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Social Loafing: What Is It & How to Prevent It?

Teamwork is a crucial part of the overall performance of a business. However, not every team can work together efficiently.

In reality, the ugly truth of teamwork happens all the time: certain members have to bear the responsibilities of the rest of the team. Those who belong to the rest think that if they don’t do it, somebody else would. Since it’s not an individual assignment, they don’t feel the need to be accountable.

This psychological phenomenon is called Social Loafing and it is one of the most popular downsides of teamwork. Imagine when social loafing becomes extreme—no one bothers to complete team tasks anymore.

So… Social loafing, what does it mean, what causes it and how to prevent it? Let’s dive right in to find out the answers!

What is social loafing?

Social Loafing is when employees make fewer contributions when working in a group compared to when working by themselves. In other words, they feel the need to do the work only when they’re solely charged with the responsibility.

Social Loafing is a psychological phenomenon that causes reduced productivity, low employee engagement, and business performance.  

Maximilien Ringelmann, a French engineer, investigated Social Loafing through the research called Rope pulling experiments. In this research, he had male participants pull a rope, individually or in groups of 7-14 people.

He discovered that, as the group size increased, the average force exerted per individual started to decrease. This means that the smaller groups put in more effort. The participants reduced their effort when working in a bigger group because there are now more people to rely on. This was when Social Loafing happened. 

Many sources call social loafing by other names: “sucker effect”, “free-rider effect” or even the “Ringelmann effect”. Others believe that the “sucker”, meaning the responsible one, will do all the work while the rest can get off as the “free-rider”, sit back and enjoy the result they didn’t work for.  

What causes social loafing?

Many studies suggest that social loafing happens because the division in responsibility reduces the pressure on each member. That’s why a bigger group size leads to less contribution from each individual. 

Another cause that can be mentioned is the low motivation when participating in a group. Some employees prefer to work alone rather than being put in a group without any good reasons. This level of low motivation results in social loafing and low-level performance.

Social loafing can also happen if team members feel like their contribution doesn’t matter to the overall performance. When working in a group, the amount of work assigned for each member sometimes doesn’t match ones’ skills and expectations. This is mostly because of unclear and ineffective communication.

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The negative effects of social loafing

Social loafing not only creates negative impacts on the productivity of the group but also on the productivity of the whole company. Below are some of its negative effects:

Creates negativity and tension

The attitude of the social loafers spread negativity in the whole group. Some will start to follow them, while others who have to do all the work will get frustrated.

Tension will start to appear in the group since now each individual is comparing their workload instead of putting in their effort. This would definitely bring out the worst results!

Weakens team spirit

Social loafing is, for sure, not going to uplift the team spirit. When a few members become so lazy and irresponsible that they make little to no contribution, the whole team will feel demotivated. This creates a loss of unity and breaks the team spirit.

Wastes resources

If you put too many people into a group, you’re wasting labor resources, everyone’s time and productivity. Human resources involve many other costs, and social loafers create no value to cover up those costs.

5 ways to prevent social loafing from happening in your team

We’ve come to the final and most important question of how to eliminate this effect. Let’s take a closer look at the following 5 solutions:

1. Limit the size of the team

A small team usually works better than a bigger team of more than 10 people. You should form teams with a limited number of members.

Working in a small group helps employees update and discuss the information more effectively. It’s also much easier to lead small teams. The leader can observe each member’s performance and assign tasks appropriately.

In fact, when working in a smaller team, employees can’t really pass the buck to anyone else. They have to keep the buck and get their tasks done.

2. Encourage open communication

Team members should have a chance to interact with their leader and give their opinion on the assigned tasks in the group. So to make that happen, you must have an open communication system that allows your employees to be comfortable enough to raise their voices. This would help your employees be more productive since they feel like their ideas matter and that they can get to do what they love. 

Each individual has a different set of skills and preferences to match with different kinds of tasks. If they’re made to do a job without any discussion, they would feel like they’re being forced and eventually demotivated to do it.

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3. Specify each individual’s responsibility

When breaking down a big project into smaller tasks, you need to specify clearly who’s responsible for what. This helps your teammates understand what their responsibilities are and that they can’t dump their responsibilities on anyone else.

4. Carry out monthly individual performance evaluation

Monthly individual performance evaluations allow you to take a closer look at each employee’s performance. You can first evaluate them through observation and feedback from other team members.

Turn this into a monthly routine in your company. You can also create a reward system in which the best team player of the month gets an interesting prize. This will not only create healthy competition but also engage and motivate employees.

5. Empower your employees – let them make the decision

If every tiny decision has to go through management or leader approval, then you should consider changing it. This unnecessary procedure will only make your employees become passive in the simplest situations. As they’re afraid to make mistakes and get reprimanded, they would just simply do nothing.

However, if you allow your employees to make certain decisions on their own, they would be more proactive. As they get to decide what they could do to solve any problems occurring, they would naturally want to contribute more. And more contribution means there is no place for social loafing!

Prevent and get rid of social loafing before it’s too late!

Social loafing can be easily identified if you take your time to notice. Identifying social loafing timely and prevent it can help you make suitable changes and improve employee engagement in teamwork before any critical issues happen.

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