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Social loafing: What is it, and how can you prevent it on your team?

Social loafing: What is it, and how can you prevent it on your team?

If you’ve ever worked as part of a team, you’re probably familiar with the concept of social loafing. Managers should be aware that if teams exist within your workplace, there’s a good chance social loafing exists too – and if you want your teams to work together effectively, it’s important to know what social loafing looks like and how you can best prevent it.

Most managers will know that teams don’t always work together as well as they should. While there can be many reasons for this, social loafing is a common culprit, and it can have an extremely detrimental effect on individual productivity, engagement and overall business performance.

What is social loafing?

Social loafing is essentially the idea that people put in less effort when they’re working as part of a team than by themselves – and there are many different ways it can apply in the workplace.

If you’re in video chat with 100 other people, you might feel comfortable enough to zone out, turn your camera off, or leave the room. That’s social loafing. Sitting silently in a brainstorming meeting and letting other people suggest all the ideas is also social loafing. Ultimately, if your performance or productivity is reduced because you know other people are also responsible, it’s social loafing.

The origins of social loafing

In order to understand how we can prevent social loafing, it’s helpful to understand a bit more about the phenomenon and its origins.

French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann first described the social loafing phenomenon in 1913. After asking both individuals and groups of people to pull on a rope in a series of tug-of-war experiments, Ringelmann realized that people put in more effort as individuals than as a group – and the larger the group sizes became, the less effort each person put in.

This phenomenon was originally called the Ringelmann effect (although it’s also been referred to as the sucker effect and the free-rider effect). Both these terms focus on the fact that no-one in the group pulled as hard collectively as they did when they pulled alone; people believe they can get a “free-ride” because the “sucker” of the group will do most of the work.

Social loafing has been widely studied, and can manifest in many different ways, some much more serious than others. While social loafing can be pretty innocuous – e.g. someone at work noticing the printer is broken and not fixing it because “someone else will” – it can also have devastating consequences, as evidenced by psychologist Bibb Latané’s research on the murder of Kitty Genovese.

But while Ringelmann’s study is certainly illuminating – and the fact that people feel less personal responsibility when they’re part of a large group is widely accepted – the tug-of-war analogy doesn’t always translate into the modern workplace, where social loafing is often both more complex and more insidious.

So what are some of the main root causes of social loafing in the workplace?

What causes social loafing?

1. Unclear responsibilities

When people aren’t clear on what they’re working on – or the different ways their work is important to their organization – they can’t effectively prioritize or carry out tasks the way they should. This is one of the biggest contributors to burnout, which 71% of workers experienced in 2020. So, it could be that a team member who appears to be social loafing is actually just unsure what they’re supposed to be doing.

2. Unequal workloads

Social loafing often stems from our own biases, where we believe other people don’t work as hard as us, and so become less productive. If a team member believes the workload division among group members is unequal, and other people aren’t pulling their weight, they’ll start reducing their own efforts, which creates a vicious circle of decreasing productivity.

3. No shared visibility into work

If you don't know what your team members are working on, it’s easy to fall into the trap of minimizing the efforts other people are putting in. Having shared visibility into work allows team members to understand precisely who’s doing what, and can reaffirm the fact that it’s a team effort, and everyone is doing their own thing.

4. No project retrospectives

At the end of any project, it’s important for teams to reflect on how everything played out, and look for ways to work together more successfully in the future. When team members don’t have the insights of a project retrospective, they won’t be clear on how they can become more effective as a team.

5. Lack of team spirit

A team can only work together successfully if they’re on the same page, can communicate positively, and have a shared end goal. When there’s no team spirit, or there’s a lack of trust between team members, people tend to prioritize their own personal needs and stakes rather than those of the group.

6. Submaximal goals

When team members have common goals, they may feel they don’t need to work quite as hard to achieve them. Instead of working as hard as they possibly can and trying to maximize the quality of work produced, instead they do just enough to meet what’s expected of them. This can lead to social loafing.

7. Unequal rewards

If people feel like there won’t be an equal distribution of rewards, they will reduce their own efforts accordingly. Perhaps one team member has received all the credit before, or the end goal favorites one team member in particular. If that’s the case, why would everyone put in the same effort if they won’t share the same reward?

8. Lack of evaluation

Social loafing often occurs when there are no individual evaluations during or following the group efforts, and only a focus on the group as a whole. When this happens, team members don’t only become less self-aware, and less able to judge their own performance, they also become less invested in their own contribution to the group project.

The signs of social loafing

So what are some of the main signs of social loafing that managers should be looking out for?

  • Burnout. Signs of overwork, like stress, anxiety and burnout, can indicate social loafing. As we’ve already established, one of the main causes of social loafing is a lack of clarity, which is also one of the main causes of burnout; out of the 71% of workers who reported being burnt out, one in three said it was due to lack of clarity.
  • Dissatisfaction with team members. If an employee starts to reduce their workload, either because they believe others will pick up the slack or because they believe workloads are unequal, their teammates may start to show their frustration. Most people don’t complain right away, so by the time dissatisfaction has become obvious, it’s probably already an issue.
  • Negativity and a cynical attitude towards work. If someone expresses negativity or cynicism towards work, it can be a sign of social loafing. Believing that other people aren’t working as hard as you are can obviously cause resentment, and often these go beyond feeling negative towards individuals, and trickle through to the work itself, and sometimes even the company.

What can I do about social loafing?

So, now we’re clear on what exactly social loafing is and what causes it, what can you actually do to reduce it? Here are some ways in which social loafing can be reduced.

