Social groups are a basic part of our human existence. We all belong to many different types of social groups. They give us a sense of security and belonging; help us shape our values, norms, and so on. In addition to our primary groups of family and friends, we also belong in a few secondary groups that exist at school or at work. And each group has a different effect on us and brings us different advantages and disadvantages. The same applies to the work environment.

But, being part of a group or a team also has some consequences. One such negative consequence is social loading – the tendency of individuals to slack off when they are part of a larger team. This common behavior is something we witness every day, especially in team projects or during meetings where groups are too large. But why do certain people choose to sit back and let others do the majority of the work? Is there a way to prevent social loafing?

Understanding Social Loafing

The psychological phenomenon commonly called social loafing is a tendency of individuals to put less effort than they would normally when they are part of a team. Since the team pools their effort to achieve a shared goal, individual members of the group start to do less than their potential or avoid doing the tasks completely. When social loafing happens, it decreases the team productivity. Meeting gets less efficient, work and responsibility distribution are imbalanced, and everyone is unhappy. Except those that are idling.

This is also known as the Ringelmann effect after the French agricultural engineer that noticed the lack of effort in groups. He was the first to conduct experiments to confirm the behavior -the famous rope pulling experiments. In his research, he discovered those effort individuals put in their work decreases as the group size increases. Hence, the larger the group, the worse the performance would become.

Years later, others have conducted (similar) experiments and came to the same conclusion. Whenever people were or thought they we part of larger teams, they worked less hard. And it was never a problem of lack of coordination or organization, but a clear demonstration of social loafing. Team members put in less effort because they feel less responsible for the outcome. But these other experiments also showed that people seem to prefer smaller teams of four or five people. A smaller team seems to be too small to be effective. But teams larger than five became ineffective.

Causes of Social Loafing

I have no doubt you already experienced social loafing. Either as the one putting in extra hours to finish the work or as the one reducing their effort. Throughout your school days and career, you’ve most probably done both. But why does it happen?

One of the main reasons why people choose (not) to do something is because they are (not) motivated. And their motivation can be greatly influenced by their expectations about group performance and whether those expectations are positive or negative. Group development theory shows that depending on the quality of people’s relationships with their teammates, they approach tasks differently. If the individuals don’t have strong relationships, and they expect the others to slack off, they will too. But if the usual ‘slacker’ should work in a strong team of high-achievers, they might slack off again and let the others handle the work.

I already mentioned that team size also causes social loafing. It does so because in bigger teams there’s diffusion of responsibility. When people are part of a larger team they tend to feel less personal accountability and may even believe that their individual effort doesn’t have a significant impact on the overall outcome. This is also known as the bystander effect. In these situations, individuals assume their efforts don’t make a difference and they don’t feel personally responsible to do something, because they also assume someone else will take action.

Can You Prevent Social Loafing?

Since social loafing can have a serious impact on group performance, and results, you must be wondering if you can do anything to prevent it. Or at least minimize the effects.

One of the root causes that leads to social loafing is team size. So, the first thing you want to do look at how many people are in your team. Bigger teams don’t necessarily produce better results. In fact, bigger teams usually produce communication hurdles, while smaller teams have more spontaneous and open communication. Therefore, they can more easily build team trust. And divide the workload equally.

To increase the feeling of belonging of each team member, encourage teams to develop their own internal standards and rules. Allow them to define and assign tasks and monitor and evaluate progress among themselves. And more importantly, highlight the achievements of individual team members. When personal achievements are acknowledged, people feel more accountable and responsible, thus they are motivated to perform better.

Portfolio Kanban - Reduce Overburden - Improve Flow

Can Kanban Help?

Diffusion of responsibility and accountability play such a big role in the occurrence of social loafing because bigger teams usually have unclear internal communication, and lack transparency and visibility. But if the nature of your work requires working in large teams, what can you do? Perhaps making the process (and progress) completely transparent can be one of the most efficient ways to reduce and overcome social loafing in spite of your team size. And you can add that by applying Kanban on top of your process.

Using a Kanban board has many advantages. It makes everything visible and completely transparent, which eliminates communication problems. It makes all individual tasks visible to the whole team, so you immediately know if someone slacks off and blocks progress. But more importantly, the Kanban board can help team members understand how the work they are putting in fits in the bigger picture and how they contribute to the overall goal. Thus, they will feel more inclined to work hard and finish their tasks.

Cutting down the team might not always be the best solution. Sometimes, you just need to make sure everyone feels like (an important) part of the team and understands what they need to do and why. Being in a team, and feeling you are truly part of it are two different things. And the difference between the two is that one can lead to social loafing, while the other instigates hard work!

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About the Author: Ivana Sarandeska

Ivana Sarandeska is a digital marketer, creative writer and master procrastinator. An Agile enthusiast and a firm believer that thorough planning is key to good execution and even better improvisation. She has a soft spot for technology, so most of her full-time jobs were in IT companies where she was introduced to Agile and Scrum. After she got her Scrum Basics certification she started actively using these methodologies and their main principles. Learning how to organize her time and tasks better has motivated her to dive deeper into these methodologies. Now, she is an avid advocate of Agile and Scrum and happily shares her knowledge and experience to fellow procrastinators.