I have always been a watcher.
As the quiet, creative kid at school I almost always preferred to paint, read or work in small, familiar groups. I wasn’t particularly drawn to team sports, or large gatherings, finding them too structured, too noisy or too out of my control.
But paradoxically, I have always been interested in people; endlessly fascinated by those around me; how they talk, how they meet and how they make decisions together. And many years later, this interest in, and passion for, understanding human dynamics, particularly in teams, is still the driving force that underpins our work.
One of the first articles I remember reading that ignited this passion was about Maximilien Ringelmann. A French professor of agricultural engineering, working before the Great War, seems like an unlikely founder of social psychology. But what he noticed in 1913 was fundamentally important to how we organise ourselves and, in my opinion, explains much about our industrial management structures and the legacies that we are now struggling with in a largely post-industrial age.
What Ringelmann first observed was that two or more horses pulling a cart didn’t put in as much effort as one might expect – certainly not equal to the sum of the horses working individually. And, by extension, if horses think that they can slack in a team, then maybe people do too. His subsequent experiments, asking people to pull on a rope as hard as possible, confirmed his theory that individual effort decreases as group size increases.
His findings were remarkable; three people pulling together only give around 85% of their potential whilst eight pulling together can each give as little as 37% of their potential effort. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the time, not a lot happened with this insight until the mid-1970’s when Alan Ingram took up the idea and coined the term “social loafing”. And crucially, the build he added through his research was that people just need to “believe” that others are involved in their task, even if they are not physically present, and there will still be a tendency to slack.
The reason why this matters is that it has a significant implication for teams and how we organise ourselves. Clearly there are many advantages to working in groups but, if slacking, or “social loafing” is a seemingly intrinsic part of the equation, then there is plenty of potential room for improvement, both in how we lead and motivate those around us.
The nature of team tasks
What I think is also critical to consider here is the nature of the task that the team is undertaking.
Broadly speaking we can divide tasks into three categories:
- Additive Tasks: repetitive operations that build value along a chain (production lines, clerical work etc)
- Criterion Tasks: the objective is to find the right, or optimal answer, based on a set of criteria. Computer coding and logistics would be good examples here.
- Judgemental Tasks: there is no definitively right answer here but we need to make the best decision we can, based on the information available to us. Leadership teams and juries, for example, face this challenge most of the time.
Let’s just go back to Ringelmann for a moment. 1913 and the imminent dawn of mechanised, brutal warfare, built on the back of an Industrial Revolution that was radically transforming the form and pace of Western society.
Factories, mills and farms throughout the western world and beyond had by now been reducing work to additive tasks and, in so doing, unwittingly releasing the demon of social loafing. Management systems sprung up to tackle the issue; command and control, strict hierarchy and punitive monitoring of workers attempted, with some success, to optimise the workplace, at least for the owners. And these ways of organising labour, supported by a compliant education system, became embedded, infiltrating and reinforcing a management mindset based on control, power and enforcement of process which is still present today.
But the nature of work is changing exponentially. In just the last twenty years, the relative proportions of additive, criterion and judgemental tasks that teams are doing, has changed beyond recognition. For many of us, the pace of change, the uncertainty and the complexity of what we do and what we face, means that our team success is no longer about accomplished additive tasks but almost all about successful navigation of critical judgemental or criterion tasks.
Systems that evolved to deal with social loafing in additive tasks still exist in many of our organisations and in our management mindsets, but they are counterproductive in a world of problem solving, insight and agility.
Setting up teams to succeed
In order to manage and lead well in this environment it is worth spending time thinking about the tasks you are asking your team to do because the context you create to optimise performance in each is very different:
Teams with predominantly additive tasks:
- Create the smallest feasible groups
- Create a real sense of urgency
- Encourage marginal gain
- Be radically transparent
Teams with predominantly criterion tasks:
- Gather diverse personalities around the task
- Foster and reward curiosity
- Take time to debate and explore
- Be prepared for trial and error
Teams with predominantly judgemental tasks:
- Ensure that the tasks are meaningful and are attached to a higher purpose
- Assign key responsibilities
- Coach the team with active support and challenge
- Recognise effort and review often.
In part two of this post we’ll look at other social quirks that affect the way teams work; Social Facilitation and Superstitious Pigeons.
Based on a key note presentation given at the Douglas Scott 2019 AGM