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Social Loafing – Why People Act Lazy In a Team

Social Loafing – Why People Act Lazy In a Team

Imagine participating in a tug of war. Do you think you would pull the rope with the greatest possible energy you have?

The answer is no. As per studies, you will put in less effort when working in a group compared to working as an individual.

Max Ringelman, in 1913 studied the performance of horses. He observed that the forces exerted by two horses in pulling a cart did not equal to twice the power of a single horse. Curious to know if humans did the same, Ringelman performed a study on people.

Several men were asked to pull a rope individually and as a group. To his surprise, he realized that human beings were no different from the horses.

On average, when 2 people pulled, the force exerted by each was 93% of their individual force. For a group size of 3, the number came down to 85%. As the number of men increased to 8, the effort put in dropped down to as low as 49%.

This article helps you understand one of the many ways how your brain plays games with you. This article is on the topic – Social Loafing. You can read about all the cognitive biases of the mind.

Social Loafing

What is social loafing?

Social loafing is the tendency of a team member to put in less effort in a group when individual performance is not visible. You and I get into a mindset thinking, “Why should I put in all my energy when I can manage with lesser?” The effect increases with the number of people involved.

Not always expend less energy on purpose. In some cases, you put in lesser effort without your knowledge. You and I have been guilty of this sin many times.

What is social loafing

The bigger the group, the stronger the effect. There is a reason behind the decrease in performance as the group size increases. In a group of 2, if you put in less effort, the other person can identify your laziness.

When the number increases to three, four and beyond, pinpointing the individual showing lack of effort grows harder and harder.

Take an example of farting in a group. If you fart when traveling in a car with your friend, the culprit is obvious. Add two more friends on the backseat. Finding the fellow with the gaseous belly ain’t so easy anymore.

Types of social loafing

People put in lesser effort for various reasons:

Free riding:

Free rider

In a group, one or more lazy members put in less effort knowing the difficulty involved to track individual contribution. As long as their performance goes unnoticed, such freeloaders reap the benefits of no effort.

Such people exist in most teams of large sizes. Even if they do not start off as free riders, they become one if the opportunity allows them to.

Sucker Aversion:

Sucker aversion

The free riders cause a burden on the good performers in the team. The lack of effort from some requires the others to cover up. Even if the world does not notice the mediocre effort from the lazy members, the hardworking people in the same team do.

If the behavior from the free riders does not change, the team members who put in effort start resenting. Eventually, the performers lower their effort too to avoid being the “sucker.” They start thinking, “Others in the team aren’t giving their best. Why should I?”

The end result – the whole team turns lethargic.

Substitute Parkinsons Law

The Parkinsons law states that as the time available expands, the time taken by a person to complete a task increases.

If you have 2 hours to complete a report, you will work at a pace which completes the task somewhere close to the mark. If you had one hour instead, you would push your limits to make it happen.

Likewise, when the goal for a team seems easy, the entire team might put in only as much effort as required to reach the goal. This leads to the whole team putting in an ordinary effort.

Social Loafing examples in the real world

1. Rowing and other sports events

Rowing takes place both as a relay, where one member rows at a time and as a team event, where everyone rows together. The difference in performance in individual vs team events has caused teams to lose medals and championship events.

You can notice the same effect in other sports events too. For example, in football, you notice two players missing a sprint because each expected the other to make the run. The same goes for basketball, cricket, and various other team games.

Now, at an international sport level, no one does so on purpose. Your brain sets an unconscious expectation that the other person will do it.

2. Prosecution of the Nazis

Many of the Nazis were not prosecuted for their war crimes after World War II. Some of the Nazis could not be convicted because they were only following instructions from the bosses.

Social loafing made it hard to determine if they deserved the punishment or not. The phenomenon works slightly differently and is called diffusion of responsibility. In such cases, people hide their mistake because no one can identify who was the real culprit.

When a teacher is writing on the blackboard, she hears a giggle. She turns around and asks who was it. The whole classroom knows that unless someone speaks up, the teacher has no way to find out.

The same method was used by the Nazis as a method of legal defense during their prosection in Nuremberg.

3. 1994 Black Hawk shootdown by team members

On April 14, 1994, two pilots of the US air force misidentified two friendly helicopters from the US State Army as Iraqi aircrafts. The pilots destroyed both the helicopters killing a total of 26 military and civilians on board.

Such a drastic attack required multiple confirmations. Many vital steps were missed before the pilots committed such a grave mistake. When one pilot misidentified the helicopter, the other failed to notify that he could not confirm what the other pilot saw. The other personnel involved with the engagement assumed some other team member to have done the necessary checks.

Many people failed in their responsibilities that day assuming other team members had done everything necessary.

Effects of Social Loafing

Your compromised effort due to social loafing may not result in the deaths of the innocent. However, you escape effort too, both on purpose and without any wrong intention.

1. Presence in meetings

Social loafing in teams

Recall a meeting you attended which had only 3 participants. How does it compare with a meeting which had 20 attendees? I can guess you were neither alert nor vocal when the number of participants increased.

In a voice conference meeting, you have an even higher chance of muting the call and doing your own work when the attendee count is high.

You may not even have followed what was spoken. The key people drive the call while the rest attend the meeting to show their presence.

2. Bigger risk as a team

Risk as a team

If I challenge you to spend a night in the haunted house, do you prefer having an eerie experience alone or with a group of people? Barring the daredevils, the others would prefer company.

As the group size increases, you tend to take bigger risks. You know that if things go wrong, the group takes the blame as a whole. You gain more confidence as a result and perform actions that you otherwise wouldn’t.

The same effect works when students bunk a class in masses. When the first few people leave, students hesitate a bit. When more people participate, it leads to a cascading effect where even the studious students muster the guts to mass bunk.

