So if we should not be subscribing to the super chicken theory, then what type of leadership structures should we be subscribing to within medical teams to produce the best outcomes for ourselves and for our patients and their families?
A study performed by MIT scientists gives us some insight. Researchers found that when random groups of people are given very difficult problems to solve (e.g., think about diagnostic dilemmas or very difficult patients), certain group attributes made it more likely that the group would be successful in solving these difficult problems. The groups that were most effective were not those with a few people with extremely high IQs or with the highest collective IQ. The teams that were most effective and able to solve difficult problems were those that showed high degrees of social sensitivity among members (i.e., empathy). The highest-performing teams gave roughly equal time to each member (e.g., think about physicians, pharmacists, social workers, case managers, consultants on a typical medical team). They also found the highest-performing teams had more women in them. (I feel so redeemed!)
In summary, what they learned from these experiments was that the most successful teams were more socially connected and more highly attuned and sensitive to one another. This is not to say that highly successful teams were leaderless. There is absolutely a vital role that leaders play in such teams. In Jim Collins’ famous book Good to Great, in studying leadership and teams, he did not find the best leaders were super chickens who autocratically made unilateral decisions. Instead, he found the best leaders function more like facilitators, having the humility and skill to draw out shared solutions from large participatory teams.3 Doesn’t this sound like how a hospitalist should run multidisciplinary rounds?
The other major attribute that the MIT researchers noticed about highly functional teams is that each and every member of the team was extremely willing and able to give and receive help. They found that teams with high mutual understanding and trust were more likely to seamlessly—and almost effortlessly—give and receive help from one another. They ended up acting as one another’s social support network. If any team member was confronted by a difficult problem or situation, each felt confident that it could be easily solved with the collective skill and wisdom of the team.
As a result of such research, some companies have developed and implemented strategies to enhance such social capital, such as synchronizing coffee breaks and disallowing coffee mugs at individual desks. These companies consider it a vital strategic mission to ensure that team members get to know and understand one another and that they serve as a social support network at work. They believe that it is reliance and interdependency that ensures trust and enhances productivity.
So what really matters is the mortar, not just the bricks.
For hospital medicine teams, what we need to do is accept that teams work best when every member has a voice and is valued. When others look to us (usually seen as team leaders) to make all the decisions (as if we are super chickens), we need to empower our team members to make decisions with us.
We need to actively work toward this model of being a team leader, break any cycles of dependency that we have set up, and produce better outcomes.
We need to avoid acting like super chickens and appreciate and empower a true team effort.
We need to stop accepting that management and promotions occur by talent contests that pit employees against one another and insist that rivalry at every level has to be replaced by social capital and social connectedness.