Social Facilitation: An Easy Way to Improve Job & Organizational Performance

Introduction: Social Facilitation

Ever notice how you try to finish a newspaper article in just a few minutes when you’re at Starbucks? Or, when you’re taking an exam, you try to complete the page faster than everyone else? Even when you’re at the grocery store, you try to put the groceries on the conveyor belt in as organized a way as possible? Your behavior suddenly changes, and you’re no longer the same “me.” However, what you’re experiencing isn’t strange; in fact, you should expect it.

Yes, it is!

Human behavior is different when a person is no longer in isolation. We know that though. I mean, there’s a subject (read: social psychology) dedicated to exploring it. That subject helped us discover phenomena this blog explores. And in today’s entry, we will explore the phenomenon known as social facilitation and how it impacts us at work. In addition, we will look at how you and the HR manager can use it to your benefit.

What Social Facilitation Is

Wikipedia’s definition is not entirely accurate. (And this is why you cannot rely on Wikipedia as a source of information.) It states that social facilitation is “the tendency for people to perform differently when in the presence of others than when alone.” In reality, according to Simply Psychology, it’s the “improvement in performance produced by the mere presence of others.” So don’t be surprised if you find yourself jogging or biking more quickly when you’re doing it with friends.

And that’s exactly how it was discovered. Norman Triplett was the first to investigate the phenomenon. Many say his experiments dawned the field of sports psychology. Triplett conducted two experimental studies.

He conducted his first in 1897 with cyclists. He had three different experimental groups. The first group cycled separately, the second cycled on-pace with a cyclist who set the pace, and the third raced each other. He established his null hypothesis as the first two groups’ speeds individually being equal to the third group’s. In other words, H0: μ1 = μ3 & μ2 = μ3. Alternatively, the first two groups’ speeds individually being less than the third’s. In other words, HA: μ1 < μ3 & μ2 < μ3.

He found that from his samples that μ1 < μ3 & μ2 < μ3. As a result, he was able to reject the null hypothesis and state that the differences in speed were statistically significant. (Note that I do not say accept the alternative hypothesis. In science, we can never accept the alternative; we only disprove the null.) In other words, that there was some sort of meaningful relationship accounting for that difference; it could not have happened solely due to chance.


Cyclists are faster together than when alone, so go biking with a friend!

He went on to conduct his second experiment in 1898. He had children wind fishing lines alone and in competition with others. His previous finding was reconfirmed: The children winding in competition showed increased performance. But please be aware: Some researchers argue that “the experimental task was described wrongly, and the evidence for social facilitation was overstated.” Even so, Triplett argued that the basis for the relationship was indeed social facilitation. Additionally, although his work may be overstated, his work encouraged more interest in social facilitation. However, Gordon Allport, another social psychologist, found an opposite effect: social interference/inhibition.

But Social Facilitation Isn’t Universal

Have you ever gone up on-stage to perform comedy in front of an audience? No, because you know you’re not a good comedian, and you’d stutter yourself off-stage. What about bio lab? Completed an experiment with a partner, finding yourself relying on him or her to do most of it? (I know I have.)

It’s naive to believe that social facilitation always improves performance, and Allport showed exactly that. Task complexity moderates the relationship between task completion and performance. In other words, the change in your performance depends on how difficult the task is.

Your Web Design Shop details Allport’s experiment. In the 1920’s, Allport had individuals generate counterarguments to ancient philosophers’ theories. He found that although they did generate more counterarguments in a group, the quality of their arguments was lower. While you may say that performance can be based on the number of counterarguments produced, I can easily refute that statement by saying, “What’s the point of generating counterarguments if they aren’t of high quality?” Regardless of our differing opinions, Allport’s experiment noted how task complexity affects task performance.

Let’s just hope this isn’t you!

Allport’s work indicated that when the task is complex (or the individuals aren’t skilled at the task), their performance decreases in a group. We call this social interference/inhibition. And Allport clarified Triplett’s work, indicating that when the task is simple (or the individuals are skilled at the task), their performance increases in a group. Being around others facilitates task completion.

What Causes These Phenomena?

There are four supposed reasons, all based on how we are more alert physiologically when around others. The first states that the environment is uncertain in a social setting, causing us to be more physiologically aroused. Why is this the case? When humans were primarily nomadic, they had to protect themselves from predators. Who knew when a tiger would attack you in the wild? As a result, evolution selected for those who would immediately be alert when there were any indications of danger. We still carry this evolutionary trait (or benefit, depending on how you view it) today, though the people around us are usually not enemies or pose any threat.

The second states that we are concerned about being evaluated by others. This refers to a phenomenon known as evaluation apprehension. When you get up on-stage to perform, you may not be willing to admit it, but you’re aware of how others perceive, and evaluate, your performance. Like our tendency to be alert in uncertain situations, we are more physiologically alert.

The third states that we are self-aware when performing a task. In other words, we compare our performance against an agreed-upon standard. As a result, we become more physiologically alert, focusing on trying to improve our performance and ensuring that we meet that standard. But is this any surprise? If others are telling us they finished a mile in only 8 minutes, we want to say the same.

Finally, the last states that when we are around others, we get distracted. It’s a natural tendency for people to focus on many different things at once. When we are completing a task around others, there is an additional item in our surroundings that causes us to get distracted. Again, this increases physiological alertness because we aren’t only focusing on completing the task; we’re focusing on the people around us.

Differentiating Between the Coaction & Audience

It’s important to distinguish between when we’re doing the same task as others (doesn’t matter if it’s competitive, collaborative, or just in the same setting) or we’re doing a task in front of others. The “mere presence of others” implies both: The former refers to the coaction effect while the latter refers to the audience effect. Both physiological forces are at play in both situations.

