The ‘Curse of Brightness’.

Within the Agile communities ‘gaming’ has become fashionable, fun and some would suggest a productive way for teams to learn new skills. It certainly has gained mainstream popularity. It has certainly helped some of the teams that I have coached over the last 8-years.

Gaming reminds me of one of the seminal insights from Belbin (1980), and his work at the Henley Management College of Cambridge in what he termed ‘THE EME’ or The Executive Management Exercise. This was a week-long assessment/ development centre. In this setting, the participants created teams to compete against each other. good fun huh!

The outcome was simple: to finish with the largest proportion of scarce resources. This was how success was framed. What Belbin was able to neatly demonstrate was the affects of a range of important psychological variables. These factors included: IQ, personality measures (the Big 5), as well as creativity.

After some nine or ten years, Belbin and his team were able to claim the proverbial ‘Golden Calf’ of Work Psychology: predictive power! They must have been delighted as we Work Psychologists delight with good data. In other words, they could predict given their assessments which teams would win even before the games commenced. Yes imagine that! Holy smoke! This, by the way, became a successful business model and for sound reasons as you can see.

What can we learn?

There are a number of key insights and these seem to me to be quite relevant for 21st Century Leadership (and Organisational) Development and Coaching:

  • Their initial hypothesis that the brightest individuals brought together as a team would win proved to be faulty/false. What they discovered to their surprise was that a team full of bright (high IQ) people brought “an astonishing disappointment”. To ensure that this insight held-up to empirical scrutiny they repeated their hypothesis around 25 times. And each and every time it highlighted just how flawed it was.

It seems to me that this is worth exploring more fully, and we ought to be curious as to why this was the case. There are for me four key insights:

  1. Bright people spent an inordinate amount of time arguing. I call this the ‘curse of brightness’ in that over time bright people rely more on this strength as their singular or core strength. This creates a number of emotional, psychological and relational ‘blind spots’. The “Apollo team” as they were named by Belbin spent much more time on defending, arguing their own point of view as the ‘right view’ that this meant that other less bright but more collaborative teams made progress on the implementation of the project rather than being ‘fixated’ on generating the right ideas per se.
  2. This meant that decision-making speed was significantly slowed down. Any decision tended to go ‘around and around’ the team. They could not move to any sense of resolution or negotiation that satisfied them.
  3. The most intelligent people resented any sense of imposed organisation. This smacks to me of arrogance; or hubris. They resented leadership in any shape or form. The very notion of ‘followership’ was a ‘dirty word’ and therefore they disrupted any sense of team leader. ‘Herding cats’ of course is the colloquial term for this team dynamic and collective behaviours.
  4. They lacked creativity more than other groups with a lower IQ. Thus, a person with a high degree of creativity will genuinely suffer if placed within an Apollo group.

Solutions for Apollo Teams

So what are some solutions to these problems when faced with an Apollo group or team?

  • Get a trained Leadership Coach in for dialogue training. This will bring the competences, skills and awareness of what genuine dialogue looks and feels like. It will help the team to see the ways in which their dynamics are less productive. I have found that with Coaching Apollo teams do indeed develop dialogue skills, and over time, there will be added value demonstrable improvements.
  • Bright teams require a tough but not dominant leader. This will help the team to ‘settle’ into their roles and align their sense of team purpose. A conceptual constellation exploring their purpose can add value to these ends.
  • Some teams benefit from a rotated Chair. This helps the sense of a participative leadership style. It underscores the temporary ‘servant leadership’ model which in some cases is helpful as each member gets a turn.
  • When the team has an essential need to be more creative (e.g. in the innovation space) then bringing in external Consultancy for this purpose can help. However, Apollo teams might well need to recognise that creativity is not one of their strengths. (I have found that Apollo teams moving to a place where they can even acknowledge this can also aid their collective humility).


Key Reference:

Belbin, R. Meredith, 2010. ‘Management Teams: Why they succeed or fail’. Third Edition, Elsevier Ltd.

Take care, Jason