Collective intelligence, leadership, and dynamics of non-hierarchical groups

Leaders and followers

I’m going to suggest that in our society, whenever two or more people work together, each person takes the role of either leader or follower. (This is a gross over-simplification, but I believe it’s a useful one.) This is not intrinsic ‘human nature’, but a consequence of growing up in our particular society.

Leaders: Decide how the group’s chosen task will be done, delegate sub-tasks, and feel responsible for making sure the task as a whole is successful. They may feel stressed-out and over-worked (especially in voluntary groups). They likely feel personally invested in the task: if it goes well they will feel justifiably proud, while if it goes badly they will feel bad about themselves. If they or the project are criticised they are likely to feel angry and hurt, even if the criticism is gentle and well-intentioned.

Followers: Help complete the task as instructed by the leader. They probably won’t speak up if they think the task is not being done in the best way possible. They don’t feel responsible for the outcome of the task, but they want it to go well. If they dislike the leader’s decisions they will likely resent the leader silently or complain about the leader when they are not around.

In most situations in our lives these leader-follower roles are overt and official: for instance, parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee, politician-citizen.

As Jo Freeman pointed out in the famous pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness, feminist groups are often officially non-hierarchical, yet unofficially people still fall into the leader-follower pattern.

I’m going to suggest that there is another style of interaction, which is genuinely non-hierarchical:

Autonomous individuals: Are ready to either lead or follow, depending on what seems best in the moment. If no-one else in the group knows what to do, they will step forward and do their best to take a leadership role, even if they know they aren’t doing it perfectly. On the other hand, if someone else steps up to take a leadership role, they happily take on a more subordinate role. They are not afraid of making mistakes and don’t mind being criticised, because they have a high opinion of themselves and will continue to feel good about themselves even if someone criticises them – in fact, they think that if you never make a mistake, it’s a sign that you aren’t taking enough risks.

In our society most people are used to a leader-follower dynamic, and are unused to behaving as autonomous individuals. However I believe it’s possible for people to learn to behave more autonomously, if they consider it desirable to do so.

Group intelligence

If individual intelligence is an individual’s ability to solve problems, group intelligence is a group’s ability to solve problems.

A group that has a strict leader-follower dynamic has a group intelligence equal to the intelligence of the group leader. An example is a platoon of well-trained soldiers who obey all their commander’s orders immediately and without question.

It’s possible for a group to do much worse than this though: imagine there is a fire in a packed concert hall, and the audience frantically push and even trample each-other trying to get out through the main doors, while ignoring the fire exits. The individual concert-goers might be very intelligent, but collectively they are very stupid.

The best-case scenario is that a group manages to combine all the wisdom of its members, and makes decisions which take all of its member’s knowledge and ideas into account. This is only possible if the group’s members act as autonomous individuals

For a group to make the most of the intelligence of all its members, the members must be autonomous individuals: able to state their view and also to listen to others, able to make suggestions, and able to shrug it off if these suggestions are rejected by others.

In the (common) situation where a group is officially non-hierarchical but there is still a leader-follower dynamic, that dynamic prevents the group from making the most of group intelligence. This is because followers often don’t share their knowledge at all, and the leader often feels that they have to discourage alternate views, in order to move forward and get things done.

The cost of group intelligence

Even in a group of people who can act autonomously, group intelligence doesn’t automatically emerge. It takes quite a bit of time, effort and patience for every person to share their view and iron out misunderstandings. Then the group will have to make a decision that takes account of the group’s new shared understanding, and this will likely take longer than it would for one person to decide what to do on their own. For this reason it isn’t necessarily to a group’s advantage to make every decision by consensus. There is sometimes a tendency to think that in non-hierarchical groups everyone has to agree to every decision, down to the minutest detail – clearly this is impossible, and undesirable. For routine tasks, it’s often desirable for one or two people to take a leadership role, with the rest acting as followers.

In non-hierarchical groups there is sometimes a sort of paralysis that sets in, where people feel they would need the permission of the whole group to do anything, even something really small – so no-one does anything. One way to understand this is that people are still trying to have a leader-follower dynamic, even though there are no leaders. By contrast, an autonomous individual would step forward to do small tasks that needed doing but weren’t important enough to seek a decision from the whole group. If they misjudge this, and do something that other group members would have liked to be consulted on, the autonomous individual apologises, and does things a little differently in future.

When is group intelligence worth the effort?

– When the group works on a non-routine project, that group members are excited and passionate about.

– When the group has a non-routine decision to make.

– When there is a serious or recurring conflict within the group.

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