In part one of our Team Thinking discussion we learned about Social Loafing, the nature of team tasks and how we can set up teams to succeed. In part two we explore more quirks of nature to which we are prone to succumb on a regular basis – expect cockroaches, birds and pachyderms!
The Social Facilitation Effect
Even before Ringelmann remarked on his lazy horses, an American called Norman Triplett was noticing something about cyclists. In 1898 he wrote a paper, widely regarded as the first published study in the field of sports psychology, in which he described the “Social Facilitation Effect”.
In a nutshell, cyclists who rode with a counterpart clocked up faster times than when they cycled alone. And it turns out that the Social Facilitation Effect is not confined to adult humans; children do better in familiar tasks, chickens eat more, dogs and cockroaches run faster and rats have more sex!
Crucially though, it turns out that this “social facilitation” only enhances performance in simple tasks, those that are embodied; not new or complex ones where observation seems to have the opposite effect. So the cockroaches run faster in a straight line when they are being watched by other cockroaches, but struggle when the path is uncertain.
So the key here seems to be about creating safe space for familiarisation and rehearsal as we assimilate new or complex activity and then we can accelerate performance through observation. The implications of this for teams are worth considering; there are major league football teams that practice set pieces with cardboard cutout spectators and business project teams working with photos of real clients watching them work (it turns out that our brains don’t process real and pretend very differently in this regard).
Rehearsing through simulation makes complexity more habitual; being observed in habitual tasks improves performance. Interestingly, spending time, energy and resources on safe, creative rehearsal is seen as a critical component of excellence in our emergency services, our military and our surgical teams and yet seems curiously lacking in most commercial environments.
In 1957, an American Psychology Professor called Burrhus Frederic Skinner started placing entirely normal but hungry pigeons in closed boxes and dispensing grain to them at random intervals. Forty-eight hours later, when a bird was removed, it would display random but repetitive behaviour, raising a wing, walking in circles etc. Each pigeon was content but uniquely changed.
In short, Skinner had created superstitious pigeons; pigeons that now believed that there was a connection between their random act and the miraculous arrival of food.
This effect, known as “operant conditioning” or “assumed usefulness” is something we are prone to as well. When we look honestly at what we do, as individuals or teams, our lives are full of habits, routines, lucky charms, preparation rituals and random beliefs that reassure us that we are influencing the world around us and that, if we follow the ritual, all will be OK. The lucky shirt that I wear for important meetings, the coffee I need before I start anything, the dice I kiss before I throw them; all creating an illusion of control that is not there.
From a leadership and team perspective, this idea of superstitious pigeons, is entirely relevant and worth reflecting upon; how often do we sit in meetings that we assume to be useful, ask ourselves and others to complete tasks that keep us busy but not purposeful, or resist changing something because we don’t want to break the spell of what we assume to be working?
I remember once seeing one of those motivational posters in an office reception; you know the type I mean – this one had a photo of an elephant and some quote about it being easily capable of breaking free from the rope that bound it, if only it believed in its own strength. Rudyard Kipling even wrote about it in his poem, “Toomai of the Elephants”…
“I will forget my ankle-ring and snap my picket stake.
I will revisit my lost loves, and playmates masterless!”
The back story here is that domesticated baby elephants used to be, and sometimes still are, tethered with a rope around a leg, attached to a stake in the ground. When young, the elephants aren’t strong enough to escape and so learn to accept the rope as inevitable. As they grow, they become stronger and stronger; more than capable of ripping the stake from the ground and heading off into the unknown. But the curious thing is the elephants don’t even try – they have learned to be helpless.
Martin Seligman, one of the early proponents of positive psychology, first introduced this idea of “learned helplessness” as it applies to humans in 1967. His core tenet is that people desire control and efficacy; in effect, we want a sense of purpose in order to feel fulfilled and whole. Create conditions where these are taken away and we learn to be helpless.
Not surprisingly, we come across a lot of learned helplessness in our work with teams – environments where overbearing bureaucracy, micro-managing supervisors and suppression of creative thought all encourage a passive, self limiting culture. Cries of “there is nothing we can do; we have tried that before, there is no point in trying” are a common refrain – and the challenge is that it can become a complicit spiral.
Managers and leaders get frustrated at the lack of initiative and step in to legislate from above, decisions are made at a distance, without clarity or context and local initiatives are quashed because they don’t fit within global guidelines. As local control and self-efficacy are curtailed and as discretionary effort diminishes, managers step in to monitor, cajole and impose solutions – and so the cycle continues.
A lot of our work in this area is about reversing this cycle; helping individuals and teams to challenge their assumptions, re-build trusting relationships, remove unhelpful behavioural triggers and re-assert appropriate control of their work. Reversing learned helplessness doesn’t happen overnight and is a complex balance of team conversations, individual coaching and leadership development, and our experience suggests it is fundamental to the long term success of teams and organisations.
Based on a keynote presentation given at the Douglas Scott 2019 AGM