Resilience and the power of weak ties

A March 7th New York Times article reports on work by scientists who have studied the resilience of groups under pressure argues that decentralized groups are more resileince than strongly connected ones to criticism and internal quarrels.

Evidence from personality profiles and from studies of military, corporate and space flight crews suggests that looser ties between group members can be a strength, if the team includes individuals who can generate collective emotion when needed. And the Yankees have several of them.

“So much of psychology and sociology emphasizes the importance of communicating and creating strong bonds to improve group performance, but in a lot of situations that is just not how it works,” said Dr. Calvin Morrill, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied group behavior in competitive corporate situations and in high schools. “Baseball is an odd mix of an individual and team sport, and an ideal example of where a diffuse team with weak ties to one another may help the overall functionality of the group.”

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When a common purpose is shared, loosely tied groups can function better than strongly bonded ones when it comes to containing dissent or bickering, research suggests. In studies of neighborhood organizations and corporate teams, social scientists have observed that members with weak ties can withdraw from disagreements without disrupting the group or their own work.

On a tightly knit team, by contrast, a falling out between key members can divide a squad, forcing people to take sides, psychologists say. “The idea is that any sort of problem is likely to ripple more strongly and quickly through a close group than one with weak ties,” said Dr. Mark Granovetter, a professor of sociology at Stanford.

Psychologists who have studied the personality profiles of people who face far greater pressures than winning in October – including special-operations forces and astronauts – agree that those who do well share distinct qualities: they tend to be independent, confident, able to tolerate uncertainty and socialize easily with others.

“But they are not too outgoing, not socially needy, not the sort of people who need others for support,” said Dr. Lawrence Palinkas, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, and the chief adviser to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which studies spaceflight.

Whether such independent, loosely tied people ultimately succeed as a unit depends not only on strong management, researchers say, but on the presence of individual group members who can circulate through disparate parts of the team, reduce conflict and help generate collective spirit when it is needed.

In one continuing investigation of a highly diverse high school of 1,600 students, Dr. Morrill found that a single 16-year-old white skateboarder had been critical to the reduction of conflict. “He moves between black, Asian, Hispanic and white groups, and he’s one of these kids who’s always bringing good news,” he said. “He’s a very important person in this school.”

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