Social loafing in the workplace is more common than many realise.
At its core, social loafing is when individuals exert less effort when they are part of a group compared to when they work alone and can impact team dynamics significantly.
For managers striving to optimise team performance, it’s a topic frequently highlighted in management training. This guide is created to offer a clear insight, equipping managers with the knowledge to identify and tackle this subtle but pervasive phenomenon.
Social loafing occurs when one person puts forth less effort than others because they’re being judged as a group.
Social loafing is typically described as a form of slacking off. It often occurs in group projects in school and carries over into the workplace among adults. The social loafer in the group will do less, assuming that others will carry the extra weight.
When you first learn the basic social loafing psychology definition, it’s easy to write social loafers off as lazy or careless. There are often more dynamics at play, though.
Looking more closely at the social loafing psychology definition, this phenomenon is a bit more complex than it may initially seem. Also known as the Ringelmann Effect, social loafing is a psychological phenomenon that limits the amount of effort each member of a group puts in – which, in turn, reduces individual productivity.
Research into social loafing began in the late 19th and early 20th century with Max Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer. Ringelmann was curious about helping agricultural workers maximise their productivity. He found that groups typically outperform individuals, but they don’t perform as well as they could if every individual member worked at their maximum capacity.
To test his theory, Ringelmann instructed subjects to pull a rope attached to a pressure gauge. He noted that when the number of people pulling increased, people would perform further below their pulling potential.
For example, two individuals who could pull 100 units individually only pulled 186 units together rather than 200.
Researchers replicated the Ringelmann experiment decades later, in 1974, and found similar results.
Several issues contribute to social loafing, whether it’s taking place among agricultural workers or office workers.
The following are some of the most frequently cited causes:
Now that you have a clearer understanding of social loafing’s meaning, let’s talk about its impact in the workplace.
Social loafing at work can create a range of issues for individual employees and the company as a whole, including the following:
Social loafing in the workplace also, naturally, has a negative impact on teams and team dynamics.
Here are some of the most significant examples:
Why not check out our blog post How To Manage A Conflict Within Your Team for some hints and tips on.
Social loafing is not always easy to spot immediately, especially if a group seems to be performing at a high capacity. If you look more closely, though, you will likely notice that one person isn’t contributing as much as everyone else.
Here are some social loafing examples to help you further understand what this phenomenon is and how it can manifest in your workplace:
Some social loafers consistently show up late to meetings or don’t show up altogether. They may also be on time but be unprepared, appear disengaged, or fail to contribute as much as other group members (if at all).
The meeting misser or latecomer might lack motivation, or perhaps they have poor time management skills that cause them to show up late more often than not.
Regardless of their reasoning, though, one team member who is frequently late, skips meetings, or is not engaged can lead to decreased productivity, morale, and overall job quality.
There is some overlap between the invisible employee and the meeting misser.
Invisible employees might be physically present, but they’re not active contributors to the team during meetings, brainstorming sessions, etc. They tend to sit back and observe more than they share insights, offer suggestions, etc.
Sometimes, invisible employees do not feel empowered so fail to speak up out of shyness or insecurity. They might feel that they have nothing to contribute and, therefore, say nothing at all.
These team members can create frustration among their colleagues, who may feel that they’re picking up the invisible employee’s slack.
The freeloader is more open about their lack of engagement and contribution to the group. They do little but enjoy the benefits of their teammates’ labour.
Sometimes, freeloaders behave this way because they don’t feel a sense of accountability or ownership over the project. They might also not fully understand their role or what’s expected of them.
Freeloaders tend to create a lot of frustration and stress among other group members. This frustration and stress, over time, could lead to poor-quality work as well.
The conformist can be harder to spot than some of the other types of social loafers because, at first glance, they seem actively engaged. The problem, though, is that they don’t come up with ideas of their own. Instead, they just agree with whatever their colleagues say and go with the flow.
