Are Teams More Creative When Everyone is Equal?

If you’ve read my books, you know that my answer is yes! The most innovative teams have something that I call group flow. It’s when a group is performing at its peak–realizing the maximum potential of the group. It’s more likely when everyone blends egos and participates equally. It’s the group version of your own personal flow state, a state of peak performance where you lose track of time and you’re fully concentrated on the task. In flow, you engage in the activity simply because you love being in that flow state. The experience itself is the motivation, not whatever external reward might come at the end.

I discovered group flow during my studies of jazz and improvisational theater. Improvising groups are experts at getting into the peak experience. I identified ten conditions for group flow in my 2017 book Group Genius. Some of the most critical are:

  • Close listening. Everyone is fully open to the actions of everyone else. Metaphors like “riding a wave” or “gliding across a ballroom with a dance partner” are common among improvising actors and musicians.
  • Complete concentration. Imagine a basketball team that’s on fire. The players have to be constantly aware of what their teammates and opponents are doing. Time becomes warped; minutes seem like hours. The basketball can seem to move in slow motion.
  • Blending egos. That’s when you experience the magical moment when it all comes together, when the group is in sync. The performers seem to be thinking with one mind.
  • Equal participation. Group flow is more likely when everyone is playing an equal role in the collective creation of the final performance. Group flow is blocked if anyone’s skill level is below the rest of the group.

Group flow is blocked when one person dominates, or is arrogant, or doesn’t think they have anything to learn from the conversation. Group flow is at risk when a manager joins a team. The manager’s higher status can make everyone hold back, even if they’re a really cool person that treats everyone like a peer. (But there are things a manager can do; to learn more, check out my book Group Genius!)

Now, a new study has been published that focuses on status differences in teams. The study finds that groups are more effective when everyone in the team is very good at detecting status differences. If you can tell, really fast, what the status hierarchies are around the table, then you have good “status intelligence.” By status, the study means how much respect each person has from the others, and how much influence they have on the others. If people disagree about that, then you can imagine that the group’s dynamic would be awkward. People would be sending hidden messages, by their actions, that might seem to challenge these status differences.

But my research suggests that if the group has status differences, it will be less creative. Maybe there’s a way to use this new research to enhance group flow. For example: If everyone can spot the status differences, maybe they could then point them out and somehow work out a way to overcome them. After all, there will always be someone in the group that people respect more than the others. But that can be a problem for creativity. If you defer too much to those people, then the group doesn’t benefit from your own contributions.

The researchers conclude that everyone should “make status conversations explicit.” Don’t assume that everyone in the room has the same understandings of status. The authors say “we encourage teams to have an open conversation around where everyone’s relative expertise and strengths lie, and acknowledge that some individuals will carry more influence over certain decisions.” But if you’re interested in creativity, I would modify that somewhat. I would say “acknowledge that this could be a problem, and be careful to make sure you don’t defer too much to those individuals.”

*Kilduff and West, Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2023, “The one personality trait crucial to creating effective teams.”

2 thoughts on “Are Teams More Creative When Everyone is Equal?

  1. Hello Keith: I’ve responded before to some of your blog posts. As a songwriting teacher at Berklee, who tries to teach collaboration and co-writing skills, this blog post – together with the WSJ article it references – is a great point of departure for reflection. The emphasis on explicit recognition of status differentials – and this not being in conflict with, but complementary to, an ethic of equality in interactions – is very applicable to cowriting and team writing in songwriting. I’ve actually referenced it in a new short handout about collaboration skills which I’d be happy to share with you via email.

    Thanks as always for your great work – Mark Simos

  2. I love your idea of your handout of collaboration skills. Yes, please send it, you can find my email on my web site! There’s some interesting new research on songwriting creativity and collaboration. I recommend the book _Anatomy of a Song_ by Marc Myers.

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