Team Conflict

Feeling under-appreciated at work is a recipe for dissatisfaction, and feelings of frustration with fellow team members can slowly escalate into a toxic work atmosphere. But as Janet Choi explains, the human brain is actually programmed to overestimate our personal contribution. This phenomenon is based on a psychological tendency known as “availability bias,” and by properly understanding it, good managers can help teams avoid this under-appreciation trap and work better together.

Availability bias is the tendency to base a judgment on information most easily accessible to you, rather than taking in the whole picture. When asked to judge our contribution to a team, therefore, we generally focus too much on our own work and not enough on the broader context of the team’s contributions.

Choi summarizes two fascinating studies where teams were asked to rate their percentage of individual contribution, and the results were the same: the sum of the team members’ perceived individual contributions totaled more than 100% for the team as a whole. High powered personalities may have it the worst: a Harvard study of MBA students asked study group members to estimate their contributions, and on average the total contribution came out to a whopping 139%.

Overestimates of personal value like these can destroy teams in time. Studies have shown that co-authors who overestimated their contributions were less likely to work together in the future, and couples who overestimate their contribution were more likely to demonstrate sources of conflict in their relationship. Simply put, team members who do not feel sufficiently valued may eventually stop delivering value to the team altogether.

But as Choi explains, there are steps we can take to avoid these pitfalls. First, when you measure your own contribution, think about the team’s contributions first before thinking of your own, and encourage the rest of the team to do the same. As Choi explains:

The Harvard researchers found that taking time to consider other people’s efforts before your own helps to align your perception closer with reality. For example, when the MBA students were asked to think about the contributions of each member in their study group as well, the sum total of their estimates was 121%. They still exhibited the cognitive bias, but it was mitigated by what the researchers call “unpacking the work.”

Second, encourage transparency around individuals’ contribution:

At the heart of collaboration’s availability bias is the general difficulty in grasping what everyone on your team gets done, a natural information discrepancy that arises as a result of working with others… It’s why many teams have status meetings and standups — to not only come together to figure out how best to move forward, but in doing so, chipping away at the information discrepancies and biases that can creep into your thinking and hinder productivity.

Managers play a crucial role here. Highlighting individual contributions helps improve this transparency, and holding regular meetings where each team member summarizes their recent work ensures everyone has a chance to demonstrate their contributions. It’s not about bragging or scoring points; it’s about an open, factual discussion of each person’s work. Not only does the team’s collective intelligence benefit from sharing this kind of information, but by bringing individual contributions out in the open, you can actually encourage your team to feel better about their own work and their fellow team members–a big boost for overall morale.

For more information on availability bias and the studies mentioned here, read Choi’s article, Why You Should Stop Keeping Score at Work, at the iDoneThis blog.