Future Friday: What is “social loafing” and how will it affect your company?

Not everyone pulls their own weight in a team effort.

I was reviewing one of my favorite books, The Future of Work by Jacob Morgan, in preparation for another article I am writing and a webinar I am creating. In a discussion on the future of work and the size of teams Morgan brought up something called the Ringelmann Effect and the concept of social loafing. Naturally that got me curious.

Ringelmann Effect

The Ringelmann Effect, named after French agricultural engineer Maximillian Ringelmann, describes the tendency for individual members of a group to become increasingly less productive as the size of their group increases. According to Wikipedia:

Ringelmann (1913) found that having group members work together on a task (e.g., pulling a rope) actually results in significantly less effort than when individual members are acting alone. Furthermore, Ringelmann discovered that as more and more people are added to a group, the group often becomes increasingly inefficient, ultimately violating the notion that group effort and team participation reliably leads to increased effort on behalf of the members.

The decreased effort has been attributed to two reasons. The first of these is what is called social loafing.

Social loafing

Social loafing is the reduction in the effort of individuals when working in a group. It has been observed in a number of settings. I observed it when I was recruiting for packaging engineers and having students describe their senior projects. These were team projects and since I was interviewing seniors I got to talk to every team member in the interview process. The most common complaint was that no one else pulled their weight during the project. We have all seen this phenomenon and it is most likely the reason we have the phrase “he is not pulling his weight.”

Research has also shown that the effect increases with the size of the group. Again, we have all had some experience with that phenomenon. Some companies have moved to keep the size of groups small. Jeff Bezos, very prominent in today’s news, has a “two-pizza” rule that says if the group or team cannot be fed by two pizzas then it is two large.

The second reason for lack of effectiveness is loss of coordination.

The future of work

All of this research and experience then provides a blue print for the future of work when it is being done as a team. We must keep the teams small. The leadership of the team must be aware of the Ringelmann Effect and social loafing. I think that should become part of leadership training and the team would be best served by the team leader discussing it with the team. If everyone is on notice that this behavior can be observed perhaps team members will be less inclined to engage in social loafing. If goals are set, tasks are divided and everyone is made to feel indispensable the incidences of social loafing will be diminished. Everyone’s part should be identified, as anonymity of task assignment has also been found to contribute to social loafing.

If you follow these steps for your future work assignments you will be more likely to be successful. It is also an argument for smaller companies and smaller division within companies. The future of work may be small.

Originally posted on Omega HR Solutions Blog. 


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