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.

How to Disagree without Stifling Discussion

“I have a good team,” commented a leader.  “But, one member, a high performer, often shuts down our discussions.”

“What do you mean?”

“He speaks authoritatively, often raising his voice, and acts as if his opinion is superior.” 

“Do other team members ever disagree?”

“Rarely.  When someone occasionally disagrees, the aggressive member responds with data, quotes, and historical incidents to drive his point home.”

I think it effective for team members to engage in passionate, challenging discussions.  But there is a fine line between fruitful discussions and win-lose debates.

Win-lose statements include:  “You are wrong!”  “That would be a big mistake!” “You have left out important data!”  “Your suggestion will not work!”  “That has already been tried!”

Such statements are likely to dampen free-flowing exchanges because they set up debates where one wins by proving the other wrong. 

Consider expressing disagreements with phrases such as:  “I’d like to offer another way of looking at this.”  “I don’t fully understand how you arrived at your position.”  “Can you fill me in with more background information?”  “I’d like to hear others’ opinions.  We can evaluate later.”

For engaging team discussions, it is important to create a tone of exploring options before evaluating and selecting.