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Team Work & The Science of Slacking July 23, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management, Perceptions.
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We all know that working in a team is more efficient than working on your own (and I did say a week or two back how I was enjoying the rare privilege of working in a team of performance guys). Many of us also know about team dynamics and creating a balanced team of ideas people, completer-finishers, implementers, strategists and so forth. Those of use who have been exposed to training courses or books on team management know all these good things about teams and how we are supposed to get the most out of them.

How many of us, though, have been introduced to the work of the French Agronomist Max Ringelmann and the aspect of teams named after him, the Ringelmann Effect? In summary the Ringelmann Effect proposses that people in teams try less hard than they do when working alone. Especially if they think no one is watching them.

Back at the start of the 20th century Ringelmann tested out his ideas using a tug-of-war experiment. He would get people to pull on a rope as hard as they could and record their efforts using a strain gauge. Then he would get them to pull on the rope as part of a team, from 2 to 8 people. As soon as people were part of a team, they pulled less hard. With two people in the team, each pulled 93% as hard as on their own, with three people this dropped down to 85% and with 4 it was just 77%. By the time there were 8 people in the team, effort was down to 50%.

This idea of shirking work more and more as the team increased in size became established in modern psychology and was given Mr Ringelmann’s name. Psychologists explain that when someone is part of a group effort then the outcome is not solely down to the individual and, as such, is not totally in their control. This acts as a demotivating factor and the person tries that little bit less hard. The larger the team, the greater the demotivation and the more significant the drop in effort. Ringelmann found that effort was down to 50% in a team of 8 so how bad can the impact of the team be? I think most of us have at least witnessed, and quite possibly been in, the position of feeling like just a cog in a massive corporate team machine. Thoroughly demotivating (though, of course, we all of us still tried as hard as we could, didn’t we?).

The effect is also know under the far more entertaining title of Social Loafing.

Monsieur Ringelmann was far kinder at the time and pointed out that these chaps pulling on the rope could well have been suffering from a lack of synergy. They had not been trained together to pull as a team so that could account for the drop in effort, they were not synchronising their effort.

However, in the 1970′s Alan Ingham in Washington University revisited Ringelmanns work and he was far sneekier. Sorry, he was a more rigorous scientist. He used stooges in his team of rope-pullers, blindfolds and putting the one poor person pulling for real at the front of the team pulling the rope. Thus he could record the effort of the individual. Ingham found that there was indeed a drop in efficiency due to the team not pulling as one. But sadly, this was not the main factor. It remained that the drop in effort was mostly down to the perceived size of the rest of the team. The bottom line was proven to be the human capacity to try less hard when part of a team and that the drop in effort was directly proportional to the size of the team.

We are of course not immune to this effect in the IT world and someone has even gone to the effort of checking that out, James Suleiman and Richard T Watson.

It seems the ways to reduce this problem are:-

  • Don’t give people boring jobs.
  • Don’t give the same job to several people and let them know they all have the same job.
  • Ask people how they are getting on and give them mini-goals along the way.
  • Atually reward them for success. Like saying “thank you” and NOT giving them yet another boring, hard job to do as they did the last one so well.

I think it is also a good argument for keeping teams small {I personally think 5 or 6 people is ideal} and split up large projects such that a single team can cope. Then give tasks to individuals or pairs of people.

If you like this sort of thing you might want to check out one of my first blog post (though it is more an angry rant than a true discussion ofthe topic) which was on the Dunning-Kruger effect, where some people are unaware of their own limitations – though I did not know it was called the Dunning-Kruger effect until others told me, which only goes to show that maybe I am not aware of my own limits… Read the comments or click through to the links from there to get a better description of some people’s inability to guage their own inabilities.

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