Harvard Business Online

Why Teams Get Locked into Behavior Patterns


Posted on Harvard Business Review: March 4, 2010 1:36 PM

I used to witness a strange metamorphosis every year in the early fall. The tall, granite-faced men I knew as my uncles and the tall, granite-faced women I knew as my aunts would lose their adult identities and become, once again, a community of siblings. The executive, the bookkeeper, the nurse, and so on would arrive at each annual reunion in western Massachusetts and become instead the eldest, the second-born, the third-born, all the way down to the baby, readopting the well-worn patterns of interaction that had seen them through their mother's death and a lot of other tough times in their Cambridge triple-decker.

For me it was both eerie and fascinating, and it gave me a lifelong appreciation for the power of sibling behavioral patterns. Our place in the birth order seems to affect so many things—the jobs we do, for example. Talk to your colleagues, the ones who perform the same work, and see if they didn't come from approximately the same place in the birth order as you. It's uncanny.

But it doesn't take an entire childhood for a group's dynamics to get locked in. It can happen quickly. A research paper that I've been reading goes into this in some depth. It's "The Effects of Repeat Collaboration on Creative Abrasion" in a recent issue of the Academy of Management Review. The authors, Paul F. Skilton and Kevin J. Dooley of Arizona State, cite empirical evidence that "mental models" for intragroup behavior emerge and become ingrained rapidly (some readers disagree with this premise—see the comments to my previous post). Once that happens, members follow these patterns religiously, melding to become a smoothly functioning, collegial, collaborative—and uncreative—team.

The mental models "become more fully internalized and therefore more resistant to change the longer the collaboration continues," the researchers posit. And the team members don't talk about this process. The mental models tend to be "tacitly excluded from discussion." Members avoid explicitly acknowledging that certain people on the team continually interrupt specific colleagues while deferring to others. That certain members habitually preen or self-censor, depending on their assumed roles. That everyone treats Mikey as if he were the eldest brother and had a pack of Camels rolled into his T-shirt sleeve.

One of the pernicious effects of team members' self-typecasting is that it sometimes leads them to "converge" too quickly on an idea. That means they may settle on solutions that are familiar. They may "adopt courses of action that are good enough rather than optimal," the researchers say.

There was always a car that wouldn't start. They'd stand around the open hood—the uncles, anyway, not the aunts—in the street. I wasn't privy to the technical discussions of spark-plug gaps and such, but I could see from the body language, the clustering of the younger around the older, that they were once again in the alley having found a broken toy or a dead bird, and that their attempt to converge on a "solution" was guided by a long, familiar pattern that stretched back for years.

Andrew O'Connell is an editor with the Harvard Business Review Group.

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