The Social Facilitation Effect: How to Increase Performance in Your Work Team

Observation: Dogs run faster in packs than they do when they are alone. Similarly, ants move more earth when working in groups than they do when working alone.

Why it matters to your management efforts is because humans too perform higher when working in groups than they do when working individually. But not in all situations and not always in the same way. As managers, understanding when groups enhance performance and when groups reduce performance, can help you design a better work environment.

The Fishing Reel Experiment: When Working In Groups Increases Performance

In 1898, Norman Triplett noticed that cyclists reported faster race times when riding with another rider than they did when riding alone. To test his theory that competition enhanced performance he devised an experiment.

Triplett asked 40 children to wind a fishing reel. The only difference was that some children were asked to reel it alone, while others were asked to reel it in direct competition against another child. 

He found that those participants reeling in competition reeled faster than those who had reeled alone.

Triplett concluded that working in teams improves performance. Whether it is the competition, the audience factor or the fear of looking lazy, when people are made to work in groups they perform better.

But the case was far from closed.

The Dark Side of Social Facilitation Effect: When Working in Groups Hampers Performance

Then in the 1920s, social psychologist Gordon Allport conducted his own experiments to test the power of groups in performance enhancement.

He invited participants to undertake a series of activities involving multiplication, vowel cancellation and generating counter-arguments to ancient philosophers’ theories.

Like Triplett, Allport too found that groups enhanced performance. But it was not on all tasks. When it came to generating counter-arguments, for example, he found that while participants generated more arguments when working in a group environment, the quality of the arguments was low compared to that of those who were working alone.

How do you reconcile the two findings? Enter Robert Zajonc.

Zajonc’s Drive Theory

Zajonc theorised that these results were not contradictory; they were just missing a key qualifier – the complexity of the task.

When the task was simple or well learned, say reeling a fishing reel or a professional rider riding a bike, the increased arousal from working in a group (competition, being watched, the fear of appearing inadequate etc.) lead to superior performance.

When the task was complex or unfamiliar, however, the increased arousal decreased performance.

To test his theory, he devised an experiment involving cockroaches running a maze. He constructed a simple maze where the cockroaches would either the run the maze alone or in the presence of other cockroaches (figure 1).
Social Facilitation Effect - Zajonc’s Drive Theory
He also constructed a complex maze which the roaches either ran alone or in the presence of other roaches (figure 2).
Social Facilitation Effect - Zajonc’s Drive Theory
Consistent with his theory Zajonc found that having an audience improved performance in the simple maze whereas having an audience decreased performance in the complex maze.

Management Implications: How to Maximize Performance in Your Team

From management perspective, these experiments lead to two findings:

If the task is simple or well learned, working in a team environment will improve performance. So if you have an expert performer who has not been working to their level, put them in front of a crowd. Even if they are not in direct competition with the crowd the audience factor will improve performance.

If the task is complex or unfamiliar to people, working in a team would hamper performance. So if you want people to learn a new task or come up with new ideas, get them to work alone. This will ensure that the arousal of working in a team will not hamper their learning and creativity.