Why You Should Find Time To Work Alone
Isolation is a concept that simply does not apply to the 21st century. The world is getting smaller, people are constantly “plugged in”, and success in business or careers are based on network positions.
Individual spaces both at home and in the workplace are created with a primary concern for connection. Accessibility both to information and to others is key. We carry the world and the constant need for connection, with us through the cell phone on our hip, the Bluetooth in our ear, and the keyboard at our fingertips.
The increase of our connections comes at a price. Time to be alone with our thoughts and our creative process is a luxury in today’s work environment.
In-accessibility can lead to a loss of a job. In an environment no longer constrained by global timeframes, employees are pushed to always be ready to respond. The lines between the individual, the group, and the world have been blurred.
With the societal push that emphasizes the connections between self and others, it is important to remember that we must also find the time to stay connected within ourselves. Historically, great innovators, artists, and scientists have drawn from within for their achievements.
Out of solitude, comes greatness. Whether we turn to spiritual leaders like Buddha or Jesus who journeyed into solitude to find truth, academics who founded schools of thought and philosophical positions through solitary exploration (Newton), and artists and authors who found creativity in solitude, the evidence is in…time spent alone is time well spent.
The importance of time alone to connect with one’s owns thoughts, creativity, and motivations should become one of our most highly valued commodities. Although work environment trends have recently pushed towards increasing interactions among coworkers, there are many advantages to spending time working alone.
Some of these advantages include increasing creativity, creating an environment for higher productivity, heightening ethical consideration in business settings, and reducing stress within the workplace.
Research in group functioning has emphasized the importance of group interaction in stimulating creative processes. Brainstorming, for example, have been thoroughly researched over the past several decades in order to emphasize the importance of groups to the creative process within the work setting.
It is important to note, however, that the group can benefit most from individuals who spend time considering developing personal beliefs and conceptualizations before entering into the group setting.
A 1995 study conducted by Christina Shalley measured the creativity of individuals working alone and in the presence of others. Shalley measured creativity in the number of responses individuals gave to a simulated work related task. What she found surprised even her: creativity was higher for individuals who were working alone than for individuals working in the presence of other people.
Her results indicated that the mere presence of others in the environment diminishes creative process.
Productivity is another construct that has been assumed to be higher in group versus individual settings. Initial studies on group productivity have focused on the idea that the additive nature of task completion increases the overall productivity of the group.
Recent findings suggest that this is a perceived fallacy relating to group work. In fact, Dr. Tim Welsh has conducted studies that show the mere presence of others can create disruption to cognitive processes decreasing the ability to perform at a highly productive level.
Dr. Welsh states that mirror neurons are to blame for this interference. When people in our environment are simultaneously working on tasks, our neurons automatically respond by firing in a manner triggered by their activity.
This creates interference at the neuronal level that does not occur when we are performing in an environment where we are alone.
Literature on productivity within group settings makes an important distinction between nominal groups and interacting groups. Nominal groups consist of the combined efforts of individual, solitary working members. Interacting groups are actually working together towards a common goal.
In a research review on team versus individual performance, Natalie Allen and Tracy Hecht conclude, “there appears only minimal evidence that group activity offers performance advantages compared with combining the performance of the same number of individuals working alone or, even, by a single talented individual.”
One of the benefits of taking time for solitude, particularly when in a highly visible or executive role, is an increased ethical awareness, according to a theory proposed by Kleio Akrivou, Dimitiros Bourantas, Shenjiang Mo, and Evi Papaloi.
These academics believe that when a person is regarded as a role model and leader within an organization, it is imperative that they take the time to reflect on decision making in an environment free from distractions and the influence of others. Solitude “serves as a neutralizer from social pressures to conform uncritically to direct expectations of influential persons or groups.”
According to these theorists, solitude in decision making increases moral accountability making executives a model for ethical responsibility. This is logical.
When conducting a decision making process alone, our accountability becomes a critical factor, and we are less prone to succumb to the influences of social bias.
One of the most critical benefits to spending at least some time working in solitude is the ability to self regulate and release stress. When an individual finds time to remove themselves from the social atmosphere within the workplace, they can relax, refocus, and recharge their systems.
“Inside myself is a place where I live all alone, and that’s where I renew my springs that never dry up.”- Pearl Buck, Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner.
The Mayo Clinic suggests moments of focused relaxation in order to improve stress levels. These moments can be achieved by simply closing the door and taking time to re-center oneself using breathing exercise or meditation.
The Clinic states that these moments used to recharge oneself reduce stress and promote healthy living.
