NROW 01: How team work can work better

When passers by kept snapping pictures of the witty quotes posted outside Division of Labor’s office, things like “No Good Comes from Hitting Reply All”, they realized they were on to something. And when they decided to shore up the resulting book-length collection of similarly clever posters with some research, they came to us. We surveyed 800 office workers across the country, asking questions on subjects varying from coworker peeves to office-related indiscretions. Now we’ve gone back and taken some of our favorite bon mots and done a little more research, and explored them a little further. Enjoy!

Imagine you’re working with a group of people to solve a problem. It probably happens most work days in some fashion, but let’s say you don’t know the people. Say you’re on your way to the mountains and a herd of cows is blocking the two-lane road to your Airbnb chalet. You’re so close, but so far. There’s three people stuck there with you, and you debate the best course of action. One guy declares confidently that if he honks the horn a lot, they’ll run. Another guy quietly says that might not work. But Over-Confident Guy insists, so you all get into your cars while he tries it. After the stampede subsides, you all get out to survey your cars for damage, of which there is plenty.

Also, it turns out that the quiet guy lived in Wyoming for 10 years and knew a lot of ranchers who would have told you that would happen, but he wasn’t the one sounding off about the best way to do things.

So here’s the question: how do we choose the best course of action when working in a diverse group with multiple options on the table?

Figuring out who the experts are in a given situation is crucial: if you’re planning a ski vacation, you need to talk to the powder hound who’s been to the most mountains; if you’ve got an idea for a start-up, you need to talk to someone who’s made one work, and knows why and how it worked when it did. Obvious, right?

Sometimes these people are easy to track down, but some situations make it more difficult. For example, take group work. Most of us work or consort with someone who we tend to believe by default. It’s the person who says “sure” rather than “really?” to a new perspective in a conversation, the one who oozes confidence in every situation, even those they’ve just walked into. They seem to have a response to everything, and to know the answer already. Seem to.

Often there’s no clear expert at hand when working in a group to solve a problem, so the person who exudes the most confidence becomes the de facto leader for the simple reason that others don’t challenge him or her. It’s a common group dynamic: someone leads the way, but whether that person is qualified to do so is questionable. Bryan Bonner, a researcher from the University of Utah, wanted to understand how this dynamic plays out, and whether something can be done to make group work a more useful, profitable undertaking.

Bonner and his colleagues had people working in groups come up with 5 knowledge-based estimates (e.g., the distance from Salt Lake City to New York City). While some groups dove in without any further instruction, others were told to have each member think of and write down two things they knew that were related to the questions before continuing. This task functioned as a short hand inventory of related expertise, so the group could distinguish the people who knew more (for instance, someone who took a road trip to the east coast one time) from those who knew less (the guy from California who’d never been east of the Rockies).

What they found was that groups who considered members’ knowledge before getting to work had more accurate answers than the other groups. Groups who didn’t consider member knowledge were more likely to be influenced by the members who showed the most confidence, and researchers noted that knowledge and confidence were “only modestly related to one another” in their study.

It makes sense when you think about it: everyone works with a different set of knowledge and experiences. Why wouldn’t they be used accordingly, depending on the situation, rather than the usual falling in like with Over-Confident Guy every time? Quickly going over relevant knowledge before beginning a project seems like 3 minutes well used. And what do we have to lose? Nothing but a few hours of wasted time.