Study of the Day: When Teamwork Isn't Democratic, Everyone Benefits

New research in Psychological Science suggests that certain group compositions may lead to elevated levels of conflict and inefficiency.

Study of the DayStockLite/Shutterstock

PROBLEM: Though many believe that equality within a team is important, does this flat power structure really improve a group's performance?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by Richard Ronay randomly assigned 138 undergraduate students to one of three experimental conditions -- primed to feel high in power, low in power, and baseline or control. They organized subjects into same-sex teams of three high-power participants and three low-power participants or groups with one high-power, one low-power, and one baseline participant. They then measured the teams' performance in a task that required group interdependence wherein each member was required to make words from 16 letters and then work as a group to combine the words into as many sentences as possible. They also measured how the groups fared on a second task that did not require subjects to coordinate their efforts.

RESULTS: The groups with hierarchies were more productive than the teams with either all high-power or all low-power members. This hierarchy benefit was evident when group members were required to work on a task together, but not when they were working alone.

CONCLUSION: A built-in hierarchy helps a team work effectively on collaborative tasks.

IMPLICATION: When there are too many leaders or too few followers, group performance suffers as members jostle to take control. The authors say in a statement that a clear power structure and division of labor can reduce group conflicts and improve productivity.

SOURCE: The full study, "The Path to Glory Is Paved With Hierarchy: When Hierarchical Differentiation Increases Group Effectiveness," is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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