Solitude or Collaboration? Productivity in Individuals and Groups

It may seem self-evident that a group will be more productive than an individual, as the saying “two heads are better than one” implies. However, not all groups are created equal. Despite the intuitive sense that assigning more people to a task will result in it being done faster, some groups can actually impede productive work. This is important to consider in making choices about what kind of work to tackle individually versus in groups.  First, let’s understand some research on the psychology of group work.

How Groups Hold Themselves Back

This article from Harvard Business Review by Jeffrey Stibel, CEO and author, makes the argument that great individuals are “more valuable than groups that include great individuals.” Specifically, Stibel claims that one worker’s productivity and value will decrease as the size of their group increases, arguing that leaders should empower individuals to work independently and draw on their own strengths instead of delegating work to others.

Of course, not all tasks can be done by one individual, and teams are necessary for many of the complex projects in modern workplaces, but there is science to back up Stibel’s views. This study on how the size of a group affects productivity found that the smaller the group size, the more productive the group will be. In fact, the study claimed that groups of 3-4 individuals worked better than groups of 5-6, 7-10, or 11+ individuals.

This phenomenon is likely explained by the Ringelmann effect, observed and named by French agricultural engineer Maximilian Ringelmann. In his early experiments, which became foundational to the field of social psychology, Ringelmann found that as the size of a group increased, individuals increasingly slacked off. This phenomenon has also been termed social loafing, and it certainly makes the argument for individuals to work alone if they want to boost productivity.

Not All Groups Are Created Equal

Despite the pessimism of the above sources, there’s still hope yet that groups can be designed to function better, work collaboratively, and actually increase productivity. One fascinating finding over various studies is a gender gap in team productivity. As Peter Kuhn, economics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes in this article, women tend to be oriented more to teamwork than individual competition in the workplace, whereas men respond entirely differently to individualized incentives. One conclusion Kuhn draws from this observation is that team members need to identify with their team and feel motivated to collaborate in order to perform better than they would as individuals. Kuhn suggests that leaders who need teams to work together on complex projects emphasize team-based incentives to motivate workers to increase productivity as a group.

Moreover, this study replicated this gender gap in its observation of virtual teams, which is especially relevant for our times, when many people are moving to remote work. The authors explained that women tended to use more agreeable communication in virtual teamwork, whereas men communicated more competitively. At the same time, men were found guilty of social loafing several times more frequently than women in several conditions of the study. The conclusion? When workers view one another as competition, they’re more likely to slack off in group work and deprioritize the productivity of their team. By contrast, when workers have a collaborative mindset, they are motivated to work hard for their collective success.


Incentivizing Collaboration

The question, then, is how to incentivize a productive, collaborative mindset among individuals who need to work in teams in order to accomplish complex tasks. There are many suggestions for encouraging this kind of successful teamwork.

This article from the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania highlights several academics’ advice based on the challenges explained above that threaten group productivity. For instance, Wharton management professor Jennifer S. Mueller suggests that increasing task complexity to match the capacity of the group is useful. In other words, when group members recognize that they need everyone on board to succeed because of the intricacy, challenge, or nuance of the task they face, they will be less likely to slack off and more motivated to contribute productively.

Additionally, as Kuhn points out in this article cited above and as noted in this article, setting team goals and introducing a system of incentives that responds primarily to group productivity can decrease competition and encourage collaborative work to flourish.

How Remote Work Helps and Hurts

Evan Wittenberg, director of the Wharton Graduate Leadership Program, points out in this article that reducing the communication of a team to exclusively virtual communication presents a challenge to group cohesiveness and collaboration. Perhaps this is because the kind of agreeable, collaborative communication necessary for a team to feel connected is most easily fostered in informal conversations that take place when people work in a shared space. However, it’s possible to foster that communication even in current circumstances, like by encouraging team members to gather on Zoom for happy hour or book club events not directly linked to workplace conversations. This can boost camaraderie in the absence of in-person conversations.

Lastly, remote work may actually provide an advantage for team members working apart instead of in a shared space. This neuroscience research study found that people worked more slowly on tasks in the presence of a partner than alone. Researchers attributed this effect to a response-interpretation mechanism wired into our central nervous system, which means that we’re biologically wired to be distracted by another person’s work. However, this study also ascertained that this disadvantage disappeared if the partner worked in another room, suggesting that the physical presence of a teammate, not the teamwork itself, hindered productivity. In that case, maybe this remote work is exactly what modern teams need to work more productively!

I hope this post will help you understand how to incentivize yourself and your coworkers to work productively, and how to decide which tasks are best suited for teams versus individuals. Whether you’re working independently or collaboratively, I wish you the best in finding the strategies that work for you!