October 02, 2006

ABC's '20/20' to focus on research in business college

by Sun Min

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Research conducted in the College of Business and Administration at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will be the topic of a segment on the ABC News program "20/20" on Friday, Oct. 6, at 9 p.m.

Television producers profiled Steven J. Karau, associate professor of management, for a segment about productivity in the workplace. His research revealed that people who work in groups tend to slack off.

Karau, along with Michael D. Michalisin, associate professor of management, and graduate assistant Abdel Elsaid, co-authored the paper entitled, "Motivation losses and gains in groups: Effects of group beliefs and task meaningfulness."

Karau recently presented his findings at the Annual Academy of Management Conference in Atlanta, Ga., and now his work is the subject of a "20/20" piece.

"In every workplace there is a whole range of people. There are those who are incredibly diligent and those who are less diligent, the slackers, if you will," said Michael N. Pressman, "20/20" producer in charge of the segment. "People expend different amounts of effort at work. In the United States, slackers cost employers an enormous amount of money. That's why employers are very interested in this research and so we're trying to look into that picture."

For 15 years, Karau has been studying "social loafing," which is a tendency for people to reduce their efforts when working in a group compared to when they work individually. "The theory that we focus on says that people don't work as hard if they don't see it leading to something they value as important," said Karau.

To make the point, Karau conducted experiments using SIUC students while ABC News crews filmed the action. The taping took place in August at the WSIU-TV studios on the SIUC campus.

Students were asked to pull a rope by themselves and while working in groups, but some students did not know there were moles placed in the groups who were not pulling the rope. That allowed Karau to gauge if the other students were working harder when working in a group. The results supported Karau's theory.

Brandon E. Rettke of Kankakee (3018 W. Route 113), a senior majoring in operations management, worked harder while in a group of two than when he participated in a group of three. "I was very surprised by what I did. I think I normally work hard no matter how large the group," Rettke said.

Darren E. Bumann of Pinckneyville (4227 Zinnia Road), a junior studying advanced technology, worked harder when alone because he was "trying to get more accomplished because there was more on my shoulders," he said.

Karau said there are some conditions under which people choose to do well on collective tasks. Individuals may actually work harder when they expect their co-workers to perform poorly on a meaningful task, an effect he refers to as "social compensation."

Karau became an observer of human behavior at an early age. "I've always been interested in how groups affect individuals in terms of social influence, conformity, motivation, and so on. As a kid, I would conduct little experiments at the shopping mall with a neighborhood friend – things like looking up and seeing how many others would stop and look up. I went on to study social psychology in graduate school," he said.

Karau is now helping companies figure out ways to keep employees motivated. To that end, he served as a consultant for health care companies in Michigan and a software company in Georgia. Karau is interested in designing groups in a way that encourages high levels of individual participation "because many people have a lot of potential to make our lives more meaningful but often their potential is wasted in groups," he said. "I just want to better understand groups and better understand how people can perform better in groups to maximize their potential."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.