A new study confirms that individuals typically (but not intentionally) overestimate their contributions to team projects, especially if the teams are large. Managers trying to gauge the contribution of different team members — for reward or other purposes — should recognize when over-claiming is more likely, and use different strategies to remind individuals of the contributions of others.
Logically, the percentage of work that each team member contributes to a team project cannot add up to more than 100%. For example, if both authors of an academic paper insist that they did 75% of the work, the total work accomplished would be 150%. The inescapable conclusion is that one or both of them is over-claiming his or her contribution.
In a series of four experiments, a team of researchers from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found that over-claiming is rampant in research teams — and the greater the number of contributors, the more contributors over-claim.
For example, one experiment, based on previously published data, showed that authors of academic papers in leading journals over-claimed their contribution to the paper (each paper in the sample had 3 to 6 authors). The research, based on surveys, also showed that the more authors on the paper, the greater the percentage of work claimed by each author.
In addition to claiming how much they contributed, one group of authors was asked to list how much their co-authors contributed. These authors over-claimed less than the authors who did not have to list the contribution of their co-authors.
In short, the larger the group, the more of the work the papers’ authors claimed as their own. When explicitly focused on their co-authors (by listing their contributions as well), the authors over-claimed less.
The researchers conducted another three experiments to further explore the issue of over-claiming work. The three experiments involved:
In every case, the results were the same: the larger the group, the more over-claiming occurred. For example, the sum of contribution by the MBA students in groups of 8 or more reached 140%, compared to approximately 105% for groups of less than four students.
The researchers believe that over-claiming is not done for egotistical reasons (e.g., to gain more credit); instead, egocentricity (focusing on oneself and forgetting about others) is to blame. This conclusion is supported by the decrease in over-claiming that occurs when team members are asked to list the contributions of the other members of the team or even, as in some experiments, when they are simply asked to give the names of the other team members. Egotists would still claim more credit; egocentrics are reminded about the contributions of others.
Asking employees working in a group to self-evaluate their contribution can be dangerous. The larger the group, the greater the danger that people will over-claim how much credit they should receive for the success of the overall group. There may be situations when such an evaluation is needed. Perhaps you are considering a person for a promotion and want an idea of how much they contributed to an important group project. Or perhaps there is a reward for a group’s success that you want to allocate based on individual contribution.
This study shows that even without an incentive, and without malice, individuals tend to be focused on how much they have contributed — which leads to over-claiming. Therefore, any self-evaluation should be taken with this in mind, especially in larger groups. And simply asking people to include every member’s contribution in their evaluation can make a difference. There may still be some over-claiming, but you are closer to the truth.
Many Hands Make Overlooked Work: Over-Claiming of Responsibility Increases with Group Size. Juliana Schroeder, Eugene M. Caruso & Nicholas Epley. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (February 2016).
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