The Weakest Link

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.

6 thoughts on “The Weakest Link

  1. Keith, this is very interesting to me as I face this both in the corporate environment as well as teaching at the graduate business school level (my grading philosophy is the same as yours, by the way). While I am not surprised that IGM’s work harder, the question is: is it hard enough? When business leaders approach me with an initiative, I ask them whether they want to 1. raise the mean performance of the group, or 2. reduce the variance of the group. These are very different endpoints as you know, and it results in a different intervention for IGM’s. More importantly, it results in a different intervention for SGM’s, too. Bottom line for me is to mix them. That at least harnesses the diversity of insight, though it can cause a drag on performance.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Keith,

    My son & his girlfriend, who are recent college graduates, have had some difficulty in the workforce. They think if they perform well they should get an “A”. There are expectations they have related to work that they thought would mimic college life. It doesn’t. I know this is not the point of your blog entry but it made me think of it. Asking to be grouped with the brightest (and students’ criteria for this is limited) is not a request typically entertained by the manager.
    I also recalled an episode of the short lived TV series Fame. There was a dance that was going to be staged and the best dancers are vying for the lead. The instructor gives the lead to someone at the school who is a ‘non-dancer.’ The students are upset; Debbie Allen tells them that sometimes the biggest name, not the best dancer gets the role and it’s the dancers job to make him look good. Life lesson. Thanks for letting me ramble and thanks for the research info.

  3. It’s great to read your comments on the posting. So here is a bit more detail about the meta-analysis of 17 previous studies. The historical background is psychological research going back to the 1970s that seemed to show that people exert less effort when working in a group: the famous “social loafing” problem. The technical term for this is “motivation losses.” But more recent research shows that in some groups, individuals increase their effort compared to working alone, and this is known as “motivation gains.” The article that I cited was focused on the question: are there motivation gains in groups that specifically impact the IGMs? They found that there were. But they don’t have any data about the total group performance, unfortunately.

    There are two possible reasons why IGM motivation could increase in mixed groups: one is “upward social comparison,” the IGMs adjust their performance upward to match the average performance of the group (which is higher than their solitary level). Of course, the flip side of this is that the superior GMs would then be expected to adjust their performance downward, which touches on Drew’s comment. The authors of this article note this too: “One frequent concern is that motivation gains of IGMs might come
    at the price of motivation losses by superior group members so that
    the overall gain for the group outcome might be nullified.”

    The second reason is “social indispensability,” the IGM motivation goes up if they know their contribution is critical to the group product. But if the IGM senses that their contribution is NOT indispensable, their motivation goes down. That happens when, for example, the group’s performance is determined by the strongest individual performance, or when a poor performance by one member can be compensated for by another.

    The meta-analysis I cited examined this by comparing task conditions, and confirmed that IGM motivation goes up more when their contribution is indispensable.

    Other findings of this article: the motivation gain for IGMs is greater when (1) the members of the group are physically in the same room together, versus online or distant collaboration, and (2) when the task involved physical work rather than purely cognitive work.

    So what about the key question you both ask: Is the group output better with mixed groups? This study focused on the motivation level of individual IGMs, and the authors say “it will be difficult to predict the overall outcome of complex work groups based on only these results.” But here are the implications they propose for managers:

    1. “Utilize upward comparison mechanisms” by providing performance information about superior coworkers.

    2. “Utilize indispensability effects by stressing the importance of IGMs’ contribution to the overall group outcome.”

    One last comment for Cherry, regarding learning: there is a long tradition of research by Johnson & Johnson showing that when students of mixed abilities are grouped together, the low ability students learn more, and the high ability students learn just as much as when they’re grouped with other high ability students.

  4. As a student, I can confirm that IGM do not perform as well when left to do independent tasks. Also, superior group members must often work harder when paired with IGMs to achieve “acceptable” project results. However, superior group members, when not placed in a position of responsibility (or the product isn’t graded), will likely have motivation losses.

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