The Pitfalls of Working in Groups
Productive vs. Psychological Benefits
Productivity of group collaboration has been overemphasized within the workplace during the last several decades. In fact, Natalie Allen and Tracy Hecht have termed this tendency to blindly believe in the efficacy of group work as “the romance of teams”.
They claim that it is the psychological benefits of working in teams that promotes a false sense of productivity. Allen and Hecht explain that within the team dynamic, members meet psychological needs relating to social-emotional and competence-related fulfillment.
It is the defense of these psychosocial needs that creates a false sense of the efficacy and productivity of the work group atmosphere. Members of the group will continue to promote the group as efficient because they become tied to the group for their own sense of employee satisfaction.
Studies have shown that working in groups facilitates communication and a spirit of teamwork. While group collaboration can have benefits relating to cohesiveness and team building, it can be argued that this collaborative push has cost us an important resource: individual creative process and drive.
From a theoretical perspective, psychologist Irving Janis, a pioneer in the field of group dynamics, would offer words of caution regarding what he termed “Groupthink.”
“Groupthink” is the concept developed by Irving L. Janis to describe the shortcomings of the decision-making process created through group involvement. Historically, there are numerous examples where groupthink has resulted in catastrophic events.
There are instances where groupthink mentalities can have significant, even worldwide implications.
Genocide, the Kent State University shootings, and Milgram’s famous prison study can be cited as examples of groupthink gone wrong. Like lemmings off a cliff, the direction is determined and the group blindly follows.
As terrible as these historic events are, Janis does not paint the destructive aspects of groupthink as an explosive event. It is not the image of lemmings falling off a cliff that best signifies the losses created by groupthink.
It is the pervasive undercurrent of ambivalence that becomes a substitute for the creative and industrious processes that is the greatest loss. Janis states that groupthink often results in “instances of mindless conformity and collective misjudgment of serious risks, which are collectively laughed off in a clubby atmosphere of relaxed conviviality.”
The majority of people falling prey to groupthink is not falling off a cliff; they’re sitting around in a circle, blindly nodding in agreement and grinning at each other.
“Individuals in groups tend to subjugate their individuality and act as though they were of one mind.”-Freud
The spirit of cooperation is alive and well in the business place. Think tanks, collaborative efforts and open office spaces have all contributed to a marked increase in the amount of the time spent not working alone.
Organizational psychologists, management philosophers and economists have all touted the benefits of working within environments that foster group interaction. The question is has the pendulum swung too far in the direction of interaction in the workplace?
Has the trend toward group involvement created an environment that is compromising one of our greatest assets: the individual contribution?
Janis and Freud both emphasize the importance of forming an individual perception before becoming involved in a group setting where persuasion to conform becomes the goal.
Diffusion of Responsibility within Groups
Another pitfall relating to groups is the decreasing efficiency of time spent within the group. Organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham takes the concept of diffusion of responsibility and applies it to work groups.
He has found that when people are working towards a common goal within a group, the drive to complete the task diminishes. The individuals slow down in their own progress on the task as “social loafing” takes hold of the group. The larger the group, the less urgent is the pressure to complete the task.
Therefore, working together on the task actually diminishes the production value of the group.
Social loafing, while nonproductive, is logical. When there is a deadline an individual is pushing to make, there is a tendency to self-monitor time and progress as a benchmark of productivity.
When two people are working together to complete the task, communication may be high and there is still an ability to monitor time and progress against the end goal to determine if speed or efficiency must pick up to make the deadline.
As the group size increases and more people are working together to make a deadline, it becomes increasingly difficult to monitor the progress of each person’s contribution.
Each individual has less urgent a part to play in the accomplishment and therefore the importance of monitoring time and progress against the end result becomes less accurate, more time consuming, and less personally critical.
There is a decrease in individual responsibility to ensure success because there are so many others involved in the final outcome.
In essence, within large groups, the majority of people become lax because of a pervasive belief that someone will pick up the slack.
Variables of Group Dynamics
Group dynamics are the attitudinal and behavioral characteristics of a group. Both the type of group, as well as the individual’s role within the group can impact the productivity of the group as a whole. Creating groups that function effectively can be difficult because the dynamic can be drastically affected by the individuals involved.
Factors relating to success of the group include the type of group and the roles or personality characteristics of the individuals within the group. Typically within the workplace we consider our groups to be relatively formal; individuals come together in groups in order to meet an organizational goal. These formal groups can be categorized as
- command groups: characterized by hierarchical structures that help to define the organization within a business
- task groups: groups that come together in order to achieve a specific purpose
- functional groups: groups are created within businesses in order organize skills into sectors such as departments.
In addition to the type of group, individuals perform a variety of specific roles contributing to the group dynamic. Individuals within groups can either promote or detract from the productivity of the group. For example, Stanford University group dynamics expert Ann Porteus classifies group rolesin the following manner:
- Work roles differentiate the individual’s purpose for the group task.
