What our society judges as inferior performers of a particular task simply fail to properly assess their strengths. That’s one of the reasons our templated educational system is so flawed for children with so many talents. It’s also the reason many people are inspired by team environments in the work place with empowering leaders rather than demanding bosses.
New research from Michigan State University’s (MSU) Deborah Feltz and Kaitlynn Osborn provides some of the first real-world support for the Kohler motivation effect, which describes how less capable individuals perform better when performing a task with others as opposed to individually.
Much of the motivation in team environments comes from empowering leaders. Members of team must know that leaders are interested in their welfare, hopes, ambitions, abilities, limitations and prejudices. They also embrace team environments when they are being motivated and encouraged with positive communication and effectively meshing common experiences.
A recurring question of successful group work is how to maintain high task motivation of the individual members. The Kohler effect is attributed to two psychological mechanisms, one involving upward social comparisons and a second involving the indispensability of group members’ efforts. Kohler found that less able performers tried harder as team members under conjunctive task demands and that the greatest gain occurred with moderately discrepant coworker abilities (Kohler discrepancy effect).
Researchers from MSU measured athletes for evidence of the social loafing effect, or when people exert less effort to achieve a goal when working in a group. While no statistically significant evidence was found, the performances of superior group members tended to be slower in relay races.
“Researchers for years have been attempting to understand the complex nature of motivation in sport, partly to find a way to increase athletes’ motivation to perform,” Osborn said. “Our findings show weaker team members are more motivated when working with others than when working alone.
“These studies provide some of the first real-world examples of the Kohler motivation gain effect and a trend towards a social loafing effect within the same group.”
The study also revealed female athletes were more affected by indispensability pressures, as they performed better when being viewed as an important member of the team. Males tended to be more motivated by social comparison, meaning they performed better when compared specifically with competing athletes.
The first study examined motivational gains and losses, as measured by performance, of 68 athletes on NCAA 200-yard freestyle swimming teams. The second study looked at the same measures, but in 156 athletes competing on high school track and field teams.
Feltz said coaches should be aware that both motivation gains and losses can occur in the same group and be prepared for those results.
“Key motivation strategies include making individual contributions visible and holding individuals accountable for what they do for the team,” she said. “Also, coaches need to tailor these strategies to individual athletes to best meet their needs when necessary.
Feltz said the next step is to study performance differences and motivation over the course of an athletic season and include other sports involving both an individual and a team component.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.