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Want Better Teamwork? Take More Breaks

Want Better Teamwork? Take More Breaks

Teams and teamwork are important in local government, but researchers are telling us that team members, be they department staff or city councilmembers, also need some alone time to get the best results.

A recent study, How Intermittent Breaks in Interaction Improve Collective Intelligence, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 28, 2018, found that problem-solving groups perform at much higher levels when face-to-face meeting time is broken up by intermittent periods of a day or more for individual reflection. A core finding of the study is based on the simple hypothesis that people influence each other when they work together to solve problems, and these social influences can have both positive and negative impacts on the overall quantity and quality of the solutions they generate. 

These findings have potentially important implications for the ways that local governments structure the interactions of ongoing and ad hoc teams in a variety of settings, including department staff teams, citizen advisory groups, and legislative bodies with their respective committees.

Study Methodology

In the study, 309 participants were divided into teams of three and assigned the task of solving a classic traveling salesperson problem involving the calculation of the shortest overall travel distance between 25 cities, visiting each city and then returning to the starting city. The groups were further divided into three social treatments of “constant ties” (CT) “intermittent ties,” (IT) and “no ties” (NT). The CT groups always had constant access to their group’s solutions, the IT group shared their solutions only occasionally, with intermittent breaks, and the NT group worked alone without seeing their teammates' solutions. 

Study Findings

The results showed that the “intermittent ties” (IT) groups that used a combination of group and alone time achieved the best overall performance and were the most likely to arrive at the best answer. Why is this so? It turns out that the intermittent breaks taken by the IT group provided them with all the benefits of their group’s social influences without the costs.

The positive impacts of social influences in groups come from the synergistic effects of information sharing and debate that give participants the opportunity to learn from other members of the group. Social influences can also have negative impacts on problem-solving efforts, including a tendency for individuals to adopt the views of their peers, which reduces the sharing of more novel perspectives.

Unequal status levels can also inhibit group discussion where “junior” members may defer to longer tenured and more experienced members. Both types of social influences can lead groups to move prematurely toward a “consensus” view. Dominant individuals or factions can also hinder overall group performance. 

The study concludes that the best outcomes will follow from processes that allow a good measure of cross-pollination through periodic idea sharing, but not so much that the participants may be tempted to abandon their own ideas too early in the process. These groups can learn from each other during their direct interactions but still maintain a high level of independent exploration, which is key to their higher performance.

Although the study does not appear to address this issue directly, my own experience tells me that intermittent periods of individual reflection are not only important to encourage independent thought, but also because they allow a level of focus and concentration that is typically absent in the give-and-take of a group discussion. 

Implications for Local Government Work Groups and Teams

What do these findings mean for local government teams like department staff teams, citizen advisory groups, and legislative bodies?

Each of these groups can potentially benefit from meeting structures that build in intermittent breaks designed to support independent thought and reflection and reduce social influences that may detract from that. Application of these findings would discourage the use of, for example, single-day strategic planning or other similar events and replace these with approaches that purposely add intermittent alone time for participants. If 1-day events can’t be avoided, then facilitators should try to give participants significant time blocks to separately process information and develop their own ideas and solutions to bring back to the group. Council/Commission rules that require two or three “touches” before final decisions can be made are examples of how some legislative bodies are already incorporating procedures that can benefit from this approach. Take a look at the Sequim City Council’s “Three Touch Rule” to see how these can be structured.

In the context of city and county legislative bodies, Ann Macfarlane’s blog about the “Round Robin” technique, where each member is given the opportunity to speak once before anyone else can speak a second time, and my companion blog, both address the potential negative impacts of certain social influences on the quality of council/commission decision-making processes. Techniques like this can be very effective in overcoming some of the negative impacts of social influences.

The research findings highlighted here add yet another layer to our understanding of group planning and decision-making processes that we can use to measurably improve outcomes for teams and teamwork in several local government settings.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Byron Katsuyama

Byron retired from MRSC in 2021. He wrote about forms of government, strategic planning, performance measurement, emerging issues, and general local government management.