Thursday, April 9, 2009 by Dave Blum

During the week, my job is to be generating team building ideas, drawing up scavenger hunt lists and concocting treasure hunt clues.  On the weekend, however, I try to leave the scavenger hunts and team building activities behind. Saturdays are my day to sleep in, hang out with my wife, and see a movie, perhaps; on Sundays, though, I can almost always be found playing volleyball with the San Francisco International Volleyball Club, which has bumped/set/spiked together every Sunday afternoon in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for nearly 15 years.

As functional as this group usually is, there’s been one ongoing challenge.  The club’s founder, writer/director Mal Karman, has for years struggled to find people to help him set up the nets.  After all, why should Mal, alone, be the one to 1) stay to the end of volleyball every week 2) pack up the gear and haul it to his car 3) come out to the park early the following Sunday, lugging all the gear?

A few years back, Mal decided to share the burden, insisting that club members take turns signing up for the nets.  Makes sense, right?  The problem is, there just never seems to be enough net sign ups; the list always has gaps, leading Mal to periodic fits of anger and frustration.  “What’s wrong with these people?  Don’t they know that everyone has to pitch in?”

Interestingly, this kind of phenomenon is not uncommon, both in our everyday world as well as in the workplace.  According to a marvelous book about game theory called Rock, Paper, Scissors, by Len Fisher, mathematicians have a name for this:  the “Free Rider” syndrome, in which a group of people take advantage of community resources without contributing to it. You see it all over the place:  a roommate in a shared living situation neglecting to pick up after himself in the common areas; neighbors throwing their garbage into a dumpster rented by someone in the process of moving; employable people collecting long-term welfare because it’s easier than working; cafe dwellers lurking on the internet and using someone else’s un-secured wifi; members of a team failing to contribute their fair share of time and effort on a project but then accepting a full share of the bonuses.

So, the question is, what to do about this?  One approach is to make it more costly for free riders to coast along.  When Mal is fully fed up, he tends to send out an email announcing the cancellation of volleyball this week unless people immediately fill in the emplty slots on his list.  In this situation, everyone suffers–including the people who regularly take the nets.  Another approach might be to isolate the free riders; the majority of volleyball players could privately single out a long-time “slacker” and, just before sundown, quietly leave the park, sticking the free rider with the nets — like it or not.

Clearly there has to be a better way to encourage (and enforce) collaboration and cooperation…which I’ll talk about in tomorrow’s blog.