Secrets of Social Facilitation: Putting the Audience to Work

What happens to performance if someone is watching?

The answer might surprise you.  Performance isn’t just about the players, it’s also about the audience.  Today we’ll unlock the power of social facilitation and show you how you can use the audience to get the best out of your team.

Social Facilitation - Putting the Audience to Work

Racing the Clock

In 1898, social psychologist Norman Triplett noticed something interesting about how people behave.  He was studying the performance of racing cyclists on an oval race track.  What he found was that cyclists racing to beat the clock rode fast.  But cyclists racing against other cyclists rode a lot faster.

Though every other condition was identical, the presence of another human being had a profound positive effect on performance.

Out of this observation came the concept of Social Facilitation – the idea that human performance is impacted by the presence of others.

Triplett’s research demonstrated the co-action effect.  Task performance improves with the presence of others doing the same task.

Co-action effect: people doing the same things work faster together. Click To Tweet

Over subsequent years, other researchers expanded on this idea when they realized that just the presence of an audience can have a similar effect.  Explanations of this audience effect varied, but many focused on the idea that people don’t want to look bad in front of others.

Yet simply making sure someone is watching doesn’t always lead to better performance.

Sometimes, presence of an “other” can make things worse.

What Happens When Big Brother is Watching

In the 1950s, Robert Zajonc found that the type of task to be performed had a lot to do with how things went when an audience showed up.

If the task was simple or well-known, then performance tended to improve when others were present.  People got better at doing what they already knew how to do.

However, when the task was new or complex, the presence of someone else made things worse.  Theories vary as to why, but a fear of being evaluated, coupled with the mental energy required to master a new task appear to overload the brain.  These distractions inhibited their ability to focus.

Interestingly, this effect, both positive and negative, happens even when the audience is not in a position to judge.  In one experiment, the “audience” was blind-folded and wearing head phones, yet their presence had the same effect.  Just the idea that someone else is there is sufficient to trigger the effects of social facilitation.

Mere presence is enough to trigger social facilitation. Click To Tweet

Social Facilitation – The Takeaway

The implications of these studies can help us get the best performance out of the people we are leading.

When the task is new or complex, remove the audience to improve performance.  The added stress of someone watching can make it harder to do well.  Eliminate those pressures to give your people the best opportunity to learn, grow, and acquire new skills.

Provide physical space and privacy

Limit “audience” access

Minimize time constraints

Reduce distractions

Trying to learn something new? Take the pressure off. Click To Tweet

When the task is relatively simple or well known, increase performance by introducing an audience.  The simple fact of their presence can spur your team to higher levels of performance.

Combine teammates doing the same task (think: phone bank)

Make a point to be there during the action

Invite the boss to come watch your team do its thing

Invite other teams/sections to observe

Adding an audience can make the team work faster. Click To Tweet

When you put the ideas of social facilitation into play, you give your teams access to both higher levels of performance, and faster learning capacity.

All you have to do is put the audience to work.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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