- Maintenance roles are social-emotional roles and help stabilize the emotional dynamic within the group.
- Hindering roles create conflict both for production and the emotional stability of the group. People who hinder the group productivity engage in behaviors including domination, withdrawal, degradation, uncooperative opposition, and distraction.
When a group is assigned a task, it is imperative that the individuals involved understand the goals they are expected to achieve and their position within the group.
The roles must be clearly defined in order for the group to function as a unit. Unfortunately, when people are cast into the wrong roles, tension may be created. They may be unable to complete the designated tasks. They may fall into a hindering position because they are not individually suited to the role assigned.
This matching of employee characteristics to tasks and roles is termed “fit”. Wesley Scroggins emphasizes the importance of fit between employees, their work roles, and their group membership for continuation of positive attitudes, motivation, and performance in the workplace.
Scroggins describes how a good fit between the employee, their expectations, and their role fulfillment can create an environment that promotes productivity and motivation.
When a good fit is not achieved, the ultimate result is dissatisfaction and a lack of employee retention.
Individual Variables: Introverts vs. Extraverts
One of the important considerations relating to employee fit and time spent working alone or within groups is the comfort level with which an employee relates to his world.
Individuals possessing the same basic skill set may be most comfortable working in solitude or conversely, in a highly interactive setting. This dichotomy, Introversion and Extraversion, can be applied in a psychological manner to business personality through the use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).
The Introversion/Extraversion continuum is a way to assess an individual’s personal style in relation to interpersonal interactions in their world.
Introverts are most comfortable focusing on their internal environments to promote productivity. They are most productive working alone at goal oriented tasks. Introverts value their personal creative process and thrive on their ability to develop ideas and plans in an individualized environment.
Introverts may fall short in their application of ideas within more generalized, real world scenarios. While their ideas may be creative, they may not have a good sense of the pulse of the world at large and the reality of the “fit” of their ideas within the grander scheme.
Introverts may also fall short of putting plans into action, becoming distracted by their own creative processes.
Extraverts, on the other hand, are most comfortable in an environment filled with interaction. Extraverts need a sense of community in order to stay focused on their goal. While introverts are most comfortable developing their own ideas, extraverts are most comfortable within environments that provide sounding boards and development of ideas through conversational piggybacking.
While comfortable surrounded by others, Extraverts may fall short in their performance by becoming too caught up within the interactive process and not taking the time to evaluate the purpose of the group and the steps necessary to move toward the goal.
In order to maximize the productivity levels of Introverts and Extraverts, they must be allowed to function within their environment of comfort while being managed effectively to control for shortcomings.
The weaving of interactive processes by allowing Introverts time to develop ideas before introducing Extraverts into the environment allows both types to play upon their strengths and counterbalance their weaknesses.
Finding a Balance
It is unreasonable to expect businesses to cater to all the preferences of their employees. It is also impossible to find a perfect fit between an employee and their position.
What is both reasonable and good business practice is to expect employees and their employers to find a balance between individual needs and group effectiveness. It is also reasonable and good practice to use both individual and group work when it is most advantageous to the goal, rather than trying to force the goal into a predetermined dynamic.
Management studies stress the importance of creating individualized plans to emphasize the strengths of employees within the workplace. Rolf van Dick, Patrick Tissington, and Guido Hertel, researchers focused on the phenomenon of social loafing, suggest that a focus on self-concept in the workplace can serve as a buffer against problems found with group productivity.
By increasing the ties between the individual, the group, and self-concept, productivity should remain high regardless of the specific working environment.
In addition to integrating a focus on self-concept into the work environment, allowing an employee to spend the majority of time working in an environment conducive to their personal comfort will increase the number of productive satisfied employees in the workplace.
For companies that have over generalized the perks of interaction, providing spaces for solitude will help increase creativity, productivity, ethical decision making, and decrease stress.
Working in solitude and working with others both have their place in business. It is impossible to take a definitive stance on which is better. There are many varying characteristics of the individual within a work environment that may increase or decrease productivity and effectiveness:
- Solitude can provide an environment conducive to
- Ethical Decision Making
- Decreases in Stress
- Groups can become complacent and fall into a “groupthink” mentality.
- Diffusion of Responsibility can inhibit progress through “Social Loafing”.
- Introverts and Extraverts function productively in different environments.
Perhaps the approach that best suits all involved is to create a work environment that allows individuals the freedom to find their space, explore their creativity, and center themselves so they can meet the expectations and challenges of working within their groups.
The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude. – Voltaire
Image source: McGraths