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Group work: helpful or just monkey business?


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

'I’m in back-to-back meetings <i>all</i> day'...

'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.

What do you think of group work? Add your comment

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

6 comments so far

  • Had a manager who thought it would be productive to have staff meetings at 4.00pm on a Friday afternoon.
    Problem was they were so disorganised that the meeting would not commence until 4.55pm without fail on a Friday when everyone had plans for a Friday 5.00pm finish. I remember one of the ladies would have to incurr additional childcare costs at her expense every Friday as the meetings would not finish until 6.00pm at the earliest.
    We were only paid for 9 to 5 and ended up resenting this behaviour as all hell would break lose if we tried to claim time off in lieu for being held back every Friday.
    We learnt from his partner that this behaviour was to avoid household choirs such as cleaning and cooking before guests arrived for dinner on a Friday night.

    Date and time
    February 03, 2012, 4:55PM
    • When you have people whos only justification for their role seems to be having "meetings" (I believe these are called "middle-management"), then it is no wonder that they are viewed as a waste of time by people that actually do productive things.

      I shudder to think of the unproductive burden this country is handicapped by with all these "meetings" - and they are still keeping the whole airline industry going with the basically useless travel that achieves little.

      Date and time
      February 04, 2012, 10:06AM
      • My experience of meetings has largely been that they're a way, for those who are too busy working on their careers to work on their job, to avoid as much work as possible while still maintaining as high a profile as possible with their manager.

        Scott H
        Date and time
        February 06, 2012, 8:05AM
        • I loathe meetings. They are generally places where everyone gets to waffle on then you go away and forget all about it. However, I am lucky enough to have an awesome manager who only discusses things that really warrant discussion in our meetings.

          Date and time
          February 06, 2012, 10:13AM
          • I agree with the sentiment of this blog but I think as with most things in life the approach of moderation is best. Yes, meetings have gone from the much needed face to face catch-up to a marathon of self importance. However I think it is overly harsh to blame the poor innocent meeting or team building activity, what should be addressed is the need to communicate properly. Poor communication spans all mediums and meetings, emails and one-on-ones have all fallen victim to everyone's need to have their opinion heard and general refusal to actually open their ears to anyone else's opinions and views.

            For the record, the joint research you've referenced was a 'study' of 100 sporting people, aged 18-24 to see if team initiation had any impact on their ability to gel more in the sporting arena. So not really anything to do with team building activities in the workplace.

            Date and time
            February 06, 2012, 2:36PM
            • Whilst working as an expat manager in Bangkok (where my staff had definitely swalloed the management Kool Aid), on my way to the NEXT meeting, I bumped into an American woman who worked for another company in a similar situation to myself.
              She summed it up thus: "I ask my staff, "I need to know this why?""
              A week later I met her in the lifts again. She informed me she'd basically locked the meeting room shut and hell hadn't frozen.
              On the other hand, my management insisted on being given copies of my meeting minutes and were aghast when I suggested the meetings were ineffectual and a waste of time in and out of the meeting room (as in, preparing for the meeting, attending the meeting, 'actioning' (now there's a word) the outcomes, following up with one-on-ones, briefing next level up on what the 'meat-on-the-bones' of the action items entailed, etc.).
              Furthermore, it was costing me money and time whipping down to the coffee shop to buy espressos to stay awake.
              Just for once in my life I wanted to be that American woman.

              Date and time
              February 06, 2012, 4:29PM

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