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Leading and Optimizing Group Creativity at Work

Posted on the 20 March 2013 by Ncrimaldi @MsCareerGirl
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From the beginning of kindergarten until this very day, I cringe every time someone mentions these 2 words: group work.  Maybe it’s the fact that I am an only child or the fact that I like control over some things (okay fine, all things), but I know there isn’t anything I hate more than group work.  Whether it’s working on a project in class or trying to come up with new communication flows at work, I prefer working by myself rather than with other people.  I am not alone on this, right?

It would make sense that many minds collaborating on a certain project would produce more ideas and creativity than one.  However, research has shown the opposite is true.  Groups tend to be less productive and less creative than do individuals.1  Not only that, groups have the perception that their group interaction improves their performance when it actually impedes their performance.2  These findings result in the difficult and challenging quest for synergy, which is defined as “the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions, etc.”


I’ve come to the realization that group work is inevitable.  There will be a time in everyone’s life where you will have to step up and lead a group of people on a certain project.  Perhaps your occupation already requires overseeing group interaction on a daily basis and you find it challenging to be productive.  If you have surprisingly (or reluctantly) found yourself in this position, read on.  Despite the discouraging research findings on group creativity, there are a few things you can do as a leader and as a member to help stimulate synergy within your group.

  1. Brainstorm individually first, then with group. When asking group members to brainstorm, allow them to brainstorm alone first, then have group members come together to discuss.  This eliminates production blocking (having to wait one’s turn to share ideas, which leads to loss of ideas).  Then, have group members brainstorm alone again, and then follow up with another group meeting afterwards.
  2. Accountability. Allow group members to hold each other accountable for their contributions to the group to overcome social loafing, evaluation apprehension, and production blocking.4 This is where you get to use your own creativity to come up with some sort of system that allows the tracking of group member’s contributions,5 like using an online log that all group members have access to and check frequently.
  3. No criticism. Instruct your group to not criticize any contribution that fellow group members offer.  Members should be free to communication their ideas when they arise without fear of being judged or criticized.
  4. Incentive.  Add an incentive or a competition for your group to perform higher.  People like the idea of working for something in return, even if it’s small.  You can reward high performers with a prize (free lunch, a new office supply, sporting tickets, things of that nature), weekly recognition, etc.
  5. Eight is the lucky number.  If you’re brainstorming electronically, have 8 or more members be involved.  The beneficial effects of electronic brainstorming are most evident when groups have 8 or more members.6  Although researchers do not have a clear cut reason why this is, it could be because of increased sense of competition or stimulation effects of a wide range of ideas that result as group size increases.

Don’t be caught off guard next time you’re put in a position to monitor a group’s productivity. It’s important to remember that all groups have the potential to produce synergy.  Apply these suggestions next time you are participating or running a group project.  It can help make your life easier, your group happier, and your work more productive.


  1. Diehl, M., & Stroebe, W. (1987). Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: Toward the solution of riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 497-509; Mullen, B., Johnson, C.,  & Salas, E. (1991). Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: a meta-analytic integration. Basic and Applied social Psychology, 12, 3-24.
  2. Paulus, P., Dzindolet, M.T., Poletes, G.,  & Camancho, L.M. (1993). Perception of performance in group brainstorming: The illusion of group productivity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 78-89; Stroebe, W.,  Diehl, M.,  & Abakoumkin, G. (1992). The illusion of group effectivity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 643-650.
  3. “synergy” definition:
  4. Paulus, P.B., & Coskun, H. (2013). Creativity. Levine, J.M., Group Processes (215-239). New York, NY: Routledge.
  5. Paulus, P.B., Larey, T.S., Putman, V.L., Legget, K.L., & Roland, E.J. (1996). Social influence processes in computer brainstorming. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 18, 3-14.
  6. De Rosa, D.M., Smith, C.L., & Hantula, D.A. (2007). The medium matters: Mining the long-promised merit of group interaction in creative idea generation tasks in a meta-analysis of the electronic group brainstorming literature. Computers in Human Behavior, 23, 1549-1581.

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