Creative Leadership

When Teamwork Doesn’t Work

I love teams.  I’m a people person and love to get a crowd in the room kicking around ideas.  But at the same time, I also know when to clear the room and get down to business.  Sometimes I think whoever invented the “open door policy” probably meant well, but sooner or later, you have to shut the door and start thinking.

Jonathan Littman and Marc Hershon, writers of “I Hate People” discuss the issue in their book based on the difficulties of working in the modern office.  In the book, they insist that contemporary corporate America puts too much emphasis on teamwork. As they say, “Four decades ago, Fortune did a study of the most valued characteristics in an employee. The magazine found that teamwork was ranked tenth. . . . Jump forward to 2005, and Fortune’s follow-up survey showed that teamwork had climbed to #1.”

As told in the Wall Street Journal: “Teamwork, the authors say, suffocates creativity and has its own limitations. They describe a classic experiment done nearly a century ago by French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann. He measured people pulling on a rope connected to a strain gauge, first as individuals and then as members of tug-of-war teams. The result: A person pulls harder alone than as part of a group. Ringelmann dubbed the phenomenon “social loafing.” Today it is known simply as the Ringelmann Effect, and what it means in the real world, say Messrs. Littman and Hershon, is that “the more people you throw at a problem, the less each contributes.”

That doesn’t diminish my desire to create great teams for discussing ideas.  But it is a great reminder that teams aren’t always the answer.  There’s a lot to be said for the creative power of a single person.

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  1. Where you thinking of our recent “writing by committee” crisis when you wrote about this?!!!

  2. My students would love this post. Group projects are their nemesis, yet preparation for the corporate culture you reference demands that they learn how to solve problems and produce content in groups. That said, I frequently observe that group work among students results in a “least common denominator” result. Something that often carries over to the workplace.

  3. That’s what managers are supposed to do, to build a team…to max out each person’s capabilities.

    What you describe happens with mismanagement of resources.

    Last week at Feed the Children, we had two lines of volunteers packing food boxes.  Both had the same number of volunteers, but one line packed double the number of boxes.  Why?  Because the leader of that line worked tirelessly until every kink was worked out of the system.

  4. I agree with Carl. The end result of teamwork depends on leadership. Good leaders know how to select a team based on their strengths and how to keep the team on track and drive them to achieve their goals. Without the right leader and the right people on the team, and clearly defined goals and open communication,then teamwork is just a series of unproductive meetings and missed deadlines.

  5. What I find ironic is that, in my experience anyway, the people who trumpet the loudest about “team work” and “team playership” are always the ones who don’t pull their own weight.
    I think team work is great when it’s a team of individuals who are working hard, pulling their own load, and bringing the fruit of their own labor to the table to combine with the others.
    Unfortunately, what I see alot of is people hiding behind “team work” as an excuse to loaf, underperfom, and let others do the dirty work-or the work period. I despise that.
    “Social loafing” is a really good description. “Teamwork” can also lead to groupthink, with does stifle creativity and innovation.

    1. Good comment. I agree that the ones that don’t pull their own weight can hide on a team – no question. They trumped the loudest about teams, because being on a team allows them to take credit for other people’s work.

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