• Monday, May 27, 2024
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Bring out the best in your team


When teams form to take on tasks, they are seldom able to tap the full knowledge of every member, in large part because the most confident, outgoing people get the most airtime, even if they’re not the most expert. Meanwhile, the real experts take a back seat and therefore have a limited impact.

But we’ve found that this dynamic can be changed through a brief intervention: Early in a task, team members should be encouraged to discuss the relevant knowledge each brings to the table. In a series of lab experiments, groups that underwent this intervention outperformed other groups.

We recruited university students, placed them on three-person teams, and gave them estimation problems such as “What is the elevation of Kings Peak, Utah?” (answer: 13,528 feet) and “How much did the Guinness record holder for the heaviest person of all time weigh?” (1,400 pounds). Teams discussed the problems until they reached a consensus.

We instructed the members of some teams to begin by coming up with two bits of information apiece that they thought could be useful. (Examples: “I hiked Kings Peak last summer, so I know how high it is” and “Record-holding statistics are usually greater than you’d expect, so bump up the heaviest-person-of-all-time estimate.”) On some of the teams, people did this individually and then brought the results to the team; the rest compiled the information as a group. Other teams – our control condition – were given no guidance.

The teams in the control condition tended to defer to whoever seemed the most confident, and they  had the worst performance. The best performance came from teams that had inventoried their members’ knowledge as a group. Those teams were more likely than the others to use their knowledge to devise strategies for solving the problems, perhaps because the process of collectively assembling knowledge increased members’ understanding of the task and what it meant to be expert at it.

The process may sound simple, but it represents a significant departure: On their own, teams rarely pause for this kind of reflection. Team leaders should take advantage of our finding and encourage the group to assess members’ knowledge and discuss its relevance to the task at hand. That will change the criterion for power on the team from social influence to informational influence and help members tune out irrelevant factors – not just confidence and extroversion but also status, experience, tenure, assertiveness, gender and race.

(Bryan L. Bonner is a professor at the University of Utah. Alexander R. Bolinger is an assistant professor at Idaho State University.)