When you think about the last time you did a group project, what comes to mind?

For many people — especially high achievers — group work always brings to mind the image of the slacker.

Turns out, there’s a reason for this phenomenon. It’s called social loafing.

Social loafing impacts everything from work teams to elementary school group projects to even tug-of-war competitions.

In this article, we’ll dive into the causes and psychology behind social loafing and how you can overcome this problem on your team.

What is social loafing?

Social loafing, sometimes called the Ringelmann effect, is the idea that people put in less effort when they’re in a group setting or when their individual contribution to the goal isn’t apparent.

One effect of social loafing is that as the group size or team size on a project increases, individual contributions to the work decrease. The illustration below demonstrates this idea more fully.

three illustrations showing people pulling on a rock. When one person is pulling, they exert 100% effort. When two people pull, they exert 93% effort each. With a team of three, they exert 85% effort each.

(Image Source)

To give you a better sense of what social loafing looks like in practice, let’s look at some examples. We’ll start with the original example of social loafing: Max Ringelmann’s rope pulling experiment.

In the 1890s, Ringelmann, an agricultural engineer and founder of social psychology, asked groups of people to pull on a rope both individually and in groups. He then measured the force with which they pulled the rope.

Ringelmann’s results found that individual performance deteriorated as the group size increased.

bar graph showing effort exerted on the y-axis and number of participants on the y-axis. As the number of participants increased, the proportion of effort exerted decreased

(Image Source)

Later on, other social psychologists repeated Ringelmann’s experiments with the same results. They also used other scenarios and methods to further support social loafing as a phenomenon.

Because effort drops only slightly as the team grows, social loafing occurs frequently and can be difficult to identify and address. But recent employee engagement data shows us that social loafing is likely to be a problem in nearly every workplace.

Unsurprisingly, social loafing happens when team members are feeling that they aren’t actively engaged or expected to carry their full weight.

By digging into the psychology behind social loafing and other contributing factors, we can understand what tactics to use to reduce social loafing and help prevent employees who engage in social loafing.

 

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The psychology of social loafing

The core of social loafing is the assumption that not as much effort is needed from an individual because there are more contributors to the project.

In a workplace however, each participant needs to contribute their unique skills and insights to make the most impact and best group performance.

People become social loafers for one or more of these reasons:

  • They assume other members of the group will pick up the slack
  • They believe other team members want to do more of the work at hand
  • They believe other team members are better suited for the work at hand

As we will see in the next section, it’s easy to fall into these social loafing beliefs when your team lacks transparency or accountability.

Causes of social loafing

It might seem like social loafing is inevitable, given its psychological basis. But in a workplace, there are several root causes of social loafing behavior that you can identify and address.

Let’s take a look at some of the main causes of social loafing.

  • Unclear expectations and responsibilities: If no one on a team is sure what they’re supposed to be doing, there’s no way to know if someone is not doing what they’re supposed to. Without specific tasks and a group goal, it becomes much easier for social loafing to infiltrate your team.
  • Lack of visibility: Large teams may struggle with workers feeling as though they’re unseen and unheard. And an employee who doesn’t feel seen by their manager or team will find it easy to put forth less individual effort, especially if there’s no one holding them accountable.
  • Inequal or biased distribution of work: Some teams have a couple of high performers who seem immune to the social loafing tendency. On these teams, everyone might come to expect or depend on the high performers to do the majority of the work. This is dangerous because it can also breed resentment among the team members.
  • Lack of consequences or follow-through: even as you start to address social loafing on your team, you might find it hard to break the habits if you’re hesitant to introduce consequences.

Later, we will explain how to address these entry points for social loafing.

What are some examples of social loafing?

The social loafing effect can play out differently depending on your group size, team performance, and other dynamics.

Here are a few other examples of social loafing:

  • A software developer asks a colleague for help fixing a bug because the colleague is highly skilled in this type of code. The colleague ends up doing the bulk of the work.
  • In a team meeting, no one volunteers to take notes or send around a summary because they assume the same 2 people will always do it.
  • An analyst waits until the last minute to pull data for a report. They ask a much faster data analyst to pull the data for them due to time constraints.

