Getting from Shirk to Work
Faculty participating in X-Culture, a global virtual team project started by Vasyl Taras at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (see “Grassroots Innovation” on page 33), are currently working on a study on the effect of “free-riders” who don’t pull their own weight on virtual teams. Although free-riding can be a problem on any team, it can be especially prevalent when team members have never met each other and have no sense of social obligation or reciprocity to each other.
A global team’s performance can plummet if just one of its members shirks his or her responsibilities, says Taras. “It’s all about the perception of injustice,” he says. “If one person on a ten-member team doesn’t do his share of the work, logic says that the team’s performance should decrease by ten percent. But our data show that when one student on a team doesn’t participate, it leads to a disproportionately large loss in performance. If two stop participating, everyone stops working because they think, ‘Why should I work if those two aren’t working and we’re all getting the same grade?’”
Using data collected from X-Culture projects, faculty already have reduced nonparticipation among X-Culture students dramatically, from 30 percent to about 3.5 percent. By employing the following strategies, Taras believes other professors can achieve the same success:
Require weekly peer evaluations. When students can evaluate their team members, “it works like magic, because students can restore a sense of justice on the team if someone isn’t doing his share of the work,” says Taras.
Give the power to exclude. Students can vote on whether a free-rider can stay on the team. The possibility of being voted off the team gives everyone an incentive to contribute, says Taras.
Cultivate cultural intelligence. After testing how factors such as team size, cultural diversity, or age affect the level of free-riding, X-Culture faculty have found that cultural intelligence plays the biggest role. Students who are culturally intelligent—who respect and can listen effectively to a diverse range of people—are much less likely to shirk their duties.
That’s why many X-Culture faculty devote up to a week in their course schedules to activities that allow students to learn about their teammates’ interests, families, and other personal information. “When people know each other, they have a sense of social obligation, which increases how much they respect each other and how much they’ll commit to accomplishing a common goal,” says Taras. “That extra time might seem unrelated to the project, but it makes a huge difference in the project’s outcome.”