Teamwork: Motivation Losses & Gains in Groups

1.0 What is Motivation?

Motivation is a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way. The word motivation is derived from the word ‘motive’ which means needs, desires, wants or drives within the individual.

Motivation should be perceived as a dynamic and multidimensional process; it is the process of stimulating people to perform actions to accomplish/achieve a goal or objective(s).

In a work goal context, example psychological factors that can impact an individual’s behaviour, and therefore their motivation, include (but not limited to):

  • Money, including salary and other financial benefits;
  • Perceived and actual success;
  • Recognition;
  • Job satisfaction; and
  • Team work.

2.0 What is Motivation Losses and Gains?

Simplistically, they can be described as:

  • When individuals exert less effort when working in a group this is known as motivation losses.
  • When individuals exert more effort when working in a group this is known as motivation gains.

3.0 Types of Motivation Losses and Gains

There are various types of motivation losses and gains as outlined below.

3.1 Motivation Losses

  • Social loafing:
    • This is the tendency for individuals to exert less effort when working in a group than when working individually.
    • Working in a group is generally viewed as a way of improving the accomplishment of a task by pooling the experience, skills, and knowledge of the individuals.
  • Free-riding:
    • This is an individual who benefits from something without expending effort or paying for it.
    • Individuals may ‘slack off’ if they feel the task does not matter, when working in a large group, or they may simply not realise they are working ‘less than the norm’.

To ameliorate motivation losses it is important to think about:

  • Group needs (e.g. building and maintaining the group);
  • Task needs (e.g. getting the project done);
  • Structuring tasks (so that each group member can contribute);
  • Individual needs (e.g. task understanding, level of skill(s));
  • Member accountability;
  • Affirming the importance of keeping commitments made by/to the group; and
  • Establishing group norms (that everyone feels comfortable with).

3.2 Motivation Gains

  • Social support:
    • In general, an individual’s interaction with their source(s) of support positively affect their motivation.
    • However, the sources of support (for example, peer, parental, or trainer) may have different effects on any achievement.
  • Social indispensability:
    • Group members who are, or think they are, indispensable to the group may be more motivated.
    • This is particularly true for the less capable, inferior group members, but can also apply to the most capable group members.
    • A mediocre opening performance can be compensated for later on, but one toward the end cannot, making a group member’s late-stage efforts even more vital.
  • Social competition:
    • “Group leaders and algorithms for group-based online interventions should consider partnering those who struggle to meet recommended levels of intensity and duration of physical activity with a moderately superior partner.” (Irwin & Thompson, 2016, p.332).
    • Competitiveness may be more important than social support, especially when applied to exercise behaviour (Zhang et al., 2016).
    • “…in the we’re-all-in-this-together group, those that dragged their feet drew the most attention. “The people who were participating less would actually draw down energy levels and give others a reason or excuse to also participate less,” Centola says. People dropped out, and no one was very motivated.” (Oaklander, 2016).
    • Social networks can help you exercise more, but they need to be used in the right way. For example, members should have similar backgrounds and interests, and be able to track one anothers performance, giving everyone a mutual incentive to keep going (Zhang et al., 2016).
  • Social comparison:
    • Social comparison theory states that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others they perceive as somehow faring better or worse.
    • Can compare against a variety of domains, including:
      • Attractiveness;
      • Wealth;
      • Intelligence; and
      • Success.
    • Can promote judgmental, biased, and overly competitive or superior attitudes.
    • This can result in destructive behaviour or lying, among others.
    • Lount and Phillips (2007) suggest that individuals increase their effort more when being outperformed by an out-group instead of an in-group member, but only when the potential for social comparison is present.
  • Social compensation:
    • Generally occurs when superior group members increase individual effort to make up for the lack of ability or effort of less capable group members in a highly valued task.
    • May occur when a group is comprised of individuals with different abilities.
    • More capable individuals might revise their performance goals lower to match those of their teammates, resulting in less effort.
    • Can be reduced when factors such as anonymity and low cohesion are eliminated – i.e. personally involving, intrinsically motivating, and personally meaningful to the individual.
  • The Köhler motivation gain effect:
    • Is task-dependent.
    • Occurs when less-capable individuals perform better when performing a task with others, as compared to when performing a task individually.
    • The effect has been strongest in conjunctive task conditions in which the group’s potential productivity is equal to the productivity of its least capable member (Feltz, Kerr & Irwin, 2011).

