The Psychology of Collaboration

I’ve always admired the collaborative community for information management professionals that MIKE2.0 is creating, so I figured my first post here should be about collaboration, especially since many information management initiatives can not function properly without it.  For example, as was discussed during Episode 02 of the Open MIKE Podcast, a collaborative approach is essential to successful information governance.

In this post, I want to focus on a few psychological concepts that can undermine collaborative efforts.

In his book You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney explained how “in 1974, psychologist Alan Ingham had people put on a blindfold and grab a rope.  The rope was attached to a contraption that simulated the resistance of an opposing team.  The subjects were told many other people were also holding the rope on their side, and he measured their effort.  Then, he told them they would be pulling alone, and again he measured.  They were alone both times, but when they thought they were in a group, they pulled 18 percent less strenuously on average.”

This is sometimes called the Ringelmann effect after French engineer Maximilien Ringelmann, who discovered in 1913 that if he had people get together in groups to pull on a strain gauge, their combined efforts would tally up to less than the sum of their individual strength measurements.

“Ingham and Ringelmann’s work,” McRaney concluded, “introduced social loafing to psychology: You put in less effort when in a group than you would if working alone on the same project.”

Collaboration is about leveraging a team to collectively tackle information management tasks, so that the team’s results exceed those of the best individual contributors.  Although this is usually true, over time social loafing could start to diminish the effects of collaborative efforts.

Therefore, it’s important to make sure the team understands that they have a collective ownership and a shared responsibility for achieving their goals, but that individuals are accountable for specific roles.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explained that “many members of a collaborative team feel they have done more than their share and also feel that the others are not adequately grateful for their individual contributions.”

But if you asked each individual to assess their contribution as a percentage of the overall effort, the self-assessed contributions would add up to more than 100%.  The reason for this is something known in psychology as availability bias, which makes people remember their own individual efforts and contributions much more clearly than those of others.

There will be times when some individuals feel like they are contributing more than their teammates, but sometimes, this will only be a misperception brought on by availability bias.  Other times, it will be true simply because no collaborative effort is ever perfectly balanced, meaning sometimes sacrifices for the long-term greater good will require some individuals put in more effort in the short-term.  As long as that’s the exception, not the rule, then collaborative harmony can be maintained.

“You will occasionally do more than your share,” Kahneman concluded, “but it is useful to know that you are likely to have that feeling even when each member of the team feels the same way.”

Although collaboration isn’t always the best option (Phil Simon actually wrote an interesting three-part series making the case against collaboration: Part 1Part 2Part 3), with a better understanding of the psychology of collaboration, you can better manage your collaborative teams for ongoing success.

Category: Information Governance, Information Management
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