Improving Job Performance Using Social Facilitation & Interference/Inhibition

As an HR manager, your responsibility is to improve your employees’ performance. That is what you’re hired for. The first no-no at improving job performance given our two theories is to make sure your employees are well-trained or, at least, that you’ve hired qualified employees. That way, when they’re around others, their performance will improve. Otherwise, you’ll find social interference/inhibition at-play, decreasing performance and making your job a mess.

But there are other ways to improve performance that already require proper training and qualified employees. When I think of customer service settings, I think of…boxes. They tend to be boxy. He or she is most likely talking to you from a cubicle, alone, with their headset. According to social facilitation theory, you can improve performance by having employees work in a more open setting. When they are aware that other customer service representatives are near them, they will become more alert that others are watching and more self-aware. You will find that they want to put on a good show for their customers—they’ll want to do exactly what the customer asks for.

Apply social facilitation to construction work. Have your construction workers focus on the same task on the same day. Handle the shingles for the first week, then paint the house on the second week; don’t separate tasks., They will complete work more quickly and efficiently, and the quality of the work will be greater.

But being in an open setting and having employees complete the same task may cause social loafing. Social loafing refers to the phenomenon in which a person puts in less effort when in a group. This happens all the time on group projects. Social loafing are caused by the following:

  • Perceptions that others aren’t putting in as much effort, leading to you decrease your effort.
  • Hiding the fact that you’re not putting in an equal effort and not suffering any consequences (this is worsened when the group is large since there is a greater likelihood of anonymity).
  • Evaluation of group rather than individual effort, allowing you to get the same compensation as other employees yet do much less work.
  • Diffusion of responsibility causing members of the group to not know what exactly their responsibilities are.

Preventing social loafing isn’t always so easy, but there are options. To prevent the perception that others aren’t putting in as much effort, make established, scheduled breaks. No exceptions. Establish punitive consequences for those employees who go on breaks without permission. As a result, employees will know that everyone is required to put in as much effort, and if they try to do otherwise, they will be penalized.

You can find out if employees are hiding the fact that they’re not putting in an equal effort by checking in on them occasionally. You can simply pass by an employee and ask in a supportive tone, “How’s work going today? Do you need any help?” That way, you get the benefit of preventing social loafing without micromanaging.

Establish 360-degree feedback. Instead of relying on one form of evaluation, namely evaluating the group’s performance, have employees evaluate each other. Finding out that their coworker in the office next door thinks they’re “competent but lazy and unmotivated” is embarrassing and will discourage them from free-riding.

Finally, diffusion of responsibility is easy to handle. Job analysis does exist for a reason. Write job descriptions that clearly lay out what you expect from each employee in the department. Making it clear who’s responsible for what task will prevent employees from trying to toss their responsibilities on someone else. And if an employee tries to get away from loafing, penalize them. Don’t allow them to get away with free-riding.

And indeed, finding the right balance between social facilitation and loafing has been researched. In one study, researchers “found that small groups (consisting of 3, 4, or 5 trainees) comprehend significantly more pretraining [of training material and accuracy of rating] than did larger groups (consisting of 15, 16, 17, or 18 trainees).” It’s very likely that the smaller groups performed better because they were less likely to loaf than the larger groups. Finding that perfect balance between social facilitation and loafing can bring out the best in your employees’ performance.

You can even encourage competition as a way of using social facilitation to your advantage. When an HR manager states, “We need to get work done by the end of today, no exceptions,” employees will focus on coworkers’ performance. They’ll feel encouraged to beat them, be the best, and get the most praise and recognition.

HR managers must be careful when encouraging competition though. It may create a culture of aggressiveness and abrasiveness. However, if handled well, employees will work to outdo the others in a friendly way, and your workplace will become a place where everyone strives to submit their best work.

Finally, use social facilitation when brainstorming. Not only can employees benefit from it, but managers will benefit when coming up with new ideas. Working alone to bring out your creativity may not be the best method; instead, surround yourself with others to come up with the best, brightest, and freshest ideas. Need to find out how to improve operations for the upcoming year? Sit down as a group, talk it out, share ideas and build upon the details each of you come up with.

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Brainstorm as a team, and you’ll be amazed by how many ideas you come up with

However, just don’t rely too heavily on social facilitation. Its impact on performance may be overstated. In a meta-analysis consisting of 241 studies and 24,000 sample sizes, “the presence of others had small effects, accounting for [only 0.3% to 3% of the variance in the typical experiment].” This means that social facilitation contributed by a pretty small amount to any differences in organizational performance in a given sample size. That’s a bit disappointing. Still, don’t be discouraged not to use it to your advantage; just use it wisely.

Conclusion: Using Social Facilitation Wisely

You’d imagine that you’re better off working alone, right? Perhaps we became socialized to believe this when we were younger, and we observationally learned it from our parents when we were younger, who typically completed house chores on their own, like paying the bills, doing the taxes, or folding the laundry. However, working around or with others will improve your performance.

Don’t pay the bills in your room, don’t complete the taxes without your spouse, and don’t fold the laundry without the help of your child. Do it together. The utility of being in a team really shouldn’t be underplayed; HR can have people work together, in the same spaces, and see efficiency, effectiveness, and quality increase.

Be wise though: When having people work around or with each other, make sure that they’re good at what they do and that you’re controlling for loafing. Would you want to see a great tool for improving performance backfire?

Published: 08/10/17, 16:56

Last Revised: 08/10/17, 17:36

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