Creativity in Teams: The Truth Hurts

Various social effects dampen creativity, while individuals are free of at least some of those effects

I’ve always felt that I was more creative when working alone than in teams, but for most of my career I was afraid to say so, worried that others would consider me a selfish loner. You might feel the same.

Of course, that feeling was shaped by decades of alternating between solo work and team work, so it was grounded in personal reality. But of course, it might be just my own reality.

Not so. New research has come to light that shows that teams are in fact, less creative than individuals. A meta-analysis of previous research on brainstorming groups by Brian Mullen, Craig Johnson & Eduardo Salas shows that individuals generate a much higher number of original ideas than groups.

It turns out that various social effects dampen creativity, while individuals are free of at least some of those effects. Some are obvious when you consider them. For example, when working in a group, individuals are blocked from pursuing ideas out loud while others are speaking. Almost as obvious is that anxieties about how others might judge you will decrease outlandish, but creative, ideas. Other people might just freeload in teams, allowing others to take the lead, and taking advantage of the effort of others.

You might think that the costs of social anxiety could be countered by working in a group where the members avoid conflict, and that would potentially decrease worrying and people might be more creative. Nope.

The research undertaken by Sharon Novak shows that cognitive conflict can actually lead to better results, which flies in the face of one of the basic tenets of brainstorming: don’t criticize. Novak structured three different sorts of brainstorming groups: one had no specific instructions, a second was told not to criticize others’ ideas, and the third was told to freely debate and critique each others’ ideas.

You might think that the costs of social anxiety could be countered by working in a group where the members avoid conflict, and that would potentially decrease worrying and people might be more creative. Nope.

The result? The third group — where dissent was encouraged — generated more original ideas than the other two groups.

The takeaways of these findings are these:

  • As a general rule, individuals are more creative than groups. The social costs act like a tax on creativity.
  • Groups are more creative when dissent is actively encouraged, so make that a key tenet of any group activity in which creativity is sought.

Most importantly, not all group interaction is about maximizing creativity. Activities like brainstorming may be more about team building rather than generating the most original ideas. For example, a team brought together to consider ways to streamline operations might be better off finding a few high-leverage improvements instead of a hundred ideas where most don’t do much.

So, it turns out that I’m not a selfish loner, after all. And neither are you.

This post was written as part of the Dell Insight Partners program, which provides news and analysis about the evolving world of tech. To learn more about tech news and analysis visit TechPageOne. Dell sponsored this article, but the opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dell’s positions or strategies.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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