Managers Beware: The Ringelmann Effect

Catalant Staff

How Teams Can Hurt You

I hear all the time that the product of any team is greater than the individuals themselves. This sentence is constantly uttered in little league huddles, business meetings, and even motivational seminars. Think about it, I’m sure you can identify plenty of experiences and events in your life that validates this hackneyed statement. There are teams winning championships, production groups making Oscar award winning films, and even consulting teams producing groundbreaking work products. It’s hard to deny that the product of any group is indeed greater than any individual.So why, time and time again, do we prefer working as individuals when clearly teams can perform better? 

The Ringelmann Effect

Every manager should be aware of the Ringelmann Effect, which states that as team size increases, productivity and performance drops. In groups of 2-3 people, performance drops slightly. When a 4th, 5th, and 6th person are added, performance on the individual level significantly drops, resulting in a curvilinear effect. 

Tug-of-War

Think of it this way, your boss asks you to participate in a game of tug-of-war against another colleague in your department. You reach down, grab the rope, and pull as hard as you can, defeating your opponent. Now your boss puts you and your department, against the sales team. It’s 5 vs. 5. Again you reach down, grab the rope, and pull. This time, your department loses despite having you. 

Why is this?

As individuals, we tend to exerted more force and effort when working individually than when in a group. This is because as groups form,  individuals reduce their efforts, as they feel less responsible for the output. We regularly see this in work settings too. People slack on teams, don’t put in 100%, and frequently pump out poor work product as the size of the team increases. 

How to Avoid it

Before you start, establish Jeff Bezos’s “Large Pizza Rule” when forming teams.  As a manager, make sure your team can be fed with just one large pizza. If you need more pizza to feed your team, then the team most likely isn’t at its optimal size, and people probably aren’t putting in the effort that they could. If you can’t reduce the size of your group, here are three key initiatives that every manager should implement to maximize their team’s productivity and avoid the infamous Ringelmann Effect. 

Skip the All-Star team

Make sure you don’t have all the best performers on a single team. Research indicates that people tend to work harder in groups if they expect others in the group to work poorly.  If everyone is a rockstar, people expect other team members to pull the load. If everyone thinks this, poor work product is produced.We see this happen in sports all the time. In 2004 the Boston Red Sox won the World Series despite being called, “a bunch of idiots.”  By no means were they they best team on paper, and by no means were they all stars.  In fact, only two players made it to the all star team that year, and one of them was a pitcher who only played every 4-5 games.  The Red Sox avoided the Ringelmann Effect because every player was average to slightly above average. When one player came to bat, they did not expect anyone else to pull the weight of the team except themselves. This viewpoint resulted in players putting in more effort every game.

Increase Identifiability

When a group is formed, people tend to lose their individual identity by shifting it to the group’s identity. This makes group members feel anonymous and therefore if they begin to slack, the “slacker” identity gets put on the group and not the individual’s reputation. At least this is what members tend to feel and what research indicates.When people’s own name and identity are tied to specific parts of a project, they put more effort in. Why? People are very concerned with how others evaluate them – this is known as evaluation apprehension, and as a manager if you can make group work more identifiable, without being perceived as the “big bad hall monitor,” members will increase their output. 

Change How Work is Presented

Divide the work up into manageable bite size bits that can be accomplished in a few days time. This way you’ll be able to measure each coworker’s effort and work product.Think of it like a 100 yard dash. You and your team have little time to slack since you’re moving at such a fast pace. Plus, at the end of the week, you as the manager can properly shift your groups short term goals to increase group output.

Final Thoughts

The Ringelmann Effect is hard to detect as managers. It’s stealthy, sleek, deceiving and can be the main reason why your team isn’t’ performing highly; however, now that you have the awareness of this phenomenon, you can quickly implement one of these three strategies in order to avoid it.

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