News & Events
- October 20, 2017
- Posted by: Vas Taras
- Category: X-Culture Stories
One recurring issue most teams (not only in X-Culture) face is free-riding (aka free-loading, social loafing, shirking). Almost every team has one or more team members who do not meet the expectations of their team members.
The problem is especially acute in global virtual teams (GVTs). Here is why:
- Lesser sense of social obligation: In traditional face-to-face teams, team members spend time together, have an occasional coffee or beer together, become friends, and develop a sense of obligation to one another. This does not fully eliminate the problem of free-riding. Even in traditional face-to-face teams, there is always someone who shirks, but most people care about their team members and at least try not to upset them.
In GVTs members come from different cultures and never meet face-to-face. They have less in common and are less attracted to one another. They have fewer opportunities to develop social ties and feel less obliged to one another. As a result, GVT members feel a lesser urge to put their team needs first.
- Harder to see work of others: In all kids of teams, but in GVTs particularly, team members often greatly underestimate the effort and work put in by their team members. People have a propensity to assume it does not exist if we don’t know about it. Countless studies, including those by X-Culture, consistently show that people greatly underestimate the amount of work done by their team members and overestimate their own contribution.
In other words, often the true reason for complaints about free-riding is not the actual lack of work on the part of the alleged free-rider, but a lack of knowledge about of work done by the person on the part of the plaintiff.
Whatever the reason, free-riding is an extremely common problem. Studies report an average 30% rate for student teams, and just a little lower than that for corporate teams, with the percent being a bit higher for virtual teams than for face-to-face teams.
More on the issue here.
Below I provide a summary of what we have learned about free-riding in X-Culture, and what you as an instructor should expect, do and NOT do about it:
- Every single instructor who uses team projects hears complaints about free-riding. X-Culture is no exception. Be prepared that one or more of your students will tell you that one or more of their team members are not participating, and will ask you to do something about it.
- Students whose teams do well have no reason to talk about it with you, so you will only hear from those whose teams have free-riders. So you will be under the impression that all teams have free-riders because that’s all you hear.
- Our data shows that the problem is MUCH smaller than it appears. We ask weekly “How many members of your team are actively participating in the project”, and the averages are usually about 0.4-0.5 below the average team size.
For example, last week it was 4.8 with the average team size of 5.2. This means that one in two teams, on average, has one student who is not actively participating. Or about half of the teams have no members who are not actively participating and about half of the teams have one.
We with the number were 0.0, but 0.4 per team is not a tragedy and probably better than the average in other projects.
- When we look at peer evaluations and assume that a true free-rider is one who gets 2=bad or below, the number of free-riders in a given semester is about 75 out of 4500, or about 1.6%. Of note, another 7% or so do some work, but not enough to fully satisfy their team members (up to 9% “not actively” participating). Again, we want this number to be 0%, but one in nice not “very active” and one in 60 is not participating at all are numbers typical or lower than what’s seen in any group comprised of humans.
- We have conducted an extensive study of free-riders where we have interviewed over 200 people excluded from their teams. These were “bona-fide” free-riders. They did so little, that they were actually excluded from their teams. The results of the interviews show that:
- In most cases, free-riders did not admit to free-riding. About 70% of them claimed they actually worked very hard and the teams accused them of free-riding unfairly.
- About 90% of the free-riders just had a slow start, did not know what to do in the first weeks, or were busy with something else. Before they were ready to work hard, their teams excluded them. If they were given a chance to contribute, they would gladly do so.
- About 10% of free-riders said they were excluded due to a conflict, not due to a lack of effort.
- About 50% said that a team leader, often with a small core group, emerged in the team that ignored contributions of the other one or more team members, excluded them from discussions, and eventually formally excluded them from the team. They said being ostracized contributed to their reduced effort and if the team leader/core group were more welcoming and professional, they would have made a bigger contribution.
This indicates that at least in some cases free-riders did not contribute not because they are lazy or incompetent, but the problem is, at least partly, caused by the team itself.
- Fee-riding in X-Culture used to reach up to 20%. After a series of tests, we have reduced the rate manifold to its current not perfect, but still rather low level (see this sample study).
