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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

The Power of Others Presence on Performance

The empty stadiums of the 2020 Olympics provide modern leaders with valuable insights into the impact of empty offices on productivity and profitability. Have you experienced the effects of virtual offices on performance where you work? The psychological concept of social facilitation reveals how organizational talent performance is impacted by the presence of others and tips for how individuals and leaders can respond to improve performance. When you put the ideas of social facilitation to work, you give yourself and your followers opportunities to achieve both higher levels of performance and career success.

If you are like me, you have appreciated the positive distraction of the 2020 Olympic games. As a full-time doctoral student, I have little time for television. Still, I have enjoyed streaming the personal stories of the athletes. In addition to lessons about personal sacrifice, commitment, and the importance of family and friends, the games have provided insight into the influence of others on our performance. Whether you are a team leader with remote employees or find yourself working from home, you can benefit from understanding the psychological concept of social facilitation. Applying lessons learned from the empty stands of the Olympic games can improve productivity and profitability in the new reality of empty offices in a hybrid workplace.

The Joyless Workplace?

Some have labeled the Tokyo Olympics as the "joyless games" due to the lack of family and friends in the seats to cheer and celebrate. Even though the absence of a crowd is apparent, if you only look at the faces of Olympic gold winners, it is hard to recognize the difference between these games from any others. Cardboard cutouts in the stadium piped in crowd noise and extra encouragement from coaches and teammates are being used to fill a void. According to the athletes themselves, the reality is that fans have an emotional effect on the games and can increase the energy for those winning or inspire those behind to dig deeper. In the following interview with two former Olympic athletes, they provide perspective on the impact of empty stands on the athletes' performance.

The empty stadiums of the "joyless games" create valuable insights for leaders on how a "joyless workplace" can impact employee performance.

What is Social Facilitation?

Social facilitation is a phycological concept relating to the tendency for the influence of others to improve a person’s performance on a task. This concept was first described in a study of bicyclist's racing performance in 1898. The researcher noticed that when racing against others, athletes performed better than those racing only against their times. Social facilitation is defined as improvement in performance induced by the real, implied, or imagined presence of others. Social facilitation is thought to impact our drive to perform, our ability to focus while performing, and have an effective influence on our anxiety and desire to impress others. Social facilitation has two types of effects:

  • Co-action effects: referring to performance improvement because others are doing the same task as you.

  • Audience effects: referring to performance improvement because you are doing something in front of others.

Recent research has identified three nuances that impact social facilitation:

  1. The presence of others only negatively influences employee performance on tasks considered complex and challenging.

  2. The presence of others positively influences employee performance when confidence is high for the task. The presence of others negatively affects employee performance when the performer has lower levels of confidence.

  3. Proximity, number of others, and the degree to which others are supportive play a role in influencing performance positively or negatively.

One of my first not-so-fun memories associated with the social facilitation audience effect came from an experience I had when I was eight years old. My parent's desire to develop a music appreciation led them to make me take one year of piano lessons. I remember I was assigned to play "Doo-Dad Boogie" for my first piano recital. While this sheet music is elementary, it was challenging for a first-year piano student. I was terrified at the recital even though I was only playing for a few parents and other students in the living room of my piano teacher. This experience taught me that I played better in private. Later in high school, I first connected with the positive influence of the social facilitation co-action effect. I was never a great student. Most of the time, I was a quiet C student. However, when more intelligent students surrounded me, I recognized that I tended to push myself harder and do better than in lower-level courses. This stood out to me because I anticipated I would do worse in the higher-level courses.

Implications for Hybrid Leaders and Virtual Employees

So, what implications can leaders and senior management take away from the concept of social facilitation and the lessons of the 2020 Olympic games? It might be surprising to know, but your performance is not just dependant on you. Also, your team's performance isn’t just about them. Leaving employees alone is not helpful for them or the organization's bottom line. As a word of caution, social facilitation is not a license to micromanage employees. I don't know of anyone that enjoys being told what to do when they can do what needs to be done. Understanding the influence of others can help you improve your performance and the performance of those you lead.

5 Tips for Leaders to Improve Employee Performance

The reality of a hybrid workforce with geographically dispersed employees is not going away. The following are five tips for applying the social facilitation research to leading geographically dispersed teams:

  1. Presence matters. Leaders need to be present with employees. Although technology has limitations compared to physical proximity, research supports that a digital presence influences social facilitation effects. Frontline leaders and senior management should establish strategies to be present and check-in with employees. Conduct regular check-in meetings to increase your presence and feedback.

  2. Goals matter more. Research has identified that in addition to social facilitation, having clear performance goals improves employee performance. Setting goals with employees (not for employees) with performance anchors is essential, especially in a digital environment. Use goal-setting as an opportunity to empower your team.

  3. Recognition matters. After establishing clear goals of what performance is worthy, you need to show you notice and care. Use a reinforcement survey to find out what motivates each employee. Then use those learnings to recognize excellent performance when observed. Don't wait until the end of the year.

  4. Teamwork makes the dream work. When the task is simple or well known, you can increase performance by introducing an audience. Consider opportunities for pairing up team members doing the same job. Also, make it a point to show up virtually on your team's projects.

  5. Keep your virtual door open. Create opportunities to socialize and build personal relationships virtually. The digital environment creates some challenges. However, there are many potentially novel ideas for online remote employees.

3 Tips for Hybrid Employees to Improve Performance

Here are three tips for anyone that finds themselves working out of their basement and looking for ways to improve their performance:

  1. Practice should be private. Work toward becoming fluent with a task before performing in front of others. As your fluency increases, task difficulty will decrease, and others will positively reinforce your performance. At this point, start to make your performance visible to others to leverage the positive effects of social facilitation. Invite your leader to join in on a virtual project meeting or ask to pair up with someone on an assignment.

  2. Be thoughtful of whom you invite to practice. Surround yourself with supportive people as you are learning complex tasks. An unsupported audience harms complex task performance.

  3. Leverage ambient noise. Moderate levels of ambient noise enhance creative cognition by mimicking the presence of others. Being hyper-focused on a task can limit creativity. Check out the site that replicates the coffee shop when you can’t be at one.

If you find your career is stalling, you need a plan to give your career a boost. Hiring a coach focused on your career goals leads to improved performance. Coaching keeps you feeling challenged versus being worried about what's next. Additionally, an executive coach increases your blind spot awareness. Getting started is as easy as visiting or contacting us via email to learn more about our executive coaching and organizational consulting services.


Aiello, J.R., & Douthitt, E.A. ( 2001). Social facilitation theory from Triplett to electronic performance monitoring. Group Dynamics, 5(3), 163-180.

Feinberg, J. M. & Aiello, J. R. (2006). Social Facilitation: A Test of Competing Theories. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 36(5), 1087-1109.

Mehta, R., Zhu, R., & Cheema, A. (2012). Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(4), 784-799. doi:10.1086/665048

Murayama K, Elliot AJ. The competition-performance relation: a meta-analytic review and test of the opposing processes model of competition and performance. Psychological Bulletin. 2012;138(6):1035-1070. doi:10.1037/a0028324

Rafaeli S, Rafaeli S, Noy A. Correspondence (September). European Journal of Information Systems. 2002;11(3):196-207.

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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