The key to creativity and productivity

Brainstorming sessions often begin with the assertion that there’s no such thing as a bad idea.

That sounds lovely in theory, but research has shown that it’s lousy for productivity. Teams produce many more ideas when team members are encouraged to challenge one another in a debate setting, according to a 2004 study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology. When participants were instructed to debate, they produced far more solutions to a given problem than when they were instructed not to. The debate group also produced more ideas after the brainstorming session was over.

“Debate makes people diverge, so it reduces conformity,” says co-author Jack Goncalo, a professor of organisational behavior at Cornell University. “It also fosters competition.” Goncalo notes, however, that excessive competition can stifle productivity. “There’s a point of diminishing return,” he says. “A little bit of competition is good. Too much can get out of control.”

That’s particularly true when you have several dominant personalities on one team. Organisational psychologist Richard Ronay of VU University Amsterdam addressed this topic in a 2012 study on links between productivity and hierarchy.

Ronay and his team first conducted a manipulation to put some subjects into a high-power mindset and others into a low-power mindset. Some subjects were asked to describe a time when they held power over another individual. Others were told to write about a situation in which someone had power over them. A control group wrote about a trip to the supermarket.

The subjects were then divided into three types of groups: all high-power, all low-power, and a mix of high-power, low-power, and control subjects. The members of each group played a collaborative word game designed to show how well they worked together. It turned out that the mixed-power groups were nearly twice as productive as the high-power groups in any task that required collaboration.

The takeaway: Top performers won’t necessarily work well as a team. “When you have too many star players on one team, it promotes status conflicts within the team, which kills the performance,” says Ronay. “You can’t have a group made up of all leaders. You need some people who are prepared to defer.”