I bet you’ve been in this situation: you’re a part of a team working on a project and there is that one person who just isn’t pulling their weight. Maybe you’ve encountered it during school or university; you have a group assignment and there’s that one student who never shows up to meetings, and you notice all the other team members getting frustrated by their lack of effort. Or perhaps you’ve got that one colleague who everybody knows is content to just coast along putting in a minimal amount of effort, while the rest of the team works hard to meet a deadline for a project. Does this sound familiar to you?

This phenomenon is known as social loafing, and it was first identified in 1913 by a French engineer by the name of Max Ringlemann. Max noticed that people working in groups could exert much less effort on a project, than they would have if they had of been working individually. In the workplace, this can be a really frustrating and annoying thing to have to deal with. And while it’s easy to write off social loafers as just being lazy, there’s a range of things that might cause them to be behaving that way: 

  • If team members start to feel that other people are not working as hard as they are, they lessen their own efforts to match the perceived level of effort of their workmates.
  • Individual workers might feel like they can “hide” amongst other group members, and that it won’t be noticed if they don’t work as hard as everyone else. This is especially likely to happen if group performance is being monitored, rather than individual performance.
  • If a workgroup has not had an opportunity to form cohesive working relationships within the group, it can lessen productivity because group members are not worried about letting down other members of their team.
  • When a large group is working together, people can feel that because so many people are contributing to the project, their efforts won’t be recognised or needed.

It’s not hard to see how social loafing can be damaging in the workplace. Group productivity and performance can be negatively impacted, and people who are social loafers can cause workplace conflict as well as waste opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge.

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If you’re a manager or a team leader, you will probably want to prevent social loafing from happening in the first place. Or if you’re a team member, you’ll want to know how to deal with those pesky people who are dragging your team down. Luckily there’s quite a few strategies that can help:

  • Keep team numbers small. This stops people from getting “lost in the crowd” and makes it easier to recognise and reward individuals who are making great contributions. By establishing smaller teams, the opportunities for social loafers to diffuse responsibility amongst the other group members are reduced.
  • Outline clear group goals and expected outcomes at the start of the project or group formation. This will let individual members know from the start what is expected of them, and that free-riding will get noticed.
  • Reinforce individual accountability by setting measurable individual targets which complement the group’s goals.
  • Ensure there are opportunities for teams to socialise and establish positive working relationships, in order to help people work together more effectively.
  • Recognise and praise individual efforts when acknowledging group successes.
  • Confrontation often is quite effective. While it might seem obvious to simply call out the social loafer on their slack-fest, this is a solution both managers and team members might shy away from in order to avoid group conflict (I’ll talk more about this in a future blog post). Team members have the option of talking one-on-one, as a group, or they could approach their manager to speak to the social loafer privately. Having an authority figure address the loafing team member about the problem can often be sufficient to improve their performance.

Depending on the group and situation, simply making sure that everyone in the group is aware that they can be easily evaluated by others might be enough to keep social loafing at bay. Discussing the principle and consequences if it does occur could be the motivator any potential social loafers in the group need to lift their game. Or if you’re reading this and might be thinking to yourself “It’s me, I’m a social loafer!” then I suggest that you have two options, either lift your game, or you might be better off finding a job where no one can point to you and accuse you of not pulling your weight ;)