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Social Loafing: Monster That Can Ruin Your Team’s Productivity

Updated on April 5, 2023By
Social Loafing

Yes, social loafing, the concept that’s funny as a meme (or a life experience at school or college), is rather frustrating in real life – especially in professional life when you have a lot at stake.

Let’s face it, every group project has seen:

  1. Someone who just shows up.
  2. Someone who has no idea what’s going on.
  3. Someone who offers help but doesn’t come through.
  4. Someone who disappears right at the beginning.
  5. Someone who puts in the work.

For this reason, we will talk about social loafing and how project managers can offset its impact.

What is social loafing?

Social loafing is a perceived phenomenon wherein people curtail their individualistic efforts when they are part of a team. Such loss of productivity stems from the general idea of collective ownership and responsibility.

What is social loafing

All group members often pool their efforts, skills, and resources to achieve a common goal. While doing so, they may believe that withdrawing slightly from the collective efforts would not affect the outcomes as someone else will pick up the slack. 

Hence, the kind of output they would give in a team would be far less than what it would have been in an individual setting.

What are the causes of social loafing?

While there can be different reasons behind social loafing – some existing in combinations – psychologists attribute it to the following primary causes:

1. Lack of motivation

Motivation is the pillar of productivity. A highly motivated team will try to bring its A-game and stay immune to social loafing. All the team members would be dedicated to the task and even motivate slackers to pitch in at all times.

On the other hand, a team or an individual lacking motivation will be more prone to resorting to social loafing, especially in a group.

2. Diffusion of responsibility

Team members who are responsible are less likely to engage in social loafing. Conversely, those who personally feel less responsible for a task would give in to social loafing. As such, it emanates from a mindset wherein the individual feels they have little to no impact on the outcomes.

3. Missing accountability

In addition to responsibility, the lack of accountability is another factor that gives rise to social loafing. When team members are not held individually accountable or answerable for their actions, they are more likely to contribute to the team’s overall performance.

Both responsibility and accountability are metrics of employee engagement, which come to play to cause or prevent social loafing.

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4. Group size

Group size also correlates to the propensity for social loafing. When working in smaller groups, members have clarity of their respective roles. Accordingly, they can deliver to expectations and see for themselves the outcome of their efforts.

At the same time, they will show greater engagement as they are held individually responsible and accountable. Such a mechanism is absent in larger groups. And so, larger groups are more prone to social loafing.

5. Unclear expectations

Sometimes, social loafing could be a symptom of poor management. In such cases, the project manager is unable to clearly define the organizational expectations of every individual and their role in the team.

Such ambiguity causes teams to lose orientation and proceed haphazardly. It results in demotivation and further compounds when the manager is unable to fix responsibility or accountability.

6. Negative perception

Since social loafing is a psychological effect, it can also arise from a negative perception of the team. For instance, if you believe your team will fail (and be vocal about it), it will most likely fail! They may not try to prove otherwise.

On the contrary, every member may feel that failure is expected of them, which will inadvertently amount to social loafing.

Examples of social loafing

Here are a few social loafing examples that illustrate how it works:

1. Ringelmann’s rope-puller

Ringelmann’s rope-pulling experiment was the first to study social loafing. The French engineer asked individuals and teams to pull on ropes and observed the variation in the work done in both.

He noticed that people put in less effort while working in a group than individually. While the first experiment dated way back to 1913, Ringelmann repeated it in 1974 and got the same consistent result!

2. Free-rider and sucker

In the free-rider social loafing example, you may have a team member who has an extremely lackadaisical attitude to work. They fail to pay attention to detail, meet timelines, or simply coast along.

The free-riders also bring the overall morale down as other group members use them as an example to slack off, thereby triggering the sucker effect.

3. The invisible team member

The invisible team member is the one who vanishes right at the beginning of the project and only shows up around the end to take credit for all the work done.

They have nothing tangible to offer, not even their presence or participation, which dilutes group cohesiveness. Apart from demotivating other members, it also results in poor quality of work.

4. The social conformer

Social conforming corresponds to collective social loafing. Here, the team enjoys an overall lax attitude and loose ethics that puts across the message that mediocrity should be the norm.

Such an environment wears out and mellows down even the most motivated, enthusiastic, and energetic performers, as they see no value in going above and beyond. 

Six strategies to prevent social loafing at work

strategies to prevent social loafing at work

Clearly, social loafing is a drain on workforce productivity and morale. So, here are six ways to protect your company from falling prey to it:

1. Break down large groups into smaller teams

As mentioned, it is easier for social loafers to blend into larger crowds and underperform unnoticed. Hence, the best approach would be to decompose large groups into smaller, functional teams so that everyone gains visibility.

2. Define clear roles and responsibilities

Apart from breaking down teams into smaller units, managers should make it a point to clearly convey the individual tasks, roles, and responsibilities.

Additionally, they should communicate with the member the standards, rules, policies, and guidelines to which they or their work must conform to erase any ambiguity.

3. Identify who’s doing what by when

Simply informing members of their roles and responsibilities will not counter the effects of social loafing. Managers should qualitatively document the amount of work assigned to a team member, along with the corresponding timeline. A tool like a work breakdown structure can be instrumental in maintaining such a record.

4. Track action items

Once you have a matrix of all the tasks, their assignments, timelines, and other vital details, it is time to monitor its progress. In this manner, you can track what every individual brings to the table and whether they are performing as per the benchmarks set for them.

5. Coordinate work in one centralized tool

Hand-offs, coordination, and collaboration can be tricky to monitor, especially at the top level. However, agile project management tools, such as Nifty, can form the backbone of all your operations.

Nifty Kanban Board
Nifty’s project dashboard in kanban view

You can use it for anything – from assigning tasks to measuring progress to switching priorities – all in real time!

6. Encourage open communication

Communication is the fulcrum that supports success. You may onboard talent in the middle of a project or conduct periodic performance review – these measures will only yield results if it rests on the foundation of open and constructive communication.

Most importantly, this communication needs to be two-way, making your employees feel heard as much as you instruct them.

Concluding Thoughts

Social loafing can affect businesses of all shapes and sizes. In some cases, the fault lies in the team or individual attitude, while in others, the problem rests with managerial incapacity.

Businesses can effectively cut through the obstacles of social loafing by extending support to teams, centralizing tasks, and equipping managers with the tools to succeed. 

Much of this work can be done using a powerful and reliable project management platform like Nifty. It comes packed with a range of features and functionalities that can keep the effects of social loafing at bay. Sign up now to see it in action.

What is social loafing?

As per the social loafing psychology definition, it is a perceived phenomenon where team members undercut their performance while working as a group.

What causes social loafing?

Some of the primary causes of social loafing include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Diffusion of responsibility
  • Missing accountability
  • Large group size
  • Unclear expectations
  • Negative perception

What is the effect of social loafing?

Social loafing negatively affects employee interpersonal relations, organizational productivity, morale, and workplace culture. It can lead to the buildup of resentment and frustration, which further causes productivity to spiral.

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