Human Resources Leadership

How to get rid of social loafing in your team

Social loafing, or freeriding, is the tendency to do less than someone’s potential allows them to do in a group setting. You probably had a chance to experience that phenomenon while working on a group project at school or, more recently, in your workplace.

There are people who always contribute a lot to each group they are in. They care about achieving positive results and they want to make sure everything is in tip-top shape. But there are also loafers, who don’t want to work at all, so they just look for creative ways to slack off. They agree to take on assigned tasks, all the while believing that someone else will do their work for them. If such an issue isn’t eliminated quickly, it can destroy the team’s overall performance in the long run. It also has a negative impact on motivation of the hard workers within a team.

The question then is: How to approach that problem and what steps to take if such behavior sneaks into a team?

Reduce the team’s size

You’ve probably heard all those teamwork phrases, like synergy and 1+1 = 3, especially during team building sessions and corporate trainings. I’m not going to fight it. Collective work performance usually increases when there are more people in a team. That’s for sure. But you also need to remember that individual effort decreases as the group size increases. And that translates to: the more people there are in a team, the less each of them contributes to a collective task. 

There was a famous experiment [1] which explains this issue. 84 people were asked to make as much noise as possible by clapping and shouting while working in different configurations: in groups, in pairs and alone. This simple experiment summarized the relationship between the number of people in a group and their individual effort.

social loafing in a team

In groups of six, each person used only around 40% of their capacity. When the groups shrunk to four people, individual contribution increased to 51%. That increasing tendency was also observed while working in smaller groups. Working in pairs made people use 71% of their capacity. That’s a significant difference in comparison with the numbers from groups of six.

Those statistics prove that collective group work makes us more lazy. The smaller the group is, the more obligated to contribute each member is. That’s why you can see an individual’s tendency to slack off among bigger teams. 

Build strong social bonds

Sometimes you’re faced with challenging tasks that require a great deal of effort because of their enormous scope, complexity or limited deadlines. It’s easy for your boss to say “Ok, now you need to be 100% committed because this project is crucial”. But how can you be 100% committed if you don’t feel like a part of the team (or maybe you don’t even like your teammates that much)?

If you want to make sure your team is productive, you need to first take care of their relationships. After analyzing 78 studies, Karau and Williams [2] determined that people are less likely to let up when they work with colleagues they like and respect. The vision of helping those we know makes us more inclined to contribute. As Adam Grant once said: 

“People don’t worry much about letting down strangers and acquaintances but they feel guilty about leaving their friends in the lurch.”

It’s harder to say “no” and do nothing when you see that people you like are up to their ears in work. The more you focus on establishing personal connection between people, the less likely they will be to slack off. And that will lead to a greater commitment and dedication.

Illustrate the meaning

People often slack off when they don’t realize the importance of their work. What’s the point of working hard if you feel like your work is meaningless and nobody cares about it? 

A few years ago, Adam Grant and his colleagues studied call center employees who were raising money for a university [3]. Those employees felt that their efforts were futile, just a drop in the bucket. They didn’t think their job was meaningful, so Grant decided to remedy that. He invited the students who benefited from the callers’ work to get together for a chat. This way, some of the callers had the opportunity to hear about the impact of their work. They had a chance to learn how they managed to improve someone’s life. 

As a result, a month later the callers who had the chance to understand the significance of their work had much higher performance levels as compared to those who didn’t have that chance. They spent 142% more time talking on the phone and they got 171% higher revenue. What’s interesting, they also denied any impact the scholarship students’ visit had had on them. It seemed that all those positive feelings penetrated their subconscious mind to become the hidden source of their motivation, bypassing their conscious cognitive processes altogether.

The lesson then is that making your colleagues aware of the way their work affects others can increase their motivation and lower the risk of a decline in productivity.

Let the narcissists shine

There is a correlation between extreme narcissism and social loafing. Narcissists consider themselves to be exceptional performers. They tend to believe they’ve got superpowers and the work they do is undeniably amazing, especially in comparison with their teammates. Unfortunately, science doesn’t confirm that hypothesis. According to a study concerning the narcissists’ performance [4], there is no consistent relationship between finding yourself exceptionally good and performing brilliantly. 

Well, maybe there is just one. Narcissists perform poorly and tend to contribute less to a team if they don’t have much opportunity to shine in front of others. Four studies [4] proved that narcissists executed their tasks much better when they also had a shot at self-enhancement. Studies suggested that it was caused by the desire to draw admiration rather than the desire to self-improve. They like to brag about their accomplishments and fish for compliments. In contrast, their not narcissistic opponents were unaffected by the self-enhancement opportunity while performing their tasks.

let narcissits shine

That can give you some ideas on how to deal with social loafing among narcissists in your team. Just make sure they get responsibilities they can triumph over and that will make them motivated enough to work exceptionally well. Otherwise, they will avoid their assignments like the plague.

Conclusion

Being a leader is not easy. There is no doubt about it. But understanding The Ringelmann Effect and having a few ideas about how to minimize the risk will let you fight the problem of social loafing head on. 

If you’re a leader, then your team’s performance lies in your hands. You’re the one who should take care of each member and create a productive setting for them to work. Dividing a team into smaller groups, slicing projects into smaller components, building relationships and communicating the importance of a project are definitely worth considering. All those solutions will help you tackle the problem and get rid of social loafing in your workplace once and for all.


References

[1] Latané B., Williams K., Harkins S. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(6), 822-832. 1979. Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing.
[2] Karau S. J., Williams K. D. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(4), 681-706. 1993. Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration.
[3] Adam Grant. Penguin Books. 2014. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.
[4] Harry M. Wallace, Roy Baumeister. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82(5):819-34. June 2002. The Performance of Narcissists Rises and Falls with Perceived Opportunity for Glory.