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  • Writer's pictureAstrid Schilcher

Teamwork is the foe of greatness

I have always regarded the praises of teamwork with great suspicion. As an employee I experienced most teams more as a waste of time than a generator of great ideas. Teaching at a university of applied science, I have seen that group assignments produce significantly weaker results than individual assignments. However, as I am surrounded by a culture that not only praises teamwork but also regards it as socially desirable norm, I have felt quite alone in my viewpoint.

Still, when I hear mantras like - There is no I in team - I can’t help thinking that exactly that is the problem with teams. In my opinion the “I” not only stands for the individual ego, but also for independent thought, intrinsic motivation, and individual responsibility. Finally I have come across research that backs up my skepticism towards the merits of teamwork.

CEO and brain scientist Jeff Stibel stated that “great individuals are not only more valuable than legions of mediocrity, they are often more valuable than groups that include great individuals.

Because our brain works very well individually but tends to break down in groups, programmers are faster when coding individually, designers and artists do their best work alone and Kasparov, doubled with a mediocre chess player, would do poorly playing against Bobby Fischer. The value of a contributor decreases disproportionately with each additional person contributing to a single project, idea, or innovation.

Research by Harvard Professor J. Richard Hackman, a leading expert on teams, consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have.

Harmonious teams are the worst. According to him every team needs a deviant, someone who raises the painful questions. But when being a team player is strongly valued, individuals self-censor their contribution for fear of disrupting team harmony – a sure course towards mediocrity.

There are many things that smart individuals can do better than teams. Leaders should find the best people and empower them to do great things instead of forcing them into mediocre teams.

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