Monthly Archives: October 2006

Free Riding and Social Loafing [Featured in The Hindu Business Line]

Today’s Hindu Business Line carries the following article by me.

Link to the article: Free Riding and Social Loafing. Full text follows:

Free riding is a problem that is commonly found in almost all organisational contexts. With most tasks being accomplished by teams, it is quite common for a few members to slack off and not contribute to the team’s cause, and yet not have the results suffer. As an economic phenomenon free riding has been studied for a long time.

A simple definition of a free rider is an agent who does not contribute his fair share to the cost of production of a resource, but receives an equal share of the benefits.

A simple example of this is taxation. Monies collected through taxes are deployed in various projects such as improving infrastructure, healthcare and so on.

Yet, a lot of people get away with paying no tax and still continue to reap the benefits of using those resources. The free riding problem is actually an `n-player’ version of the famous `prisoner’s dilemma’, where `n’ is greater than two. Where only two players are playing, non-fulfilment of one player’s contribution would amount to the project being abandoned. However, when `n’ is greater than two, it is possible for some players to not contribute, while hoping that others do.

Another interesting example of the free riding problem is the recent reservation protests in India.

Most protestors felt that while the general category of students would have to work really hard for the coveted few seats in the premier institutions, the reserved category would have it much easier without contributing enough (in terms of effort). Of course, those in favour of reservation could argue that the reserved categories have actually made up for this through the socio-economic suffering and discrimination they have faced.

Social Loafing
Related to the concept of free riding is that of social loafing. Social loafing refers to a situation where an individual holds back his contribution because he perceives that he would not be getting a fair share of the rewards in the eventuality of success, nor would he be blamed for failure. In an experiment by French engineer Maximilian Ringelmann, involving a group of people tugging on a rope, it has been seen that as the number of people increases, the total force exerted also increases, but the average force per person is seen to diminish.

The key difference between free riding and social loafing is that a free rider does not contribute to the cause at all, since his contribution is not essential for success, whereas a social loafer merely reduces his effort fully knowing that it would be impossible for an external observer to determine the same.

Dealing with free riding and social loafing
The Ringelmann experiment suggests that the size of the group may have some answers to offer us. A good manager may need to precisely identify the number of people it would require to successfully accomplish a task. Second, social loafing is seen in situations where it is impossible to identify individual contribution.

Thus, a good way to prevent it may be to clearly define the individual’s role in the group task. Third, it is seen that social loafing does not present a major problem in cohesive teams (the reason being that team members value their affiliation with the group more than any benefits associated with social loafing). Thus, the choice of specific team members for a task may also help in minimising social loafing.

Task significance may also have a role to play in increasing motivation levels to perform. Task significance refers to the relevance of the task to the immediate organisation, group, society or the world at large.

One suspects that social loafing may be a less common phenomenon in an NGO, compared to other types of organisations.

Reward systems
Reward systems such as stock options and performance bonuses too increase the cost of not contributing, as non-contribution would directly lead to reduced benefits for the individual team member. Thus, each team member would at least contribute in his own self interest.

This is, in fact, not unlike Adam Smith’s theory of the `invisible hand’ of the economy, where each individual agent does whatever is in his self interest, and this somehow leads to a beneficial collective result, which is quite different from what the individual expects. Both free riding and social loafing are phenomena that are seen in all kinds of organisations — companies, families, communities, neighbourhoods, governments and so on. It is thus not surprising to find Glaucon arguing (many centuries ago ) in Plato’s Republic that an individual need not obey the law in situations where he can escape the consequent sanctions!

(The writer, an alumnus of XLRI, is working with a multinational financial services company)

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Filed under Management

Free Riding and Social Loafing [featured in The Hindu Business Line]

Today’s Hindu Business Line carries the following article by me.

Link to the article: Free Riding and Social Loafing. Full text follows:

Free riding is a problem that is commonly found in almost all organisational contexts. With most tasks being accomplished by teams, it is quite common for a few members to slack off and not contribute to the team’s cause, and yet not have the results suffer. As an economic phenomenon free riding has been studied for a long time.

A simple definition of a free rider is an agent who does not contribute his fair share to the cost of production of a resource, but receives an equal share of the benefits.

A simple example of this is taxation. Monies collected through taxes are deployed in various projects such as improving infrastructure, healthcare and so on.

Yet, a lot of people get away with paying no tax and still continue to reap the benefits of using those resources. The free riding problem is actually an `n-player’ version of the famous `prisoner’s dilemma’, where `n’ is greater than two. Where only two players are playing, non-fulfilment of one player’s contribution would amount to the project being abandoned. However, when `n’ is greater than two, it is possible for some players to not contribute, while hoping that others do.

Another interesting example of the free riding problem is the recent reservation protests in India.

Most protestors felt that while the general category of students would have to work really hard for the coveted few seats in the premier institutions, the reserved category would have it much easier without contributing enough (in terms of effort). Of course, those in favour of reservation could argue that the reserved categories have actually made up for this through the socio-economic suffering and discrimination they have faced.

Social Loafing
Related to the concept of free riding is that of social loafing. Social loafing refers to a situation where an individual holds back his contribution because he perceives that he would not be getting a fair share of the rewards in the eventuality of success, nor would he be blamed for failure. In an experiment by French engineer Maximilian Ringelmann, involving a group of people tugging on a rope, it has been seen that as the number of people increases, the total force exerted also increases, but the average force per person is seen to diminish.

The key difference between free riding and social loafing is that a free rider does not contribute to the cause at all, since his contribution is not essential for success, whereas a social loafer merely reduces his effort fully knowing that it would be impossible for an external observer to determine the same.

