So in 2005 a very thoroughly researched and well-argued scholarly article was published that demonstrates, quite clearly, that group productivity is an illusion. All those brainstorming sessions and group projects you’ve been made to do at school and work? Useless. Everybody would have been better off working on their own. Here’s the abstract of the article:
It has consistently been found that people produce more ideas when working alone as compared to when working in a group. Yet, people generally believe that group brainstorming is more effective than individual brainstorming. Further, group members are more satisfied with their performance than individuals, whereas they have generated fewer ideas. We argue that this ‘illusion of group productivity’ is partly due to a reduction of cognitive failures (instances in which someone is unable to generate ideas) in a group setting. Three studies support that explanation, showing that: (1) group interaction leads to a reduction of experienced failures and that failures mediate the effect of setting on satisfaction; and (2) manipulations that affect failures also affect satisfaction ratings. Implications for group work are discussed.
Has the puncturing of that “illusion of group productivity” had any effect? Of course not. Groupthink is as powerful as ever. Why is that?
I’ll tell you. It’s because the world is run by extraverts. (And FYI, that’s the proper spelling: extrovert is common but wrong, because extra- is the proper Latin prefix.) Extraverts love meetings — any possible excuse for a meeting, they’ll seize on it. They might hear others complain about meetings, but the complaints never sink in: extraverts can’t seem to imagine that the people who say they hate meetings really mean it. “Maybe they hate other meetings, but I know they’ll enjoy mine, because I make them fun! Besides, we’ll get so much done!” (Let me pause here to acknowledge that the meeting-caller is only one brand of extravert: some of the most pronouncedly outgoing people I know hate meetings as much as I do.)
The problem with extraverts — not all of them, I grant you, but many, so many — is a lack of imagination. They simply assume that everyone will feel about things as they do. “The more the merrier, right? It’s a proverb, you know.” Yes it is: a proverb coined by an extravert. So people I do not know will regularly send me emails: “Hey, I’ll be in your town soon and I’d love to have lunch or coffee. Just let me know which you’d prefer!” Notice the missing option: not being forced to have a meal and make conversation with a stranger. (Once a highly extraverted friend of mine was trying to get me involved in some project and said, cheerily, “You’ll get to meet lots of new people!” I turned to him and replied, “You realize, don’t you, that you’ve just ensured my refusal to participate?”)
Though my introversion has grown deeper in recent years, it’s always been there. When I was a kid I’d read about people who got the chance to meet their favorite musician or sports hero or whatever, and I’d think: No way. I would have preferred then, and still prefer now, to write a letter to whomever I deeply admire and hope for a response. I even deliberately lost the school-wide spelling bee in fifth grade so I wouldn’t have to participate in the city-wide competition: it would have meant meeting so many strange kids!
Spelling bees are, of course, organized by extraverts — indeed, pretty much everything that is organized is organized by extraverts, which in turn is their justification for their ruling of the world. “See? If we didn’t organize things they wouldn’t get organized at all!” Precisely, mutters the introvert, under his breath, to avoid confrontation.
So, extraverts of the world, I invite you to make a New Year’s resolution: Refrain from organizing stuff. Don’t plan parties or outings or, God forbid, “team-building exercises.” Just don’t call meetings. (I would ask you to refrain from calling unnecessary meetings, but so many of you think almost all meetings necessary that it’s best you not call them at all.) Leave people alone and let them get their work done. Those who want to socialize can do it after work. I’ll not tell you you’ll enjoy it: you won’t. You’ll be miserable, at least at first, because you won’t be pulling others’ puppet-strings. But everyone will be more productive, and many people will be happier. Give it a try. Let go for a year. Just leave us alone.