Tired of Slackers at Work? The Secrets Behind Social Loafing: and What to Do About it

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by Brad Callen

Estimated reading time: 34 minute(s)

Tired of Slackers at Work? The Secrets Behind Social Loafing: and What to Do About it

Tired of Slackers at Work? The Secrets Behind Social Loafing: and What to Do About it

Estimated reading time: 34 minute(s)

Tired of Slackers at Work? The Secrets Behind Social Loafing: and What to Do About it

Have you ever shown up to a potluck with a liter of soda and a bag of chips, then helped yourself to a plateful of baby back ribs? Or participated in a book group discussion without having read the book?

If we’re honest, we do things like this every day. These are examples of a phenomenon called social loafing.

What is social loafing, exactly? University of Washington management professor Michael Johnson defines it as:

“A phenomenon where people exert less effort when working in groups than they do when working alone. In general, the greater the number of people who are working on a group task, the less effort any one member of the group will put forth toward accomplishing the task. We’ve probably all worked with people who free-ride on the work of others, but the interesting thing about social loafing is that virtually everyone does it to some extent.”

Johnson points out that as a group size grows, so does the productivity output of each individual.

Social loafing comes with a cost. It reduces the productivity and potential of a group, and creates animosity in the workplace.

Whether you’re a project manager or working with a team, fortunately there’s a lot you can do to minimize social loafing in your work environment.

Let’s look at the history of social loafing, break down what causes it, and look at ways both managers and team members can keep it in check.

The Ringelmann Effect

In France in the late 1800s, agricultural professor Max Ringelmann happened upon an insightful discovery. He measured the power of one ox pulling a cart, and of two oxen pulling the cart together. When pulling together, each ox pulled with slightly less power than when they pulled individually.

Ringelmann then performed a similar study on humans pulling ropes, and discovered the same pattern. When two people pulled together, each person pulled with 93% of the power they exerted when pulling the rope individually. When three pulled, this output decreased to 85%. A group of 8 pulled at only 49%: individual output decreased by more than a half!

What does this discovery mean for you and me? Well, if you’re working with a small company and feel burnt out, then obviously it’s time to move to a bigger team!

Ha ha, but seriously. This discovery of what’s now known as “social loafing”, or “The Ringelmann Effect” has been widely studied and identified in all areas of life: in audiences, for example, people will clap loudly when there’s a small audience, but more softly as the size of the audience grows.

It’s very real and a part of our everyday life.

Causes of Social Loafing

What causes this dramatic decline in output as group sizes increase? Ringelmann determined social loafing is caused by two main reasons: a loss of motivation, and a loss of coordination within a group as the numbers increase.

  • Diffusion of Responsibility>/li>

In The Art of Thinking Clearly, author Rolf Dobelli noted that social loafing exists with rowers, but not in relay races.

This distinction highlights a key cause of social loafing: motivation and personal responsibility.

When a person doesn’t feel individually responsible to perform a task, e.g. rowers in a boat, they’re less motivated to perform to their potential. Whereas, when a performance is singled out, e.g. one leg in a relay race, the individual feels personally responsible to run at maximum speed.

  • Coordination

Have you ever wondered why a football team with the best quarterback and wide receiver in the league never seems to make it past the first round of playoffs? Or why a coach with a seemingly average group of athletes secures a trophy every season?

According to Ringelmann, social loafing may be the cause of this apparent inconsistency.

The productivity of a team depends as much on the coordination within the team as on the skill sets of individual members. Various group dynamics trigger social loafing. If team members see others slacking off, they follow suit. A member with high initiative and leadership skills may cause others to dawdle and loaf. A team without a clear sense of goals, objectives, and individual responsibilities flails and produces little at all.

Solutions to Social Loafing

Now that we know about social loafing and what causes it, let’s discuss some ways to reduce this phenomenon in the workplace. Whether you’re a member of a team, or overseeing a project, your experience of social loafing and how to remedy it will be a little different, so we’ll look at solutions from each perspective.

Solutions for Givers and Receivers

Did you ever get stuck with a group of loafers in college, and find yourself madly typing an abstract or bibliography at 4 am, while everyone else binged on pizza and beer?

Not a trauma that bears repeating!

We’ve all had our fair share of being on the receiving end of loafing, where no one else assumes ownership, and we have to tie up the loose ends ourselves.

In the interest of balancing your work load and building good social capital, social loafing is something you certainly want to keep in check in the work environment. On both the receiving and giving end, there are definitely things you can do to minimize it.

  • Bystander Effect

The funny thing about social loafing is that oftentimes people don’t even realize they’re engaging in it.

Have you ever heard of the bystander effect? It’s another social phenomenon (we’ll be discussing several of these!) where if someone has a health emergency in public, the people mingling around don’t immediately step in to offer assistance.

Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence, calls this “witness apathy”. It is caused, he says, not because people are unwilling to help, but simply because they’re uncertain what to do in the situation.

Social loafing, in part, occurs for the same reason. People don’t give their all simply because they’re hesitant to take initiative, or not sure what tasks should be done by whom. Back to the potluck example: people may show up with a bag of chips because they’re uncertain what to bring.

