Identifying synergy in small group competitions: an applied setting approach.

Author:Clark, Cheryl


Synergy is an elusive term that is often associated with groups of individuals and performance. Ideally, if the 'right' group of individuals is assembled they will outperform those same individuals working alone. While leaders in various organizations form groups with the expectation that the combination of skill and interaction will improve performance it can be difficult or impossible to measure. This study sought to determine if synergy was measurable in the performance of small groups specifically dyads. The study analyzed data of various dyads who participated in an annual sporting competition over a ten year period.

Research Question:

Is synergistic performance measurable in dyads competing in a sporting event?


While research on group performance (Hackman & Morris, 1975, Kerr & Tindale, 2004, Kerr, 2010, Steiner, 1972, Volmer, 2011) and synergy (Hertel, 2011, Larson, 2010) has been conducted in various contextual settings, few studies have linked the two outside laboratory and classroom settings. In fact, even if linked, previous research has produced mixed results in group performance gain (Kerr and Tindale, 2004). This paper analyzes the competitive golf environment to better understand, if, by measuring both skill and synergy, dyad synergy is measurable in this applied setting.

Small Groups/Dyads

Since small groups are comprised of individuals both engaging and influencing each other in a manner that improves performance, a competitive sporting venue provides an opportunity to explore this improvement. Most sports are played with groups or teams of athletes (baseball, basketball, football, hockey) with the goal of the captain to create the group of players who will perform as a group better than they would as individuals. Yet certain literature has focused on the weaknesses of measuring group performance but as suggested by Wang and Thompson (2006), this study focuses on the strengths and benefits of small groups.

Group Task

When analyzing group performance a clear definition of group task must remain constant. Using the construct identified by Larson (2010) and Hackman, (1969) to validate the presence of group task in this setting, Figure 1, demonstrates that each of the elements are clearly developed and defined. The event venue, equipment and player skill all create a 'stimulus complex', while the score, the dyad wins and tournament wins provide 'goal direction', finally the rules of the game, etiquette and scoring process all ensure a 'procedural directive'.

Group Effectiveness

Group effectiveness is a result of inputs, processes and outputs and goes beyond task performance to include the attitudes and behavioral outcomes of the team members (Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006, Cohen & Bailey, 1997). Performance effectiveness is directly related to the outcome and determined by the quality or score for a particular event and evaluated by an externally defined standard (Larson, 2010). The standard governing these tasks are the rules and scoring methodology of the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (Cullity, 2011).


Whether in business or the business of sports, synergy is described as the increase in performance by the collective group beyond what could be achieved by individuals (Larson, 2010, Hertel, 2011). Larson's definition of synergy is readily linked to this sports competition in that it:

Table 1 LINKING SYNERGY TO GOLF Criteria for Synergy Sports Competition Demonstrates group performance The number of shots per hole is gain and not experiential state recorded for each golfer or dyad. Ensures performance gain exceeds Individual performance baseline baseline measure measures are captured in each regular season tour event Creates observable group Dyads confer on course interaction conditions, weather and the various aspects of the putting green. Adjustments in behavior follow Examples of player adjustments interactions with others include but are not limited to club selection, fullness of swing and direction of shot. Synergy is measured by the performance increase of the dyad when compared to a performance baseline measure for the individual contributor. The level (weak or strong) can be calculated by comparing the individual performance to that of the dyad. Weak synergy occurs when the group performance exceeds that of the typical group member working alone; strong synergy occurs when the group performance exceeds the performance of the best group member (Larson, 2010). Synergy is not equally evident in groups of all sizes. In fact, dyads often do not demonstrate synergy to the degree found in larger groups (Laughlin et al. 2006).

The Study

The PGA TOUR is the organizing body of the world's largest group of professional golfers and oversees the United States' participation in the Ryder Cup and President's Cup golf tournaments. The collection and analysis of player data and outcome measures was conducted over a 10 year period from 2004 to 2013. These tournaments provided a setting that was consistent with evaluating group performance. First, the tournament structure was a defined group task and that provided the opportunity to measure synergy as it related to performance outcomes. Second, measures of skill were available for each player by determining an individual performance metric. Third, a performance metric was calculated for each dyad based on the...

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