Picture this experiment: You are pulling on a rope tied to a boulder, sweating as you try to drag it as far as possible. To help you out, another person joins you and the boulder moves a little more. Then another person joins you, and another.
You start noticing something odd. With each additional person, the boulder moves faster, but not as fast as you would expect. By the time the tenth person grabs onto the rope, the group is barely pulling harder than when it was only six.
This is the gist of a famous study conducted by French engineer Max Ringelmann in the early 20th century. It led to his discovery of what we now know to be a common source of frustration on teams: social loafing.
Write the rules for your team culture
Fortunately, you can neutralise counter-productive dynamics and take steps to boost your team’s performance. The key is to proactively build the right team culture. That might sound too fuzzy for your tastes – the stuff of happy hours or casual Friday policies.
But actually, as social scientists know, culture is the shared set of rules – stated and unstated – that guide how groups interact and get work done. High-performing teams are productive because they align behind a small set of rules that keeps them focused so their commitment doesn’t flag.
High-performing teams operate according to rules that produce results. As a team leader, then, you should help write the rules. Research shows that, when it comes to this task, three broad areas are most important: goals, roles, and norms.
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Rules related to goals guide the team’s direction. Goals encompass a shared vision as well as specific objectives that establish clear performance targets. Goals should also tap into the values that are meaningful to individual team members.
Rules that specify each member’s contribution define roles that include both the formal and informal aspects of teamwork, such as facilitation, coaching, and mediation.
Norms are rules that determine how team members share information, make decisions, and resolve conflicts.
High-performing teams don’t leave their culture to chance, because they know that if they do, the culture that emerges in their group will likely not be the one they would want. The key is to have explicit conversations about the rules guiding how your team will collaborate and get things done.
Continue on the next page to understand how a focus on a few rules can make an impact – just as it did for TV show The Shield.
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