A group isn’t just the sum of its parts, says a researcher who was driven by his own experiences to study why bright people sometimes founder when they put their heads together.
Robert J. Sternberg, a professor of psychology and education, found that the success or failure of a group effort is determined in large part by the blend of the members’ attributes and skills.
When business, government or other organizations form committees or problem-solving groups, “too much attention is given to who the individuals are instead of how they work together,” Sternberg said.
‘Bore Can Destroy the Group’
The key question that should be asked, he said, is, “Will these people be smart as a group?”
“There are bright people who are not good in groups because they lack social skills. You could be bright but obnoxious and then people are going to try to show you a thing or two and not listen,” he said. “One bore in a group can destroy the group. One jerk can really throw a meeting off.”
In a study of 96 volunteers aged 14 to 70, working alone and in threes, Sternberg and a graduate student found the effectiveness of any group can be predicted by knowing the IQ of its smartest member.
Maximum IQ made more of a difference than average IQ, according to the study, which will be published in the December issue of the journal Intelligence.
“In every group you want to have one very smart person,” said Sternberg.
But there can be too much of a good thing: If one group member is too much smarter than his or her fellow problem-solvers, the IQ predictor is no longer valid.
“If the other persons are too mediocre, they may not recognize or accept” what the brightest member has to say, Sternberg said. A vastly smarter person may also hinder group success by appearing threatening to other members.
An even better predictor of group success or failure is maximum creativity, said Sternberg.
The Yale researchers measured creativity by having two raters evaluate the performance of study participants as recorded on videotapes of group sessions.
The groups were asked to develop a marketing plan for an imaginary new sugar substitute or to solve an economic problem that threatened a community’s rural life style.
The researchers also looked at how social skills affect a group’s success. They found an effective group will have a high-average social competence in areas of persuasiveness, expressiveness and assertiveness.
Social skills were measured by a combination of written tests, such as the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, and evaluations of the videotaped meetings.
In the area of social skills, as opposed to intelligence, it’s more important to have parity.
“With social skills it doesn’t work as well to have one person incredibly socially skilled. The problem is if you have others who aren’t, they interfere with that person’s ability to facilitate the group process,” Sternberg said.
As with intelligence, when it comes to social competence, there can be too much of a good thing. The researchers called this potential problem the “eager beaver” phenomenon, which they said happens often enough to have a powerful effect statistically.
“If you have one person who is too much of an eager beaver, it hurts the group product. The eager beaver tries to take over the group but generally isn’t the best person. They carry more weight than they deserve,” Sternberg said.
Value of Diversity
After having been presented with a task, study participants were allowed to work alone twice, alone first and then in a group, in a group first and then alone, or both times in a group.
The results demonstrated the value of diversity, said Sternberg. Group products were superior to the efforts of those working alone, with the best results achieved by those who worked in a group twice.
The results not only demonstrate the importance of diversity, they also point to a shortcoming in the educational system, Sternberg said. “In terms of education, almost all the training children receive is individual. Doing homework is individual. Everything is supposed to be individual.
“But when you are an adult, almost everything you do is as a group or you need group approval. So I think we need to pay more attention to teaching people how to work in a group.”