What I’m learning about collaboration from social psychology

Late last year, I took Social Psychology on Coursera which is a course run by Scott Plous of Wesleyan University. I took the course more for personal interests, but it also had the benefit of helping me to understand more about collaboration. Social psychology is defined as “the scientific study of how people think about, influence and relate to one another”, and during the course I learned that we have various tendencies that can impact our efforts to create and innovate together.

I realised that there are even more reasons to consider the conditions that support great collaboration in the workplace, rather than just putting people in teams and hoping for the best.  There are theories which explain behaviour from individual to group level – here are some that I picked up from the course and a few other sources:

Self-awareness is important

Collaboration starts with individuals that are willing and able to work well with others. Part of this means that we need to have a good understanding of our strengths, weaknesses and what we can improve. However, as shown by a recent HBR study, we’re not very good at self-awareness. Research has shown that we’re also not as good as we think we are at explaining our past behaviour and predicting how we will feel in the future.  The planning fallacy is an example of this, where we constantly think that tasks will take us less time than they actually do!

One way for us to become more self-aware is to get regular and constructive feedback from the people that we work with. At it’s most effective, this feedback is specific rather than general, and is better focused on self-efficacy – our belief in our ability to complete a task – rather than self-esteem, which might initially make us feel good, but doesn’t give information on what and how to improve.

Make sure we value our team members’ contributions

We can be misguided by our performance in relation to others, which can show up in two ways. With self-serving bias, when we’ve performed well on a task, we confirm to ourselves that it’s due to our efforts or our unique ability. But when we’ve failed at a task, we might believe that under-performance is more common that it really is, due to false consensus.

We also often over-estimate the amount of work we’ve contributed to a group project. In Give and Take, Adam Grant identifies this as the responsibility bias, where we “exaggerate our own contributions relative to other’s inputs”, partly because we have access to more information about our own work.

It’s clear how this can cause tensions during collaboration. One way to overcome this could be to visualise work and tasks more to make contributions more transparent.

Create the conditions for people to contribute their best ideas

There are various influences that cause people to conform to group opinions and behaviour, leading to group-think which has an impact on decision-making, creativity and the quality of ideas produced (a great read on the factors that contribute to group think is Making Dumb Groups Smarter, by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie). The Abilene Paradox illustrates how social pressures can prevent people from speaking up even when they know something is wrong, but do not communicate it, eventually causing the group to take the opposite direction to what they want to do.

Other difficulties that occur in groups include social loafing, when people put in less effort because they are working with others, and free riders, people who reap the benefits of the group but don’t contribute in return. Leigh Thompson covers this in Creative Conspiracy and describes some of the ways to overcome these challenges as: keeping the group small, ensuring that the work is challenging and making sure people are clear on why their specific contribution is needed.

Stay open to connecting with people outside of our usual groups

Teams need diversity within them to combat group think, but it’s the commonalities between the members that help them to develop trust and create connections. Thanks to implicit egotism – where we are attracted to things that reflect ourselves –  these connections can be created by seemingly insignificant details such as sharing a birthday or a name.

However, we need to ensure that the same factors that help us to create bonds within teams do not cause us to make assumptions about those outside of our group. Due to our tendency to categorise (this helps us to digest information) we can tend to think that people in an external group are more similar amongst themselves than the similarities we have within our own group (outgroup homogeneity bias), and we may also start to see our own group as more superior to others (in-group bias). In more extreme cases, this is what leads to stereotyping and prejudice, but within an organisation, it could be what causes strong divides between departments. The best way to combat this is to encourage empathy.

All of these terms have much deeper explanations than what I’ve been able to cover briefly in this post, but it’s worth looking out for them when you find that collaboration has become challenging.

References/further reading:

Introduction to Social Psychology on Coursera (available until June 2015)

Social Psychology (11th ed.) David G Myers (2012).  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Give & Take: a revolutionary approach to success, Adam Grant

Creative Conspiracy: the new rules of breakthrough collaboration, Leigh Thomson

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