In these examples, you can see how the social loafer falls short in their responsibilities, leaving another team member to pick up the slack. Not to mention that compared to social loafers, engaged employees are 18% more productive and 23% more profitable—so it’s worthwhile to nip it in the bud.

7 ways to reduce social loafing on your team

Reducing social loafing is the first step in reaping the benefits of a highly engaged team. Let’s take a closer look at how you can use monday.com Work OS to mitigate or resolve this problem on your team.

1. Implement a team task manager

A lack of transparency and accountability are huge contributors to the problem of social loafing.

With a team task manager, you can solve both problems at once.

You can build a custom task management tool on monday.com to provide exactly the controls and processes you need. Individual tasks can have:

  • Owners or assignees
  • Deadlines and/or start dates
  • Instructions, files, or other important information
  • Communication fields for tracking updates

Here’s a sample view of a team task manager built on monday.com:

monday.com team task manager template

Right away, a task manager provides clarity into who is responsible for what.

With analytics and reporting tools included, you can also gather data on who is completing their tasks and who is not.

Plus, people who use a task management tool are twice as likely to say their communication and efficiency are excellent compared to those who don’t.

2. Develop smaller teams

It’s easier to loaf in large groups where you feel anonymous than in small groups where your individual contribution is more apparent.

If you have a large, sprawling group, you can mitigate social loafing by dividing them into smaller, more focused teams.

When a smaller group or taskforce works on a task or project, it’s more obvious who is contributing and who isn’t. It’s harder to avoid pulling your weight and it fosters accountability and pride.

3. Meet regularly with your reports

As a manager, you can mitigate social loafing by meeting regularly with each team member and holding them accountable for their work.

Not only does this help employees feel seen by management, which motivates them to contribute more, but it also helps build rapport and trust. This sense of belonging and personal investment goes a long way toward the overall success of the team.

With remote and hybrid teams continuing to become more prevalent, regular one-on-ones have become a bit more challenging. With monday.com, you can integrate your preferred communications tools right into your task manager or workspace, helping everyone stay on the same page.

monday.com integration options for outlook, MS Team, Dropbox, and Slack

This kind of personal attention has a huge impact on employee engagement. Employees who received daily feedback from their manager were 3 times more likely to be engaged than those who received feedback once a year or less.

4. Recognize individuals for their accomplishments

We all appreciate recognition or thanks for the work we’ve done, even when it’s part of our job.

So when employees get no acknowledgment or recognition for their work, it becomes very tempting to slack off and stop contributing to the team. From their point of view, no one cares if they do their work, so why bother?

Even simple acts of recognition can go a long way to eliminate social loafing. Try some of these ideas:

  • Give shout outs to top performers in your daily or weekly meetings
  • Send personal emails thanking employees who have produced excellent work
  • Advocate for your employees to get perks or raises

5. Follow through on consequences

Chronic social loafers will eventually need to be held accountable for their work — or lack thereof.

After a few weeks or months of implementing your new practices, such as the task manager, start having clear conversations with employees who still aren’t pulling their weight.

Outline what is expected of them and what will happen if they can’t follow through. If nothing changes, you’ll need to implement the consequences you’ve already outlined.

6. Emphasize the importance of your work

Employees want to feel invested in their work. They want to know that it is important to the team, business, or community in some way.

As a manager, you can highlight the impact of your work by being transparent about your results and accomplishments. Use monday.com to collect data about your team’s contributions, and display it in a dashboard that your whole team can access.

monday.com dashboard template

When you can, try to draw a straight line between work your team has done and big wins for the company. As your team feels part of something larger, they’ll be less tempted to loaf.

7. Build a strong team culture

You can work on building a team culture that improves morale and productivity. This is a long-term investment, but it’s one that will pay off for your team long into the future.

Bring accountability to your team

Social loafing can have a huge impact on your team’s productivity and morale. When there’s a lack of transparency and accountability, it’s easy for work to deteriorate over time.

To mitigate this problem, use monday.com’s task management and collaboration tools and features to engage your employees and hold them accountable.

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