Finding Balance Between Teamwork and Solitude

Collaboration. Teamwork. Brainstorm.

Anyone whose been in school or the workforce in the last few years knows these words are often attached to positive outcomes for companies and institutions, like increased productivity, creativity, and achievement. However, research shows that these group practices may be overlooking the value of solitude, according to The New York Times opinion piece, “The Rise of the New Groupthink.

The writer of the article, Susan Cain, argues that research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. History also shows some of our most creative and influential thinkers and leaders have been introverts who find answers in times of solitude, like Newton, Picasso, Jesus, and Buddha.

The “New Groupthink” environment is the standard for many. Research shows:

  • Virtually all American workers spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices.
  • Over the last 40 years, the average office space shrank from 500 square feet to 200 square feet.
  • Classrooms have been transformed to commonly use pods of desks.
  • Classroom assignments in subjects like math and creative writing are often done in groups.

We all know the saying “Everything in moderation,” but there doesn’t seem to be much room left for this mode of thinking in the new team environment. Why can teamwork be an unhealthy choice? One study showed open-plan offices make for hostile, insecure, and distracted workers who are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu, and exhaustion. They also found workers who are interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish a task.

In another study of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies, researchers found performance level wasn’t distinguishable by variables like experience or pay. Rather, the top-performing individuals were from companies that allowed their employees more privacy, personal workspace, and freedom from interruption.

Teamwork isn’t all bad, or it wouldn’t be so popular. Teamwork can be positive if it is:

  • used to stimulate, exchange ideas, manage information, and build trust.
  • practiced in conjunction with time for solitude.
  • composed of members who have worked autonomously and come together to complete the puzzle.
  • conducted virtually. Screens create a great barrier to make electronic brainstorming/teamwork extremely productive and creative.

Cain makes the point in her article that:

“….human nature remains the same. And most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.”

How can you embrace both of these contradictory impulses in the classroom or the workplace? How can you plan to have meaningful, productive exchanges on your team while still maintaining boundaries for time each day to listen to your  instincts, hatch your own unique ideas, and listen to your inner muse? There is a way to strike this balance if you are mindful that both impulses are equally valuable.



“The Rise of the New Groupthink,” by Susan Cain. 15 January 2012. The New York Times. Accessed on 16 January 2012.

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