Raise your hand if you want your team to be more productive.
I don’t even have to count all the hands that are up right now, because I know that’s everyone’s ultimate goal.
Our businesses depend on our teams being productive.
In our efforts to maximize our output, we try to find the best team size, and we frequently come up with ways to hire extra people so we’d get more things done.
And that’s a hilariously bad way to improve our productivity.
I’m glad you asked!
It all started in France, in the year of 1913…
What Do the Ringelmann Effect and Productivity Have in Common?
In 1913, a French agricultural engineer by the name of Maximilien Ringelmann decided to perform a group productivity experiment.
What he wanted to know was how productive would teams be when you increased or decreased the number of people working on the same task.
What happened was that Ringelmann had participants play tug of war for 5 seconds.
The participants pulled on a rope individually, then in groups of 7, and finally in groups of 14.
He used a dynamometer to record how much they were pulling.
The results showed that participants pulled with a force of 85.3kg per person when they were pulling on the rope individually.
When they pulled in 7-person groups, they pulled 65kg per person.
And when they played tug of war with the maximum number of members on their team (14), quite counterintuitively, they pulled the least:
Only 61.4kg per person.
Now, you’re probably wondering:
“What the heck, how is this even possible? There were more of them!”
But it turns out, as Ringelmann increased the group size, the individual force people on the team used decreased.
Ringelmann tried the experiment again by asking the participants to push a crossbar on a two-wheeled cart.
The same thing happened.
When people pulled individually, they used significantly more force than when someone else was helping them.
It turns out: people’s efforts diminish as the team size increases.
And the gap is even greater as we add more team members.
The total force one worker exerted was 1.00.
When one more was added, the two members exerted a total force of 1.86.
When three team members pulled, their force was 2.55. Similarly, four workers pulled a lot more; their force rose to 3.08.
Five workers pulled up to 3.50, and six reached 3.78.
And then the results started stagnating drastically.
When there were seven workers pulling on the rope, they only managed a total force of 3.92. And when eight pulled, they exerted the same force as seven.
It was only 3.92, meaning that one worker exerted half the force they would exert if they had been pulling on the rope alone.
Now, Ringelmann thought the reason behind this was lack of coordination.
It’s much harder to coordinate within groups of 7 and 14 people. Two people who pulled on a rope together were more likely to stay in sync as they pulled.
For Ringelmann, that was the most likely reason behind the phenomenon.
However, he also stated that it could be due to motivation loss.
After all, if you knew you weren’t the only one responsible for taking care of a task, you’d be more likely to sit back and relax — doing your bare minimum.
It turns out, Ringelmann was only partially right when he talked about lack of coordination.
Teams’ decreased productivity actually comes from motivation loss AKA social loafing.
How Does Social Loafing Affect Your Team Productivity?
Now, Ringelmann may not have been 100% right when it comes to the reasons behind decreased productivity, but he was onto something.
That’s why a group of researchers in 1974 decided to conduct the experiment again.
This time, they had an ace up their sleeve: pseudo-participants, with only one participant actually pulling on the rope.
Hey, who said business wasn’t just like tug of war?
Now, those researchers tried the experiment again.
One participant was told that they’d all pull on the rope, while the other members were instructed to only pretend they were pulling on the rope.
And these researchers got the same results as Ringelmann got back in 1913.
There was no reason to coordinate, so lack of coordination could not be blamed for the fact that one team member pulls harder alone than when in a team.
We call this social loafing. Team members reduce their effort because they feel less responsible for the output.
When the one active participant thought everyone was pulling, they didn’t pull as hard.
Other researchers also performed shouting and clapping experiments on blindfolded participants who also wore headphones.
And every time, it was proven that people just aren’t going to do their best if they know they’re not the only ones responsible for getting something done.
To put it simply: individual members think their efforts won’t matter for the outcome, so they don’t give all they’ve got.
But what does that mean for your business?
Social Loafing in the Workplace
Here’s the thing: when too many people at your company feel responsible for the same thing, each member won’t try hard enough and your total productivity will go down.
You can see social loafing everywhere:
If you walk by a construction site, there are always construction workers who are sweaty, tired, and still shoveling. Then you have those who look like they’d just come from a walk in the park.
Go to your local McDonalds. Some employees are doing their best to take all the orders while others are lounging around.
Heck, look at your office. Chances are, half of your team members are just aimlessly clicking on their keyboards or scrolling down their newsfeeds.
This doesn’t happen because they’re mean, lazy or want to ruin your business.
It happens because they don’t feel integral to the success of the company.
They don’t feel responsible for the output.
Your team members feel like cogs in the machine, and they won’t give their 100%.
Now, when this happens in your team, your revenue isn’t the only thing that’s suffering.
Your team members are suffering, as well.
When one part of the group is doing the majority of work, it’s easy for them to grow resentful of the team members that aren’t doing as much.
Additionally, if your team members are comparing themselves to other members’ levels of productivity, they won’t want to improve and reach their own standards of excellence.
Instead, they’ll put in only as much work as they see everyone else putting in.
And that’s a problem.
How to Eliminate Social Loafing and Increase Your Productivity
Now, we know that one of the main causes of social loafing is group size.
According to extensive scientific research, the ideal team would have 4.6 members.
I guess Tim from Accounting is just going to have to say goodbye to the limbs he likes the least.
Joking aside, the number majority of business owners (myself included) found to be the perfect ratio for productivity was 6 team members.
Anything less than 4 team members is too small to be effective.
Anything more than 5 is too complex, and the returns will start decreasing.
As you look at your organization, you don’t want to have teams that have more than five members.
If you need a big team, if you’re doing work that’s that complex, what you can do is break down complex tasks and clearly assign responsibilities.
This way, every team, and every team member will feel personally accountable for the outcome of that task.
What I know from my experience is that when you shrink a team or shrink anything, establish a limit, you’re actually forcing innovation.
Your people have to think differently.
They have to be more effective.
The best thing we can do is have teams that are slightly smaller than what the task requires.
They’ll be more efficient together.
Look at your organizational chart and make sure that no individual teams are larger than five members, and you’ll see a massive increase in productivity.
Everyone will start pulling their weight, and they’ll do their best work.
Conversely, if you make your team members work in huge teams, you’ll see how fast their productivity levels spiral. Especially if you aren’t clearly delegating tasks and making sure they know who’s responsible for what.
It’s a recipe for disaster.
Team members who feel that their skills are inferior to that of other team members will sit back and let the seemingly more capable teammates handle their work.
Your team will suffer, and so will your business.
And reducing social loafing follows the same principles of working out.
If you really want to get fit, you can’t just do the minimum work required every day.
You have to push your muscles day in and day out, and keep increasing the intensity.
Only then will your system dance to the tune of increased productivity.