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Just Like Riding a Bike

Are you stuck on a dysfunctional project team made up of loafers, finger-pointers, and know-it-alls, all with their own agendas? If so, you can blame Norman Triplett.

Triplett, an Indiana University sports psychologist, began studying teamwork in the late 1800s. A bicycling enthusiast, Triplett observed that cyclists performed better in competition than they did when practicing alone. Suspecting that it was the presence of other people that inspired racers to excel, he conducted experiments in which children carried out a simple motor task alone and in pairs. As Triplett predicted, the children's individual performance improved when they worked in pairs. According to Triplett's theory of social facilitation, just having other people around should increase your teammates' drive and motivation levels.

So, how's that working out for you? Unless your team rides bikes for a living, the results are probably inconsistent.

Here's why. In the 1960s, social psychologist Robert Zajonc delved deeper into the study of social facilitation. Zajonc confirmed that the mere presence of other people arouses better performance when tackling simple or routine tasks. However, for complex or unfamiliar tasks, he found that the presence of others becomes a distraction that hinders performance. Simply put, when we're comfortable with our ability to perform a task, having teammates inspires us to do well; but when we're unsure of ourselves, our innate evaluation apprehension causes us to focus on impressing the team, so our performance suffers.

Thanks to Triplett, organizations are quick to form teams, assigning tasks ranging from developing new products to planning the company picnic. But Zajonc reminds us that not every undertaking lends itself to a teamwork approach. Use teams wisely, or your team members could end up spinning their wheels.

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