How does Cialdini suggest a victim of the bystander effect should respond? If you’re, say, having a stroke in public, he advises you to “call out clearly your need for assistance….isolate one individual from the crowds and say ‘You, sir, I need help. Call an ambulance.’”

Studies on the bystander effect show that this singled out person almost always responds immediately.

This method to remedy bystander effect also works to reduce social loafing. If you’re doing the lion’s share of a project at work, ask that duties be specifically assigned to individual members.
Chances are, your coworkers are behaving like a bystander: happy to help, just in need of clarity about what to do.

  • Social Capital Incentive

As previously discussed, we all engage in social loafing from time to time. Perhaps we’re unenthusiastic about a project or don’t gel with the personalities on the team.

Although we may not see it in the short term, we pay a price for not carrying our full load.

Many business experts believe that building social capital is more crucial for career success than skill or productivity.

What is social capital? Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak, authors of In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work, define it as:

“The stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviors that bind members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible.”

Team environments provide fertile ground for building this network and trust. When businesses look to promote or hire, they want someone who interacts well with others. This is particularly true of careers such as real estate or public relations, where communication and personal relationships are key.

This is to say, you have a real incentive to build up good social capital in your workplace. If you’re not feeling it with a project, find clarity around exactly what your role is. Using metrics to define your tasks will give you the focus you need to see the project through.

Solutions for Bosses and Project Managers

If you’re a boss or project manager, you’re in a key position to monitor and reduce social loafing.

Here are a few specific areas that will foster a productive work environment.

  • Social Facilitation

Did you ever find that when your grandparents came to watch your little league games, you were suddenly able to knock it out of the park?

This is an example of (yet another) social phenomenon called social facilitation. It’s the idea that performance improves by the presence or perceived presence of others.

In the workplace, you can maximize the effects of social facilitation in three key ways.

1. Highlight Accomplishments

Acknowledging jobs well done and milestones reached goes a long way toward boosting employee productivity. Some effective ways to pat employees on the back include recognition at weekly meetings, personal lunches out with the boss, and monetary incentives and prizes.

2. Visualize Tasks

Make sure everyone, collectively, sees the work that needs to be done, and who is expected to do it. This can be as simple as creating a bubble chart that lists tasks, with employees assigned to each. When everyone knows whose job it is to do what, there really is no place to hide!

3. Solicit Feedback

Provide opportunities for employees to give feedback on their experience working with a team. To ensure the feedback is honest and constructive, make it anonymous.

Note that one key aspect of social facilitation is that improved performance occurs only when the audience is supportive, not critical. Additionally, the tasks need to be reasonable and within a person’s skill range. If they’re too challenging, it causes discouragement and productivity declines.

  • Goals with Metrics

If a team doesn’t know where the finish line is, chances are they’re never going to cross it. Establishing clear goals and objectives ensures everyone works efficiently and diligently towards the same end.

When creating goals, meet these three criteria:

– Make the goal quantifiable
– Make it very specific
– Make it challenging

For example, a quarterly goal to improve online advertising could be broken down into:

– Start newsletter and grow list to 100.
– Create weekly Google ads and test metrics for specific keywords.
– Guest post on five industry-related blogs.
– Post to all social media accounts 3 times a week.

With metrics, employees know the precise bar that needs to be reached. By making the goal challenging, everyone will feel pressured and motivated to get on board.

  • Communication and Coordination

There really is an art to being a manager; you need to know the task at hand, the skill sets of your employees, and what skills are needed when and where. Plus, you need to know group dynamics.
While there’s no simple way to finesse all of this, communication and coordination are key to maximizing the potential of your team.

As discussed earlier, putting three brilliant musicians together doesn’t necessarily create a killer rock band. Here are three ways to coordinate skills and personality dynamics for maximum productivity:

– Delineate the skills required to complete each task, and the person best suited to complete them.
– Map out the project’s timeline to efficiently use everyone on the team.
– Clearly assign tasks to ensure one or two eager beavers don’t assume all the work.

The need for certain skills will ebb and flow as the project progresses. You probably won’t need everyone working at full steam, 100% of the time. This is in fact a recipe for burnout!

It’s important to communicate major deadlines so everyone knows when heavy lifting is required. Likewise, give employees permission to loaf during lighter weeks. If everyone knows what is expected of them and when, it undercuts animosity within the team.

  • Social Capital

Cialidni pointed out that the bystander effect is strongest in large cities where social bonds are weak. In the same way, when people feel weak social bonds within a work environment or team, they’re less likely to take initiative.

In order to foster a sense of responsibility within a team, then, it’s crucial to build social capital within your business.

One way to build social capital is by having employees spend time together outside of work–say meeting for weekly “Attitude Adjustment” happy hours.

Within the work environment, strengthen relationships by having employees work interdependently. Structure tasks so people interact with each other daily.

When they like who they’re working with, employees want to give 100%.

As Old as Sliced Bread

Q: What did one loaf of bread say to the other?

A: The boss is coming; we butter look busy or we’ll be toast!

Ho, ho. The moral of this post is: save the slacking for Saturday. As we can see, social loafing is something we encounter everywhere we go.

Whether you’re overseeing a project or working on a team, understanding the phenomenon of social loafing—and how to remedy it—goes a long way toward improving productivity and overall well-being in the workplace.

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