Messenger - Vol. 1, No. 2, Page 30
Winter 1992
Just stringing along
     Quiet leaders who recognize the inherent problems of their work
groups but do not seek to resolve them guide the most successful
enterprises, according to a new study co-authored by a University
     "The Dynamics of Intense Work Groups: A Study of British String
Quartets" uses the musical ensemble as model of an intense work group.
As defined by Donald Conlon, professor of business administration,
intense work groups face an immediate and pressure-filled task,
wherein group members are interdependent for success.
     Conlon worked with University of Illinois professor Keith
Murnighan on the study, which examined 20 string quartets based in
England in 1981. String quartets, which consist of two violinists, one
cellist and one violist, are particularly intense, since they use
"each other's outputs as their own inputs, and vice versa," according
to the study.
     The results of the study appear in the Administrative Science
     Through a series of semi-structured interviews, the researchers
gained information about how string quartet members felt about their
roles in the group, the importance of others' roles, what makes a
quartet successful, and ideal versus practical ways of resolving
disputes. In addition to interviews, some concert reviews and limited
observation were used.
     In the study, success was measured by several factors, including
the number of concerts each group performed in a one-year period, the
group's concert fee and the number of albums recorded and in print.
     The measures of success were used to categorize the quartets into
"less successful" and "more successful" groups. The results, according
to Conlon, show the more successful groups are those that understand
their problems and do not try to resolve them.
     Conlon says the study revealed three problems, called paradoxes,
in string quartets. These paradoxes are inherent and unresolvable
problems, which all groups must "accept, confront and manage."
     The first paradox, leadership versus democracy, occurs because
quartet music usually gives the lead to the first violinist. Yet, many
musicians join quartets to have a voice in how they play, a
decision-making process that they could not enjoy in an orchestra.
     Conlon says the first violinist in good groups gave "lip-service
to democracy" by asking the rest of the quartet how pieces should be
played, while exerting the most influence in how the music was
actually presented.
     In responding to questions about who leads the group, second
violinists, cellists and violists often said that the leader is
whoever is playing "the top," or the tune, in a piece of music. "But
90 percent of the time, the first violin is playing the top, so
they're just avoiding saying, 'The first violin is the     leader,' "
Conlon says.
     The other members of less-successful groups often complained that
their leader was not taking enough control of the group. According to
the study, less successful groups wanted their leader to be more
     "The first violin in the (less-successful) groups tended to
emphasize democracy and avoided acknowledging the group's strong task
demands," the study says.
     Murnighan says quiet leaders were more effective in the quartets
than those who "grabbed power and made a show of it." He concludes
that, "Leaders are typically necessary in groups, but the less obvious
they are in practice, the more effective they are."
     The second paradox, the paradox of the second fiddle, involves
the difficult role of the second violinist. According to Conlon,
second violinists must have consummate musical ability, yet be willing
to work in the shadow of the first violinist, who invariably
represents the quartet in public, and for whom groups are often named.
     According to the study, "First violinists were in the forefront
in concert, at social gatherings and during discussions of musical
     "Second violinists in successful quartets were either content or
resigned to their positions," the study concludes. One cited in the
study said, "I'm naturally a second fiddle. I think it's a basic,
pyschological difference."
     The third paradox is whether to resolve group conflict through
confrontation or compromise.
     Conlon says the better groups spent more time playing and less
time talking about how they would play. The more successful groups
played through their conflicts, shelving arguments until another day
that often never arrived, he says.
     "Successful string quartets did not resolve the contradictions in
these paradoxes," the researchers concluded. "Instead, they recognized
and tolerated them, and handled them quietly, rarely raising
paradoxical issues for discussion."
     Backgrounds of the quartet players also were explored, and a
similarity in the musical and personal history of players was found to
be the norm in good groups.
     "Success seems to be corollated with a similarity of background,"
Conlon says. "While there's a lot of talk these days about diversity,
there seems to be a benefit to coming from the same schools and in
being taught by the same instructors."
     In generalizing their findings, Conlon and Murnighan liken string
quartets to surgical teams and research and development groups, but
stress that quartets differ from every other work group in their
     "Other groups may not face a leader-democracy paradox; legitimate
authority may clarify formal power differences. Nevertheless, the
desire for democracy is not unusual, and its contradiction within a
group is typical. Similarly, the paradox of the second fiddle, while
not being played out to such an extreme, is an analog for people who
feel that their talents are under-appreciated. And finally, as noted,
conflict and diversity are ubiquitous, inherent group phenomena."
     -Stephen Steenkamer, Delaware '92