- Our policy for dealing with free-riders:
- If a team specifically complains about a team member not participating, we assign a coach to the case to reaches out to the team members, investigates the issue, and tries to help the situation.
- If a student gets peer evaluations below 2.0, the student gets a warning and a request to explain what’s going on (e.g., sick, forgot, busy). Almost always, the situation improves after the warning, but if peer evaluations remain below 2.0 two weeks in a row, the person is excluded from the team and moved to a one-person team. The person can still complete the project, but now working individually. Same task, same deadlines, just working alone. We allow the team to take the person back if they work it out and decide they want their excluded team member back, which happens quite often.
- If there is a team member who is not participating, we ask the team to continue trying to communicate with the person. The person may be temporary busy or sick, so they should not give up after not hearing from the team member for a day or two. If this does not help, they should give the person low peer evaluations and, as per the point above, the person will be excluded after two weeks of peer evaluations below 2.0.
- Additionally, the team can ask for a new team member. We usually have a long waiting list, so if the majority of the team members ask for more people, we can add one and sometimes even two new team members in the first weeks of the project. This way, free-riders will be eventually dropped and new people added to the team.
- We do not exclude people from X-Culture based on an email from one angry team members. We wait for low peer evaluations from the entire team two weeks in a row to preclude punishing someone based on a single complaint due to a conflict or the like.
- When free-riding happens, there are two basic things instructors can do. One is a common, but very bad strategy that hurts the students’ experiences, means more work for the instructor, and lowers the instructor’s course evaluations.
The other one is a very good strategy that improves students’ experiences, means less work for the instructors, and improves the course evaluations.
- BAD STRATEGY
- A student complains about a free-rider on the team
- The Instructor gets stressed, worries about the student, and tries to help the student by saying something like this: “I am so sorry you have a bad team member. This is unacceptable. Let me talk to the X-Culture Admin and demand that this bad student is removed from your team immediately. Do not worry, I will try to help you. I want you to have a good experience.”
- Even if the “bad” student is replaced, the situation hardly ever improves. Remember, there is always someone who does not do much, so the students remain unhappy, says it was a bad project, and gives the instructor low course evaluations.
As a result, the student thinks (1) he/she has a “bad” team, (2) it is X-Culture’s fault and (3) the instructor is incompetent because he/she should not solve the problem.
Worst of all, in the future, when the student will encounter free-riding again (it happens all the time) and the student again will blame it on bad luck or bad boss, and again will not know how to handle the problem.
- GOOD STRATEGY:
- A student complains about a free-rider on the team
- The Instructor says something like this:
“I am glad to hear that. What you are experiencing is extremely common. It will happen every single time you are working on a team.
It is not because you have a “bad” team. It happens in every team and you should plan for it, because it will happen every time you do a team project.
What you should do is send a few more reminders to the free-rider. Maybe he/she is sick or has problems at home or work.
Do not count on the person becoming active though. Talk to your team and redistribute workload so you can complete the project in a team of 5 (instead of 6). If the free-rider comes back, good. If not, you’ll be ready.
Meanwhile, make sure to give the free-rider low peer evaluations and the person will be punished by an exclusion from the project.
Also, ask the X-Culture Admin in the weekly survey to add more people to your team and they will add one or two more, as long as the majority of your team asks for it.
I wish I could say I feel sorry for your team, but I don’t. What you are experiencing now is a preview of what you will experience in the future. Learn from it. If will make your life easier when you have a job and are working on a project with co-workers from around the world.
Good luck and remember, X-Culture is an exercise, not a test. As long as you do your best, I am happy, even if your team writes a so-so report.”
If you approach is like this, the student will learn that (1) it’s not bad luck, it’s life; (2) it’s not the instructor’s fault, (3) will learn from it and will be more prepared for this problem when it happens (and it will happen) in the future, (4) will appreciate the opportunity and give you higher course evaluations and (5) you don’t have to waste your time on contacting the X-Culture Admin and trying to do something about it.
I strongly encourage your comment and suggestions on the issue. If you have ideas for how we can further reduce free-riding, or for better policies with dealing with it when it occurs, please let me know.
By Vas Taras