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Volume 15, Issue 37;   September 16, 2015: Holding Back: II

Holding Back: II

by

Members of high-performing teams rarely hold back effort. But truly high performance is rare in teams. Here is Part II of our exploration of mechanisms that account for team members' holding back effort they could contribute.
American Eclipse, an American racehorse who lived from 1814 to 1847

American Eclipse, an American racehorse who lived from 1814 to 1847. At the time, three- and four-mile heats were common, which makes his undefeated record especially impressive.

Horse-racing strategy — indeed, strategy in most kinds of racing — includes a tactic often called "holding back," in which the racer exerts less effort than would otherwise be possible in order to have some effort in reserve. Even though the workplace isn't a race in the ordinary sense, holding back some effort for reserve purposes can be a constructive choice at times. The image is that of a painting (ca. 1834) by Edward Troye, courtesy Wikipedia.

In Part I of our catalog of mechanisms that cause some team members to hold back their own efforts, we looked at three of the better-studied phenomena: social loafing, free riding, and the sucker effect. We continue now with some less-well-studied — but nonetheless common — mechanisms that lead to holding back. We'll take a look at what to do about holding back next time.

Performance matching
Performance matching is holding back so as to match the perceived level of others' contributions. It differs from free riding because free riders try to minimize their effort — to zero if possible. It differs from the sucker effect because performance matchers aren't trying to avoid the appearance of being exploited.
Some performance matchers try to avoid the risks associated with contributing. For example, they might anticipate shunning by peers concerned about being outshone by high performers. Or, if under pressure to perform on other projects, performance matchers might be trying to deliver at low but acceptable levels.
Futility effects
Holding back can occur when a team member regards the group's efforts as futile because of wrongheaded design, looming external competition, mismanagement, corrupt leadership, or other factors. Those holding back might feel that they're doing no harm because the effort is doomed anyway.
Some leaders or managers regard careful monitoring of individual effort as a deterrent to holding back. But if those holding back feel that no matter the value of their contributions, they will be deemed inadequate or be disregarded, then the deterrent effect of performance monitoring is limited. To achieve a measure of deterrence, group leaders and management must maintain a fair process of evaluation, and that process must be seen as fair.
Fatigue
Sometimes people just get tired. They reduce their efforts — or they reduce time on the job — because they run out of energy. They might not admit exhaustion, because some cultures frown upon such admissions. And even when they do admit exhaustion, the admissions aren't always believed. Fatigue can also be a medical symptom, or a side effect of treatment.
Determining the degree of exhaustion of In virtual teams, distance and time
differences can limit supervisors'
effectiveness, which can create
temptations for some team
members to hold back
others is notoriously difficult. It's likely that some people who are actually tired are thought to be holding back.
Virtuality effects
In virtual teams, distance and time differences can limit supervisors' effectiveness, which can create temptations for some team members to hold back, because they feel safe from detection. The temptation can be enhanced when those holding back are separated from peers in addition to supervisors.
But virtual configurations can also contribute to misjudgments as supervisors and others assess levels of effort. That is, an observer might believe that someone is holding back, when in reality he or she is delivering acceptable or even superior levels of performance.

Honest, I haven't been holding back about suggesting how to control holding back. That's next time. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Deal with Holding Back  Next Issue

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Update: April 8, 2018

When someone — call him Nick — in a workgroup or team exhibits narcissistic behavior that entails ruthless disregard for the feelings of others, he tends to target those he perceives as threats to his own status. Some might hold back their contributions as a defensive measure to avoid appearing to threaten Nick. See "Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII," Point Lookout for May 2, 2018, for more.

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