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.