Thursday, August 14, 2008

The 'Group Work' Paradox

"So, what exactly is it you say you do here?" -- Office Space

From 2002 to 2003, I lived with five other roommates in a four-bedroom apartment in Central Square in Cambridge. As you can probably imagine, six guys crammed into a space designed for four meant a fair amount of chaos. But generally, it was a controlled chaos, and it made for a great year.

One of the funny takeaways from that year, however, is something I'll call the "Group Work Paradox." It comes from a realization I had when I heard one of my roommates say how much more of the collective work (i.e. trash out, stairs swept, dishes washed, etc.) he did proportionate to his "share."

"Hmmm..." I thought, "I've caught myself thinking the same thing many times before, because somewhere inside, I know it to be true."

So in a totally informal way, but always making sure it was in a one-on-one setting, I polled each of the other four roommates.

Guess what?

Surprise, surprise -- each one thought the same thing. There wasn't really any negative meaning attached to it -- no one was going around bitter or harboring resentments, but in each of six hearts and six minds was a steadfast belief that its owner a) did more than his share, and b) got less than his share of the "credit," however quantified that might be.

I thought this was pretty cool, and I never forgot it. I feel okay calling it a paradox, because of course if we were all right the total size of the pie would have been more than 100%, which is impossible.

Of course, the simple reason for it is that not everyone saw what everyone else did. It would have been different if we organized a giant, weekly working party and divvied everything up to do all at once, but we were (thankfully) way less formal. So if no one saw me keeping the stairs clean, or no one saw Hunt taking out the trash, then in their mind it never happened -- it just somehow got that way. Hence each person genuinely feeling both a and b from two paragraphs above.

Working at a staff command now, it's neat to see this principle back in action. Because it's not a single, operational entity (i.e. a single boat, a single aviation squadron, or a single SOF team) not everyone really *gets* what everyone else does.

So how do they fill in the gaps in their knowledge?

Easy. They just assume that they are the only one doing any real work, and that everyone else does nothing. So if you individually polled every Department Head (and even their subordinates) they would honestly tell you that they go far beyond what the *average* person on the staff does. It's not for show, either -- I guarantee you they could all pass a polygraphed version of the question, as could each of my 02-03 roommates.

Personally, I've just stopped trying to fight it. Except for a few people who work above me in the chain, many don't really know what I instead of trying to do what I would say is the common sense thing (just ask me) they just fill in the knowledge gap with an easy assumption -- nothing doing up in that office. Some of it is just good-natured ribbing, but I know there are more than a couple officers around who honestly think I just sit on my hands and sip coffee all day (hard to do when sitting on your hands, I know).

At first, I got defensive about it -- despite my vow not to get defensive, I justified it under the guise of "taking my job seriously even if not taking myself seriously" but after a while I just stopped trying. It honestly doesn't matter that the parking lot is nearly empty in the morning when I arrive and nearly empty again in the evening when I leave -- except for the people I directly work with/for, the ribbing about *not doing anything* is still going to come from the other half of the staff, and only half in jest.

Here's the bottom line to all this: In any collective work situation, all the players involved will simultaneously assume that they are not only pulling a disproportionate share of the load, but that their work also goes unnoticed or at least under-noticed.*

*Excepting, of course, situations where people's work is done more visibly.


kad barma said...

Great post!!!

Daniel Gilbert (Harvard Psychology professor and author of the beautifully double-entendre'd "Stumbling on Happiness" who you can read about at observed awhile back in the NY Times (at that "he who cast the first stone probably didn't". He began his essay by recounting the classic cliche of sibling rivalry from the "wayback" of the family station wagon, and then recounts some fascinating research from University College London about "The Neuroscience of Force Escalation". (Linked here:

"Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others -- and start trusting others themselves -- there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback".

The New Englander said...

Kad Barma,

Thanks so much for the response and the links. I checked them out and they're fascinating...looking back at my entry, I sounded a little defeatist (hey, just accept that this is how it is) but you're right to suggest there is a way out of the downward cycle of distrust/negative assumptions -- we can be more trusting and slower to draw conclusions about what others do or don't *do* and the total, overall trust level within the organization then increases.

Some could say it's Pollyanna-ish, but going through life trusting and assuming the best intentions on the part of others seems like the best formula for your own happiness (and, amazingly, your own success as well)..


Shannon said...

I'm so glad you wrote this post! Growing up with 3 siblings, I had to laugh out loud when you talked about you and your roommates. Plus I suddenly became humbly aware of my own behavior. I gotta show this to my brothers.

The New Englander said...


Exactly...the whole *trick* to breaking the bad cycle is to stop assuming the worst intentions on the part of others and find ways to split up the tasks without taking everything on yourself and then just getting upset about it later..

..I just think that's a better way to go through life (generally assume the best and be trusting until proven otherwise)