We examine the present in light of the past
so as to better understand the future.
John Maynard Keynes

* With apologies to Karl von Clausewitz

Social loafing or should there be an "I" in team?

Are teams always as effective as they might be, or should be? The theory is that a good team is greater than the sum of its parts. Working with others enhances our individual efforts and we achieve more than we could ever achieve on our own.

But is the theory actually true? I would imagine that almost everyone at some time or other has been part of an underachieving, underperforming team. But that is only part of the problem. Many more teams perform adequately, but do not fulfil their potential. They don’t do all that they could do. And in most cases, that failure to do their best goes unremarked by the members of the team. Because they seem to be getting results, they don’t notice that there is a problem.

What goes wrong? The root cause is a phenomenon known to psychologists as ‘social loafing’. In 1913 the French engineer Max Ringelmann discovered that when groups work together, individuals within the group tend to slacken their effort. He observed that in tug-of-war competitions, where individuals compete against each other, each will pull to his or her utmost in attempt to defeat the rival. But when teams pull against each other, not every individual pulls as hard as they might. Each assumes that other members of the group will, literally, take the strain on their behalf.

There are of course two ways of looking at this. Four people who each pull half their weight will still pull the weight of two people, which is more than one person on their own can do. But at the same time, that team is only doing half of what it could do.

Our businesses – and our non-profit organisations too – are riddled with social loafing from top to bottom. The 80-20 rule is in full effect. Eighty per cent of people do enough to get by, assuming that if something doesn’t get done, someone else will do it. The other 20 per cent are the conscientious overachievers who work themselves to the bone to get everything done, both their own jobs and the half-finished tasks of other people. Eventually, exhaustion and demoralisation sets in and they too become less effective.

What is the solution to the problem? Appraisal can perhaps point out to people where they are not doing all that they could do, but I think the answer starts earlier, in the culture of the organisation and the extent to which people are motivated to succeed. And I think it starts with us as individuals too.

We are told that ‘there is no “I” in team.’ But, maybe there should be. We each need an ‘I’ who stands back, looks at ourselves critically and reflectively, and asks if we are doing everything we could to make the team a success.
 

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