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

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

November 14, 2023

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.

What is social loafing?

The term “social loafing” 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.

Social loafing isn’t about slacking off per se, but rather a reduction in individual effort when part of a collective effort. This phenomenon is rooted in the diffusion of responsibility, where individuals feel their contributions are less crucial within a group setting.

What we know about social loafing

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

  • 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.

Causes of social loafing

Understanding the root causes of social loafing is essential for devising effective strategies to combat this productivity killer. Let’s explore the factors that contribute to social loafing and gain insights into how to address them.

  • Unclear Roles and Responsibilities: When team members lack clarity about their roles and responsibilities, it creates an environment ripe for social loafing. Ambiguity can lead individuals to assume that their efforts won’t significantly impact the outcome, fostering a sense of disengagement.
  • Lack of Individual Accountability: Social loafing thrives when individual accountability is weak. If team members don’t feel personally responsible for specific tasks or outcomes, they may reduce their effort, assuming others will compensate.
  • Inadequate Team Cohesion: Teams that lack a sense of cohesion may experience higher instances of social loafing. When individuals don’t feel connected or responsible to their team, the motivation to put in extra effort diminishes.
  • Poorly Defined Goals: Social loafing thrives in an environment with unclear or vague goals. When team members are unsure about the purpose of their efforts, motivation dwindles.
  • Lack of Recognition: When individual efforts go unnoticed, team members may succumb to social loafing as they perceive a lack of value in their contributions.
  • Communication Gaps: Inadequate communication channels can contribute to social loafing. When team members aren’t informed about ongoing tasks or the progress of their peers, it can lead to a disconnect and reduced motivation.

Understanding and addressing these causes of social loafing is crucial for cultivating a high-performing team environment.

How to prevent social loafing

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

By proactively mitigating these factors, you can create a workplace culture that fosters individual accountability, team cohesion, and sustained motivation.

Smaller groups, bigger impact

One way to counteract this is by creating smaller groups and establishing individual goals to boost feelings of accountability and help individuals feel more engaged and valuable.

Aim for a team size generally in the 5-9 range. This ensures that everyone has a meaningful role and contributes actively.

Establish individual goals

Empower your team by establishing individual goals. When team members take ownership of specific tasks, it not only gives them a clear direction but also enhances accountability. This approach fosters engagement and a sense of value.

Shine the spotlight

You can also publicize individual achievements within the team. Just be sure to spread the praise fairly: doing this too much or focused too much one one person/team could cause resentment, which undermines cohesiveness.

Know your team

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

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.

Establish trust

Give individuals autonomy and empower them to make their own decisions.  When individuals feel trusted and responsible, it creates a motivating environment. This not only reduces loafing but also encourages a culture of accountability.

Open lines of communication with your team

Communication is a powerful tool in combating social loafing. Even if you’re not personally resolving a problem, keeping the lines of communication open is crucial. Utilize your team collaboration tool effectively, add quick tasks, or set up a dedicated project for reporting issues. This ensures that concerns don’t go unnoticed, fostering a proactive and accountable team culture.

Final thoughts

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.

This post was originally published on November 20, 2018, and updated most recently on November 14, 2023.



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