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Teams: Why 2+2 is not always 4

“In the late 1920s, a German psychologist named Max Ringelmann compared the results of individual and group performance on a rope-pulling task. He expected that the group’s effort would be equal to the sum of the efforts of individuals within the group. For instance, three people puling together should exert three times as much pull on the rope as one person, and eight people should exert eight times as much pull. Ringelmann’s results, however, didn’t confirm his expectations. Groups of three people exerted a force only two-and-a-half times the average individual performance. Groups of eight collectively achieved less than four times the solo rate”

Stephen P Robbins, The Truth About Managing People (2008)

Stephen Robbins’ fascinating book is a great myth-buster. One of the bits of conventional wisdom accepted in pretty much every organisation is the myth of teams. We all seem to believe that we should create organisations built around teams because teams create something called ‘positive synergy’ – that is, when people work in a team the spirit that is generated makes them more productive than if they had all worked individually. In other words, 2+2 can equal 5.

Robbins points out that while this may happen, 2+2 can also equal 3! That is because ‘negative synergy’ also exists: some individuals expend less energy working collectively than working individually. The reason is something Robbins terms ‘social loafing’. Some people just switch off when others are present to do the work.

Max Ringelmann’s research, referred to in the excerpt, has been repeated with a number of similar tasks. The basic truth generally gets confirmed by these experiments: increases in group size are inversely related to individual performance. Four people may achieve more than one or two, but individual productivity does decline.

How do we explain this? The sharp social observer knows the causes. Some people will believe (perhaps rightly) that others are not carrying their fair share of the work burden – and will reduce their own effort in order to reintroduce a sense of equity. A second reason could be the fact that once it is difficult to attribute individual responsibility for success or failure, the desire to do well diminishes. Some people become ‘free riders’ – the human being’s efficiency declines when his or her personal contribution cannot really be measured.

We all see this happening at the workplace – yet CEOs remain hell-bent on forming teams for everything! As a business leader, you need to think very carefully about the need for teams. Teams are best instituted when there are clear, positive benefits from people working together – a rise in morale, or value gained from sharing information, or emotional benefits from being able to discuss and resolve issues. But never forget that there is a loss incurred every time you form a team. In many cases, you would be better off assigning individual tasks and responsibilities, particularly if demanding targets must be met in a short period.

So the next time you’re wondering why the talented team you set up just isn’t doing as much as you thought it would: try and add up 2+2!

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