Stop Social Loafing: 6 Ways to Get Everyone Working

How come 1+1+1 does not equal 3?

You would think that the more people on a project, the greater the output.  Sadly, that’s not always the case.  A phenomenon called Social Loafing leads some team members to do the minimum possible.  They drag down group productivity like a boat anchor.

Today we’ll look at why social loafing happens, and six ways you can be sure to get the best effort from everyone.

Stop Social Loafing - 6 Ways to Get Everyone Working

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Here, Pull this Rope

What’s the most efficient source of power: horses, oxen, men, or machines?  That’s the question that French professor of agricultural engineering Max Ringleman was trying to figure out back in the 1880s.  In the midst of his research, he made a surprising discovery about how people work as part of a group.

During the human phase of his experiments, he gave his subjects a rope and ask them to pull as hard as they could for about five seconds.  As they pulled, he measured the maximum force they were able to exert.

He started with individuals pulling one at a time, then as groups of seven, and finally, as groups of 14.  Even allowing for plenty of rest between efforts, his data revealed an astonishing fact.

Individuals pulling on the rope worked much harder than they did when part of a group.  In fact, the bigger the group, the lower the individual effort.

The larger the group, the greater the tendency to slack off. Click To Tweet

Ringleman initially thought the difference in effort was due to poor coordination among the pullers, but later experiments ruled this out.  They found that motivation was the primary reason.

Social Loafing: Reasons to Coast

Social loafing is the tendency for people to exert less effort when they are part of a group than when they are by themselves.  You’ve probably witnessed this yourself.  Whether it’s those dreaded group projects in school, or watching a construction crew by the side of the road, some people just don’t seem to be giving it their full effort.

Why does this happen?  There are lots of possible reasons.

Group size.  The more people in the group, the easier it is to hide and let others do the work.

Goal Achievability.  Those who believe the group’s goal is impossible to achieve are more likely to slack off; they think effort is futile.

Goal Value.  Even if the goal can be attained, if they don’t believe achieving it will be meaningful, they are more likely to go easy.

Goal Low-balling.  If the goal appears relatively easy to achieve and only requires a minimal amount of work from group members, that’s just what they’ll do.

Skill differential.  Group members who believe they aren’t as skilled as their teammates are more likely to let others do the work.  They think that they don’t have the ability to contribute meaningfully.

The Sucker Effect.  When people begin to feel that others are slacking off, they try not to get stuck “holding the bag” themselves.  In the effort to avoid becoming the “sucker,” overall group output goes down.

Getting Them Off the Couch

If you want to make sure that the teams you build don’t start a competition for “who’s the best at doing the least,” try these ideas.

Keep it small.  The smaller the number of people on any team, the harder it is to hide.  Smaller numbers also make it more likely people will believe that what they do will matter.

Establish accountability.  When you ensure that every group member has clear responsibilities and tasks to accomplish as part of the overall effort, they are more likely to feel valued and motivated to do their part for the team. Accountability is key.

Set clear, challenging goals.  Objectives for the group should challenge their ability to accomplish them.  Clear objectives that are specific, quantifiable, and easy to measure will help ensure accountability, encourage progress, and improve commitment to the group.

Match the skills.  When you put the teams together, focus on getting the people with the right skills.  This way each will see how they can meaningfully contribute to the overall effort.

Build in a feedback loop.  Potential “loafers” will be more likely to contribute if they believe that they will be found out.  There are several ways you can incorporate feedback, whether it is to have each member present the results of their work at intervals, conduct regular feedback sessions, or even having group members participate in a peer evaluation process.

Peers may be in a good position to assess who's pulling their weight. Click To Tweet

Develop team cohesion.  People who feel a personal loyalty and connection with their group are much less likely to slack off.  As the strength of group identity increases, so will the desire to be a productive part of it.

Social Loafing – The Takeaway

If you read my recent post about Social Facilitation, you know that people will work harder when someone is nearby and they think they might be under the spotlight.

But the opposite is also true.  In larger groups with weak accountability systems some people will be tempted to loaf.

Max Ringleman was surprised to find that one plus one plus one didn’t necessarily equal three when it came to people and teamwork.

But with a little forethought and preparation, we can set the conditions to help everyone give their best efforts for the team.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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