Eight Science-Informed Keys to Effective Groups

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A recent Templeton World Charity Foundation conference, Character, Social Connections and Flourishing in the 21st Century, expanded my mind, thanks to a lecture by famed evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. This much about him I had known: His multilevel selection theory argues that evolution favors survival-enhancing group as well as individual behaviors. Within groups, selfishness beats altruism. Yet altruistic groups triumph over selfish groups.


What I learned from his lecture and our ensuing dinner conversation was that his passion has shifted to understanding and enabling effective real-world groups—from nonprofit organizations to schools to faith communities to businesses. How might people in such groups more effectively work together to accomplish goals?


To enhance work team effectiveness, Wilson and his colleagues suggest implementing a group of basic principles. They point out that groups that effectively manage shared resources, such as irrigation, forests, and fisheries, follow principles that (a) integrate evolutionary principles of group selection with (b) “core design principles” identified by political scientist and economics Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, seasoned with (c) behavior-change insights articulated by psychologist Steven Hayes. The resulting eight principles for success:

  1. Strong group identity and purpose. Groups know who they are and what sets them apart from other groups.
  2. Fair sharing of benefits and costs. Proportional sharing (without some members benefiting at the expense of others) advances group over individual advancement.
  3. Fair and inclusive decisions. Consensus decision-making, with uncensored input, enables smart decisions, and, again, safeguards against some benefiting at others’ expense.
  4. Tracking results ensures that agreements are honored.
  5. Graduated sanctions. Accountability for misbehaviors ranges from gentle reminders to expulsion.
  6. Conflict resolution mechanisms. When disagreements occur, the group implements fair and fast resolution procedures.
  7. Authority to self-govern. In larger societies and organizations, subgroups are empowered to organize and operate.
  8. Appropriate coordination with other groups. In larger social systems, operating subgroups must integrate with other subgroups.


How striking it is, notes Wilson, that the principles Ostrom identified from successful commons resource-managing groups are so similar to “the conditions that caused us to evolve into such a cooperative species.” These principles—when implemented by effective leaders—build a group’s moral foundation, protect it against self-serving behaviors, and allow its members to freely express themselves.


To assist groups in implementing the core design principles drawn from evolutionary, political, and psychological science, Wilson and colleagues have authored a book (Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups), developed a websitethat offers training and resources, and produced an online magazine that tells implementation stories.


Wilson’s life journey—from son of a famous author (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) to science theorist to social entrepreneur—is unique. Yet in other ways, his professional pilgrimage is similar to our own . . . as our lives have unfolded in unanticipated ways—sometimes with false starts leading to brick walls, sometimes with gratifying new directions. Little did I expect, when first encountering Wilson’s work, that it would later produce practical resources for helping groups “learn about and adopt design principles to improve their efficacy.”

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).