Sep 23th, 2022
Lately I have been reading a bit about group dynamics, and I came across something very obvious yet not talked about in simple terms - the effect of group size on individual productivity. Back in 1913, a French agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann discovered what we now know as the Ringelmann Effect - the tendency for individual members of a group to become increasingly less productive as the size of their group increases. Basically, as the size of a team grows, more and more people slack and loaf about at their job.
All of us have lived through this, and yet we get surprised when we notice it again at work. Here are some real life examples -
- People do not vote because they think their vote doesn’t count, and others are voting anyways.
- People clap softly in a crowd. People sing softly in a crowd.
- People do not help an accident victim on the road, and continue on thinking someone will help them.
The effect on professional teams is as drastic. With team members slacking off a little, the loafing compounds and slows down everything. Remember the good old days at any startup ? Well that was because everyone knew what everyone was supposed to do, everything was direct. Now there’s a 100 more people and its really easy to hide lack of effort.
Ringelmann posited, again very obviously in hindsight, that a group fails to achieve its maximum potential because of 2 reasons -
- The cost of coordination and communication grows as the team size goes up
- Lack of motivation - Individuals tend to loaf about more assuming their team mates will pick up the slack. Or that their effort doesn’t count.
I want to add one more compounding effect based on my experience -
- Slack aping - When a team member is allowed to slack, others are motivated to loaf.
How do you deal with this effect at work?
Here are some things you can do to identify and fix group size problems -
- Keep a document on What happens if you reduce the team by 10% ?
- Ensure that each and every member has a specific role in your team. If you cannot find a specific role with crisp actionable goals for a team member, that member is redundant in your team and will cause.
- Set goals for all individuals in your team, preferably make everyone’s goals public. Set challenging work for people and help them achieve their goals. If you are a manager, here’s a half-decent guide.
- Work towards making every member of the team know the importance of their contribution. This isn’t just empty praise, if you have a role for this person, they must know that it is contributing to the team’s success and company’s success. Contrarily, if you are finding hard to do this, the role is redundant and you should downsize.
- Cull slack aping when you notice it. Do not let slacking slide, or else it will ruin a high performing team. Do not wait for the performance reviews to communicate feedback.
If you are a manager, you should really worry about your team’s size. Often times we get into an expansionist mode, and want to acquire more and more team members. Without creating these guardrails, expansion only increases output, and reduces outcome.
Remember, our collective image of an ideal engineer is of a person who is technically sound, self motivated and driven to excel, and not everyone is an ideal engineer. Most people need a clear path to perform well, even the ones who are technically brilliant.
The same goes for teams; every senior engineering leader should work hard to make sure their teams have clear goals and knowledge about their importance to the company.