Yesterday I wrote about the Availability Heuristic, the term that Daniel Kahneman uses in his book Thinking Fast and Slow to describe the ways in which our brains misjudge frequency, amount, and probability based on how easily an example of something comes to mind. In his book, Kahneman describes individuals being more likely to overestimate things like celebrity divorce rates if there was recently a high profile and contentious celebrity divorce in the news. The easier it is for us to make an association or to think of an example of a behavior or statistical outcome, the more likely we will overweight that thing in our mental models and expectations for the world.
Overestimating celebrity divorce rates isn’t a very big deal, but the availability heuristic can have a serious impact in our lives if we work as part of a team or if we are married and have a family. The availability heuristic can influence how we think about who deserves credit for good team work.
Whenever you are collaborating on a project, whether it is a college assignment, a proposal or set of training slides at work, or keeping the house clean on a regular basis, you are likely to overweight your own contributions relative to others. You might be aware of someone who puts in a herculean effort and does well more than their own share, but if everyone is chugging along completing a roughly equivalent workload, you will see yourself as doing more than others. The reason is simple, you experience your own work firsthand. You only see everyone else’s handiwork once they have finished it and everyone has come back together. You suffer from availability bias because it is easier for you to recall the time and effort you put into the group collaboration than it is for you to recognize and understand how much work and effort others pitched in. Kahneman describes the result in his book, “you will occasionally do more than your share, but it is useful to know that you are likely to have that feeling even when each member of the team feels the same way.”
Even if everyone did an equal amount of work, everyone is likely to feel as though they contributed more than the others. As Kahneman writes, there is more than 100% of credit to go around when you consider how much each person thinks they contributed. In marriages, this is important to recognize and understand. Spouses often complain that one person is doing more than the other to keep the house running smoothly, but if they complain to their partner about the unfair division of household labor, they are likely to end up in an unproductive argument with each person upset that their partner doesn’t recognize how much they contribute and how hard they work. Both will end up feeling undervalued and attacked, which is certainly not where any couple wants to be.
Managers must be aware of this and must find ways to encourage and celebrate the achievements of their team members while recognizing that each team member may feel that they are pulling more than their own weight. Letting everyone feel that they are doing more than their fair share is a good way to create unhelpful internal team competition and to create factions within the workplace. No professional work team wants to end up like a college or high school project group, where one person pulls and all-nighter, overwriting everyone else’s work and where one person seemingly disappears and emails everyone last minute to ask them not to rat them out to the teacher.
Individually, we should acknowledge that other people are not going to see and understand how much effort we feel that we put into the projects we work on. Ultimately, at an individual level we have to be happy with team success over our individual success. We don’t need to receive a gold star for every little thing that we do, and if we value helping others succeed as much as we value our own success, we will be able to overcome the availability heuristic in this instance, and become a more productive team member, whether it is in volunteer projects, in the workplace, or at home with our families.