Group work: helpful or just monkey business?
'I’m in back-to-back meetings all day'... Photo: Rob Homer
The corporate world can’t get enough of group work. Committees, team-building games, brainstorming sessions, meetings – and more – have become ubiquitous in workplaces of every size and industry. But are they really that useful?
Committees are probably the most maligned of all. “A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours,” said comedian Milton Berle, whose views were aligned with this famous phrase: a committee is a group of the unwilling chosen from the unfit to do the unnecessary.
We have to take seriously that working well together in groups is something we need to learn.
Perhaps the naysayers are right, but some committees occasionally serve a good purpose. They’re useful when used for social clubs, health and safety stuff, and cultural initiatives – the undervalued elements that make workplaces more pleasant. It’s true they're often inefficient at making decisions, but the same could be said for every democracy.
Team-building games make some people cringe and, sometimes, even fake an illness. But other people seriously love them. They relish building towers out of spaghetti, running three-legged races, and – possibly the most painful of all – participating in role plays.
And yet, a couple of years ago, joint research was conducted by the University of Chester and Liverpool Hope University, which demonstrated that team-building games don’t have any positive impact on team cohesion. Even simple events, such as team lunches, had a negligible effect on loyalty and connectedness.
Brainstorming sessions have become the default option for managers seeking to trigger creativity within their team. But do they work? Several studies suggest that, no, they don’t, such as one carried out by Cornell University, which discovered people come up with more ideas – and better ideas – when they work alone. As the researchers concluded in their report, “group participation when using brainstorming inhibits creative thinking.”
So, even though the flip charts and coloured markers and post-it notes should be packed away, it’s unlikely brainstorming sessions will disappear. To make them more effective, the Harvard Business Review suggests three steps. First, make sure the group is diverse. Second, get everyone to speak. And third, if you’re the leader, be conscious of your body language and the way it influences employees.
Meetings make people feel important. “I’m in back-to-back meetings all day” is a catch-cry of busy managers who want everyone to know. There’s a great Dilbert cartoon in which Dilbert tries to talk his way out of going to one. “Your staff meeting will take an hour of my life that I will never get back,” he tells his boss. “If you let me skip the meeting, I will agree to die an hour earlier to make up the difference.”
Many people feel exactly the same way. In an Australian survey of 21,000 employees released last year, 45 per cent said they’d like fewer or shorter meetings at work.
Ed McKinley is the director of the Groupwork Institute of Australia. In his work, spanning several decades, he’s seen many organisational projects fail because people lacked the interpersonal skills needed to collaborate effectively. “We have to take seriously that working well together in groups is something we need to learn,” he said. And that requires four elements:
- Invite employees to share their experiences, wisdom and issues
- Ensure the group is a safe space for them to make a contribution
- Use processes that have been proven to create meaningful participation
- Let employees know the ways in which their input will be useful
It makes sense, even though many people will still just want to be left alone. What should be done about them? Oh, I know! Get a committee to look into it.
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