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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Social facilitation: Handling pressure during performance, March 31, 2006, 7D.

It is not uncommon to see individual athletes perform in extraordinary ways when team, media, and fan attention shines on them.  Neither is it rare to see athletes crumble and melt under pressure when competition begins.  When the lights come on and the crowds begin to cheer, some athletes seem to rise to the occasion and perform beyond their limits while others seem to lose confidence, concentration, and the ability to perform.  Why and how do those differences occur?

Psychologists and organizational researchers refer to this phenomenon as social facilitation.  It posits that individuals perform differently in the presence of others than they do when they are alone.  Knowing that others are observing them brings about a state of physiological arousal that causes people to act differently than when they are unobserved.  That “charged” physiological state tends to energize people when performing physical tasks.  Whether an individual uses that energy to enhance or harm performance is influenced by the nature of the task and whether the person is comfortable and confident performing the task.

When people perform physical tasks with which they are very comfortable and confident, the energized state tends to enhance performance.  In other words, when tasks are perceived as easy, the presence of others positively affects performance.  Highly trained athletes probably set more performance records during important competitions than in the presence of only their coaches during practice.  In an opposite manner, difficult tasks, new tasks, and tasks that people are uncomfortable and unconfident with, tend to negatively affect performance when conducted in the presence of others.

Social facilitation also has a mental component.  Performing in front of others brings with it an expectation that others will evaluate the observed performance.  Questions such as: “What will others think about my abilities?” and “Will others view me as an asset or liability?” run through the minds of individuals when performing in the presence of others.  Perceived positive evaluations enhance performance.  Perceived negative evaluations will unnerve and distract the performer and subsequently harm performance. 

The same processes at play on athletes in competition occur in people in everyday organizations.   To make people feel good about themselves and to perform their best, they should be put into situations where they can perform tasks, at which they are skilled and regard as easy, in the presence of others.  To avoid the negative consequences of social facilitation, managers should make sure that workers have chances to learn and become comfortable with new and difficult tasks by themselves before working in front of others.

Groups can outperform individuals on physical tasks because of the greater effort that can be generated by more people.  Through the processes of social facilitation, groups can also enhance the performance of individual members and synergistically produce an output greater than the sum of performances of individual members in isolation.  Managers and organizational leaders should use these concepts to maximize individual, group, and organizational performance.

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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved