Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 36;   September 9, 2015:

Holding Back: I

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When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior?
Navy vs. Marine Corps tug of war in Vera Cruz, Mexico ca. 1910-1915

Tug of War between sailors and Marines in Vera Cruz, ca. 1910-1915. The earliest known study of social loafing is research by Max Ringelmann, published in 1913 ("Recherches sur les moteurs animés: Travail de l'homme", in Annales de l'Institut National Agronomique, 2nd series, vol. 12, pages 1-40.) The experiments he performed involved rope pulling, as in a tug of war. What became known as the Ringelmann Effect is the phenomenon in which individual members' efforts decline steadily as group size increases.

The photo is by the Bain News Service, from the George Grantham Bain Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Holding back — choosing to restrain one's own efforts toward group goals — is one of the many causes of disappointing team performance. It occurs when one or more team members exert less effort toward achieving a team objective than they would have exerted in analogous situations, if working as individuals. In team-oriented workplaces, where holding back can create significant budget and schedule issues, understanding the causes of voluntary restraint of effort and learning how to control it can be steps on the path to superior organizational and personal performance.

The literature of group performance includes studies of many forms of holding back. Their definitions vary, and some authors distinguish among them on the basis of differences in motivation-related causes. Here's Part I of a catalog of forms of holding back. These first three are among the more thoroughly researched.

Social loafing
Social loafing happens when a group member exerts less effort toward a shared objective than he or she would have exerted working alone. In some virtual environments, it assumes a form known as tele-shirking.
Although the conventional definition makes no distinctions with respect to motive, the first investigations of social loafing related to efforts in which all contributions to achieving the shared objective were similar in kind. That is, one could not easily determine by observation which team members were engaged in social loafing. In some cases of social loafing, one cannot even determine whether it has occurred, other than by examining the aggregate effort. These conditions distinguish social loafing from free riding and the sucker effect, described below.
Free riding
Free riding is holding back because of the belief that others will compensate for the effort withheld.
Some have defined free riding to require that the free rider receive some kind of benefit while exerting zero effort. But the essential element of this form of holding back is the perception on the part of the free rider that the efforts of others will compensate for the free rider's choice to withhold effort.
The sucker effect
Another form Choosing to restrain one's own
efforts toward group goals is
one of the many causes of
disappointing team performance
of holding back, known as the sucker effect, occurs when group members perceive — accurately or not — that other members are holding back, for whatever reason. To avoid being seen (and possibly seeing themselves) as "suckers," they reduce their own effort to a point at which they feel sufficiently less likely to seem to have been exploited. The sucker effect might also have anticipatory forms in which a team member curtails efforts because of a belief that another team member is likely to withhold, even when there is no objective evidence of any current withholding.
Here the identification of those who hold back is essential — it is the central reason for withholding effort.

We'll continue next time, examining some less-well-studied mechanisms of holding back.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Holding Back: II  Next Issue

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