Empty stadiums at the 2020 Olympics provide a fascinating glimpse into the profound impact of others' presence on workplace performance, productivity, and profitability. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12.7% of full-time employees are now working from home, while 28.2% are working a hybrid model. Empty offices are no longer a rarity. Social facilitation sheds light on the subtle ways the presence of others impacts performance and why an Olympic athlete would cite a lack of an audience for dropping out of an event. The presence of others is a psychological lever that can optimize your performance in the workplace. When you put the ideas of social facilitation to work, you give yourself and your team a greater opportunity to achieve higher levels of performance and career success. Whether you are a team leader with remote employees or work remotely, here is what you need to know about social facilitation and a few tips to bring out your best.
Why Understanding Social Facilitation Matters
Social facilitation is a psychological 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:
the drive to perform
the ability to focus while performing
the anxiety and desire to impress others.
Social facilitation has two types of effects on the performer:
Co-action effects because others are doing the same task
Audience effects because you are doing something in front of others.
Evidence suggests three nuances that impact social facilitation:
The presence of others negatively influences employee performance on complex and challenging tasks, as defined by the performer.
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 confidence levels.
Proximity, the 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. 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 because I anticipated doing worse in the higher-level courses.
As in my life, the influence of others is not always positive. The opposite of social facilitation is called social loafing. Social loafing happens when others influence someone to put in less effort than working alone. The reality is that performance is contagious. Others can influence performance for the better and the worse.
Implications for Leaders of Hybrid Teams & Remote 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 dependent 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 anyone who 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.
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 were used to fill a void. According to the athletes themselves, fans have an emotional effect on the games and can increase the energy of those winning or inspire those falling 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.
5 Social Facilitation Tips for Leaders
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:
Leadership Social Facilitation Tip #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.
Leadership Social Facilitation Tip #2: Goals Matter More
Research has identified that having clear performance goals improves employee performance in addition to social facilitation. 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.
Leadership Social Facilitation Tip #3: Recognition Makes a Difference
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.
Leadership Social Facilitation Tip #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.
Leadership Social Facilitation Tip #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 Social Facilitation Tips for Remote Employees
Here are three tips for anyone who finds themselves working out of their basement and looking for ways to improve their performance:
Employee Social Facilitation Tip #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.
Employee Social Facilitation Tip #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.
Employee Social Facilitation Tip #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 coffitivity.com, which replicates the coffee shop when you can’t be at one.
If your career is stalling, you need a plan to boost your career. 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 www.organizationaltalent.com or contacting us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.