Social Loafing

This is an article I wrote in 2017 about social loafing. It was planned to be part of a book, but since it isn’t, I might as well put it here. Enjoy!

That Guy

Everyone has encountered “that guy”. He is part of your team, but he usually finds great excuses for why he wasn’t able to contribute to the project. For one, he never got the e-mail that detailed what needs to be finished by the end of the week. Must have been the server acting up. Also: how can he be expected to attend the team meeting if his car doesn’t start? And the hard work he put in yesterday? He couldn’t save the file because the computer crashed. Blue screen and all, out of nowhere. Plus, it’s unfair that he is supposed to do the most difficult part of the project. Especially since nobody from the team is willing to help him out with anything.

Enter the world of the social loafer. Psychologists have studied this phenomenon since 1913 and even today studies on this topic are being regularly published. It refers to the fact that when working in a group, people are usually less productive than if they were working alone. The introductory example was a bit misleading though as in the vast majority of cases, the phenomenon is not as extreme as described above. The extreme social loafer may be well-known and despised, but social loafing is usually much more subtle. Many social loafers don’t intend on putting in less work and sometimes don’t even notice when they do. But despite that, social loafing is a well-established psychological phenomenon with many implications for students and universities as well as employees and companies.

In this chapter we would like to highlight some aspects of social loafing and have a look at some of the core questions that may arise. Who are the social loafers? Is there are a typical demographic? A typical personality? And why does social loafing happen? What are the relevant factors? Most importantly though: What can be done to prevent social loafing? How should you design your teams to minimize this unavoidable effect? We will draw on recent psychological studies to answer all of these questions.

The classic experiment that began the research into social loafing was performed in 1913 by Max Ringelmann, a French professor of agricultural engineering. He asked groups of men to pull on a rope and found that the total force does not grow proportionally to the number of men as one might expect. In others words: when part of a group, each man didn’t pull as hard as he would have when pulling alone. This effect, not giving your best or maybe not even giving any effort when working in a group, became known as the Ringelmann effect. Nowadays it is more commonly referred to as social loafing.

Demography and Personality

Initially it was suggested that the problem at the core of social loafing may simply be sub-optimal coordination. When working alone, you can direct your full attention to the task at hand and work on it in the desired pace and order. In a group, things get more complex. Tasks will be divided among the team members and every once in a while, there might be some down time for you while you wait for other team members to finish their parts. Other times you may need to put your task on hold to assist another team member. Or a misunderstanding may arise that will bring extra work for the group.

All of this would clearly lead you to be less productive than if you were working alone. So it is not far-fetched to believe that the idea of social loafing might be a consequence of group work requiring complex coordination. However, using a series of clever experiments, Ingham, Levinger, Graves and Peckham (1974) ruled out coordination as a main factor in social loafing. The seemingly plausible explanation turned out to be a dud. Luckily though, psychologists kept researching the phenomenon and were able to uncover what really brings forth social loafing.

Let us turn to the first questions: Who are the social loafers? Is there are a typical demographic? A typical personality? Demographic factors commonly included in psychological studies are gender, age, parental status, relationship status, educational status and income. The numerous studies on the topic of social loafing show that except for a small gender effect, there is no typical demographic. There are young social loafers and old ones, childless social loafers and ones with children, single social loafers and married ones. No demographic factor turned out to be relevant to the phenomenon. Which, one may add, is not always the case.

However, as mentioned, a gender effect was indeed found by many studies, such as Kerr (1983), Markus & Kitayama (1991) and Kugihara (1999). They all showed that men have a stronger tendency to social loafing than women. A common explanation given by researchers is that women are in general more social and relational in their thinking than men. This is illustrated by the fact that lone wolfs, an extreme manifestation of anti-relational thinking, are rarely female. The lone wolf is for the most part a male phenomenon. Women tend to be more willing to form bonds with other people and share their experiences. It is easy to see how this way of social thinking can be a great safeguard against becoming a mild or even full-blown social loafer.

