Group vs. Individuals

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of working as a group rather than as an individual

decorative image Are two heads better than one? We’ve talked a lot about groups—how they come together and operate, what elements need to be in place to ensure they’re successful—but we’ve yet to talk about making choices between a group and an individual when it comes to a particular task.

Managers are faced with these choices all the time. After reading all this, you may not understand how there can be a better choice than a cohesive, highly productive group to tackle any problem.

Let’s look at some comparisons.

Group vs. Individual Effort

In the late 1920s, Max Ringelmann, a German psychologist, set out to determine if individuals put forth the same level of effort in a group as they did when they were working alone. He set out to examine athletes engaged in a rope tug-o-war, and found that, in a one-on-one match, each player averaged an effort equal to 63 kilograms of force. In a group of three, that force dropped to 53 kilograms, and in a group of eight . . . only 31 kilograms of force.

This effect is referred to as social loafing, the tendency for individuals to expend less effort when working collectively than when working individually. What causes it? Well, for one, there may be a perception that some group members are not putting out their fair share of effort, and so others are purposely pulling back on their own contribution. Or, it may be attributed to the fact that the entire group shares responsibility for an outcome, so no one person is held accountable for work that is (or is not) done.

It’s worth noting that social loafing isn’t common across all cultures—it actually has a western bias. It’s pretty consistent in individualistic cultures like the US and Canada, but collective societies, like China, do not exhibit as many social loafing tendencies.

If managers want to make sure that individual effort among their group doesn’t drop, they need to provide means by which individual contributions can be measured.

Decision Making

There are pros and cons when it comes to group decision making as well. The benefits of a decision made by a group are:

  • It is made with more complete information and knowledge.
  • It considers diverse points of view.
  • It is a higher quality decision, because a group will almost always outperform an individual.
  • It will lead to a wider acceptance of a solution, because the decision is already supported by a group of people.

What are the weaknesses of group decision making? Well, an individual can make a decision instantly. When he does, he only has himself to convince that he is right. This short video captures the process for group decision making:

As you can see, they go through a review of information, preferences and alternatives and go around in circles until decision fatigue comes into play. Decision fatigue is defined as the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual or group as time progresses. With this group, the participants couldn’t come to a decision and so individuals in the group began throwing in the towel in a “whatever!” frame of mind. In a work environment, when a group reaches this state, poor decisions can be made.

In group decision making, decision fatigue can arrive over one decision that’s been drawn out and reviewed over and over without coming to a consensus. An individual tends to experience decision fatigue when faced with a lot of decisions—for example, a study of judges showed that they made better decisions earlier in the day, and the quality of their decisions diminished as the day went on.

Groupthink

A company called Despair, Inc. made a series of posters that poked fun at those black-framed motivation posters that companies began hanging in offices. Posters with lions faces touted the qualities of “excellence” and a set of colorful hot air balloons promoted ideas about “diversity.” In this company’s parody of those posters, one of their best sellers showed a bunch of faceless, suited humans throwing their hands into the middle of a huddle. The poster says, “Meetings: None of us is as dumb as all of us.”

No doubt the poster is referring to groupthink. Groupthink is a group decision-making phenomenon that prevents a group from making good decisions. Groupthink occurs when the group is so enamored with the idea of concurrence that the desire for consensus overrides and stifles the proposal and evaluation of realistic alternatives.

NASA’s Challenger

Perhaps the most famous and most studied example of groupthink occurred when NASA launched the space shuttle Challenger in January of 1986. NASA had already once cancelled the launch due to weather, and they were insistent that it go off without a hitch on its newly rescheduled date of January 28, 1986. But the makers of a fuel system O-ring, Thiokol, warned NASA that, based on cold weather predicted, that part might fail and yield disastrous consequences.

NASA’s internal processes and applied pressure kept those people from speaking up, and in an isolated meeting of Thiokol group members, they weighed the possibilities. The company might not be allowed to work with NASA again if they made too much noise. The part might not fail. And so, they agreed to not make any noise, and to support NASA’s decision to launch.

We all know what happened.

Groupthink appears to occur in groups where there is a clear group identity, where members feel there is a positive image of the group that must be protected. That was clearly the case where NASA was concerned—they already had mud on their faces due to the first postponement of the launch, which cost money and a little bit of their reputation. They wanted to be perceived as the elite organization that could do no wrong.

To avoid groupthink, managers can take the following steps:

  • Monitor group size, as participants grow more hesitant to participate in larger groups.
  • Managers themselves should play an impartial role.
  • Encourage a group member to play devil’s advocate and challenge group decisions.
  • Focus first on the negatives of the decision before talking about the positives.

A subcategory of groupthink is groupshift. Groupshift is defined as a change in decision risk between the group’s decision and the individual decision that members within the group would make. That is, group members tend to exaggerate their initial positions when presenting them to the rest of the group. Sometimes, the group jumps in and pushes that decision to a conservative shift, but more often, the group tends to move toward the riskier option.

Why does this happen? It’s been argued that, as group members become more familiar with each other, they become more bold and daring. Another theory states that we admire individuals who aren’t afraid of risk, and those individuals who present risky alternatives are often admired by other members. Regardless, managers do well to remember that groups often shift toward riskier tendencies and can do their best to mitigate those results.

Introverts and Extraverts in Groups

It won’t come as much of a surprise to you to hear this: Introverts aren’t always big fans of working in groups.

several people standing around a fire on a beach.As you know, introverts operate internally and draw their strength from within. They like being around other people, but interacting with them requires an expenditure of energy. They don’t always feel comfortable or motivated to interact in groups, but they do often focus deeply on their work.

Conversely, extraverts love being around other people, they love participating in groups and gain energy by doing so. They’re nearly always motivated and comfortable interacting in a group.

Managers need to draw out the best of both types of members. In her 2015 article for Harvard Business Review, behavioral scientist Francesca Gino stated that it was the type of leader that had the most impact on these group members. Interestingly, extraverted managers could very easily draw responses out of introverts, but had a tendency to shut down extraverts who proposed new visions and ideas. Introverted managers had the advantage, as they carefully considered all responses and suggestions.

Gino’s group performed a study on a set of stores, and found that when extraverted managers were paired with a passive set of employees, they yielded higher sales. When those same extraverted managers were paired with an extraverted set of employees, their sales were lower than expected. But in both tests, introverted managers yielded higher sales.

Of her findings, Gino noted:

These results suggest that introverts can use their strengths to bring out the best in others. Yet introverts’ strengths are often locked up because of the way work is structured. Take meetings. In a culture where the typical meeting resembles a competition for loudest and most talkative, where the workspace is open and desks are practically touching, and where high levels of confidence, charisma, and sociability are the gold standard, introverts often feel they have to adjust who they are to “pass.” But they do so at a price, one that has ramifications for the company as well.

Practice Question

In managing a group, it pays for the manager to consider how meetings are set up and run, and yet few companies show any evidence of doing so. Arriving at a meeting process that encourages introverts to speak up and extraverts to take time for reflection is a win-win for the group and the company.

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