Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

The Management Corner: Are There Too Many People On Your Team?

Full vitae the management corner

Image: iStock

While catching up on my Planet Money podcasts, I listened to one recently on "The Laws of the Office" — those informal principles that explain why things go wrong in the workplace. The podcast wasn’t about academe, but many of the principles mentioned apply in our realm all the same.

As someone who has spent a career in campus administration and written about HR issuesfor The Chronicle, I found the following "laws" most familiar:

  • Parkinson’s Law — the propensity of work to fill the time available for its completion. Any faculty member or administrator who has faced a deadline to submit final grades, planning reports, or grant proposals knows that the work rarely gets completed before its due date.
  • Goodhart’s Law — asserts that "when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." For example, when we evaluate people based on a fixed outcome — such as course-evaluation scores, pass/fail rates, or numbers of admissions applications reviewed — people inevitably learn to hit the target by reducing quality.
  • And of course the Peter Principle — the tendency of people in organizations to rise to their level of incompetence. Plenty of articles and essays here attest to its perceived prevalence in higher education.

Missing from the podcast, however, was a workplace principle that is particularly ubiquitous in higher education: the Ringelmann Effect. The phenomenon gets its name from Max Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer who had a group of people engage in a game of tug of war. First they competed one-on-one, and then on teams. What he found: Twice as many people did not lead to twice as much effort. In fact, as the number of team members increased, individual contributions tended to decline.

Any of that sound familiar? You may have noticed the same phenomenon play out inside a permanent entity like a department or a standing committee, or in a temporary group like a search committee or a task force. When some group effort reaches an impasse, you may have wondered why it often seems impossible to get anything done unless you do it yourself. You may have silently (or even publicly) cursed your colleagues as lazy or incompetent, and muttered phrases under your breath like "Never again."

According to the Ringelmann Effect, it might be time to lighten up and consider that you have created the problem you are complaining about by packing your team or committee with too many people.

At first, Ringelmann speculated that more participants in a group effort made coordination more challenging. That certainly makes sense. But his later experiments showed something quite different. He eventually concluded that people in large groups fail to exert exceptional effort because they are saving their energy for work that will lead to individual recognition.

In short, as humans, we make every effort when all eyes are on us, but we tend to take it easy when (a) we think our colleagues can do the hard work, (b) we know we will not be held accountable for the outcome, (c) we suspect our effort is not truly necessary, or (d) we anticipate that our time and energy will not be rewarded.

How does the Ringelmann Effect reveal itself in academic settings? Examples seem almost endless, but let’s consider three common scenarios:

  • Scenario No. 1: You assemble a 10-member team of high-powered technical experts to lead a major campus IT project. They scope out the project, offer reasonable budget expectations, and deliver a plan to meet a requested deadline. Then it comes time to actually carry out the plan. More people get involved. It becomes difficult to sustain the intensity of focus needed to finish the work on time, and the completion date keeps getting moved back.
  • Scenario No. 2: A provost leads a search for a new dean. Wanting to demonstrate a commitment to shared governance, the provost invites 22 people from a broad mix of groups to participate on the committee. Everyone shows up for the initial meeting. But when it comes to doing the real work, only the committee co-chairs expend much effort.
  • Scenario No. 3: An especially bright and dynamic graduate student is considering joining your department. She mentions her interest in working with a professor who has a reputation for mingling scientific conversations with back rubs and knee caresses. Because this is widely known in the department, you don’t say anything, knowing you can count on current graduate students to give her the warning she needs.

Of course there’s a big difference between being an absentee committee member and being complicit in allowing sexual misconduct to go unchecked in your workplace. But the Ringelmann Effect helps explain the behavior in each case. By assuming that plenty of others can do the heavy lifting, you minimize your own sense of personal accountability. And when you think you can count on others to do the hard or awkward (but necessary) work, it is easy to tell yourself that your personal disengagement will go unnoticed.

Given the damage the Ringelmann Effect can do to others, to our institutions, and even to our own careers, how can we minimize its occurrence? Here are some counterstrategies.

Keep teams small. Teams of three to five make it hard for slackers to hide. If shared governance or broad representation is necessary, let a broad panel advise a smaller group responsible for doing the actual work.

Establish ground rules. Before work begins, seek agreement on how group members will work together. Who will do what? What are the accountability measures? How will members be informed when they are, or aren’t, meeting expectations?

Let group members play to their strengths. And only involve people when their strengths are needed. We all struggle when we don’t like work that has been handed to us or worry about our capacity to deliver on it. Why not let those with project-management expertise create the month-by-month plans? Give the background work to those who enjoy doing research. Ask the skilled designers to be in charge of creating the presentations. Tell the well-connected that you are counting on them to build behind-the-scenes support. And finally, invite the strongest presenters to do the public speaking.

Acknowledge that working and thinking styles vary. Some of us have a knack for identifying challenges; others are adept at proposing solutions. Some are strong at executing recommendations. And there’s always at least one member of any group who is prepared to point out the flaws of any approach. Rather than being annoyed that everyone is not obviously pulling in the same direction in the same way, consider the value that different approaches and perspectives bring to a group effort. In The Innovative Team,Chris Grivas and Gerard J. Puccio argue that innovation requires us to understand and embrace varied working and thinking styles. Most of us, they write, can be classified as one of four archetypes: clarifiers, ideators, developers, or implementers. Each one plays an important role in moving work from concept to completion, which is why we should invite the clarifiers to define the challenge, the ideators to generate possibilities, the developers to refine options, and the implementers to move ideas from concept to action.

Regularly evaluate and recognize both team and individual work. Recognize team members who honor their commitments and offer support to the ones who are falling short of performance deadlines or targets. Underperformers may not be intentionally shirking their responsibilities; they may be simply ill-equipped to deliver what is expected. Don’t just praise the team. The promise of individual recognition creates greater incentives for members to be full contributors. But to offer that sort of specific feedback, individual roles and responsibilities have to be clearly defined.

Seek regular progress reports. Periodically ask group members to report on their contributions and to recognize the contributions of others. Knowing that peers will be evaluating us has a way of moving us to action and makes our colleagues more comfortable calling us out if we fail to honor our commitments.

On day-to-day work and special projects, those strategies can minimize the Ringelmann Effect. But do they work on the more serious issues — such as preventing, or at least reducing, sexual misconduct and other inappropriate workplace behavior? Are certain strategies particularly effective on that front? In such cases, I recommend organizations focus on two steps:

  • First, establish ground rules or group agreements. Then post them publicly and review them regularly. Describe what is expected — rather than what is discouraged — while being clear that protecting our students and colleagues is a shared responsibility.
  • Next, periodically ask all team members to report on their contributions toward building a healthy culture and to recognize the contributions of others. Make it clear that we are all responsible for creating safe working and learning environments, and invite each person to note the varied ways they have contributed to this shared commitment.

Those of us who work in academic settings know that politics and organizational dynamics can often impede our ability get things done. When the Ringelmann Effect takes hold, making progress can seem almost impossible. But employing some of the strategies described here can increase departmental productivity and project success, all while creating the kind of culture necessary for people to be both safe and productive.

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