Sometimes, people conform because they’re afraid to speak up. In other cases, though, they simply don’t want to come up with their own ideas and would rather ride on the backs of others’ thoughts and suggestions.
Conformists might not seem problematic initially. However, if a few team members feel that they’re doing all the intellectual labour and that the conformist isn’t contributing anything new, they may feel frustrated, experience decreased morale, etc.
Bystanders are people who fail to jump in when they see a problem because they assume someone else will take care of it.
In a group setting, a bystanding social loafer might notice that the team is coming up on a deadline or needs additional support, but they don’t do anything with their observation.
Bystanders, naturally, can create a lot of animosity in team settings because they’re aware of challenges but leave them for others to deal with.
Some social loafers are serious procrastinators. It’s easy to assume that they’re acting (or, more accurately, refusing to act) because they’re lazy or don’t care. In some cases, though, the issue is actually that they are highly perfectionistic and are waiting for the exact right moment, situation, idea, etc., before they get started.
Perfectionism isn’t always a positive trait, especially when someone is working in a group setting and has others relying on them to fulfil their part of a project. The procrastinating perfectionist can trigger anxiety among their team members and may cause the group’s overall performance to suffer.
In some cases, a social loafer is aware that they’re not contributing and simply doesn’t care. They think they’re above the project and can’t be bothered to step in and help their teammates.
The “too cool” social loafer is often one of the most toxic and problematic social loafers because they aren’t driven by a sense of perfectionism, insecurity, etc. It’s challenging to convince someone that they should care when they don’t, and the whole team’s performance and productivity might suffer as a result.
The sooner you spot and address social loafing, the better off your employees and your company will be. Be on the lookout for the examples of social loafing discussed in the previous section.
It also helps to take a macro view and look at teams and the business as a whole to identify indicators of social loafing.
For example, some of the most common warning signs of social loafing include diminished team performance, an increase in stress and burnout, and a loss of high-performing talent. If your company is experiencing higher turnover rates than usual, if you’re lacking progress toward specific goals, or if your employees seem to be experiencing more animosity toward each other, it’s possible a social loafer is in your midst.
Once you’ve identified a social loafer, it’s critical that you combat the problem before it has a chance to escalate. Here are some suggestions for how you can address social loafing effectively:
A good place to start when addressing social loafing is for the team leader (or another appointed team member) to sit down privately with the social loafer.
During this one-on-one meeting, the leader can ask open-ended, thoughtful questions and get to the bottom of why the social loafer is not pulling their weight.
As a result of this discussion, they might find that the person doesn’t understand the tasks they’ve been assigned to complete or that they feel insecure in their role.
After the leader understands where the loafer is coming from, the two can work together to create a solution that benefits the group and the individual.
In some cases, it can also be helpful to have a group discussion with the social loafer. Each member can express how they’re feeling and what they’ve observed from the loafer, and the loafer can explain why they have or haven’t been acting in a specific way.
It’s important to come to these discussions with a goal of collaboration and problem-solving instead of attacking the individual loafer and making them feel defensive. Team members should avoid attacking one person and stay focused on the group’s long-term goals and objectives.
During a group meeting, the team members can also work together to revise the group contract and re-clarify each team member’s roles. Sometimes, this is all that’s needed to combat social loafing and get everyone back on track.
While reworking the group contract, the team leader should leave room for everyone to ask questions and clarify their roles and responsibilities.
If a one-on-one or group meeting doesn’t seem to fix the problem of social loafing, it might be time to get a superior involved. Bringing the problem to a manager or supervisor may help to show the social loafer the severity of the issue and give them the extra push they need to start contributing equally to the project.
Before addressing a manager or another higher-up, it helps for the group to compile sufficient documentation explaining how the social loafer is affecting the team’s progress and performance. This documentation can help to clarify the severity of the issue and get the supervisor up to speed before they try to address the problem.
