Whether its a sports team or a work team, getting all team members to pull in the same direction and work together to achieve team goals is no small task. Even with a great team captain (or leader), there are still countless interpersonal psychological dynamics to manage to ensure that team members know their individual roles and embrace the duties asked of them. One hurdle, “social loafing,” is especially challenging to control for and may be the missing link when it comes to maximizing team production.
Why some team members “loaf”
Social loafing occurs when people give less effort in a group than they would if working individually. In theory, it is easier to reduce effort (essentially hiding) because other teammates will make up for the effort of the individual. One classic study by Ringelmann found that members of a group tended to exert less effort in pulling a rope than did individuals working alone. In the Ringelmann study subjects were able to easily disguise their non-effort within the collective efforts of other team members actually pulling (in essence, they were able to fake pulling without anyone even noticing!).
So what does all this mean as it applies to team building? Perhaps the biggest takeaway is knowing that as a group increases so do the odds that some team members will give little or no effort. Equipped with that knowledge, it is imperative that team leaders understand how to minimize social loafing and the Ringelmann effect — but how is this done?
In order to reduce the chances of team members not pulling their weight for the team two important issues need to be addressed by the team captain/leader (or coach):
1. Do individual players know their role and what is exactly expected of them? In other words, instead of telling a player to “play hard,” it’s better to specifically outline his role (i.e. to play man-to-man defense against an opponent in this specific situation).
2. Do individual players “buy in” and understand the importance of their role (especially if it seems like his task is not very important). For example, a coach may need to “sell” a player on the significance of being important for team spirit, compared to convincing the QB the value of his role.
Drilling deeper, captains/leaders must dedicate effort directed at helping every player clearly know her role on the team, the importance of that role, and the implications based on that role (i.e. by doing your individual job we will have a better chance of winning a championship).
A big takeaway from the psychology team building research is that great teams “on paper” can easily fail when team dynamics are overlooked or minimized in importance. We know that when team members don’t know what is expected of them and are unclear of the importance of their role, it’s commonplace for them to lose focus and not give it their all. Conversely, when players do know (and embrace) their role, great things happen — and in some cases the team overachieves all the way to an unexpected championship.
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