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Why Working Together Doesn't Always Work

Surprising research on the results we get when we collaborate.

Ammentorp Photography/Shutterstock
Source: Ammentorp Photography/Shutterstock

On a midsummer afternoon in 1957, a church fundraiser altered the course of music history.

It was just after 4 P.M. when a group of teenagers took the stage. Rumor has it the boys were so anxious about playing in front of their neighbors, they downed a few beers before launching their set. This may explain why several songs into the performance, their lead singer forgot his lyrics, struggled to improvise, and somehow mangled, “Come little darlin’, come and go with me,” into, “Down, down, down, down to the penitentiary.”

Most of the audience was oblivious to the flub. But not everyone. One listener was watching intently, impressed by the band’s antics. His name was Paul McCartney—and he’d just had his first glimpse of John Lennon.

Half a century later, Lennon and McCartney’s eventual collaboration is credited with launching a new era in music history—one in which it became acceptable to combine genres, play a sitar alongside a violin, and use technology as an instrument.

We know the Beatles were creative, but how they got that way remains something of a mystery.

So just what were they doing right?

The Secret Formula

Marriage therapists have an equation they use to evaluate relationships.

In a functional marriage, the arithmetic is simple: One plus one equals two. Each partner has individual strengths, and together, the pair is reasonably compatible. In unhealthy marriages, the math turns funny: One plus one equals one, and typically, that’s because one partner is holding the other back.

But successful marriages are different. Chances are you’ve seen one, or have been lucky enough to experience it yourself. The husband is a talented chef; the wife is a masterful gardener. He tutors the kids in grammar; she teaches them how to defuse arguments. He is a visionary; she is an organizer. Together, they are more than the sum of their parts, and it’s here that the arithmetic turns exponential: One plus one equals three.

The Beatles illustrate what can happen when you group the right people together. The band’s achievements also lend credence to a belief that’s gained nearly universal support within the business community—that collaboration fuels success. The conviction holds that we all benefit from working in teams, and that more often than not, one plus one will equal three.

But what if that's wrong?

What if we’ve misunderstood the lessons of Lennon and McCartney? What if The Beatles’ productivity teaches us something entirely different about how collaborations work?

Why Collaboration Often Fails

On paper, collaborations have a lot to offer: By putting our heads together with others, we can attack a challenge with greater intellectual firepower. The more perspectives we bring to the table, the more likely we are to eliminate blind spots, unearth creative solutions, and minimize mistakes.

The logic seems irrefutable. So it’s surprising that studies on collaborations have yielded mixed results. First, brainstorming has been shown to actually undermine creativity. And a closer look at the literature finds that brainstorming is hardly the sole culprit. At times, it’s the collaboration itself that diminishes the quality of our work.

Consider some of the findings:

  • Collaboration breeds false confidence. A study in Psychological Science found that when we work with others to reach a decision, we become overly confident in the accuracy of our collective thinking. The confidence boost we gain from working in teams can feel exhilarating in the short term—but it also clouds our judgment, and we become dismissive of outside information which prevents us from making the best choices.
  • Collaboration introduces pressures to conform. Within many team collaborations, we face an impossible choice, between the quality of our work and the quality of our workplace relationships. Studies show that social pressures make group members tend to conform to the majority view, even in cases when they believe the majority view is wrong.
  • Collaboration promotes laziness. Ever been to a meeting where you’re the only one prepared? Then you’ve experienced social loafing—people’s tendency to invest less effort when they’re part of a team. When others are present, it’s easy for everyone to assume someone else will take the lead.

The Price of Partnership

There are bigger problems with workplace collaborations, one being that it's become the corporate equivalent of high blood pressure—a silent killer that often goes undetected. Attached to every meeting, conference call, and mass email is an invisible price tag. Economists call it opportunity cost, and it refers to all the tasks you’re not getting done while you’re busy “collaborating.”

In many organizations, the higher up you are in the hierarchy, the more often you’re called upon to collaborate. Intellectually, it’s a progressive tax.

So, why are we so enamored with an approach that often fails? Partly out of habit and partly out of organizational expectations. Of course, there’s also more emotional risk in presenting ideas alone, and more political ramifications to leaving others out.

But there’s something else that makes collaboration’s questionable yield so difficult to spot: Collaborations seem more productive than they really are because of the way our minds experience them. It’s easy to feel productive when we’re part of a group, listening to other’s ideas and contributing feedback—especially compared to the alternative of sitting at our desks, staring at a blank screen.

Too bad the progress is often illusory.

Which raises an interesting question. If collaborations often undermine performance, why did it work so well for The Beatles?

The Art of Successful Collaboration

Paul McCartney and John Lennon were not psychologists, but their approach to collaboration highlights many of the recommendations experts now offer organizations seeking to make groups more effective:

1. Find Teammates Who Do Something You Can’t. McCartney excelled at melody, Lennon moreso at lyrics. McCartney’s songs were uplifting; Lennon’s often had an edge. McCartney was left-handed; Lennon was not. Playing together, they each benefited from seeing a song’s chord progression reflected back at them, making it easier to improvise notes that fit the scale.

The lesson: Collaborations are most effective when teammates complement rather than replicate one another’s abilities. (Besides, skill duplication leads to power struggles.)

2. Differentiate Between Roles. Social loafing isn’t inevitable. It happens when responsibilities are ambiguous and collaborators aren’t clear on where their role ends and another’s begins. When McCartney and Lennon collaborated, it was clear (from song to song) which was the lead songwriter and which was there to offer suggestions.

The lesson: Delineating responsibilities at the start of a project gives everyone at the table direction and a sense of ownership.

3. Insist on Homework. Most of the heavy creative lifting happens when we’re by ourselves, working on our own. McCartney and Lennon are thought of as a songwriting team, but the truth is they conceived of most of their songs alone. They collaborated after they had taken a piece as far as they thought they could, and were ready for suggestions. We’re in a better position to evaluate the merits of an idea after we’ve given a topic some thought, not when encountering it for the first time.

The lesson: Use meeting time to exchange ideas, not generate them.

It would be foolish to suggest that collaborations are always a detriment. Without them, we wouldn’t have Apple, Google, or Microsoft, not to mention airplanes or the mapping of DNA. Collaboration just isn't the panacea we’ve been led to believe.

Can one plus one still equal three? Potentially, yes. But getting there requires a new kind of thinking that recognizes the pitfalls of collaboration, and welcomes a sobering perspective that most workplaces like to avoid: It’s only by acknowledging our individual weaknesses that we can discover our shared strengths.

Check out Dr. Friedman's book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.

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