What about personality though? Is it a better predictor of social loafing than demography? When talking about personality, modern psychology usually makes use of the big five model. The five traits can be summarized by the word OCEAN: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (which refers to emotional instability). Naturally, psychologists have set out to examine whether the big five traits have any effect on social loafing. Are introverts more susceptible to becoming social loafers? Or is this rather true for extroverts? Are emotionally stable people the typical social loafers? Or is it the neurotic people? Turns out that the traits openness, extroversion and neuroticism do not have any effect on social loafing. So the phenomenon can neither be pinned on the introverts, nor the extroverts.

However, the story is different for conscientiousness and agreeableness. We all surely know someone who is highly conscientious. He or she always gets up early and on time, has a well-rehearsed morning routine, an up-to-date calendar, an orderly household, steady work ethics and completes chores as soon as they arise. Another aspect of conscientiousness is that highly conscientious people are much more task focused than, shall we say, disorganized people. Several studies, among them Chen & Kanfer (2006), have shown that it is this task focus in particular that protects conscientious people from falling into the social loafing trap.

One should add though that conscientiousness is not a magic ingredient. There are conscientious people who can become quite the social loafers and team disruptors, namely those who couple their conscientiousness with a very low agreeableness. To really be the best team worker imaginable, the conscientiousness has to be coupled with agreeableness. We all need the help of highly agreeable people from time to time. These are people who have a soft heart, a rich pool of empathy and are always polite, considerate and diplomatic. It seems logical that agreeable people work well in teams and indeed Klehe & Anderson (2007) showed that agreeable people are less likely to be social loafers.

Now we can already construct a best and worst case model for social loafing. The teammate from heaven is female, conscientious and agreeable. She does very well at focusing on the assigned task, but still manages to keep an eye on the well-being of all other team members. You on the other hand should definitely keep an eye on the male team member who is disorganized (which shall be our opposite to conscientious) and socially difficult (our opposite to agreeable). This combination defines the high-risk class for social loafing. It is relatively likely that such a team member will contribute much less to the project than he theoretically could or might even give up putting any effort into the team work.

Task Interdependence

Up to now we’ve been focusing heavily on the person of the social loafer and have ignored any effects the task itself could have. But it may be worthwhile to ask whether there are tasks, or aspects of tasks, that may invite social loafing. In what ways could we characterize the many different tasks that students or employees may be assigned in group work? One important factor is the so-called interdependence of a task. Consider for example being assigned the task of printing out all the production data for the past year. This is a task you could easily do on your own. While it may be important for the work of the group, it is not something that needs to be done in collaboration. All you would need is your computer, the company printer and lots of coffee. Since this task does not require any interaction with other team members, we would say that this task has a low interdependence.

Consider on the other hand the task of compiling a report on the progress of the group work. For this you would need to talk to every member of the team and get a clear idea of what they have done so far and what they are working on now. There is no way you could do this on your own, it requires interaction with your teammates. So this would be a great example of a task with a high interdependence.

In their 2003 field study, Liden, Wayne, Jaworski and Bennett thoroughly examined the effects of task interdependence on social loafing. Their sample consisted of 168 employees from two Midwest companies – 35 from an electronics firm and 133 from a machinery producing firm. They hypothesized that task interdependence should be positively related to social loafing, that is, the higher the interdependence of a given task, the more social loafing one would observe. Their reasoning for the assumption was as follows.

Manz & Angle (1986) demonstrated that people working on tasks with a high interdependence find it increasingly difficult to feel a sense of personal achievement in one’s work. This makes sense. In case of printing the production data, it is clear who did all the work, while in the case of the progress report it is much more difficult to see how much each team member contributed to the report. So as tasks become more interdependent, the healthy sense of personal achievement (and recognition for the work by others) may get lost along the way.

The statistical analysis of the field study confirmed their hunch. The numbers showed that task interdependence is indeed an important factor in terms of social loafing. The higher the interdependence of the assigned task, that is, the stronger a given task requires collaboration with team members, the more it invites social loafing. This can be quite helpful to know when you are designing a group. How so?

