Software teams, and their psychological biases
Over the course of my career, as a software engineer, I have worked with many teams(Agile, and old school). At times, however, teamwork becomes an obstacle. Mostly because people act, and decide differently when they are part of a team than as individuals. For example:
- I participated in a countless number of meetings that ended in a foolish decision, and everybody, except a few, was happy
- I have seen some teams, where one of the members worked very hard, and others did nothing!
But why? To get answers, I studied several different resources, and even took some online courses (you can see the complete list of references at the end of article). In the rest of this article, I will try to summarize what I have read, and answer the following questions (at least partially):
- What is a group?
- What conditions should be fulfilled for a group to form?
- What is effort justification, and how it affects interviews for joining a group(team)?
- How endowment effect affects team members?
- Is intelligence of a group higher than intelligence of individuals?
- What is GroupThink, and how it affects teams?
- Are groups more responsible than individuals?
- Do people in groups take more risks, than individuals?
- Do all team members put all of their effort and energy into work?
Caution: The existence of these biases does not mean that team-work is inherently bad. It means, team-work has some subtleties, and we, as humans, should be aware of them when working in teams and take them into account. All of these biases and the problems that they create have many resolutions. Consequently, after knowing them you can search for different resolutions and pick the one that fits your situation best.
I started my journey by reading about group psychology. What is group psychology? In his book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego Sigmund Freud, defines it as:
Groups Psychology is concerned with the individual man as a member of a race, of a nation, of a caste, of a profession, of an institution, or as a component part of a crowd of people who have been organised into a group at some particular time for some definite purpose
What conditions should be fulfilled for a group to form? Freud says:
Before the members of a random crowd of people can constitute something in the nature of a group in the psychological sense of the word, a condition has to be fulfilled; these individuals must have something in common with one another, a common interest in an object, a similar emotional bias in some situation or other, and (‘consequently’, I should like to interpolate) some degree of reciprocal influence. The higher the degree of “this mental homogeneity“, the more readily do the individuals form a psychological group, and the more striking are the manifestations of a group mind
Now, suppose that we have a software development team(group). They have a common interest, which is, to create a software product, and earn money. What happens then? I think, at first they will establish membership rules. Here comes the first problem. When we want to become a group/team member, we usually face effort justification. In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli describes effort justification as:
Groups use effort justification to bind members to them — for example, through initiation rites. Gangs and fraternities initiate new members by forcing them to withstand nauseating or vicious tests. Research proves that the harder the “entrance exam” is to pass, the greater the subsequent pride and the value they attach to their membership.
In software teams, this effort justification comes (I think) in the form of an interview(notice that this is not the only purpose of interviews). Maybe, effort justification is one of the reasons that some team members are so proud of their team(despite the fact that their team, is not different from other software teams). I think, this behavior is also related to the so-called endowment effect. After all (I guess), knowledge has a Pareto distribution. Consequently, most teams (in terms of knowledge, and ability) are at the same level.
What about the intelligence of a group? Is it higher than the intelligence of an individual, or lower? Freud says:
Whereas the intellectual capacity of a group is always far below that of an individual, its ethical conduct may rise as high above his as it may sink deep below it
You can think of a team as a computer network. The speed at which these computers can communicate is equal to the speed of the slowest computer. The same principle applies to the intelligence of groups. However, other psychological effects are also at play here. One of them is called GroupThink:
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Cohesiveness, or the desire for cohesiveness, in a group may produce a tendency among its members to agree at all costs
GroupThink itself is related to a broader social phenomenon called Social Proof.
What about the responsibility of groups? Here comes diffusion of responsibility:
In groups, we tend to hold back in terms of accountability. Nobody wants to take the rap for the misdeeds or poor decisions of the whole group. A glaring example is the prosecution of the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials or, less controversially, any board or management team. We hide behind team decisions. The technical term for this is “diffusion of responsibility.”
What about risk-taking? Here comes the risky shift:
The risky shift is a concept in social psychology. The risky shift occurs when a group collectively agrees on a course of action that is more extreme than they would have made if asked individually.
What about effort? Do all team members put all of their effort and energy into work? The short answer is NO. This is called social loafing:
In social psychology, social loafing is the phenomenon of a person exerting less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when working alone and is seen as one of the main reasons groups are sometimes less productive than the combined performance of their members working as individuals.
In conclusion, many psychological biases, affect teamwork, and we must be aware of them, and take them into account. In this article, I just mentioned a few of them. Fortunately, There are resolutions for all of these biases, and problems that they create
- Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, by Sigmund Freud
- The Art of thinking clearly, by Rolf Dobelli
- The Science of Everyday Thinking course at Edx
- Dilemmas in a general theory of planning, by Horst Rittel
- Interaction Design Foundation’s Design Thinking course
- Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly, by Bertrand Meyer