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Behaviorial Psychology

The larger the team, the less productive each individual becomes

The effectiveness of any group tends to decline over time.

Managing people can be rewarding. It can also be an absolute pain in the neck.

It's messy, for one thing. People get into spats. Or they get into romantic entanglements that inevitably lead to spats. They get too drunk at the Christmas party. They complain and argue and are passive-aggressive. Or aggressive-aggressive.

These issues are tiresome, but they're not the real challenge. The challenge is productivity. Getting teams to maintain a strong pace and achieve consistent quality is hard. I struggle constantly with it.

The nagging voice in my head assures me this is proof I'm a crap manager. I wouldn't say I like that voice, but it's motivating. It keeps me focused and engaged, and I am forever looking to improve. But the struggle is always there.

If you struggle like this as well, take heart. Lower productivity is a natural consequence of teams. The challenge is built in and largely unavoidable. The nagging voice may still be there, but it's wrong.

People slack off if they’re in a group

This story starts, as so many great stories do, in France just before the First World War.

In 1913, a man named Eugene Tisserand worked in the French Ministry of Agriculture. Tisserand's job was to look for ways to improve farm production, and he traveled all over France, visiting farms and talking to farmers. As he travels, he observes that most farming equipment is poorly designed and constructed by the farmers themselves.

Tisserand figures that a scientific approach might help improve production, so he commissions a Parisian professor named Maximilian Ringelmann to study farming processes and to establish best practices.

Ringelmann sets to work measuring the efficiency of farm equipment and the horses that drove them. Along the way, he discovers something odd. Two horses working together didn't do twice the work of a single horse. Adding more horses decreased each horse's contribution even further.

Ringelmann wondered if the same thing happened with people. To test it, he brought a group of students over to the farm lab. He asked them, individually and in groups, to pull a rope attached to a force meter. When two people pull together, they each apply about 90% of the effort than when they pull individually. If three people pull together, each contributes about 85% of their individual effort. And when eight people pull together, each applied only about 49%!

This is the Ringelmann effect, sometimes known more colloquially as “social loafing.”

Why people slack off

Since Ringelmann's experiment, researchers have found the phenomenon in countless contexts. Swimmers competing in a relay race put in significantly less effort if they thought their individual times were not being measured. The same story goes for rowers, whose efforts systematically (and unconsciously) decrease as team size increases. Students working together on a joint project will each contribute less effort.

Unsurprisingly, the Ringelmann effect also occurs at work. Dozens of studies have shown that individuals reduce their effort when they are part of a workgroup. Team members contribute less frequently and with lower quality than when acting alone. This is true with any team at any level in the organization, including the board of directors, the executive team, or a clutch of interns. The transition to remote work has only amplified the effect.

Dozens of studies have shown that individuals reduce their effort when they are part of a workgroup. Team members contribute less frequently and with lower quality than when acting alone.

Studies have also looked into why slacking occurs. There are many reasons, and a single team can have one or many of them:

Workgroup cohesion

Tight-knit teams foster a sense of loyalty and responsibility among members. Teams that lack interpersonal "chemistry" are less productive because it reduces the consequences of slacking — there's little fear that by slacking you're dropping the ball on a friend. Obviously, remote work makes building and maintaining team cohesion even more challenging.

Dispensability of effort

Sometimes, people feel intimidated or incompetent relative to other team members. There is a perceived risk of humiliation through contribution and a feeling that the team will complete its task at some minimal satisfactory level even without one's contributions.

Futility of effort

The opposite side of the coin from dispensability of effort, feelings of futility cause a person to believe that the team's mission will fail regardless of their contribution. Regardless of the extent or caliber of their contribution, the team will fail to meet its goal.

Lack of recognition

Individuals might feel that their supervisors can't (or won't) distinguish their work from contributions made by other team members. If there's little visibility into an individual's contribution, that person believes they will experience the same consequence whether they work hard or not. Given the choice, most people will opt for the latter and instead focus their efforts on more personally beneficial activities.

Unbalanced effort

If a person believes that other team members are contributing less, they may reduce their effort to better mirror the contribution made by others. In a remote setting, unbalanced effort becomes more pronounced, with some team members feeling they are contributing more due to the lack of visibility into everyone's workloads, further complicating the dynamics of effort and contribution.


There is a strong relationship between productivity and the sense that a team's procedures and processes are equitable among all members. If certain team members are perceived as favored, others will likely decrease their contributions to the team.

Workgroup size

Team size is the magnifier of all other effects of all the variables described above. As a group grows larger, it's more difficult to distinguish and assess individual contributions. This increases the likelihood that individual members will feel anonymous and decrease their efforts accordingly.

All of these reasons are dynamic and recursive. For example, if a team member reduces their effort for any reason (say because they think the team is unfair), others will tend to react to this by likewise reducing their efforts, causing still others in the team to react, and so on.

This dynamic plays out at home, too. If one partner believes the other is better at housework, they may believe their effort is dispensable and reduce their effort toward maintaining the house. The other partner, meantime, begins to feel their effort is futile and likewise reduces housekeeping activities.

The effectiveness of any group tends to decline over time, with each member putting in the least effort required to ensure continued anonymity and avoid negative consequences.

Some strategies

The (sort of) good news is that there are methods for limiting slacking on teams. The bad news is that it’s not easy — they all involve careful planning and ongoing engagement on the part of the manager.

Compose groups with different skill sets

This ensures each member feels their contribution is unique and essential to the team's success. When forming teams, highlight each person's strengths to reinforce their sense of value. This approach also helps broaden employees' abilities by exposing them to new skills.

Limit group size

Teams become unwieldy to manage after a certain size, and become less and less productive anyway. The group should be large enough to accommodate members of various necessary skill sets, but not much larger.

Clarify goals and objectives

Teams need to feel that they understand what they are trying to accomplish, that the mission matters, and that it is achievable. Managers should work hard to clarify overall OKRs as well as those for each member.

Give groups discretion over planning and executing work

Ownership increases engagement, so set overall vision and objectives and allow the team to work out how to get there. Some managers will tell the team to figure out the details and then ignore the team until it's time for the final delivery. Don't do that. Have the team present the strategy, ensure it is measurable and realistic, and stay engaged.

Measure and stay engaged

Set clear expectations for each team member and track progress through regular one-on-one meetings. This ensures everyone feels recognized, allows you to address potential problems proactively, and ultimately prevents issues from escalating.

Beware geographic distribution

Remote work is a fact of the modern workplace, but it can contribute to lower productivity because it can be harder to maintain group cohesion. When building geographically distributed groups, you need to double down efforts to foster communication and engagement.