So it’s good to be on a team, and teams do good work, which means teams and teamwork are iconic realities of life in America--socially, educationally, and professionally. It really doesn’t matter whether you are a toddler, a college student, a retail clerk, or a corporate executive—today you regularly find yourself slotted onto teams (or onto committees or into small groups) where you are expected to behave like a good team player.
How does a good team player behave? According to leadership coach Joel Garfinkle: “You just need to be an active participant and do more than your job title states. Put the team’s objectives above yours and take the initiative to get things done without waiting to be asked.” He identifies five characteristics that make a team player great:
- Always reliable
- Communicates with confidence
- Does more than asked
- Adapts quickly and easily
- Displays genuine commitment
Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.Problems with coordination and motivation interfering with team collaboration and performance—doesn’t that sound like a rather modest challenge that could be resolved with more effective team management? Sure, to a certain extent. Teams are often too large, they are thoughtlessly staffed (proximity and position rather than proven talents and ability to produce results) and they are routinely launched with murky objectives, vague group member accountabilities, and no formal support network for team process management. In other words most teams don’t meet the five basic conditions that Hackman, in his book Leading Teams, said that teams require to perform effectively:
- Teams must be real. People have to know who is on the team and who is not. It’s the leader’s job to make that clear.
- Teams need a compelling direction. Members need to know, and agree on, what they’re supposed to be doing together. Unless a leader articulates a clear direction, there is a real risk that different members will pursue different agendas.
- Teams need enabling structures. Teams that have poorly designed tasks, the wrong number or mix of members, or fuzzy and unenforced norms of conduct invariably get into trouble.
- Teams need a supportive organization. The organizational context—including the reward system, the human resource system, and the information system—must facilitate teamwork.
- Teams need expert coaching. Most executive coaches focus on individual performance, which does not significantly improve teamwork. Teams need coaching as a group in team processes—especially at the beginning, midpoint, and end of a team project.
…the social loafer must find at least one group member that CAN and WILL achieve the group's goals and ALLOW themselves to be social loafed on. "Social Loafer Bait" is the term used here to describe the profile of the ideal target for social loafers.This problem isn’t new. Max Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, conducted one of the earliest social loafing experiments in 1913, asking participants to pull on a “tug of war” rope both individually and in groups. When people were part of a group, they exerted much less effort pulling the rope than they did when pulling alone. According to Joshua Kennon, Ringelmann’s social loafing results were replicated over the years in many other experiments (involving typing, shouting, clapping, pumping water, etc.) leading psychologists to believe that humans tend toward social loafing in virtually all group activities. Kennon shared two other conclusions:
- The more people you put into a group, the less individual effort each person will contribute
- When confronted with proof that they are contributing less, the individuals in the group deny it because they believe they are contributing just as much as they would have if they were working alone
You are working on an important, time-sensitive project with a group of people. One of the group members is slacking off, not contributing to project work. What do you do about it? (choose one)
- Ask/Tell the slacker to commit to the project and start contributing (40%)
- Report the slacker to the project sponsor (3%)
- Complain about the slacker to other team members (10%)
- Work harder to pick up the slack and ensure the project is successful (30%)
- Follow the slacker’s lead and reduce your commitment and effort (0%)
- Other (17%--most respondents who chose this reported they would employ more than one of the listed strategies)
- Solves the problem (27%)
- Partially solves the problem (53%)
- Fails to solve the problem (17%)
- Causes other problems (3%)
What’s not clear is why we are so willing to tolerate social loafing on group projects and why we are so reluctant to call slackers out and hold them accountable. According to Kerry Patterson, co-author of the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High:
93% of employees report they have co-workers who don't pull their weight, but only one in 10 confronts lackluster colleagues.I suppose the reality is that unless work groups are tightly managed, they offer excellent cover for slackers--relative anonymity, little or no pressure from team members, great individual performance camouflage--with only a slight threat of exposure or penalty for not being a good team player. So the solution to the social loafer problem probably involves not only changes in how groups are formed, resourced and supported, but also changes in the group work dynamic to eliminate the cover and camouflage and to illuminate how each individual contributes to the group work effort (this is sometimes accomplished in university student work groups by using a formal peer review process to help group members hold each other accountable.)
As you might expect, Google is serious about team work (all Google employees work on at least one team) and they want their teams to be successful. Their recent study of team effectiveness at Google determined that five team dynamics (Psychological Safety, Dependability, Structure and Clarity, Meaning of Work, and Impact of Work) are more important to successful teams than the talents of the individuals on the teams. To help their teams manage these dynamics, Google developed a tool called the gTeams exercise, described by Julia Rozovsky of Google People Operations as:
…a 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics, a report that summarizes how the team is doing, a live in-person conversation to discuss the results, and tailored developmental resources to help teams improve.According to Rozovsky, Google teams reported that having a framework around team effectiveness and a forcing function (the gTeams exercise) to talk about these dynamics was the most impactful part of the experience. That’s not surprising, since any “forcing function” that puts a public spotlight on ineffective or unacceptable behavior makes it easier to identify and eliminate that behavior.
Given the concentration of talent at Google, I imagine the social loafers there probably boast a more refined slacker “craftiness” pedigree than most of us normally encounter. Still, I am betting the Google slackers aren’t very pleased with the light and heat generated by the gTeams exercise spotlight.
Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired insurance executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator and watercolor artist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors