Is the sum of the parts greater than the whole? Skill vs. synergy.

Author:Clark, Cheryl

With the continued presence of group and teamwork in contemporary organizations and the significant work performed by "interacting individuals" (Ladley, Wilkinson, & Young, 2015), ensuring the success of this approach remains an important focus. However, "many questions about group versus individual performance ... remain unanswered" (Larson, 2010, pp. ix). In fact, as the frequency of team-based work continues to increase, understanding the influence of team composition on performance outcomes may be crucial to maximizing human capital (Humphrey, Morgeson, & Mannor, 2009; Shaw, Duffy, & Stark, 2000; Sparrowe, Liden, Wayne, & Kraimer, 2001, Ndinguri, Prieto, & Machtmes, 2012).


Studies on factors contributing to individuals' performance tend to examine intrinsic characteristics such as ability, interest, and internal motivation (Deci, Connell, & Ryan, 1989; Deci, 1975; Vallerand, 1997; Van Yperen & Hagedoorn, 2003) or extrinsic variables, including outcome and social or material rewards (Brief & Aldag, 1977; Sansone & Smith, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000). The impact of co-workers on an individual's performance may be positive or negative (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). Positive actions, including task support, providing information, mentoring, and engagement, can improve performance (Caplan, Cobb, French, Harrison, & Pinneau, 1975; Ensher, Thomas, & Murphy, 2001; Kogler Hill, Bahniuk, & Dobos, 1989; Morgeson & Humphrey, 2006) but negative actions, including rudeness, envy, undercutting, and bullying (Duffy et al., 2002; Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Bruk-Lee & Spector, 2006) diminish it. Performance may be further enhanced by interpersonal variables such as "personality fit," including "agreeableness, emotional stability and openness" (Barrick et al., 2001) while the lack of fit makes it more difficult for co-workers to perform effectively together (Larson, Jr., 2010).

Despite the wealth of studies linking individual motivation to performance, few have provided an understanding of the connection between individual motivation and group or team synergy. Furthermore, providing management with insight into forming teams to improve performance outcomes could have a significant impact on organization resources and success.

Synergy has been a topic of increasing interest in recent years (Larsen, 2010; Maymin, Maymin, & Shen, 2013; Clark & Clark, 2014). Previous studies have demonstrated that synergy exists in group or team sports (e.g., cycling, golf, basketball) and can improve performance. These studies have shown that the pairing or grouping of certain athletes for competitive events can generate improved performance exceeding individual skill. Larson (2010) not only explored the early evidence of synergy in research but clearly defined it as "a gain in performance that is attributable in some way to group interaction" (p. 4). This interaction may take many forms, including sharing information on competitors and conditions and/or planning a strategy to win. Regardless of the form of this interaction, certain sports require more engagement than others. Key elements of the synergy definition, shown in Figure 1 (Larson, 2010), are necessary inputs to group performance and a gain over the individual baseline can be attributed to synergy and include elements of individual motivation, as previously discussed.


To identify synergy in group performance, an activity must meet the definition of a group task (Larson, 2010; Hackman, 1969); a group task includes a "stimulus complex" of preexisting materials, "goal directives" to create clear expectations for performance, and "procedural directives" to frame the performance.

Professional golf provides the venue for the study of performance and synergy as the nature of the sport is consistent with the definition of synergy and the game, specifically the Ryder Cup tournament, meets the definition of a group task. The Ryder Cup tournament provides a unique opportunity to examine evidence of synergy and related performance outcomes in a competitive environment. Of particular importance to this study is identifying whether certain groups or teams demonstrate synergy and if, in fact, those groups demonstrating synergy have a better performance outcome. Therefore, we propose the following:

Hypothesis 1 When synergy is identified in dyads, performance improves.

Hypothesis 2 When synergy is identified in teams, performance improves.

Measuring Synergy

Synergy has been measured with a variety of methods. For example, the synergy of National Basketball Association (NBA) teams is calculated by "comparing their 5-player lineup's effectiveness to the 'sum-of-the-parts'" (Maymin, Maymin, & Shen, 2013, p. 4). Collins and Guetzkow (1964, p. 58) focused on group performance and identified the "assembly effect bonus" as the increased performance of the group beyond both the most capable individual and the sum of the group members working individually.

Larson (2010, p. 4) provided a model with the most relevant definition of synergy: "a group is said to exhibit synergy when it is able to accomplish collectively something that could not reasonably have been achieved by any simple combination of individual member efforts". Synergy is thus defined as follows:

Strong synergy--group performance gain that exceeds that of the best member

Weak synergy--group performance gain that exceeds that of the typical member

Context of the Study

This study examined individual, dyad, and team performance in the Ryder Cup golf tournaments from 2004 through 2014. These events meet both the definition of synergy (Figure 1) and the previously described group task criteria.

The Ryder Cup is biennial and played between teams from the USA and Europe. Table 1 provides the format for the three-day event with 16 two-person dyads playing the first two days and 12 singles or...

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