There Are No Stars in Hospitality

Romulo Vallejo

By Romulo Vallejo

Dec 19, 2016

No stars…we need everyone! In the hospitality industry more so than any other, knowing how to replace the individual excellence model in favor of building effective workgroups is vital.

Across the world, a competitive spirit is instilled on our children from a very early age. It is from that point onward which gives us armies of highly ambitious young adults crowding ever-more-competitive universities to eventually land in the professional world. Ultimately, generations of individuals come into the workforce after going through a lifelong boot camp on how to outperform others in order to succeed.

And the competitiveness does not stop there. Most organizations set their promotion and pay increase schedules based on individual performance, hence reinforcing this combative behavior on their members.

While some scientists have argued that competitiveness is ingrained in our DNA as part of the evolutionary process that got us to where we are today, more and more research in the field of social studies, however, is bringing to light new evidence on the qualities of highly successful people that is clearly in favor of cooperation.

“People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It makes the environment less disorienting and dangerous. The social world of each modern human is not a single tribe, but rather a system of interlocking tribes, among which it is often difficult to find a single compass.” (1)

Today’s organizations struggle to provide their members this needed sense of identity and belonging for which they crave. As key executives brainstorm how to build stronger, more effective teams, they sometimes miss the one important element that could exponentially improve their odds – the social connections that hold their members together.

You might have the most brilliant bundle of individuals, but without trust, reciprocity and a bond to a common good, the likelihood of having them succeed as a team is very dim.

The Super Chicken Business Model
This brings me to the now famous experiment from W. M Muir (2) that resulted in what is known as the ‘Super Chicken’ business model (3). Dr. Muir’s study has sparked debate among academics and group behavior theorists in the social sciences. Muir, a professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, conducted a series of experiments on the productivity of chickens as measured by the average amount of eggs they laid. Two test groups of chickens were used to conduct the experiment and then allowed to breed for five generations.

The first test group consisted of chickens with the highest individual productivity – referred to as the ‘super chicken group’ – while the second test group consisted of chickens with the highest average productivity. After five generations, the super chicken group’s production had gone down dramatically and its membership was decimated as the chickens had actually started killing each other! On the other hand, the average group’s production increased 160% and were all healthy.

One of the conclusions of this study has been that, “The highest egg producing hens in each cage tended to be the biggest bully who achieved productivity in great part by suppressing the productivity of the other hens. Bullying behavior being a heritable trait, several generations were sufficient to produce a strain of psychopaths.” (4) The hens from the cages with the highest group output seemed to work better together or at least refrained from exploiting each other – a remarkable outcome.

Working Together
In another groundbreaking study, a group of scientists, under the direction of Thomas W. Malone, conducted tests on over 600 men and women grouped in mixed teams, asking them to perform a series of tests designed to measure their effectiveness in working together (5).

In order to be able to compare group output and correlate the results to specific characteristics of the groups, individual intelligence was measured and averaged for each participant in a group. Other evaluations included a test known as the ‘reading the mind in the eyes test’, broadly known as a standard assessment for human empathy. The groups were also closely observed for interaction clues as measured by individual participation on the group dynamics, or lack thereof, while solving problems.

The conclusion of the experiment was that neither the individual intelligence of the members nor the average intelligence of the group were key factors in the ability to achieve higher scores in the test problems that were presented. The three elements that proved to consistently impact the results the most were:

  1. Average social sensitivity as measured by the level of empathy of the group (empathy factor) based upon the ‘reading the mind in the eyes’ test
  2. Equality in the distribution of conversation turn-taking
  3. Proportion of females in the group

The study supports the theory that individual performance is not the most relevant factor in group performance. It concludes that highly effective groups have a propensity towards social sensitivity and connectedness.

Looking To The Pros
To find more evidence on how these principles play in the dynamics of group performance, I turned to my favorite team sport. In professional basketball, having a few individual stars can lead to success, but having too many of them can lead to problems too difficult to manage.

The Miami Heat’s ‘Big Three’ 2010-11 season featured three of the top ten selections taken in the 2003 NBA draft including Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Although this group led the Heat to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances, the first season presented some challenges for this team of stars. Most of the needed adjustments happened at the start of the season when the team began with a disappointing 9-8 record. In the end, they managed to pull off an amazing season but fell short of winning the NBA championship.

