A Final Example from Everyday Life


A Final Example from Everyday Life

Perhaps the Most Enlightening Team Project in the History of the World

Okay, my friend—it’s time to summarize all of this. To do that, I’d like to tell you about a fascinating experience I had a few years ago.

I was leading a conference, and I got it into my head to do an experiment with a group of managers who were working at a telecom company. The participants were professional and clever, and all of them were successful in their respective fields. They had excellent qualifications and were destined for brilliant careers. I’d already made profiles for all of them—they had completed a self-assessment that showed which communication style they had.

I divided the managers into groups with similar behavior profiles. I imagined that it would be easy for them to get along. They’d certainly understand one another. There were twenty people in total. I called the groups Red, Yellow, Green, and Blue. I mean I had to call them something.

They had to solve a specially constructed problem that was connected to their field and required cooperation. They were given an hour to complete it. I explained the challenge and all the groups eagerly accepted the instructions and got to work.

After the groups had been working for a while, I went around and checked out what was going on in the various teams.

In the Red Group, the noise level was high. Three people were standing and loudly explaining why they were right. Two of them were in the middle of an argument, while the final person had decided to work alone. Completely unconcerned about the shouting match three feet away, he was writing so fast that his pen was starting to spark.

When I asked if everything was okay in there, everything suddenly stopped and all of them looked at me in surprise.

“Is everything okay?” I repeated anxiously.

“Peachy!” one of the belligerent guys said grimly. “We’re almost done here.”

I left them and continued on. The Yellow Group was also working frantically. You could almost taste the energy in the room. Things were happening! The discussions were lively, with everyone trying to convince the others of their own position. While the Reds were mad as hell with one another, there was nothing but smiles here. Three of the Yellows were jockeying for space at the whiteboard, and another told me an amusing anecdote that had nothing to do with the subject at hand (but it was actually hilarious). The fifth manager in the Yellow Group was doodling on a piece of paper and sending emails on his cell phone.

I left them to pay a visit to the Green Group. Inside the room, there was a strange calmness. Their voices were quiet, and they were all listening rather than speaking. The chief goal was stability and security. Five of the managers were sitting quietly, listening to one of their colleagues telling a sad story about his dog who had tragically died of old age that same winter. He was still missing his life companion.

The last manager had sketched out some suggestions about how they could solve the task I’d given them, but every suggestion ended with a question mark. She needed more input, and it looked like she would have to ask for it. She was in trouble.

I continued on. In the last group, the Blue Group, the room was almost absurdly quiet. After sitting with them for three minutes without anyone uttering so much as a single word, I was seriously concerned. A lot of thought was happening under the surface, but there was no real communication taking place.

A woman was reading silently through the task with her lips moving. I asked if they needed help to get started. I got a few hesitant nods in reply. They soon began a very thorough deliberation. They would absolutely get to the bottom of things. It was obvious that they were on the right track, but on an extremely detailed level. They discussed for a long time what their plan of action should be.

I remember glancing furtively at the clock. Half the allotted time had passed, but they hadn’t produced anything concrete. Proposals had been put forward, but they’d been rejected by the others on a variety of technicalities. Every word was chosen carefully and the advantages and disadvantages weighed carefully. They were far more interested in doing things properly than in actually getting things done.

I left them to their fate and went back to the large conference room.

Before the allotted time was up, the Red Group arrived with triumphant grins. They congratulated one another for being the first back. They’d clearly won the test.

I had to go and fetch all the other groups. The Yellow Group was the slowest. I had to go back twice before they deigned to make an appearance. Two of them were talking on their phones, and the third guy only managed to recover after having some coffee and cake.

When all the groups had returned, I let them present their work.

The Red Group went triumphantly to the podium. They’d turned the task into a race. They were ready in thirty minutes, even though they had been given an hour. The rest of the time they’d spent phon ing around to their coworkers, checking what they were doing with their time. It was a sound presentation, a well-organized structure, and properly thought out. But about thirty seconds into the report, it was clear that the Red Group had solved a completely different problem than what I’d given them. It wasn’t at all what I had asked for.

