Beware of “Social Loafing” in Teams


Janus said to me, “Approval of some decisions requires signatures of eight team members.”

“How does that affect you?” I asked.

“Well, a lot of documentation accompanies each decision; and to be honest, I don’t always scrutinize everything.  Sometimes, I just sign it.” 

“Do you worry that you might support a bad option?”

“Not really.  Seven other highly-qualified people are involved.”

Janus engaged in social loafing; that is, he shirked his responsibility and relied on other team members to fill the void.

Max Ringlemann, a French engineer, coined the term “social loafing” decades ago because of a rope pulling experiment.  In groups of two, three and eight, Ringlemann asked participants to pull a rope.  Members in larger groups put in less effort than individuals in smaller groups.  

Social loafing in work groups may slow decision making, impact performance negatively and create frustration among team members.  Studies of students’ group projects show rampant vexation among some due to others failing to do their “fair share” of the work. 

To reduce social loafing in work teams:

  • include only members whose skills are required,
  • identify specific and measurable objectives,
  • set a hard deadline, and
  • assign five or fewer members to a team.

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