Humans accomplish things in teams. From the most basic unit of the family to local community to sports clubs to for-profit and non-profit organizations, people working toward a common goal is how we get big things done. Things one person can’t accomplish alone, with two, we can. It would seem that if team is good, more team is better. And yet the larger that groups, teams and organizations become, the greater the risk that they get less done.
There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is poor leadership that becomes attached to an agenda and disconnected from the facts, purpose and people, unable to bring other along. Another is the inherent complexity of coordinating resources across a large organization, a.k.a. the bureaucracy problem. There is a third reason that is far more pervasive and a common threat to productivity at all levels. In groups, we do less.
Nineteenth century French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann discovered and lent his name to the Ringelmann effect. More familiar to us as “social loafing”, this is the tendency for individuals in a group to become less productive as the size of their group increases. This effect has been independently confirmed through various modern experiments and seems to be part of the human condition. We have all seen (or been?) the person who tunes out of a meeting, lets others carry more of the load of a project, or goes through life believing someone else will clean it up, vote, or care enough to fix things.
Only one-third of people in modern organizations are engaged in their work, meaning two-thirds do something close to the minimum, counting on higher effort from someone else. The belief that “someone else will do it” is the exact opposite of the idea of ownership and engagement. One the one hand, this is human nature. We save our energy for what is important. If it is clear that half of the team is pulling on the rope twice as hard, why exert oneself? Those other people will carry us over the goal line.
On the other hand, there is plenty of work to be done. We need everyone engaged in solving the world’s problems, delivering value, teaching the young, caring for the old and sick, serving each other through our chosen work.
How can leaders of large teams counter social loafing?
First, we need to show each person that their contribution matters. The larger the organization, the more important this becomes. If the work does not contribute any value or serve a purpose, processes must be redesigned, and people redirected. Leaders who set group goals that are relatable and sensible will be rewarded with better engagement.
Second, we can strive to make work challenging, interesting, and stimulating. These things by definition create engagement. This is different than giving people “challenges” or top-down stretch goals without individual context. The act of simply asking someone to think of what they can do to solve their small part of a larger problem, or contribute to a larger effort, stimulates and engages people.
Third, leaders must create an environment in which the individual members can see and believe that others are engaged and doing their best. When this is true, social proof strengthen commitment and engagement. When it is clear that some individuals are not engaging, peer-to-peer discussion can help challenge, interest and engage individuals.
Respect for humanity means recognizing the basic science behind human motivation, productivity, and engagement. It means designing work in ways that help us do our best. In short, leaders must learn about their people and how to help each person slice the social loaf.