When I asked if they had actually read the instructions, they all began arguing. One of the men stated confidently that they’d adapted the task to reality. They’d done a brilliant job. He expected applause, but when the standing ovation didn’t materialize, the members of the group shrugged their shoulders and returned to their seats. A second after sitting down, the woman in the group began playing with her phone. A vital text message had to be sent immediately.

After that, it was the Yellow Group’s turn. This group consisted of three women and two men. All of them smiled and stood at the front. Who should begin? A brief deliberation took place before one of the women charmed her way to the podium. She quickly plunged into her topic, presenting the exciting discussions they’d had for the past hour. She spoke for a while about the whole thing being an inspirational exercise; she described how she was going to use the insights she’d gained when she returned to her work. Her presentation was very entertaining, and everyone laughed. I was also amused by the woman’s story, especially considering that it only had one purpose: to camouflage the fact that the group hadn’t solved the task. However, the Yellow Group did manage to get some applause, mostly due to the high entertainment value of their presentation.

Now it was time for the Green Group. It took a while to get everyone up to the podium. While the Yellow Group had squabbled about who was going first, the Green Group was anxious. “Do all of us go up?” “Who should present the report? Should I?” “Shouldn’t you do it?” At least half of the six participants looked as if they had a stomachache. Sure, this was the largest group but, nevertheless, they were all nervous.

No one took command. After a moment of low-key deliberations, one of the men began to speak. He faced the whiteboard most of the time. He talked softly, turning towards the members of his team for support. He was so subtle in his observations that the message was hopelessly lost. With growing desperation, he looked at his team for help.

When their presentation was over, not even the Green Group had solved the task, even though they had made more progress than the Yellow Group. I asked if everyone in the group was in agreement about the material that was presented.

The unfortunate spokesperson said that he thought that it was probably true that most of them were relatively in agreement. I asked the group, and they all nodded in unison. At least four of the participants in the group had grim faces, their arms crossed tightly around their bodies—body language that proclaimed they were far from agreeing with what had been said. One of the women looked resentfully at the spokesperson. But, by Jove, she was in agreement.

Finally, the Blue Group marched up in line and stood in alphabetical order, according to a prearranged agenda. Arne went through the instructions, revealing that there were several points that had made the task challenging. Among other things, he remarked on the sentence structure in the document that I had handed out—he spent most of the time explaining that it was better to say “advisor” rather than “adviser,” although both forms are technically correct—and pointed out no fewer than two additional grammatical errors, on the very first page.

Then it was Berit’s turn to go through the structure they had based their work on, after being interrupted twice by Arne, who believed that a few minor details needed to be clarified. When Kjell took over, they still weren’t even close to providing a solution to the problem. Stefan didn’t straighten out any issues, and when Yolanda finally announced they needed more time to finish the task properly, chaos erupted in the conference room.

The Red Group quickly branded the members of the Blue Group complete idiots, the Yellow Group felt it was the most boring thing they’d ever experienced, and the Green Group just suffered silently through the whole show.


The purpose of the whole exercise was to highlight that no group should be composed solely of individuals of the same type. Diversity is the only possible route. The best way to put a group of people together is by mixing different types of people. This is the only way to achieve decent dynamics in any group. This seems intuitive, but despite this, most of the organizations I have encountered fail on this fundamental requirement when they recruit people. Managers bring in new people who are just like themselves because they understand each other.

This book has been about explaining exactly why the groups in this example worked the way they did and giving you the tools to avoid similar problems in your own life. I hope that you found pleasure in reading it and joining in this exciting exploration of how people function, what makes them similar, and what makes them different. Because we are all different. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll find out exactly how different.

The rest is up to you.

About the Author

THOMAS  ERIKSON is an expert on communication. He works with developing organizations from a leadership perspective. In the past eighteen years he has trained more than five thousand executives to be better and more efficient leaders. Thomas has written several popular science books on communication and human behavior. Surrounded by Idiots is one of Sweden’s bestselling nonfiction books, with hundreds of thousands of copies sold in Sweden alone. 



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