Teamwork? Good, until it’s not: When working alone works best

Teamwork. Support. Group (there's that word) synergy. These are all hallmarks of positive business-speak and, one would assume, business practice. They've become the modern calling cards of businessmen who want to appear non-hierarchical, hip, in touch with the new spirit of entrepreneurship. But could these buzzwords and the actions they entail have a counterintuitive dark side?


In my heart of hearts, I’ve always hoped so. From mass overexposure over the years, I've developed somewhat of an allergy to the whole thing. Don't get me wrong; I can engage in teamwork with the best of them. I've always gotten a check plus plus at playing well with others. I will share my shovel and pail. I won't throw sand in your face. I'll even move over to the far side of the sandbox so that you have more room to make those inverted piles of sand, whatever they're supposed to be (and to top it off, I won't tell you what they look like to me). But sometimes, I'd just like to build my castle on my own, without having to argue about who gets to make the turrets or where the flag should go when it's done.

What I bristle at is the prevailing mentality that it is always good to be a team player, that group projects are always the way to go, that brainstorms, group meetings, group efforts are the wave of the future. The part of high school I look back on with greatest dread? Forced group projects, with the endless scheduling of after school meeting times and the realization as the deadline loomed near that I would once again be stuck with the brunt of the work. And the funniest thing? Almost everyone I've ever talked to has the same impression, that they were always the ones putting in the effort for the entire group. Part of me has always wanted to scream, enough. Groups have their limits. Please, please, please don't make me prove to you once more that I can be a good team player, exhibit team spirit, and work well with "The Team." Please, just let me work alone. Imagine my joy, then, when I opened my most recent issue of Psychological Science. 

Teamwork can undermine motivation and commitment

A recent series of studies by psychologists at the Fuqua School of Business and Department of Psychology at Duke and the Department of Psychology at Northwestern suggest that, as far as productivity and motivation is concerned, a team approach may not be the best one to take. In fact, it might hinder your ability to reach crucial benchmarks.

In three experiments, researchers asked study participants to think of a way in which a partner helped them achieve specific health or academic goals. Those who went through the exercise subsequently planned to spend less time and devote less effort to the goals in question than those who did not. They also procrastinated more before engaging in a relevant task. These results suggest that simply thinking about how others could be helpful in attaining a goal could undermine your own motivation and the effort you are willing to expend toward reaching that goal. Moreover, it might make you put off any goal-related activity to some point in the future, confident as you are that there will be someone there to take up the slack. Entrepreneurs, take note.

The plus side of the team

Now, teamwork is not inherently bad, nor am I trying to suggest that delegation or a system of support in attaining stated business goals is a bad thing. Indeed, there is much to be said for it. The Duke researchers also found that those who thought about partners' support felt closer to them and reported higher commitment to the relationship than those who didn't. What seems to have happened is that the delegation of responsibility, or what they term self-regulatory outsourcing, at once undermined commitment to the goal and bolstered commitment to the team. The latter is certainly something worth cultivating, especially for a business that hopes to succeed in the long-term. And I can't say enough about the power of the team in generating ideas, thinking through problems, or offering creative energy to almost any form of business planning (see this recent piece on teamwork in science). 

When to delegate – and when to go it alone 

What the research does show, I would argue, is that delegation and reliance on a partner or team, even if that reliance is just in your head, should be used judiciously – and with full knowledge of the potential backlash it could have to your own motivation. In other words, delegate responsibly. Know which goals are dependent on you as the key driver. And for those goals, do not think of how others can help; do not brainstorm with the team; do not have a team plan. These are the goals that require maximum motivation and commitment from you, and you alone. And keep that in mind for others as well: there is room for individual work even in a team-based environment, and in some situations, it is far better for people to work on their own than with a buddy. At least, that's the case if you are hoping to achieve some tangible goals that require maximum commitment and motivation. 

As for the goals that don't fall under that umbrella, those goals that are the "nice to haves" or secondary, or even primary but not as reliant on a key mover, use them to foster a spirit of team support and enhance a feeling of commitment to one another. Exploit the feeling of togetherness and interconnectedness that comes from outsourcing your self-regulation ability. Sure, it may dilute your own feeling of responsibility (something the researchers don't touch on, but seems to be quite related to general motivation toward goal achievement), but if that dilution happens in a strategically planned area, it will be worth it for the benefits of group cohesion.

The trick is not to forget that there is a role for both group and individual commitment to goals, and not to let the pervading popularity of team spiritedness undermine the eventual achievement of your central objectives.

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