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Motivating Groups to Perform Better by Appealing to Self-Interest

15 January, 2016 - 09:22

In addition to helping group members understand the nature of group performance, we must be aware of their self-interested goals. Group members, like all other people, act at least in part for themselves. So anything we can do to reward them for their participation or to make them enjoy being in the group more will be helpful.

Perhaps the most straightforward approach to getting people to work harder in groups is to provide rewards for performance. Corporations reward their employees with raises and bonuses if they perform well, and players on sports teams are paid according to their successes on the playing field. However, although incentives may increase the effort of the individual group members and thus enhance group performance, they also have some potential disadvantages for group process.

One potential problem is that the group members will compare their own rewards with those of others. It might be hoped that individuals would use their coworkers as positive role models (upward social comparison), which would inspire them to work harder. For instance, when corporations set up “employee of the week” programs, which reward excellence on the part of individual group members, they are attempting to develop this type of positive comparison.

On the other hand, if group members believe that others are being rewarded more than they are for what they perceive as the same work (downward social comparison), they may change their behavior to attempt to restore equity. Perhaps they will attempt to work harder in order to receive greater rewards for themselves. But they may instead decide to reduce their effort to match what they perceive as a low level of reward (Platow, O’Connell, Shave, & Hanning, 1995). It has been found, for instance, that workers who perceive that their pay is lower than it should be are more likely to be absent from work (Baron & Pfefer, 1994; Geurts, Buunk, & Schaufeli, 1994). Taken together then, incentives can have some positive effects on group performance, but they may also create their own difficulties.

But incentives do not have to be so directly financial. As we saw in our earlier discussion of social loafing, people will also work harder in groups when they feel that they are contributing to the group and that their work is visible to and valued by the other group members (Karau & Williams, 1993; Kerr & Bruun, 1983). One study (Williams, Harkins, & Latané, 1981) found that when groups of individuals were asked to cheer as loudly as they could into a microphone placed in the center of the room, social loafing occurred. However, when each individual was given his or her own personal microphone and thus believed that his or her own input could be measured, social loafing was virtually eliminated. Thus when our contributions to the group are identifiable as our own, and particularly when we receive credit for those contributions, we feel that our performance counts, and we are less likely to loaf.

It turns out that the size of the group matters in this regard. Although larger groups are more able than smaller ones to diversify into specialized roles and activities, and this is likely to make them efficient in some ways (Bond & Keys, 1993; Miller & Davidson-Podgorny, 1987), larger groups are also more likely to suffer from coordination problems and social loafing. The problem is that individuals in larger groups are less likely to feel that their effort is going to make a difference to the output of the group as a whole or that their contribution will be noticed and appreciated by the other group members (Kerr & Bruun, 1981).

In the end, because of the difficulties that accompany large groups, the most effective working groups are of relatively small size—about four or five members. Research suggests that in addition to being more efficient, working in groups of about this size is also more enjoyable to the members, in comparison with being in larger groups (Mullen, Symons, Hu, & Salas, 1989). However, the optimal group size will be different for different types of tasks. Groups in which the members have high ability may benefit more from larger group size (Yetton & Bottger, 1983), and groups that have greater commitment or social identity may suffer less from motivational losses, even when they are large (Hardy & Latané, 1988).

Groups will also be more effective when they develop appropriate social norms. If the group develops a strong group identity and the group members care about the ability of the group to do a good job (e.g., a cohesive sports or military team), the amount of social loafing is reduced (Harkins & Petty, 1982; Latané, Williams, & Harkins, 1979). On the other hand, some groups develop norms that prohibit members from working up to their full potential and thus encourage loafing (Mullen & Baumeister, 1987). It is also important for the group to fully define the roles that each group member should play in the group and help the individuals accomplish these roles.