For one, you could try to divide the work into tasks that require as little collaboration as possible. This will allow the students or employees to maintain a sense of personal achievement in their work. And for tasks that do require a lot of collaboration – since we are talking about group work, there are bound to be tasks that are highly interdependent – you may want to assign these particular tasks to the low-risk group identified above: female team members with lots of conscientiousness and agreeableness.

Life in the Spotlight

There is more to be said about the task though. Liden, Wayne, Jaworski and Bennett (2003) also hypothesized that task visibility plays an important role in social loafing. Task visibility refers to a person’s belief that the supervisor is aware of one’s effort. When working on a task with low visibility, an employee will not expect to gain any recognition from the higher ups even if he or she were to perform the task with excellency. It is also true though that in case of failing at the task, no punishment is to be expected. Whatever the effort and outcome, it simply won’t be noticed. The employee is able to hide in the crowd, so to speak. A high task visibility on the hand brings the chance at being recognized (or punished) by the management.

It seems logical that being put in the spotlight, closely observed by the supervisor, would make it harder to slack off and bring less than your fair share. And indeed Liden, Wayne, Jaworski and Bennett (2003) were able to confirm their hypothesis of task visibility being negatively related to social loafing. The more visible the task, the less social loafing one will find. This is of course another great hint for those who design work teams.

It is helpful for productivity to remind all team members that a supervisor will check in regularly to check their progress. Employees will then know that if they put in hard work, this hard work will not go unnoticed. Every effort will be properly recognized. Naturally, those not willing to put in any effort will have to fear being called out on their social loafing. The reminder does not have to be (and should not be) given in form of a stern warning, but rather as an expression of the supervisor taking an honest interest in the employees and their work. Most employees are not social loafers and should not be given the feeling that they are being secretly suspected of slacking off. Recognition for good work should be the focus of the reminder.

Since we are talking about the role of the supervisor here, allow me a short detour to the pygmalion (or Rosenthal) effect before going back to social loafing. The pygmalion effect refers to the well-established fact that a supervisor’s expectations will have a strong influence on an employee’s performance. If a supervisor feels that an employee is not very capable and can’t be expected to perform a task well, he will communicate this, if not verbally, then non-verbally. The employee will pick up on these non-verbal cues and indeed show a reduced performance. So it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: the expectations of a low performance bring about the low performance.

Of course, this can go the other way as well. If the supervisor regards the employee highly and expects nothing but great work, this will be communicated one way or the other and the employee will give his best. the only limitation here is realism. Once the expectations become so high that they can safely be called unrealistic, the performance-enhancing aspect vanishes and even reverses. The employee can feel overwhelmed by the unrealistically high expectations and just give up.

So the optimal way for a supervisor to put this effect to good use is to clearly and repeatedly communicate his best expectations, but always make sure that these expectations are honest (so that the non-verbal remains in line with the verbal) and realistic. Combined with checking in regularly to make sure those working hard are recognized and those who don’t put in any effort are punished, this can be a very effective tool in managing small teams.

But let’s get back to social loafing. We noted that close supervision helps to reduce social loafing since it puts the employees in the spotlight. There is another important way to use the spotlight that also works wonders in terms of social loafing: peer evaluations. For this we consult Aggarwal and O’Brien (2008). During peer evaluations, every team member is asked to evaluate the work of other team members. Typical questions include “Did X work well with other team members?” or “Did X work diligently on the tasks?”.

Aggarwal and O’Brien found that the number of such peer evaluations over the course of a project reduced the incidence of social loafing in a statistically significant manner. So we can see that it’s not just the recognition or criticism of supervisors that helps in combating social loafing. Having a system of recognition or criticism by peers in place seems to be just as effective. As with the supervisor evaluation, one should emphasize the recognition aspect of such a system rather than giving the impression of broad suspicion.

