Academic journal article Academy of Strategic Management Journal

Is the Sum of the Parts Greater Than the Whole? Skill vs. Synergy

Academic journal article Academy of Strategic Management Journal

Is the Sum of the Parts Greater Than the Whole? Skill vs. Synergy

Article excerpt

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. …

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