled, “How Well Do Groups Perform?” Hackman and Katz say the study results are mixed. “In fact, it is the wrong question to ask,” they say. “It is wrong because it confounds three separate and quite distinct issues:
As suggested by #1, not all groups should be teams. “A great deal of organizational work is performed by sets of people that are called teams but that actually are coacting groups” of individual contributors, they write. Many team-building efforts are a waste of time in such groups, I state often. Even when the group should be a true team given its membership and tasks, other factors can interfere. “The social system context within which a task is performed also can strongly mitigate against teamwork—for example, when organizational policies, practices, or culture make it impossible to properly design and support teams…” Hackman and Katz write.
The scientific answer to Question 2 is mixed as well: “competent individuals, either working alone or (in) nominal groups, can outperform interacting groups that are poorly structured and supported,” they say. “And a great group can generate synergistic outcomes that exceed what would be produced even by extraordinarily competent individuals…” This relates to what I call the “baby and bath water” problem. In many cases where genuine team development would solve many of a group’s problems, leaders and/or members resist it because of previous bad experiences with teams that were “poorly structured and supported.” Hence they prolong their suffering by throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Question 3 leads to another challenge of team building. “A standard claim of cultural anthropologists is that any person is in some ways like all other people, like some other people, and like no other person,” Hackman and Katz write. “The same is true for groups…” Some research findings will apply to every team, and some only to teams similar to those in a given study. Scientists refer to this as “generalizability,” the degree to which findings from one study might apply to the general population from which study subjects were drawn. The trick for team leaders and consultants like me is figuring out which is which, or, how to “translate” general findings to specific teams, to use the authors’ word.
For example, take what they call “hidden profile” tasks in which team members have information about the task other members don’t know they have. Hackman and Katz say, “Groups performing hidden profile tasks (for example, making a decision about who to hire or where to locate a business) rely so heavily on shared information that they rarely come up with the best answer unless individual members are somehow prompted to share with the group the information that they uniquely hold…” Large, diverse, high-turnover, and virtual teams are likely more vulnerable to the problem. For example, “the more that a dispersed group relies on electronic technologies for communication, the more challenging it will be for members to get a good ‘take’ on who knows what,” they say. Teams also may give too much weight to a person’s input based “more on that person’s demographic attributes (e.g., gender, age, or ethnicity), position (e.g., rank, role, or office), or behavioral style (e.g., talkativeness or verbal dominance) than on the person’s actual expertise,” the authors lament.
What, then, if we are helping a largish team of 15 people, somewhat diverse, with a moderate turnover rate, whose members sit in different buildings but meet in person fortnightly? How do the studies on the hidden profile problem apply to that team? Far too many trainers go for the simple answers without thinking about these subtleties, assuming results in one study will work for every team. I worry over the advice I give in this blog for that very reason.
In this case, Hackman and Katz (citing various studies I’ll omit) suggest these tools which I think most teams would benefit from, in part because they address other issues also:
The authors aren’t saying consensus is bad, just that the other items should not be sacrificed to it. If that line makes you think of “groupthink,” hold on to your hat. Hackman and Katz state there is no clear evidence in the literature for groupthink, or for the effectiveness of brainstorming. Often this situation is due to findings that apply to specific types of teams but aren’t generalizable. Both concepts are in The SuddenTeams™ Program, so I plan to go through the sources they cite and will let you know if my recommendations change.
If you lead a team, Hackman and Katz have other suggestions for the hidden profile problem. Leader actions “found to be helpful are those that elicit and legitimize dissenting views; those that ask members to reflect on the group and its work, thereby prompting task representations that encourage them to draw upon one another’s knowledge; and those that invite members to explicitly plan the performance strategy the group will use in carrying out its work” (citations omitted).
Despite the debate among researchers about the details, there is solid agreement on many team best practices. Yet most teams don’t do them, instead opting for the “quick fix” of standard team building. If you’re thinking of team building, maybe you should ask some more questions.
Action Item: To start, answer one question: Why does my team operate the way it does?
Source: Hackman, R., and N. Katz (2010), “Group Behavior and Performance.” In Fiske, S., D. Gilbert, and G. Lindzey (eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology (5th ed.), Wiley: New York.
I wish to thank Dr. Bradley Staats of the Kenan-Flagler Business School, Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for providing me with a copy.