Dealing with free riding and social loafing
The Ringelmann experiment suggests that the size of the group may have some answers to offer us. A good manager may need to precisely identify the number of people it would require to successfully accomplish a task. Second, social loafing is seen in situations where it is impossible to identify individual contribution.

Thus, a good way to prevent it may be to clearly define the individual’s role in the group task. Third, it is seen that social loafing does not present a major problem in cohesive teams (the reason being that team members value their affiliation with the group more than any benefits associated with social loafing). Thus, the choice of specific team members for a task may also help in minimising social loafing.

Task significance may also have a role to play in increasing motivation levels to perform. Task significance refers to the relevance of the task to the immediate organisation, group, society or the world at large.

One suspects that social loafing may be a less common phenomenon in an NGO, compared to other types of organisations.

Reward systems
Reward systems such as stock options and performance bonuses too increase the cost of not contributing, as non-contribution would directly lead to reduced benefits for the individual team member. Thus, each team member would at least contribute in his own self interest.

This is, in fact, not unlike Adam Smith’s theory of the `invisible hand’ of the economy, where each individual agent does whatever is in his self interest, and this somehow leads to a beneficial collective result, which is quite different from what the individual expects. Both free riding and social loafing are phenomena that are seen in all kinds of organisations — companies, families, communities, neighbourhoods, governments and so on. It is thus not surprising to find Glaucon arguing (many centuries ago ) in Plato’s Republic that an individual need not obey the law in situations where he can escape the consequent sanctions!

(The writer, an alumnus of XLRI, is working with a multinational financial services company)

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Filed under Organizational Behaviour

Interviewers on TV

It’s that time of the year when I pontificate about the stuff that I find interesting on TV these days. This time, I talk about interviewers.

1. Karan Thapar – Since he started hosting ‘Devil’s Advocate’, Karan has turned into the human equivalent of a rabid dog (at the risk of sounding offensive). He gnaws at his guest’s intellectual ankle as it were, and doesn’t let go till he gets answers. Occassionally this tendency leads to highly defensive interviews (Ex. Chidambaram, Rahul Bajaj) where the guest turns the entire interview into a ‘Karan vs. Me’ freak show.

2. Arnab Goswami‘Frankly Speaking’ is one of the most interesting shows on news channels these days, if only because of Arnab’s unabashed disdain for celebrities. While Karan works with his aggressive puppy routine, Arnab works with a principle of steady, unwavering condescension. Shah Rukh: You want me to be offensive? I can give you a gaali. (Twinkle in the eye. Dimples on display. Audible gushing by millions of female fans.)

Arnab (dripping with sarcasm): You wouldn’t dare to Shah Rukh.

Shah Rukh: Yes I could.

Arnab (unwavering condescension): You wouldn’t dare to Shah Rukh.

If he had a wooden ruler, Arnab would surely cane his guests for misbehaving and/or taking themselves too seriously.

3. Vir Sanghvi: Vir currently hosts ‘Face the Music’ for NDTV, arguably the most tacky show on news channels these days. It looks straight out of DD Metro from the mid 90s. Three guests for a 25 minute show, and a band doesn’t leave much scope for a discussion in any depth. For a while Vir seemed to be the the resident shrink on TV (shades of Simi) with Star Talk (some years back), but since then it’s been a downhill journey of di’worse’ification and dilution of brand equity by hosting multiple shows on various channels.

4. Rajdeep Sardesai, Sagarika et al. – While CNN-IBN is probably the best English channel around, as far as interviewing skills go the less said the better. The dominant strain of interviewing seen here is one of ‘let’s put words into the guest’s mouth – words which we want to hear’. Rajeev Masand also deserves to be locked up somewhere – reading movie reviews from a tele-prompter does not an entertaining show make.

5. Prabhu Chawla: (stunned silence)

Yes there are all kinds of interviewers, but they seem to add a lot more value to television viewing when compared to ‘breaking news’ obsessed journalism.

As for interviewees, Rahul Bajaj takes the cake, cherry, cream, and the cardboard box too.

Rahul Bajaj: (asks where Karan studied)
Karan Thapar:If it is relevant I will tell you. I went to Doon School, Cambridge, Oxford and I know a lot about politics.
Rahul Bajaj: I went to Cathedral, St. Stephens, and Harvard, slightly better than you in every respect. So I understand logic. But I am a humble man unlike you.

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Filed under Television

Sufiana – Doppelganger

On Friday, I watched ‘Sufiana – Doppelganger‘, a play by Salim Ghouse (whom you may recognize as the voiceover on NDTV). The play centered around Mullah Nasiruddin – the sufi mystic cum jester, whose numerous escapades we have all read about as kids. The interesting thing though, is that while all those stories seemed to be structured like ‘jokes’, on a more careful analysis they reveal themselves to be much more than that, offering insights into the nature of reality, man’s search for meaning in life etc. The encoding of profound truths in unlikely metaphors is a common concept in sufi literature, and poetry.

This particular play though used the central structure common to a typcial Mullah Nasiruddin story, yet made it contemporary through references to the war in Iraq, WMD etc. The metaphors and underlying themes probably did not make sense to a lot of people sitting in the audience (Prithvi ), causing a few to leave midway through the performance.

The performances by Salim, and his wife (who plays his wife in the play too) were quite good, though nothing spectacular. On Saturday, Troubadour, another play centered around Sufism (this time, Rumi’s poetry) was staged. I missed this one though.

More on Salim Ghouse

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Filed under Sufi, Theatre