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Deal With The Collective Action Problem in the Workplace in 2024

Deal With The Collective Action Problem in the Workplace in 2024


Astrid Tran 27 Feb 2024 6 min read

Free rider, one of the most common examples of a collective action problem in the workplace, has been addressed but never stops occurring. Every team and every project has this kind of employee every time.

Why is it happening? Understanding collective action and personal interest to have a better approach and solution to cope with this problem in today’s business management.

Free rider – Image: Medium

Table of Contents:

What is the Collective Action Problem?

The collective action problem happens in which a group of individuals, each pursuing their self-interest, collectively create a negative outcome for the entire group. In such scenarios, individuals have an incentive to free-ride or benefit from the collective effort of others without contributing their fair share.

The collective action problem is common in almost every industry and field such as social, economic, and environmental contexts where a shared resource is involved or a common goal needs collective effort. In terms of business, the collective action problem often is about some team members not actively contributing to group projects or tasks, relying on others to carry the workload. Another example is in a company with limited resources, departments or teams might compete for resources without considering the overall needs of the organization.

Popular Collective Action Problem at Work Examples

Collective Action Problem


An assurance problem happens in which one party faces uncertainty or lacks confidence about the actions, behavior, or intentions of another party, leading to potential challenges or difficulties in achieving mutual goals or agreements.

For example, team members might hesitate to contribute fully to discussions or share new ideas unless they’re sure others are actively engaged and prepared, impacting project progress. Another example is in contractual agreements, parties may face assurance problems if there is skepticism about the other party’s ability or willingness to fulfill the terms of the contract. This lack of trust can lead to difficulties in negotiating and finalizing agreements.


A coordination problem in the context of collective action involves individuals or groups facing challenges in aligning their actions and making decisions to achieve a common goal. Different individuals or groups may have varying preferences or strategies for achieving the common goal, leading to a lack of consensus on the best course of action.

For example, in the development of new technologies, different companies or organizations may pursue competing standards. Achieving coordination on a common standard is essential for interoperability and widespread adoption.

Cooperation (Free Riding)

Another common collective action problem is cooperation difficulty. Whether individuals are willing to work together, share information, and build relationships to achieve shared objectives, is hard to address. One common cooperation problem is the potential for free riding, where individuals benefit from the collective efforts of others without contributing proportionately. This can lead to a reluctance among some team members to actively participate, assuming that others will carry the load.

For example, in organizations with various departments or teams working on interrelated projects, cooperation problems can arise if there is insufficient communication and coordination between these groups, leading to inefficiencies and conflicts.


Disagreement happens in the effort to leverage effective collective action workplace. While diversity of thought and perspectives can enhance problem-solving and innovation, it is also a cause of conflict and disagreement.

For instance, conflicting opinions between departments on project timelines, methods, and resource allocation can lead to tension and hinder smooth project execution. Differing priorities between company leadership and employees on ethical sourcing practices and fair wages can lead to internal conflict and hinder progress toward shared goals.


It is also worth mentioning instability – a major factor contributing to collective action problems and hindering progress in businesses and workplaces. Employees’ behaviors and thinking are affected by external factors, such as changes in economics, politics, society, and more.

In particular, uncertainty about the future or concerns about societal issues may affect job satisfaction, and lower morale which leads to a lack of enthusiasm for collective action and collaborative efforts. Plus, economic downturns may necessitate budget cuts and resource reallocation within an organization, which leads departments to excessively compete to get the best resources, unintendedly hindering collective projects

The Tragedy of the Commons

In the context of the workplace, the tragedy of the commons often relates to the culture of individualism, and the overuse of resources held in common by a group of individuals, because each individual has access to and can use the resource freely. Individuals, motivated by their self-interest, seek to maximize their own benefits from the shared resource.

A common example is employees may withhold information or knowledge that could benefit the team or organization as they fear that sharing knowledge might diminish their importance or affect their benefits.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma is a classic concept in game theory that illustrates a situation where two individuals, acting in their self-interest, may not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best collective interest to do so. The dilemma arises because, individually, each employee is tempted to betray to maximize their personal reward. However, if both betray, they collectively miss out on the higher rewards achievable through cooperation

The workplace obverse many examples of this issue. Here is a possible scenario: Two employees are assigned to work on a critical project together. Each employee has two options: to cooperate by sharing information and working collaboratively or to betray by withholding information and prioritizing personal success over the team’s success. From a rational standpoint, each employee may be inclined to prioritize personal success by betraying, assuming the other may do the same.

Tips to Deal with the Collective Action Problem in 2024

Every leader and firm needs to detect collection action problems prepare for solutions and take action immediately. It is a long game and requires strategic approaches to foster collaboration, alignment, and a shared commitment to common goals. Here are five tips to deal with the collective action problem in 2024.

  • Incentivize collective efforts: By aligning individual incentives with collective goals, you encourage team members to actively contribute to shared objectives. Incentives can take various forms, including financial rewards, recognition, career development opportunities, or other tangible benefits. Don’t forget to establish performance metrics tied to collective goals to help individuals clearly understand the importance of collaboration. In some cases, punishment is needed to address performance issues of free riders and maintain overall productivity, a safe and inclusive workplace for deserved contributions.
  • Promote empowerment and autonomy: Empowering employees with autonomy, discretion, and flexibility – encourages them to take ownership of their work, make decisions, and contribute ideas. Everyone should understand their role and how their contributions align with broader organizational objectives. Create channels for employees to share their ideas and suggestions. This could include regular brainstorming sessions, suggestion boxes, or digital platforms for idea sharing.
  • Organize team-building to enhance team bonding and cohesion: This strategy helps create a sense of belongingness, trust, and collaboration among employees, especially when there are newcomers. Fun and engaging team-building activities can be outdoor retreats or virtual games with a cozy, intimate setting that is perfect for creating a positive team culture.
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Bottom Lines

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What is an example of a collective action?

A popular example of collective action is the international effort to solve environmental issues. Many ongoing actions have been taken to address these challenges such as the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, the Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987, and Europe’s new policy on zero-emission commitment by 2035 – banning sales of new petrol, and diesel cars from 2035. 

What are the three types of collective action problems?

Three main categories define collective action problems including the tragedy of the commons, free riding, and the prisoner’s dilemma. They are the results of the challenges arising from the pursuit of individual interests in a way that may lead to suboptimal outcomes for the collective.