Teamwork is popular in a lot of companies. There are project teams, virtual teams, task forces and working groups, pair programs and councils, not to mention boards and committees. Teams provide the possibility for members to learn from each other; individual strengths lead to synergies, tasks get carried out more efficiently and quickly, and teams improve the quality of results. But how large is the actual contribution of an individual to a team effort? What motivates an individual to dedicate their strength and energy to a team’s goal? And why should an individual work hard if their efforts do not become visible in the team or if they are not measurable?
Learning from Maximilien Ringelmann
The French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann published results of an experiment in 1913 that he carried out between 1882 and 1887. His tests on pulling capacities revealed that horses, oxen and people possess less pulling capacity in groups than if their individual capacities were to be aggregated. The more people Ringelmann brought in to pull, the more their individual performance suffered¹. On average, when two people pulled the same rope each of them would do so at only 93% of their strength. When three people were involved that number dropped to 85%, eight people only managed 49%. ²
Ringelmann surmised that the decrease in performance can be traced to depleted coordination (because the participants had to synchronize their efforts) as well as to diminished motivation levels among the team; two points that are relevant for contemporary organizations too.
Separating coordination and motivation
Team work must be coordinated. Goals need to be set, tasks defined, responsibilities established, time frames and budgets agreed upon and an approach settled on. Communications need to be set up and tools have to be selected. Sometimes other teams need to be informed and temporarily integrated. Regular consultations need to be scheduled, reports have to get written, progress documented and stakeholders informed. Poor coordination can lead to bad performance and a loss in team motivation levels. The individual dimension in team membership could be a more influential factor in the situation.
Team membership as an individual dimension
What do you think of when you hear the word team? “A group of at least two people who divide labor in pursuit of a defined task in a defined time period and within a set budget.” Or, “A coalition of people who seek to solve a problem together” etc.?
There are probably countless definitions that try to put into words what we all more or less intuitively understand. There can be different team dimensions³ for team membership:
- The experience dimension: Team members feel like they are a part of a like-minded group, a unified community with strong feelings of connectedness.
- The task dimension: Team members perceive a task as a professional challenge that will be solved by a group of specialists.
- The image dimension: Team members attach a positive image to the team. They receive appreciation, are proud of the community in the team or see strategic advantages in participating.
- The crisis dimension: Teams come together in difficult times as a task force, they move quickly and work well together. They defend themselves from outside attacks. They form a strong unit, even if it is only temporary.
- The process dimension: Team members pursue a common goal regardless of the department they are in or the hierarchy in place. The main focus is the common goal and on the process.
- The results dimension: The team focuses on achieving goals. Fascinated by the common task, members put their hearts into the project. But there is a risk that individuals feel like their needs are being ignored, damaging the collaboration.
The individual dimension has a direct impact on the team’s motivation levels. Members of a community want to put their hearts and souls into a project. People who perceive tasks as challenges will probably overcome them. Or put another way: if you don’t feel like you belong to a team you are less likely to want to get involved in teamwork. If you have the sense that you need to do more than everyone else in order to achieve the goal, you will probably only invest between 48% and 93% of your energy in the long run.
The visibility and measurability of individual performance
Why do team members, whether consciously or unconsciously, invest less than 100 % of their energy in a project? Beyond the individual dimension, the visibility and measurability of individual performance can be significant. Would you know who last year’s world footballer was, if he were not a striker or offensive midfielder? Besides Usain Bolt, winner of the 100 meter dash, do you know anyone else who won at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro? What are the names of the rowers who were awarded the gold medal for their efforts?4 Don’t worry, not even the biggest sport fans can answer all the questions. There are reasons for that. Perhaps you are not interested in sports, and you don’t care about the answers. That is understandable. Or maybe you once knew the answer but have since forgotten it because it has no relevance for you. Or maybe you don’t know the names because sports like rowing require teams, and as such the group’s achievement is what counts. All of those cases needed contributions by individuals in order to win. Usain Bolt would not have been able to succeed without his three team mates. If only two women had rowed while two others watched, the team would probably still be rowing today.
Can individual performance be identified or measured? Sometimes. It’s easier in sports than it is in projects. When it comes to relay races each individual’s times are captured so that it is clear exactly how much each one contributed to the success. This visibility and measurability can be used to compare teams: how fast is the second runner in the Jamaican team compared with the second runner in the American team? The same is true in football: values and key statistics are gathered so that individual performances can be compared. Each player’s goal score is counted, as are the saves by the goal-keeper. On the team level, the level that counts, victories and the resulting points are what count. Ball possession is calculated, a metric that is noteworthy though ultimately irrelevant.
The comparison with sports is an attempt to make team and individual situations clear. Companies need to think about teams and team members. They need to identify what core numbers are important and figure out how the cooperation within the team can be optimized. What remains unanswered is the question about the individuals in the team: Why should a member put in maximum effort if her effort is hard to measure (if at all).
Appreciation of individual achievement
A very important reason for team members to put 100% in their work, besides the individual dimension, is the appreciation that they get for their efforts. This appreciation can come from different sources:
- In the team, from members.
- From outside the team, supervisors.
- From other teams or staff members in the company.
- From outside the team in the form of a jury or independent body.
And interestingly enough:
- From the individual herself.
Individual performance that is not measurable to everyone else can still be seen. Even if performance is hard to measure. And it can be evaluated. Team members in the project are aware of many details and problems and can see how others deal with them. They can give feedback and offer help. By doing so they communicate the sense that individual performance is important to the team’s success. Supervisors can also have opinions on individual team members and their contributions. And these impressions can be communicated to the team. In this way staff receive feedback on their performance, their efforts and their results. And if staff outside the team have limited access to the goings-on in the team, they can get a snapshot through the supervisor’s feedback. They can get an impression of the cooperation and the results within a team and also of the performance of individual staff members. And finally, there are still evaluations by “independent bodies”. From juries at competitions, auditors and coaches. At the end of the day every team member of a successful sports team gets an individual medal and individual recognition. The same should apply in companies.
How satisfied are you with your results? That question might come across as somewhat blunt but if you think about it you might come up with the following answers:
- The results are good and I am mostly satisfied.
- The results are pretty good. I often get positive feedback but they could be better.
- The results are okay, but I could and should become more efficient and should do more.
The list is certainly not exhaustive but your answers indicate the power of appreciation. They show you your personal and individual expectations. The project in the team could be successful but you could still be dissatisfied with your part of the results. The opposite could be true as well – the project might have failed yet you may be satisfied with your performance. The appreciation that you bring to the table could be a major factor contributing to why individuals in teams put in 100% even if their own performance is not visible or measurable. It is visible and it has the value in and of itself and for you as an individual.
 The Ringlemann effect https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringelmann_effect
 Rolf Dobelli, “Die Kunst des klaren Denkens“, published by Carl Hanser Publishers München, “Social Loafing – Warum Teams faul sind“
 Dr. Christoph V. Haug, Erfolgreich im Team, published by Beck-Wirtschaftsberater im dtv, 5. Auflage, “Was ist ein Team, was kann es leisten?“
 Italian Fabio Cannavaro wins the world footballer of the year award in 2006. Italians became the world champions with him as their captain. As a defensive player Lothar Matthäus won the title in 1991. Annekatrin Thiel from Leipzig, Carina Bär from Heilbronn, Julia Lier from Halle/Saale and Lisa Schmidla from Krefeld won gold in quad scull rowing division at the Olympic Games. And Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and Nickel Ashmeade made up the Jamaican relay team along with Usain Bolt.