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‘Social loafing’ — the psychological phenomenon that’s ruining your team’s productivity

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

November 20, 2018

No, it’s not some group, bread-based activity — although that does sound fun. ‘Social loafing’ is a psychological phenomenon that sends team productivity plummeting.

Let’s say you’re working on a project. You come into work all fired up, make a coffee, and settle in front of your computer. Then you notice your teammates chatting about what they saw on TV last night. And they continue chatting for the next hour while you’re working away — like a chump. Chances are, you’ll start taking it easy too. After all, why should you have to do all the work while they waste time?

Another example. You receive a group email from someone asking for help with something, like replacing the printer ink or providing feedback on a project. You take note and then let it gather dust in your inbox. Why? Because you’re assuming one of the other email recipients will help sort it out.

This is social loafing in action, and while small, isolated instances of it won’t hurt productivity, the long-term, company-wide culture of it can cause serious issues.

Lessons learned from a century of social loafing

Social loafing isn’t just an office phenomenon. The term was born in 1913 during an experiment by French agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann. He asked participants to pull on a rope individually and in groups, and he discovered that people exert way less effort per person when working in a group.

Other social loafing experiments have been conducted over the years, with slightly more detailed variations of the same outcome. Here’s what the science folks have discovered:

  • Individuals try less when working as a group.
    Accountability is diminished. If the team fails, the individual isn’t entirely responsible, so they don’t try as hard. In other words, if your team project goes downhill, no one can pin the demise entirely on you. Similarly, you don’t receive as much individual praise if your team has a big win.
  • The larger the group, the higher the chances of social loafing.
    Many hands make light work. Or so the loafer believes. Loafing increases when individuals feel their efforts are less linked to the outcome.
  • People are more likely to loaf when their co-workers are expected to perform well.
    When individuals believe the outcome will be good with or without their input, their contributions don’t feel very important. So, they do less.
  • The likelihood of loafing skyrockets when motivation is low.
    This happens when the group has poorly defined goals, the manager is a loafer, or a micromanager doesn’t give individuals agency (and therefore, accountability).
  • Loafing increases if individuals think the others in the group are less motivated or skillful than themselves.
    This loafer sees the rest of the group as freeloaders who will rely on their good work. So rather than feel like a sucker, they loaf.

How to banish the loaf for good

As you’ve probably gathered, social loafing isn’t great for productivity. So how do you make your workplace a loaf-free zone?

There are loads of factors that influence team performance. A lack of commitment from managers, plus an inconsistent or underdeveloped reward and support system, all have a negative impact. Counteract this by creating smaller groups and establishing individual goals, which will boost feelings of accountability and help individuals feel more engaged and valuable.

You could go one step further and publicize individual achievements within the team. Although there’s a fine line here: doing this too much could push people the other way and undermine cohesiveness. Striking a balance is up to you and could be a trial-and-error process.

People also approach tasks differently depending on who they’re working with. Researchers have discovered that loafing decreases when people work with acquaintances.

When strangers are put in a group, they think about themselves. When people work with acquaintances, they begin thinking about the other members of the group and become more concerned with not letting people down.

This doesn’t mean you’ll only have a loaf-free group when you put office pals together. If you’re a team leader, there are ways you can make group members feel more connected.

Have you ever heard of the Robber’s Cave Experiment? The (slightly controversial) experiment conducted in 1954 showed that people bond far more quickly when working on a task cooperatively instead of just doing fun activities together. It’s why team-building exercises are so effective; they help establish those connections early on. You can see a version of this in action in Heineken’s 2017 viral ad, Worlds Apart.

Your anti-loaf checklist (for team leaders and individuals)

  • Work in smaller groups. There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about the most effective team size, but it generally sits in the 5-9 range.
  • Do a teambuilding exercise. Establish meaningful connections between team members, and you’ll boost group mentality.
  • Establish trust. Give individuals autonomy and empower them to make their own decisions. People like to feel trusted and responsible; feeling valued is motivating.
  • Establish individual goals, either as a manager or as a team member. Taking ownership of specific tasks gives the individual direction and accountability.
  • Communicate with your team. Even if you don’t fix a problem or do a task yourself, just telling someone about it is better than doing nothing at all. This could be as simple as pinging someone a quick note on your work chat app or setting up a group chat specifically dedicated to reporting issues or bugs.

Final thoughts

Obviously, you can’t fix everything. Sometimes, someone else is the better person for the job. And It’s not always appropriate to drop what you’re doing and do whatever task it is that’s caught your eye.

The trick is to be aware of social loafing tendencies and make a concerted effort to decide whether to fix the issue, refer it to someone else, or just let someone else know about it in a message.

And if you’re a manager, be aware of social loafing within your team. Set clear, accountable goals, give feedback, and establish a culture of trust. Then everyone can have the occasional TV chat and coffee break without causing havoc.



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