Even when having the right players, team members must learn to trust and respect each other for the contributions made to the overall success as well as properly coordinate their efforts in order to be effective. Under outstanding leadership, this can sometimes take several seasons to achieve. As individual egos subside and true team spirit emerges, each member finds his place in the line up and learns how to support his teammates while also challenging them to do better. This translates into real conversations on and off the court, moving the members to a full realization of their group potential. As for the Heat, once they cracked the code to teamwork, they went on to win two consecutive NBA championships.

Natural Versus Engineered Groups
It is well documented that self-assembled human groups tend to push towards homogeneity which could spell doom for organizations. What about engineered groups? Which ones are most likely to succeed?

In her study of organizational cultures, author Margaret Hefferman argued that we need to assemble ‘motley crew’ types of teams within an environment that fosters, “The knowledge, trust, reciprocity and shared norms that create quality of life and make groups resilient.” (6)

The key factor to keep in mind here is that what holds groups together is just as important as the members themselves. Organizations that wish to build and get the most of this social capital will benefit from applying as many of the following suggestions as possible:

  • Hire more for empathy and ability to work with others than for individual achievements. Building a team of stars is the equivalent to preparing a team of sprinters for the Olympics and hoping they do well for all track and field events. For this, there are several widely used tests that measure empathy. Adopt one and apply it as part of the hiring process.
  • Whether you are assembling a team or working with an existing one, take the time to meet all of the players individually on a personal level. Then work towards ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to meet his or her fellow team members and to learn about them.
  • When conducting meetings, allow for and encourage equal time participation. As a leader of the group, make an effort not to say anything for as long as possible – hopefully until the end – because once you do, others will tend to shut down and position themselves.
  • Reward group performance more than individual performance. If the team wins, everyone wins. This includes promotions, bonuses, gifts and any other form of employee incentive.
  • Allow for people to advocate for groups different than their own within the organization. Ahead of all associate meetings, tell the front desk that they will be bringing up issues related to the housekeeping department and vice versa. Putting team members in each other’s shoes is a way to promote interdepartmental communication and a way of learning how to build empathy and trust amongst team members.
  • Find ways to integrate geographically separated teams. The classic corporate office versus hotel staff bickering can be easily remedied by integrating players from both sides. Any business investment on such integration – which technology makes now simpler than ever before – is worth its price in gold.
  • Create opportunities for people to spend more time together. I firmly believe that if management spent more time having lunch with associates and other managers rather than in private offices by themselves, the impact would be very positive. Schedule lunches and coffee breaks so that more participants can take them at the same time.
  • Finally, keep in mind that building teams where members trust each other takes time and stability within the roster. Transferring successful members to other divisions or different teams sets the clock back. Changing roles within the team is often more effective. Moreover, the introduction of new players must be considered carefully and done sparingly.

Our ability as leaders to build the social capital necessary to impact an organization’s success is directly proportional to our commitment to promote social bonding amongst the members of our teams.

Finding ways for people to get to know each other better, to trust each other and to confront one another in a safe way in order to overcome challenges, would not only increase the productivity of your team, but also its overall sense of belonging to your tribe.

(1) Edward O. Wilson (2012). The Social Conquest of Earth. (p. 37).
(2) Muir, W. M. (2013). Genetics and the Behavior of Chickens: Welfare and Productivity. In Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals, 2nd Edition. (Vol. 2, pp. 1-30).
(3) Wikipedia.
(4) Article: When the strong outbreed the weak: An interview with William Muir.
(5) Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. In Science 29 Oct 2010: Vol. 330, Issue 6004, pp. 686-688 DOI:10.1126/science.1193147.
(6) Hefferman, Margaret (2015). Social Capital. In e-book Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes. Simon and Shuster/TED (p. 24).

About the author

Romulo Vallejo

Romulo Vallejo is a hospitality operations specialist / Task force manager with over 20 years of US and Caribbean-Latin America experience supporting select, extended and full service hotel teams. He currently operates as an independent consultant under the Cayuga Hospitality Consultants  Network.

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