Task performance or the outcome of some behavioral or intellectual goal is a key function of many groups. Task-performing groups include various decision-making groups, sports teams, and work teams. One would expect groups to benefit from their multiple and potentially complementary skills. It is true that the more able or skilled the group or team members are, the better the group is. Yet researchers have shown that there are a number of factors that inhibit productivity in groups. However, groups can also reach high levels of productivity under the right conditions and with the right group member composition.
There is an endless range of tasks that groups could potentially perform. Some of these require a simple addition of effort, whereas others require that each group member fulfill a particular role. On some tasks, the focus may be on quantity or speed of output, and on others, the concern may be with quality of work. Some tasks are mainly cognitive in that they require some degree of ideation, whereas others may be mostly behavioral (e.g., sports or music performance). According to Ivan Steiner, the effectiveness of groups may depend on the nature of the task they are required to perform. Group task performance may often be less than optimal because of two types of process losses that occur in groups: coordination and motivation. When group members work together, they have to coordinate with one another, and this requirement may make it difficult for each member to contribute his or her best effort. Group members may also be less motivated in groups than they would be if they were working by themselves.
Productivity in Task-Performing Groups
When someone works in a large group and each individual’s performance is combined with that of others, a person may be less motivated to work hard on behalf of the group. This type of motivation loss is known as social loafing or free riding. Social loafing has been found to increase with the size of the group, the extent to which a person’s performance is anonymous, and the degree to which the task is seen as challenging. According to Kipling Williams and Steven Karau, a person’s motivation level in groups depends on the extent to which he or she believes the group goal can be attained and how much the person values this goal. That is, as long as group members perceive that there is an incentive to work hard, they will not loaf. This incentive to work hard can be increased by evaluating the work of group members individually. Generally there is a strong relationship between an individual’s level of effort in the group and the personal consequences for this level of effort.
When group members are accountable to one another or in competition with one another and have challenging goals, they may in fact have increased motivation in groups. Individuals may also compensate for the lack of effort on the part of other group members if they particularly value the group goal. Similarly, a low-ability group member may increase his or her effort if the group member thinks that a small increase in his or her effort will be important to the success of the group.
When group members work together, they have to mesh their various talents and perspectives in addition to coordinating their group activities. Groups have to decide who does what, when, and how. This is seen clearly in sports teams and highly trained military units that require careful coordination for success. A lack of effort or mistake in coordination by one or more group members can mean failure for the group. Research has documented several of these types of coordination problems. Garold Stasser has shown that groups do not fully share their unique knowledge but tend to focus on what they have in common. This may be because the discussion of shared information makes group members feel more comfortable and validated. In group decisions, individuals often are more concerned about being agreeable than being right. In the case of problem solving, someone with a correct answer often has a hard time persuading the group of its veracity unless it can be easily demonstrated and/or support is gained from at least one other group member. In group task performance situations, groups are also faced with the problem of coordinating the input of individual group members into the group task. For these reasons, it is not difficult to see why so few studies have been able to show group synergy cases in which the performance of interacting groups exceeds the combined performance of individual members.
Today many people do most of their work on computers, including a lot of information exchange with coworkers. How effective is such electronic group interaction? For tasks that are fairly individualistic, such as generating solutions to simple problems or idea generation, the absence of coordination issues makes the electronic medium beneficial. However, for more complex tasks requiring decision making or negotiation, computer interaction does not work as well. The computer format makes it difficult to deal with all of the interactional subtleties required in these situations because there are no nonverbal communication channels available to augment the group’s verbal interaction.
Group Brainstorming: Productivity in Idea Groups
Group brainstorming represents one type of group activity that nicely demonstrates the role of various group factors. Brainstorming involves the generation of novel ideas by expressing thoughts as they occur, without concern for immediate evaluation. The goal is to generate a large number of ideas that can subsequently be used as a basis for selecting the most useful ideas. Although effective brainstorming instructions enhance the number of ideas generated, the group product is typically significantly less than the total number of ideas generated by the same number of individuals brainstorming alone. This is called a production loss and seems to be the result of a number of procedural and motivational factors. Group members may be apprehensive about sharing novel ideas in groups for fear that others may evaluate them negatively. They may not exert a full effort because it may be lost in the overall group performance. In fact, there may be a tendency for performance to go in the direction of the low-performing group members. A major factor appears to be the interference or production blocking that results when individuals compete with each other for opportunities to share ideas during the group exchange process. Only one person can effectively share ideas at one time, and people may forget ideas while waiting their turn.
All of these factors suggest that group brainstorming is a pretty futile exercise. However, there is some reason for hope since exposure to ideas from others should stimulate additional ideas. Ideas from others may remind a person of areas of knowledge that he or she had not considered or may allow a person to combine his or her knowledge with the knowledge of other group members. This should be particularly beneficial if group members have diverse backgrounds or expertise. Cognitive stimulation effects have been observed, especially in a period of reflection after group interaction since such a session allows for a full consideration of the relevance of shared ideas to one’s own knowledge base. Group brainstorming on computers may also benefit the process, especially with large groups. Computer brainstorming avoids the interference effects of face-to-face brainstorming and allows a convenient process for subsequent individual reflection. Similar benefits can be gained by exchanging ideas using slips of paper.
The brainstorming literature thus suggests that groups have considerable creative potential. However, groups need to overcome some natural tendencies, and the interaction needs to be structured to optimize the effective processing of exchanged information. Several other factors are also helpful. Groups should have leaders or facilitators that can effectively guide them to interact in a most effective way. Groups should feel psychologically safe to express any and all ideas, so some prior group experience that reinforces feelings of psychological safety may be useful. This is particularly important when group members experience emotional conflicts based on their diverse perspectives. Exposure to conflicting perspectives can increase creative thinking in groups. This is especially true when all group members are committed to the group’s goal. Groups need to be aware of their differential expertise and be motivated to share it. A collection of individuals actually has a greater capacity for memory than any one individual alone. Groups who take advantage of this capacity, and know which members are good at what, will outperform those groups who do not utilize these knowledge stores. Group composition is also a critical factor. Individuals who are positively inclined to groups or are very comfortable in groups tend to be less inhibited in sharing their ideas. When groups are demographically diverse, as in the case of ethnic diversity, group members may be a bit uncomfortable and may not benefit fully from the diverse perspectives available to the group. Prior experiences that allow for increased familiarity and some kind of cohesive bonding may eliminate such inhibitory effects of diversity.
- Baron, R. S., & Kerr, N. L. (2003). Group process, group decision, group action (2nd ed.). Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
- Paulus, P. B., & Nijstad, B. A. (Eds.). (2003). Group creativity: Innovation through collaboration. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.