Much of the rhetoric around human resources strategy involves the idea that working in a team is the key to succees. But in some cases, researchers say, it can even breed laziness.
BERLIN — The successful candidate has to be a good team player who can fit seamlessly into the company’s dynamic team. This is the familiar notion found in virtually every employment ad these days.
But this team fetishism is also misleading. It has never been conclusively demonstrated that teamwork is particularly productive. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: It can demotivate workers and make them less inclined to perform.
And this is not a new revelation. In 1882, when French agricultural engineer Maximilian Ringelmann researched work efficiency in horses, oxen, machines and people, he found that the individual performance of men in groups when pulling loads was less significant than the performance each man would bring on his own.
Ringelmann had seven men pull on a rope, individually and then as a group. On their own the men pulled a weight of 85 kilograms (187 pounds), but in the group only 65 kilograms (143 pounds). In other words, teamwork cost nearly a fourth of performance capacity.
This phenomenon is known as the Ringelmann effect. But for a long time it was unclear whether it was really demotivation that decreased team performance relative to individual performance or whether perhaps it could be explained by logistical problems. For example, to pull a rope effectively as a group, each man has to find the perfect position enabling all his strength to be put at the service of the task. Less than optimum positions could actually mean team members were unwittingly working against each other.
The same potential kinds of problems also apply to teamwork at the office. When it is not made crystal clear what worker is responsible for which task on a project, the joint work effort suffers.
To discover more about the reasons for performance decline, American social psychologist Harry Ingham repeated the pulling experiments in 1974 — but with one small modification. This time, the eyes of the participants were covered while they pulled on the rope. They were asked to pull twice, once after being told they were doing so in a group, and once on their own. But both times, they were actually pulling alone.
This experiment settled the coordination argument because the result was the same as it had been a century earlier. Participants who believed they were part of a team pulled less hard. That was proof that people show less effort in a group than when they work solo — particularly when they can hide behind the anonymity of the group.
Teams make you lazy
The corruption of the idea of teamwork to really mean “great, somebody else will do it” is very real, and sociologists have even coined a term for it: “social laziness.”
“Social laziness mainly crops up with routine jobs,” says Christian Setzwein, managing director of Setzwein IT Management, a company specializing in project and interim management. “With more difficult jobs, individual performance tends to be higher — the individual feels protected by the group and not personally responsible.”
The phenomenon is particularly strong when each person’s role isn’t at all or is only a little discernible. In a group, “A person only makes a special effort when the results they’ve personally achieved have particular value to them,” Setzwein says.
This knowledge can be put to good use through solid leadership. “If the goal is a high-performance team, leadership can let team members know what responsibility they have for the overall effort,” Setzwein explains. He adds that individual contributions, especially if they are unusually creative or difficult, should be acknowledged.
“Teamwork is an important part of the modern job world,” says Götz Müller of the management consultant firm Geemco. “But it’s at least as important to acknowledge the individual effort within the team effort.”
Leadership should ensure that individual contributions are perceptible. “Although that doesn’t mean that it should be done in such a way as to create an artificial and unnecessary spirit of competition among team members,” Müller says. “What must especially be avoided is attributing successes and contributions to the wrong people.”
The expert recommends that team leaders set clear personal goals with team members. “Again with the stipulation that you don’t create an atmosphere of competition that has people thwarting each other,” Müller adds.
Interdisciplinary teams, where only one person is expert in a given discipline, lend themselves particularly well to this because each person’s contribtion can be easily measured.
Yet this praise of individual effort is taboo in many companies because what counts is the success of the team. People working in such companies have a choice: Either they take it easy, with the understanding that not doing much can be stressful in its own way — not to mention boring — or they can insist on working within a team whose results are in some way measurable.
But it’s clear that bosses should think long and hard before creating another team.