Picture yourself in an office. (Which, if you’re reading this at work, shouldn’t be too difficult.) You’re working on a shared document and adding to each other’s comments, but when it’s time to hand it in to the boss you realize your coworker Joel didn’t contribute. Of course, he mentioned a few ideas during the meeting when your manager was in the room, but did no legwork behind the scenes. You’re left feeling frustrated and risk sounding petty if you complain to your boss.
Unfortunately, most of us can probably think of at least one coworker who doesn’t pull his or her weight on team projects. Worse still, we may find ourselves not pulling our own weight, even when we know we can.
What’s up with that? Why is it so easy to drop the ball? And how can we make teamwork work?
The source of the answer may surprise you. Back in the early 1900s, what many believe to be the first recorded social psychology experiment was conducted by Max Ringelmann. His experiment was basically an elaborate game of tug-of-war. He measured how much force people exerted when pulling on a rope by themselves, vs. when they pulled with others.
What he found may surprise you—but then again it may not. Each time he added another person to the rope, everyone pulled with less strength. By the time there were eight people on the rope, they were each pulling the rope with half the force of one person pulling alone. These poor farmers gave meaning to the phrase, “not pulling their own weight.”
Enter the modern workforce. Most employees can tell you that it's all too easy for people to get lazy when working on a project as a team. Lucky for us, Ringelmann also looked into why this problem occurs, and how you can solve it. According to his study, the main causes are:
Attempting to curb the “free rider” problem means minimizing these three causes. And, as you might have guessed, better communication can improve all of them.
First, eliminate the “busy work” and unnecessary emails. If people are overwhelmed by how much information they’re receiving (and how useless it is), you’re going to have a hard time getting people on board with the cause.
Once you’ve done that, you can start to work on communicating value. You can do this with a PowerPoint presentation, or through documenting testimonials or visuals—anything that gives people a more tangible sense of what they’re working towards. By showing people how their individual efforts contribute to, for example, a patient having access to a prescription, or a working mother being able to get through the day without ripping her hair out, you improve motivation to work.
Second, structure teams better, to make sure that everyone knows exactly how their role is different from others’. If your teammates feel like a bunch of identical cogs in a stationary machine, who can blame them for slacking off? Instead, if everyone is able to create their own identity through communicating the value of their work, their pride and responsibility for the team increase.
Lastly, create community through communication. Are your teams small enough for everyone to get to know each other, and feel comfortable contacting one another with problems or concerns, or even just silly notes? Is there unnecessarily stressful competition between employees? If team members have to jump through hoops just to get their emails read, they’ll be less likely to care about how their own work affects other team members. Minimize comparison, maximize collaboration.
Work doesn’t have to feel pointless, or painful. There are many things your can do to improve your own experience, and the experience of your coworkers.
Our biggest tip?
Communicate, communicate, communicate. And when you do, communicate clearly. Illustrate your ideas and improve teamwork with images.
While you don’t want to overwhelm everyone with pointless motivational emails and memos that waste their time, you’ll never regret making sure that everyone is pulling for the same team. Plus, it’s great practice for your next all-company tug-of-war competition.
Don't forget to bring your communication to life and illustrate your work with some imagery. You can access our free clipart images and royalty-free photos with the Pickit Free Images app for PowerPoint and Word.
Who wrote this?
This was posted by Anneli L. Tostar, a Harvard-trained anthropologist and artist, originally from Portland, Oregon. She now lives in Stockholm and is studying urban planning and design. Anneli speaks five languages and understands none of them.