1. Make sure teams are aligned

The first thing managers can do to avoid social loafing is to ensure everyone is aligned with who’s doing what, and by when. Look at each task and ensure the team member who’s responsible for it knows exactly what’s entailed, when the start date and due dates are, and how they can track updates. All team members should be on the same page regarding who’s responsible for what.

2. Match tasks to peoples’ skills and experience

The best teams are made up of diverse team members with different talents and personalities. You’ll get the best out of people if you assign them tasks that match their skills and experiences. Studies show that when the work is personally involving for team members, intrinsic motivation is increased – and when tasks become more meaningful to people, social loafing is reduced.

3. Have open discussions

When you’re speaking with team members about work, make sure you have open discussions rather than giving directives from the top-down, which can be demotivating. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak, and if some people in the group are more reserved, make sure you specifically ask for their opinions. Ensure everyone feels they have a valuable role within the team and are personally connected to the project.

4. Give the team a way to track ongoing tasks

Aside from having clarity about who’s doing what, your team also needs to be able to track the tasks they’re working on in real-time. If people are tracking their work in different tools, you won’t have visibility over what everyone is working on, so make sure work is tracked in one centralized tool.

Automatic tracking tools like Timely can help team members track ongoing processes, projects and tasks.

5. Reduce meetings

Sometimes meetings are essential, but often they’re not, and too many irrelevant, dull meetings can kill a team's enthusiasm. Whether it’s project update meetings, company meetings or departmental meetings, audit which ones are actually effective. If one meeting could be concluded via email, do that next time. If meetings devolve into endless discussions without concrete outcomes, research how you can hold more effective meetings.

6. Help team members block out time for productive work

To feel engaged, team members need to have time for productive work, so help them block out time in their schedules for it. Time blocking involves scheduling your day into units, and allotting a finite portion of time for different tasks. It provides control over workloads, protects space for what’s important, locks focus, and reduces context switching – all of which can help reduce social loafing.

7. Automate routine admin work

Unproductive admin work is draining, unfulfilling, and quickly erodes enthusiasm – but the average knowledge worker spends 60% of their time on it! Automating admin work is one of the best ways to improve employee productivity and free up more time for team members to focus on truly impactful work. From time tracking to meeting scheduling, there are many unproductive tasks you can automate.

8. Simplify your tech stack

Tools are essential for collaboration, especially now so many teams are working remotely – but if you’re using too many it can be overwhelming. Take time to review the tools you use and simplify your tech stack as best you can; remember that if you’re using too many tools, communication and collaboration can become chaotic. Select the simplest tools possible and take time to ensure team members know how to use them.

9. Keep teams small

Studies show it’s easier to social loaf when you feel your contribution goes unnoticed, so keep teams as small as you can. People working in smaller teams feel more visible and valuable, so they’re generally more motivated and put in more effort. This is particularly of note if you want to build cohesive remote teams.

10. Make sure team members have visibility into each other’s work

Work visibility is vital for allowing team members to feel recognized, for informing planning and scheduling, for improving efficiency and profitability, and for protecting against burnout. In teams, it’s also a way to combat the “sucker” effect of social loafing, where one person ends up doing the bulk of the work. Take time to ensure all team members have visibility into each other’s work.

11. Measure individual progress and check in regularly

Ensuring team members feel seen and valued is vital for avoiding social loafing, and one of the best ways to do this is to check in with each team member regularly. This helps team members feel they have a rapport with their manager, allows them to assess their progress and how they can improve, and means they’re able to ask for help and support if they need it.

12. Reward individual contributions to the team

While it’s important for projects to feel like a group effort, rewarding individual contributions by awarding them with benefits like accolades, gift boxes and packages or other monetary incentives to the team can help reduce social loafing. Studies show that team members tend to engage in social loafing when rewards aren’t related to team performance, so do acknowledge individual contributions. Open or close meetings by summarizing both individual and group success, and celebrate small wins.

13. Create a framework

Starting a project without establishing basic rules and goals is a recipe for disaster. We already know that lack of clarity is one of the biggest causes of social loafing, so take time to create a framework and set workflows for the team. Make sure everyone’s on the same page by discussing the consequences of social loafing and how you can address it.

14. Build a feedback culture

Feedback is a key ingredient in the fight against social loafing. Without feedback, team members can’t see where they need to improve, understand the impact they’re having on their organization, and see how far they’re accomplishing their goals. Studies show that when peers give each other feedback, it leads to less social loafing, so take time to Feedback culture.

15. Create personal relationships

Group development theory shows that people approach work differently based on the quality of their relationships with their teammates, so social loafing is less likely when teams are united. Provide opportunities for team members to socialize and build trusting relationships based on reciprocity. The stronger the team spirit, the higher the productivity.

How to prevent social loafing in the first place

If you really want to reduce social loafing, understand that prevention is always better than cure. The best way to prevent social loafing isn’t to focus on how to reduce it, it’s to focus on providing clarity, ensuring teams are aligned, and taking time to support each team member as best you can.

Help team members take ownership over their contribution with a strong shared vision. We’re all battling shifting priorities and lack of time, so employees need to be able to connect their work to company objectives; that way, every team member knows what they’re working on is in step with what everyone else is working on, and how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together to accomplish the main goal.

Managing teams is difficult – and with remote and hybrid work on the rise it can become even more challenging. It’s easy to start social loafing when your team lacks transparency and accountability, but the right project tools can help keep everyone motivated and on track.

Above all, focus on staying connected, providing clarity, and building stronger relationships with your team members; that way you can foster an environment of trust and respect, and move in the same direction as a unified team.

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