‘Social loafing’ — the psychological phenomenon that’s ruining your team’s productivity

No, it’s not some kind of group, bread-based activity — although that does sound fun. ‘Social loafing’ is actually a psychological phenomenon that sends team productivity plummeting.

Let’s say you’re working on a project. You come into work all fired up, make a coffee, and settle down in front of your computer. Then you notice your teammates sitting around chatting about what they saw on TV last night. And they carry on chatting for the next hour while you’re working away like a chump. Chances are, you’ll start taking it easy too. After all, why should you have to do all the work while they just goof off?

Another example. You receive a group email from someone asking for help with something, like replacing the printer ink or providing feedback on a project. You take note and then proceed to let it gather dust in your inbox. Why? Because you assume one of the other email recipients will help sort it out.

This is social loafing in action, and while small, isolated instances of it won’t hurt productivity, a long-term, company-wide culture of it can really cause serious issues.

Lessons learned from a century of social loafing

Social loafing isn’t just an office phenomenon. The term was actually born in 1913 when French agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann conducted an experiment. He asked participants to pull on a rope both individually and in groups, and he discovered that people exert way less effort per person when working as a group.

Other social loafing experiments have been conducted over the years, all with slightly more detailed variations of the same outcome. Here’s what the science folks have discovered:

  • Individuals try less when working as a group.
    Accountability is diminished. If the team fails, the individual isn’t entirely responsible, so they don’t try as hard. In other words, if your team project goes downhill, no one can pin the demise entirely on you. Similarly, if your team has a big win, you don’t receive as much individual praise.
  • The larger the group, the higher the chances of social loafing.
    Many hands make light work. Or so the loafer believes. Loafing increases when individuals feel their efforts are less linked to the outcome.
  • People are more likely to loaf when their co-workers are expected to perform well.
    When individuals believe that the outcome will be good with or without their input, their contributions don’t feel very important. So, they do less.
  • Loafing likelihood skyrockets when motivation is low.
    This happens when the group has poorly defined goals, the manager is a loafer themselves, or a micromanager doesn’t give individuals agency (and therefore, accountability).
  • Loafing increases if individuals think the others in the group are less motivated or skillful than themselves.
    This loafer sees the rest of the group as freeloaders who will rely on their good work. So rather than feel like a sucker, they loaf.

How to banish the loaf for good

As you’ve probably gathered, social loafing isn’t great for productivity. So how do you make your workplace a loaf-free zone?

There are loads of factors that influence team performance. A lack of commitment from managers, plus an inconsistent or underdeveloped reward and support system all have a negative impact. Counteract this by creating smaller groups and establishing individual goals, which will boost feelings of accountability and help individuals feel more engaged, not to mention more valuable.

You could go one step further and publicize individual achievements within the team. Although there’s a fine line here: doing this too much could push people the other way and undermine cohesiveness. Striking a balance is up to you, and could well be a trial and error process.

People also approach tasks differently depending on who they’re working with. Researchers have discovered that loafing actually decreases when people work with acquaintances.

When strangers are put in a group together, they’re all thinking about themselves. When people work with acquaintances, they begin thinking about the other members of the group and become more concerned with not letting people down.

This doesn’t mean you’ll only have a loaf-free group when you put office pals together. If you’re a team leader, there are ways you can make group members feel more connected.

Ever heard of the Robber’s Cave Experiment? It’s basically a (slightly controversial) experiment conducted in 1954 that showed that people bond far more quickly when working on a task cooperatively, as opposed to just doing fun activities together. It’s why team building exercises are so effective; they help establish those connections early on. You can see a version of this in action in Heneken’s 2017 viral ad, Worlds Apart.

Your anti-loaf checklist (for team leaders and individuals)

  • Work in smaller groups. There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about the most effective team size, but it generally sits in the 5-9 range.
  • Do a teambuilding exercise. Establish meaningful connections between team members, and you’ll boost group mentality.
  • Establish trust. Give individuals autonomy and empower them to make — and own — their decisions. People like to feel trusted and responsible; it’s motivating to feel valued.
  • Establish individual goals, either as a manager or as a team member. Taking ownership for specific tasks gives the individual direction and accountability.
  • Communicate with your team. Even if you don’t fix a problem or do a task yourself, just telling someone about it is better than doing nothing at all. This could be as simple as pinging someone a quick note on your work chat app or setting up a group chat specifically dedicated to reporting issues or bugs.

Final thoughts

Obviously, you can’t fix everything. Sometimes, someone else really is the better person for the job. And It’s not always appropriate to drop what you’re doing and do whatever task it is that’s caught your eye.

The trick is to be aware of social loafing tendencies and make a concerted effort to actively make a decision, whether that’s to fix the issue, refer it to someone else, or just let someone else know about it via IM.

And if you’re a manager, be aware of social loafing within your team. Set clear, accountable goals, give feedback, and establish a culture of trust. Then everyone can have the occasional TV chat and coffee break without causing havoc.

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