Social Loafing: The Pitfalls of Group Work

Ever worked in a group setting where you had to pick up everyone's slack? You may be experiencing something called social loafing. Social loafing is a phenomenon that occurs when people exert less effort toward a task when working in groups than they would have exerted working alone. It's one of the reasons group work can end up being less productive than the sum of their individual efforts. The phenomena was first demonstrated in the early 1900's by Max Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, who many consider to be one of the founders of social psychology. 

Ringelmann's initial experiment involved asking participants to pull as hard as they could on a rope either individually or in groups. He found that those working in groups made less of an effort to pull the rope than when they did so working individually. Now, this may sound intuitive-after all many hands make light work, but when you extrapolate these group dynamics to a larger team you can see how it becomes problematic. One can imagine this phenomenon playing out in a school or work setting.

Causes of Social Loafing

Ringelmann's rope-pulling experiments didn't distinguish if his findings were the result of less individual effort or poor coordination, but there is no shortage of theories that expand on his work. 

One subsequent study, by researchers Bibb Latané, Kippling Williams, and Stephen Harkins, asked a group of male college students to try clapping and shouting as loud as possible. They found that the noise made by each person individually was less than when they were asked to shout and clap alone. 

Latané, et al concluded that social loafing was a result of less individual effort rather than the lack of coordination among team members. There are a number of reasons why this can happen in a group.

Diffusion of responsibility: As the number of people in a group increase, team members may feel less personal accountability toward a particular task or outcome, resulting in less effort on their part.

Non-involvement: Social loafing is more likely to occur when team members feel their individual contribution isn't unique. If there are specific tasks that only they can do, they're more likely to stay motivated and engaged.

Dispensability of effort: When a group member feels their effort has little to no impact on an outcome they will be less willing to expend said effort. One prime example of this is voting in the United Sates. Although most Americans agree that voting is an important right to exercise, voter turnout in presidential elections typically only just clears 50%. The 2020 election saw a historic voter turnout of 66.7%, the highest turnout rate since 1900.

Motivation: The collective effort model, proposed by Steven J. Karau and Kipling D. Williams, states that one's level of motivation influences their behavior in a group setting. Those with a high level of motivation will increase their effort when around others (social facilitation), while those with low motivation will reduce their efforts (social loafing). It's imperative to understand how your team members are motivated so you can curb this.

Matching of effort:  Another proposed theory is that people will vary their effort to match group behavior. If they feel other team members are free riding, they'll start slacking off as well. Social loafers will not put forth their maximum effort in an attempt to not stand out or avoid getting stuck doing the bulk of the work (the sucker effect).

How to minimize social loafing

Now that we've gone over some of the causes, you can see how easy it might be for the effects of social loafing to seep into your team. If you find yourself leading a group of coworkers on a project, there are a few ways you can potentially reduce social loafing:

- Aim for smaller group sizes

- Strive for group cohesiveness

- Assign individual tasks and responsibilities

- Set each team member up to make unique contributions

- The work should be meaningful

Some of these may feel like givens but it goes without saying that the more individual members are bought into the work itself and the people around them, the more likely they'll be willing to make greater individual contributions.

Social loafing has been an ongoing conversation in social psychology for over a century now. It continues to fascinate researchers and the business-minded alike because of its implications for the workplace. Knowing the pitfalls of social loafing will no doubt come in handy as workplace norms and dynamics rapidly change over the next few years.

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