Steve Karau

Research by Steve Karau, SIU Carbondale management professor, resulted in a new book that looks at individual motivation within groups.

June 26, 2020

SIU researchers find individual motivations determine group success

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Group projects. Some people love them. Some people hate them.

Do people get more or less accomplished working with others and why?

These questions and other aspects of group dynamics fascinate Steve Karau, management professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

His pioneering research on how group dynamics can lead people to work harder on group tasks or result in “social loafing” -- a tendency to slack off and take it easy -- has proven influential among scholars and practitioners and was even featured on ABC News’ 20/20.

For more than 30 years Karau has studied a variety of organizational behavior issues, with a special interest in motivation within groups, leadership, team performance, personality and ethics. Karau’s groundbreaking theories are in use worldwide as a springboard by others for research of their own.

Research leads to book

An Academic Press editor several years ago approached Karau and suggested it was time that he compile and update his latest research on motivational issues within groups and work teams. Karau had plenty of new information to add, but knew his colleagues did as well, so he approached other experts for their input. The result is a new 10-chapter book, “Individual Motivation within Groups: Social Loafing and Motivation Gains in Work, Academic and Sports Teams.”

With contributions from an international team of highly regarded group-dynamics researchers, the book integrates classic and contemporary research conducted in a wide variety of settings with new insights into when and why individuals expend minimal or maximum effort in group situations.

Building upon earlier work

Karau teaches courses at SIU in organizational behavior, human resources and social responsibility. He is co-developer of two theories that have spurred a great deal of additional research, including many studies discussed in the book.

Working with Kip Williams of Purdue University, Karau co-developed the Collective Effort Model of individual motivation on group tasks. This theory holds people will only work hard on a group task if they believe their efforts lead to group and individual outcomes that have personal meaning and value. There is connection between the effort people are willing to put forth on a group project and the personal satisfaction they anticipate from the outcome Much of Karau’s research involves exploring when and why individuals are most likely to work hard as members of groups or teams.

Karau also co-developed Role Congruity Theory of gender and leadership (with Alice Eagly of Northwestern University) that explains how family and work roles create gender-based expectations and perceptions of what behaviors are seen as most typical and appropriate for female and male leaders. Although these perceptions have historically led many to view leadership roles as a better fit for men, in more recent years the desire for transformational leaders who excel both in task leadership and social skills creates increasing opportunities for women.

Many elements involved

The new book helps identify a number of positive steps for increasing individual motivation within groups, many of which are drawn from the Collective Effort Model. For example, careful selection of team members and designing team tasks to ensure that each individual is accountable and can make distinctive contributions can enhance motivation.

“People won’t bother working hard in groups if they don’t have a personal interest or stake in the outcome or if they think that their efforts won’t be useful, valuable, or appreciated,” Karau said. “It is also very helpful if the individual members identify strongly with the team or its tasks and feel that success will give them a personal sense of pride, growth, or accomplishment.”

Diverse settings

Karau’s book explores a wide range of behaviors that can influence motivation and performance in groups including personality, culture, group cohesiveness, training, leadership and team design issues. The chapters cover more than 130 years of theoretical work, laboratory research and field studies on actual teams, with an emphasis on recent cutting-edge research. The book also looks at a variety of psychological phenomena including social loafing, social dilemmas, social facilitation and even ostracism and exclusion.

“Much of what has been learned in controlled experimental studies of groups extends to actual teams in a variety of settings,” Karau said.

Specific chapters discuss the implications of motivation research for organizational work groups, classroom project teams and team sports. Other chapters address how the implications can extend to exercise partnerships – whether actual or virtual – as well as military settings or teams working in high-demand environments such as NASA long-distance space flights.

“My hope is that the research and the book will be of interest not just to academics and researchers but also to managers, businesses, psychologists, social organizations and anyone interested in better understanding motivational issues in groups and work teams,” Karau said.

SIU student involved in project

Aric-Wilhau-sm.jpgThe first chapter, “Social Loafing and Motivation Gains in Groups: An Integrative Review” was written by Karau and Aric Wilhau, a May 2020 doctoral business administration – management graduate from Clarence, Iowa. Wilhau, a teaching and research assistant while at SIU, begins as an assistant professor of management at Georgia College and State University in August.

Wilhau noted that the project presented a “unique opportunity for me to work closely over an extended period of time with Dr. Karau, a seasoned researcher and expert in the area of social loafing.” Wilhau added that one of the most interesting and surprising aspects was realizing that although the earliest studies were conducted in the 1880s, the bulk of social loafing studies were conducted after 1979.

“It took years before other researchers ‘rediscovered’ this work and built upon this original research,” Wilhau said. “I believe it highlights the cumulative nature of research across decades or even centuries and seems to suggest that, at least at times, interesting research is published but might fall on deaf ears, so to say. Given time, interesting research tends to end up ‘having its day’.”

Years in the making

Karau, who has had dozens of articles published in top psychology and management journals, said he is pleased to have assembled a “dream team” of 20 top scholars to lend their expertise with the book. Published last fall, the work was four years in the making and is available through major book sellers.

“When we understand why people act the way they do, we can then establish situations that encourage better outcomes. Essentially, motivations matter very much,” Karau said.