Melissa Dahl recently wrote an article in New York Magazine about University of Chicago Professor Nicholas Epley's research on "over-claiming" behavior. By overclaiming, Epley means the tendency for people to claim too much credit for their contributions to group work. He and his co-authors have asked people to estimate the percentage of work that they believe they contributed to a group's output. They found that the sum of all members' estimates consistently exceed 100%. Why does this take place? Plain and simple, people are egocentric.
In more recent work, Epley has explored the over-claiming phenomenon in more depth. He has found that, "People wrongly assume that time spent on a project is productive time spent on a project, and claim credit accordingly." In one experiment, he asked people to work in groups of three to tackle word puzzles. Two people actually did the work, while one person was assigned to act as a supervisor. They were asked to "leverage the synergies" of the team. In another set of groups, the third person simply was asked to be an observer, rather than a supervisor. The two groups did equally well on the word puzzles. In other words, the supervisor did not make a meaningful contribution. However, they claimed to have made a substantial contribution!
Epley explains the meaning of this finding: "People like awarding themselves E's for effort, another tendency that can result in claiming more credit than you really earned." In other words, people aren't really judging their contribution to the task's accomplishment. They are measuring the time and effort that they spent on the task. Of course, time and effort does not equate to substantive contribution in many cases!
How does one stop the over-claiming from becoming a problem within a group? In a paper with Harvard Professor Eugene Caruso, Epley discovered that asking team members to reflect on the contributions of their fellow team members can make a big difference. In other words, you have to direct people to look beyond themselves. If asked to focus on others for a moment, rather than themselves, over-claiming is reduced. That's an interesting finding, but I don't think a bit of reflection solves the problem entirely. I do something a bit different that helps to address over-claiming behavior. At the end of a major group project, I ask students to evaluate the contributions of all team members, but I tell them that the sum of all percentages must equal 100%. That too does not solve the problem entirely, but it helps.