Removing someone from a group (and reassigning them to a new team or firing them altogether) should be a last resort — and typically reserved for those who simply feel that they are “too cool” or above the project everyone else is working on.
Other types of social loafing can likely be addressed with one-on-one or group meetings, clarification of roles and responsibilities, etc. If someone makes it clear they don’t want to contribute and aren’t willing to change, though, they may need to be removed for the team and company’s sake.
Understanding the social loafing definition and what it looks like are the first steps toward reducing it. There are other practices you can utilise, though, including these helpful strategies on how to minimise social loafing:
A lack of clarity can contribute to many social loafing behaviours. In many cases, the issue isn’t that people don’t want to contribute but that they don’t know how or what’s expected of them.
By assigning specific tasks and including critical information like due dates in the initial assignment, leaders can ensure everyone knows what their responsibilities are, when they need to complete specific duties, etc.
Sometimes, if a group is too large, social loafers may be more likely to appear because they get lost in the shuffle. For those who are hesitant to speak up (such as people who fall into the “invisible employee” or “bystander” category), it’s even harder to do so around a lot of people.
To prevent this issue, it may help to create subgroups and appoint a leader for each subgroup who reports to the primary team leader. Dividing people up this way can make it easier for people to share their thoughts, address potential problems, and make plans for the future.
Some people require more supervision and accountability than others. If you notice warning signs of social loafing, you may want to be a little more hands-on when it comes to overseeing team members, tracking their progress, etc.
More supervision can also help you to identify other potential problems, such as a lack of clarity regarding specific tasks and responsibilities, and deal with them sooner instead of waiting until they get worse.
To prevent frustration and diminished morale even in the midst of a social loafing issue, make sure you’re taking the time to recognise individual team members and their contributions.
When people feel seen and appreciated, they’re more likely to stay the course and continue doing good work. Providing more recognition may also motivate social loafers and give them the push they need to be more involved.
Many team projects involve assigning tasks to individual members, sending everyone off on their own to complete those tasks, and then reconvening to discuss progress.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it may encourage social loafing among some team members. Encouraging cooperative work, where people work on tasks together instead of independently, can help to discourage social loafing and create a greater sense of accountability.
Do your best to foster an environment in which people feel comfortable asking questions, expressing concerns and frustrations, talking about their successes and failures, etc. When you encourage an open communication style, you can prevent certain types of social loafing, such as being an invisible employee or conformist.
Don’t wait until a problem arises to schedule a one-on-one meeting with a team member.
Regular one-on-one meetings and check-ins give you a chance to review each team member’s work, make sure they’re staying on schedule, and answer any questions they might have. Periodic meetings also help to prevent serious problems and give you a chance to catch and address issues sooner.
Sometimes, people are less inclined to social loaf when they know they’re going to be evaluated and reviewed by their teammates.
Consider creating a rubric for team members to score each other at the end of a project and share it with each employee. This review process creates a sense of accountability and also gives you valuable information that you can keep in mind when assigning tasks and building teams for future projects.
In addition to asking team members to review each other, it also helps to leave space for individual team members to self-reflect and review themselves. These kinds of activities give employees a chance to identify their strengths and weaknesses and set personal goals to make more progress, be better team players, etc.
Sometimes, social loafing results because team members don’t know each other well or feel a significant sense of trust in each other. Organising team-building exercises allows everyone to feel more comfortable speaking up, asking questions, and sharing wins and losses.
Make these activities a regular part of your organisation’s routine so that various groupings of employees can develop trust and work better together.
Social loafing can have severe consequences for your employees and your business overall. Use the guidelines and tips shared above to spot social loafing, address it appropriately, and prevent it from happening in the first place.
Do you need more help supporting your team and encouraging everyone to work as productively as possible?
If so, MTD Training offers numerous resources like our Open Courses accredited with the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) and are CPD Certified (Continuing Professional Development). Check out our upcoming dates and locations by visiting our Open Course Schedule.
Updated on: 29 November, 2023
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