4.0 Types of Tasks

Based on Steiner’s task taxonomy (1972), there are at least three different types of tasks relevant for examining group motivation phenomena:

  • Conjunctive: A conjunctive task is one in which the performance of the group is based on the weaker member’s performance.
  • Coactive: In a coactive task, group members are performing the task at the same time but their performances are independent of each other.
  • Additive. An additive task is one in which the group’s performance is defined by the sum of the group members’ performances.

Task conditions are particularly influential in determining whether motivation losses or gains will occur.

5.0 Gender and Motivation

Gender has been found to moderate motivation gains and research suggests (Steiner, 1972; Weber et al., 2008):

  • Women:
    • Although a group outcome is sufficient to produce motivation gains in women, they are particularly sensitive to conjunctive task demands, unlike men.
    • Social indispensability may be more salient for women.
    • Women show high motivation gains in anonymous conditions compared to conditions with an acquainted partner.
  • Men:
    • In contrast, men have been shown to exhibit motivation gains when information is provided about a superior co-worker (i.e. coactive tasks), whether they are participating in a group or not.
    • Social competition and comparison may be more salient for men.

6.0 Social Category Diversity and Motivation

Social category diversity refers to explicit differences among group members in social category membership, for example:

  • Race;
  • Gender;
  • Ethnicity; and
  • In-group or out-group member.

A purported downside of social category diversity is decreased relationship focus (i.e. one’s focus on establishing a positive social bond with a co-worker).

7.0 Role of the Group Leader

The group leader – who may be a senior/junior manager or employee, from another area of the business, or even external to the business – must have an appreciation of all of the above to get the best from their group. They must understand the needs and wants of the various individuals within the group to encourage motivation gains and mitigate motivation losses.

Group leaders should not assume that a member is being lazy or is at fault (e.g. free rider). A lower than expected contribution could be a function of:

  • A lack of experience, skill, or knowledge;
  • A lack of interest;
  • A lack of psychological safety on the group (think cultural and language issues); and/or
  • A group member being too dominant or doing too much.

Understanding the nature of the contribution problem will aid in identifying an appropriate solution.

The group leader should facilitate members to:

  • Think (about the task at hand);
  • Work;
  • Communicate;
  • Collaborate; and
  • Contribute.

8.0 Summary

Much of the wisdom in the literature interprets performance differences as direct evidence of motivation losses or gains when such an inference cannot be assumed without direct measurement of motivation.

Motivation gains are inferred from performance differences, which, in turn, are inferred to be determined by effort, and then inferred to be evidence of motivation.

Even though this may be seen as a weakness, it is difficult to measure motivation directly because it is a cognitive process.

9.0 References

Feltz, D.L., Kerr, N.L. & Irwin, B.C. (2011). Buddy Up: The Kohler Effect Applied to Health Games. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 33(4), pp.506-526.

Irwin, B.C. & Thompson, N.S. (2016). The Impact of Social Category Diversity on Motivations Gain in Exercise Groups. American Journal of Health Behaviour. 40(3), pp.332-340. doi: 10.5993/AJHB.40.3.5.

Lount, Jr., R.B. & Phillips, K. (2007). Working Harder with the Out-group: The Impact of Social Category Diversity on Motivation Gains. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 103, pp.214-224.

Oaklander, M. (2016). Science Says This Is the Best Motivation to Exercise. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 27 May, 2019].

Steiner, I.D. (1972). Group Process and Productivity. New York: Academic Press.

Weber, B., Wittchen, M. & Hertel, G. (2009). Gendered Ways to Motivation Gain in Groups. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. 60(9-10), pp.731-744.

Zhang, J., Brackhill, D., Yang, S., Becker, J., Herbert, N. & Centola, D. (2016). Support or competition? How online social networks increase physical activity: A randomized controlled trial. Preventive Medicine Reports. 4, pp.453-458. doi: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.08.008.


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