3. Reduced performance

Let’s say you work in a sales team that has a collective goal of making a revenue of 1 million dollars. If individual sales contribution cannot be calculated, chances are you take the leeway to let the rest of the team hit the goal.

Take a simpler example of a bunch of boys cleaning up the house after a party. No one can measure who did what. The active folks do most of the cleaning while the lethargic ones walk slower than usual, take unnecessary breaks and just do enough work to avoid being spotted lazing around.

You enjoy the benefits anyway so why not spend less energy in the process? In the case where the team falls short of the target, the whole team takes the blame too.

4. Voting

While choosing the leader to rule a nation or a state, the votes of citizens are totaled. The winning margin is usually large enough to make a single vote seem insignificant.

As a result, you can argue saying your vote adds no value to the outcome of the election. While your logic makes sense, if everyone does the same, the result can sway towards the wrong side.

5. Fighting corruption

No contribution to change

In countries where corruption is rampant, people complain about the prevailing problem. But the same people do not hesitate to pay a bribe to get their work done.

Try asking them why don’t you follow the right procedure? They will tell you, “The magnitude of the problem is so huge that my effort will bring no change. The Government has to nip it in the bud.”

The whole reason why corruption continues is that not one person can make a difference. Everyone waits for the problem to solve at a larger level before they change the behavior.

6. Following rules

In some countries, traffic rules are not very stringent. People drive on one-way streets in the wrong direction and pay no heed to lane discipline. Such behavior leads to traffic jams which the same people complain about.

Everyone expects other people to solve the problem for them without any effort from their side. But the same people follow all the rules when they visit another country which follows stringent laws.

7. Working out

When working out with weights, certain exercises require a spotter, who assists the lifter push his limits. The sheer presence of the spotter changes the mindset of the lifter. If you are the lifter, you tend to exert less energy in lifting hoping for the spotter to cover up for you.

I am a culprit myself. Especially during bench presses which are heavier for my capacity, I exert 80% of my energy hoping for the trainer to do the rest.

A similar effect shows up in Zumba and other group workouts. You expend as little energy as possible to give an impression of working out to avoid being judged as lazy. The half-hearted effort dilutes the whole purpose of the exercise.

How to prevent social loafing

The key factor in learning how to reduce the effect is by adding clarity and measurement to goals, tasks, and results. Managers and leaders can play a key role in preventing it.

1. Make goals less vague

The vaguer the goals are, the easier it becomes to sweep bad performances under the rug. For example, consider a vague goal – “We must achieve exceptional customer service this year”. As a team, you might find a way to evaluate the metric, but the number for a team member seems hard to identify.

Compare that with a specific goal – “We must increase our customer satisfaction rating by 0.5.” Now if the rating is measured by each team member and as a total for the team, the free riders have nowhere to run and hide.

Setting SMART Goals for the team works best.

2. Consider smaller group sizes

The bigger the group, the higher the chances of people taking it easy. After all, many people share the blame when things go wrong and everyone gains credit when things go well.

Smaller groups make individual performances more visible. As much as possible, stick to smaller group sizes. Such a change seems difficult on the surface in large organizations, but can be achieved if the management puts in thought to make it happen.

3. Break a large goal into tasks for individuals

When a goal turns into a bunch of individual tasks, everyone turns accountable. The breakdown of the tasks leads to each team member having specific things to do. If any team member shows dismal effort, the tasks stay incomplete and people notice.

The task of cleaning a house after a party will complete faster if people divide rooms between themselves.

4. Allow people to choose tasks

Let people pick tasks

In many teams, people do not have the choice to pick which tasks they prefer to work on. When a team member has to contribute to an activity that he does not care about, the chances of social loafing increase.

If team members pick their own tasks, people get an opportunity to work on what they like. If not all, at least some of them do. If people work on what they like, the motivation to give their best arises by itself.

When people are forced to work on a task they dislike, they hate getting out of bed on Monday.

Again, based on the goal and the people involved, giving everyone a choice to pick may not be feasible. Giving the choice to only a few won’t be fair either.

5. Measure progress individually

measure progress individually

In the hunt for improved teamwork and values, many teams measure the performance only as a team metric. As a result, the good performers end up drained while the free riders reap the benefits.

Along with measuring the team performance, have a way to evaluate how well each team member is doing. In some games like baseball, statistics clearly separate the good performers from the bad. In some other sports like rowing, not quite so.

Examples of social loafing in the workplace surface where a huge team works towards one goal. To make the problem worse, different teams involved play different roles making it hard to pinpoint which teams and individuals made a stellar contribution to the final results.

6. Reward best performers or use smart incentives

When measuring individual performance seems like a tough bet, smart rewarding or incentivizing can help.

One airline faced a long delay in having their employees prepare the flight for the next take-off. The delay cost them revenue day by day. The management came up with a simple solution to the problem.

The employees responsible for the loading and unloading of the flights worked in shifts of 8 hours. The airline implemented a new model of work timings. The management allowed their employees to leave once the flight was ready for the next take-off, irrespective of whether 8 hours were clocked or not.

Such incentives caused people to put in their best effort for their own benefit. The delay between flights was cut down by half without any other change. Though teamwork is a good value to target in corporations, sometimes focusing on the selfish gene of humans yields the best results.


Teams are essential to achieve results. The skyscraper you look up at, the phone you carry and the car you drive are all a combined result of a team. If not for teams, the world would never enjoy the comfort you experience today.

However, all individuals will put in lesser effort when accountability isn’t obvious. Some do it consciously and many do so unconsciously.

Previously you were not aware of such an effect. Now that you do, put in your best effort for the team.

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  • Team members share information as they work which leads to all team members having an increased knowledge and skillset.

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