Group Work: Do You Play Well With Others?

by Staff - Original publish date: May 21, 2012

In high school, when the teacher announced that the next project would involve working in groups, it was not uncommon for a murmur of discontent to ripple through the room. What if I get stuck with that know-it-all or worse, that really lazy kid? Why can't I just work by myself? Well, according to a pair of new studies, you were either right to question the efficacy of group work, or woefully mistaken.

First up: the skeptics.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School suggests that people working together can become overconfident in their choices and opinions. They lean too heavily on each other rather than seeking outside input and their performance on certain tasks may suffer.

The study asked participants to estimate quantities related to U.S. geography, demographics, and commerce. Some worked in pairs, others individually. After coming up with their original estimates, subjects were offered a chance to look at other people's guesses and given a chance to revise their own. The results? Participants working in groups rated themselves as more confident in their answers and were less likely to utilize outside information. But their answers were no more likely to be right.

A study by researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Carnegie Mellon University, and Union College, however, came to some very different conclusions about the usefulness of group work. Just as an individual has a certain level of intelligence, so a group also has its own, consistent "collective intelligence," the research found. And in some cases, the overall intelligence of the group was greater than the sum of its parts.

"Having a bunch of smart people in a group doesn't necessarily make the group smart," said study co-author Thomas Malone.

The key to a group's success is the presence of members with higher levels of "social sensitivity," the ability to perceive and respond to the emotions of other group members, the study concluded. Though the researchers did not initially set out to look at the effect of gender, the study revealed that the presence of women in a group tended to increase its collective intelligence, presumably because women are more likely to have higher social sensitivity.

So what does this all mean about the usefulness of group work? That the jury's still out. But these studies do suggest that group work will be more productive if teams include people responsive to others' emotions and if members are encouraged to consider outside opinions and information.

What about you? Do you prefer working in groups or by yourself?