The Sum of the Parts is Not Always Greater When Working in Teams
Today’s Friday Fun Fact…
I was recently at a seminar where the instructor asked a very straightforward question of the participants; one that everyone in the room should have been able to readily answer. However, what followed was complete silence. Crickets.
Why is it that once we are assembled into a group such as this, despite having an answer, we often choose not to respond?
In my book Best Practices Are Stupid, I talk about collaboration versus competition, and how each is useful for different reasons as part of your innovation strategy. While collaboration is essential for success, if not managed properly, it can come with significant drawbacks. One of the reasons I discuss is something called social loafing.
Social loafing is a proven phenomenon where individuals within the group assume that someone else will pick up the slack therefore exerting less effort. In the case of the silence at my seminar, each participant knew that if they waited long enough, someone else would eventually respond. Or was the case, the instructor would give the answer,
This phenomenon has been proven out scientifically.
In an experiment conducted in the early 1900s, Max Ringelmann showed that individuals exerted more effort when working alone than when they worked collectively. When he asked a group of men to pull on a rope, they did not pull as hard as a group, as they did when each was pulling on their own. While one plausible explanation was lack of coordination, subsequent research shows that it is more a function of motivation.
A study in the Journal of Management demonstrated that “at the individual level, increases in task interdependence and decreases in task visibility and distributive justice were associated with greater occurrence of social loafing. At the group level, increased group size and decreased cohesiveness were related to increased levels of social loafing.”
Another study examines the sucker effect, which “stems from the perceptions that others in the group are withholding, or intend to withhold, effort. Individuals who hold this perception then withhold effort themselves to avoid being played for a “sucker”.
This, like other studies, gives us a glimpse into what it takes to create productive teams:
- People feel that they can “get lost” in groups. Have each member stand out by dividing the workload in such a way that individuals can be evaluated on their own output. The less an individual feels his contributions will be noticed, the more likely he will participate in social loafing.
- The larger the group size, the more tendency for social loafing. Keep groups size to a minimum.
- Find activities that impact the intrinsic motivations of the individuals. People tend to work harder when they are participating in something that they enjoy.
Both competition (individual work) and collaboration can be useful parts of any innovation strategy.