I am a big fan of collaboration. So when I teach college classes, I often put my students in groups, and give them assignments that they have to do in teams. And, I give the team one grade; everyone in the team gets the same grade.
A lot of my students hate this. We have very smart, high achievers here at Washington University, and they all have memories of working with less-able peers in high school. Of being stuck with a lazy partner, and having to do all of the work. So my students usually advocate grouping top performers with other top performers, and grouping the lazy lower achievers together.
If you’re a manager, your question is: how can I get the most out of my staff? Even after you fire the lowest performers, you’re still going to have a range of abilities and motivation levels. Should you mix everyone together, or keep the top performers together? It could be that spreading around the top talent raises everyone else’s level of performance–the lesser performers learn from the better performers, and they’re motivated to try to be just as good. Or, it could be that the lower performers drag the best down–the “weakest link” phenomenon.
Two researchers at the University of Wurzburg recently studied exactly this question. Bernhard Weber and Guido Hertel reviewed 17 studies on what they call “inferior group members” or IGM for short. These 17 studies included a total of 2,200 people. Their conclusion? IGMs work harder when they’re working with superior group members.
*Weber, B., & Hertel, G. (2007). Motivation gains of inferior group members: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(6), 973-993.
In the summer, professors get to read books they’re too busy to look at during the semester. I’m now reading a classic 1983 book on business innovation: The Change Masters, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. It’s amazing that she gets everything right; her key points are in best-selling management books being published today. (See my June 9th posting “How long will it take?” for another story about how long we’ve known how innovation really works.)
Kanter analyzed six companies in depth; four of them were innovators and two were not. Somewhat tongue in cheek, Kanter proposed a list of ten “hidden messages” that the non-innovating companies sent their employees every day, writing “Imagine something like this hanging on an executive’s wall, right next to the corporate philosophy”:
1. Regard any new idea from below with suspicion-because
it’s new, and because it’s from below.
2. Insist that people who need your approval to act first go
through several other levels of management to get their signatures.
3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge and criticize
each other’s proposals. (That saves you the job of deciding;
you just pick the survivor.)
4. Express your criticisms freely, and withhold your praise.
(That keeps people on their toes.) Let them know they can
be fired at any time.
5. Treat identification of problems as signs of failure, to discourage
people from letting you know when something in
their area isn’t working.
6. Control everything carefully. Make sure people count anything
that can be counted, frequently.
7. Make decisions to reorganize or change policies in secret,
and spring them on people unexpectedly. (That also keeps
people on their toes.)
8. Make sure that requests for information are fully justified,
and make sure that it is not given out to managers freely.
(You don’t want data to fall into the wrong hands.)
9. Assign to lower-level managers, in the name of delegation
and participation, responsibility for figuring out how to cut
back, layoff, move people around, or otherwise implement
threatening decisions you have made. And get them to do it
10. And above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, already
know everything important about this business.