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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

How Science Explains Why People Exaggerate Their Contribution to the Team

Fairness is one of the prerequisites for team success. Overstating your contribution achieves the opposite. Here’s why, and what you can do about it.

Try this experiment: Ask each member of a team that has just achieved a milestone what their contribution was to that achievement, percentage-wise. Ask them independently. Then add those percentages up. You would expect to get 100 percent, right? In reality, you are likely to get more than 100 percent. Sometimes much more.

Why does that happen?

UC Berkeley assistant professor Juliana Schroeder blames it on egocentrism. People tend to focus on their own contributions and know those more clearly than the contributions of others on the team. They don’t do that because of arrogance, but simply because they are much more aware of what they are doing than what everyone else on the team is doing.

As a result, when you add those percentages up, the sum of all contributions appears to be greater than 100 percent. Even more than that, the more members there are in the team, the higher the total becomes. And Schroeder can prove it.

She conducted three experiments using MBA students who were asked to report on their contribution to a team project. She found that adding up the individual self-reports exceeded 100 percent, and in a group of eight participants, it even reached 140 percent.

Why is that a problem?

Imagine how you would feel if you worked every day from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., as well as on weekends, to meet a deadline, while other team members showed up to work at 9 a.m. and left at 5 p.m. sharp. Effective teamwork requires trust, and trust requires fairness. If you believe you pull more than your fair share of the load for the team, you will not feel the team is fair, and that will slow the development of trust, if not stall it altogether.

What can you do about it?

All is not lost. Schroeder says when you ask team members to estimate their contribution, ask them to first estimate the contributions of others. Once they do that, they will have a harder time reporting a higher contribution for themselves. She further claims that even if they report their own contribution first but know they will have to estimate the contributions of the others later, they will still reduce the estimate of their own contribution. Finally, she adds, even if all they have to do is list all other team members without estimating their contributions, they will likely be more conservative in estimating their own contribution.

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