Another factor relevant to social loafing that Aggarwal and O’Brien suspect might be a result of being put in, or rather taken out of, the spotlight is the scope of the project. Strong & Anderson (1990) noted that as the scope of a project grows, it becomes more and more difficult to make assessments of the contributions of individual team members. We might expect both supervisor and peer evaluation to suffer as a result of that, leading to an increase in social loafing.

Aggarwal and O’Brien were able to show that this is just what happens. Increase the scope and social loafing will become more widespread. Though the relationship between the two is not particularly strong, with a correlation coefficient of only around 0.15, the effect is statistically significant. This just underlines how important it is to include a system of supervisor and peer evaluations and develop it further as the scope of the project goes up.

All For One And One For All

There is yet another relevant factor that we have consequently ignored so far: the group. It seems obvious that the composition of the team will have an effect on the tendency to slack off. One group factor often at the heart of the research into social loafing is cohesiveness. It can be defined as the degree to which members relate to each other or, in other words, their desire to stick together (Mudrack 1980).

A team hastily thrown together without any consideration for personality, familiarity, personal conflicts and expertise is relatively likely to end up with a low cohesiveness. The team members will hesitate to ask each other for help, will coordinate sub-optimally and may get into heated arguments. Members of a highly cohesive team on the other hand will feel a strong sense of unity and work hard to make their team a success. When you are one with the team, personal achievement and group achievement become indistinguishable.

While many could and would feel sympathy with a social loafer stuck in a fragmented and conflicted group, the social loafer within a dream team should expect massive social repercussions. So you will probably not be surprised to hear that the scientific data supports the assumption that social loafing is negatively related to group cohesiveness. More cohesiveness will lead to less social loafing.

Just as important and well-established is the effect of team size on social loafing. There are many excellent reasons why we should expect such a relationship. Jones (1984) showed that as groups get larger, it becomes more difficult to assess each individual’s contributions. So we may expect that both the sense of personal achievement and the feelings of being put in the social spotlight will suffer as a result of that, two factors that we already know to be of great relevance to social loafing.

Another reason to expect the group size to matter is a phenomenon known as diffusion of responsibility. It is a well-known and well-researched psychological mechanism that leads people to feel less responsible for the success of a group project when the tasks are divided among many group members. If things go wrong, team members are less willing to be held accountable. This mechanism has been at the heart of many industrial accidents and is also assumed to be the cause of the bystander effect.

The bystander effect refers to the fact that when you are in dire need of help, for example because you’ve suffered a stroke in public, it is better to have only a few people around you instead of many. It seems counter-intuitive at first because one would assume that the more people are around you, the more likely it is that someone will come to check on you to see if you are okay. But the opposite is the case. When there are many people around a person that may or may not need help, people walking by will tend to think that someone else will surely check on that person. They will feel that checking on and helping that person is not their responsibility. But since everyone uses the same logic, in the end it is quite likely that no one will come to check on the person in distress.

On the other hand, if very few people or maybe even only one bystander is around, the logic of “someone else will do it” does not work anymore. If this person really needs help, you are all he or she’s got. So you are much more likely to pause, swallow your social anxiety and do what any good person should do. We shall not explore the bystander effect here, but it is a great demonstration of how powerful (and destructive) diffusion of responsibility can be. According, we may hypothesize in good conscience that as the group gets larger and the feeling of responsibility for success and failure shrinks, social loafing can be expected to be more widespread.

Let me add one more factor on why team size should matter. I’ll get ahead of myself by mentioning here that indeed the following factor has proven to be relevant for social loafing, far-fetched though it may seem. You might have heard the term dehumanization before. It means painting or regarding a person as someone “not human” or “sub-human”. It was a despicable technique used by the national socialist during the Holocaust to get the population to turn against Jewish people. So it might surprise you to hear the term in this context, though one should add that here the dehumanization is much more subtle and sub-conscious.

In their study titled “Team Size, Dispersion and Social Loafing in Technology-Supported Teams: A Perspective on the Theory of Moral Disengagement”, the authors Alnuaimi, Robert and Maruping (2010) hypothesize that both diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization have an important effect on social loafing through the size of the team. Their argument for dehumanization is as follows. As the team gets bigger and bigger, familiarity among the team members decreases and thus team members are much less likely to know each other personally. This invites a team member to see the rest of the team as some sort of “generalized other”, an anonymous and nameless collection of people. And the people the team member interacts as robotic and emotionless entities rather than the full-valued human beings they are. It is not an intentional or malicious dehumanization, but it is one nonetheless. So again we could hypothesize that as the team gets bigger and the other team members less familiar, social loafing should become more frequent.

Of course all of this has been put to the test and for the reasons mentioned above, the decreased sense of personal achievement, the decreased evaluation by supervisors and peers, the increased diffusion of responsibility and the increased tendency to dehumanize others, social loafing indeed becomes more widespread as the team size grows. For the team designer this means that if you have 12 people to complete your project, divide them up into four smaller teams of 3 people rather than three larger teams of 4 people or, even worse, two larger teams of 6 people each. Keep your team sizes as small as the task allows you to.

The Sucker Effect

What would you do if you had a social loafer in your team? Would you work harder, maybe even taking over some of the tasks that the social loafer was supposed to complete, so that the project will still be a success? Or would reduce your efforts as well, thinking that you don’t want to be taken for a sucker by some free-rider who wants to have the gain without the pain? Much research has been done on how non-loafing team members respond to their loafing colleagues. And a mixed picture emerged. Scientists observed both cases in their studies: colleagues stepping up to fill in for the loafer and colleagues reducing their effort so that they are not taken for a sucker. The deciding factors on which of the cases emerges are, according to Kerr (1983) and Porter (2003), the general capability of the social loafer and and the importance of the project.

If the social loafer is seen as generally capable of completing the given task and if the task is regarded as relatively unimportant, the group will be drawn towards the sucker effect. They will reduce their efforts and accept that the project may now be on a track to failure. But whatever happens, at least they have clearly demonstrated that they are not willing to be taken advantage of.

The situation is different though if the social loafer is not up to the challenge of completing his tasks, for example because he or she just recently joined the company, or if the project is seen as one of the utmost importance. In this case the non-loafers will tap into their energy reserves and step in for the free-rider. They will not let the loafer endanger the project, even if they may be perceived as being taken advantage of. But I’m sure they’ll be happy to report the loafer to the boss as payback for the extra work.

We should apply caution though before generally condemning all social loafers. Many of the loafers certainly do it because they feel they can get a better deal by taking advantage of their fellow students or colleagues. Naturally, this is a very anti-social and egoistic attitude that should not be tolerated. However, social loafing can also come from very different places. For example, Webb (1997) notes that sometimes social loafing comes from the fear of exposing a lack of understanding. It can also be associated with a social anxiety. And Williams and Jackson (1985) found that being fatigued strongly increases the likelihood of becoming a social loafer.

So, and this is an important point, beware of assuming that the social loafer must be behaving this way because of anti-social and egotistic motives. Better than to just assume the worst case scenario is to ask the person what’s going on in a friendly and understanding tone. If it turns out that the root is a lack of understanding, social anxiety or fatigue, reasonable solutions can be found that will have a positive effect on all the people involved in the group project. The person can be taken out of the group, given assistance for his or her problem and the team given a replacement to continue working on the project.

Let’s make a quick summary of all the tips one may compile from the academic research on social loafing:

– Make sure that every team includes a highly conscientious and agreeable person, preferably one who is also female.

– Preferably create tasks that don’t require a lot of collaboration among team members.

– Put in place a visible system of regular supervisor and peer evaluations. Make sure to emphasize the aspect of recognition rather than general suspicion.

– Supervisors should make use of the Rosenthal effect: clearly communicate the best expectations, but make sure they are honest and realistic.

– Increase group cohesiveness by compiling teams of people familiar to and friendly with each other and team-building exercises.

– Use teams that are as small as possible.

– When social loafing occurs, approach the loafer in an understanding manner to find out what’s going on.

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