Quick, think back to high school. Remember the dreaded group project?
There were always team members who slacked off the whole time. You’d have to put in way more than your fair share of work to make up for your teammates’ laziness. And in the end, your project wasn’t as good as it could have been.
Now think about your current job. Most likely, the same thing still happens. We all have coworkers or employees who rely on others to compensate for their laziness.
We’ve previously discussed how group dynamics affect our opinions and reactions to crisis situations. So it’s no surprise that group dynamics also affect productivity.
In psychology, we define social loafing as laziness in a group setting. But what causes loafing, and how can we prevent it? Let’s take a closer look.
The Basics of Loafing
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Social loafing is a form of laziness, but it has a specific type of justification. By definition, social loafing occurs in a group setting. Loafers feel less responsible for their own work because they assume their teammates will just take care of the work instead.¹
If the loafer’s teammates refuse to do this extra work, the group’s final product will reflect poorly on all of them. So loafers get away with it much of the time.
This creates a loafing feedback loop. When workers see their teammates doing less work without consequences, they’re getting the message that loafing is acceptable—and they’re likely to start loafing too.²
Widespread loafing in the workplace can reduce group cohesiveness, satisfaction, and motivation.³ We need to identify the root causes of loafing to eradicate it.
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4 Causes of Social Loafing
Some people just seem like born slackers. But lazy personalities aren’t the only cause of social loafing. Social and group dynamics in the office also affect loafing tendencies.
1. Large groups. The larger the team, the easier loafing becomes.⁴ More team members means less sense of individual responsibility and more people to blame for your own failures.⁵ If you don’t take care of a task, it’s safe to assume that someone else will.⁶
2. Lack of trust. Nobody wants to end up doing more work than everyone else. If we don’t trust our coworkers to do their fair share, we won’t put in our best effort, either.⁷
3. Low motivation. It’s way more tempting to slack off on a task if you already find it boring and pointless. Studies show that people contribute less effort when group tasks aren’t personally meaningful or interesting.⁸
4. Simple tasks. Compared to complex tasks, team members loaf more on tasks that don’t require much skill.⁹
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4 Solutions to Social Loafing
Take a minute to assess your own workplace. Are any of the above causes present in your working environment? Is some other factor contributing to loafing? If so, you need practical solutions.
Here are a few suggestions for managers and leaders. If you’re not sure what’s causing your office’s loafing problems, try multiple strategies and see what works!
1. Implement feedback systems. The simplest way to combat slackers is to make people feel individually responsible for their work.¹⁰ Give regular, explicit evaluations of each employee’s performance.¹¹ Allow team members to submit anonymous assessments of each others’ work to hold each other accountable.
2. Encourage team-building. Trust and friendship between team members reduces loafing.¹² Use team-building exercises, retreats, and company social activities to promote familiarity and team unity.
3. Teach business ethics. Many slackers don’t really consider the immorality of their loafing. Studies show that employees view loafing more negatively when they feel a sense of ethical responsibility in the workplace.¹³ Educate employees on the morals and standards of group work by providing a business ethics class.¹⁴ Try an online course from Compliance Training Group or Training Industry for inspiration!
4. Promote mindfulness. A mindful attitude makes us more self-aware and self-reflective.¹⁵ We enter a less selfish frame of mind, and we’re less prone to social loafing.¹⁶ If you’ve never practiced mindfulness before, don’t fret! Check out our post on mindfulness for beginners for some ideas.
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Social loafing can hinder the quality and efficiency of group work—but it doesn’t have to. With an understanding of its causes and cures, you’re ready to build a more collaborative and productive team environment. Laziness begone!
1. Robert, L. P. (2020). Behavior‒Output Control Theory, Trust and Social Loafing in Virtual Teams. Multimodal Technologies and Interaction, 4(3). doi:10.3390/mti4030039
2. Mihelič, K. K., & Culiberg, B. (2019). Reaping the Fruits of Another’s Labor: The Role of Moral Meaningfulness, Mindfulness, and Motivation in Social Loafing. Journal of Business Ethics, 160, 713-727. doi:10.1007/s10551-018-3933-z
4. Alnuaimi, O. A., Robert, L. P., & Maruping, L. M. (2010). Team Size, Dispersion, and Social Loafing in Technology-Supported Teams: A Perspective on the Theory of Moral Disengagement. Journal of Management Information Systems, 27(1), 203-230. doi:10.2753/MIS0742-1222270109
7. Robert (2020)
8. Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1995). Social Loafing: Research Findings, Implications, and Future Directions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4(5), 134-140. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep10772570
9. Harkins, S. G. (1987). Social Loafing and Social Facilitation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 23(1), 1-18. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(87)90022-9
10. Robert (2020)
12. Shih, C., & Wang, Y. (2016). Can Workplace Friendship Reduce Social Loafing? In 2016 10th International Conference on Innovative Mobile and Internet Services in Ubiquitous Computing (IMIS) (pp. 522-526). Fukuoka. doi:10.1109/IMIS.2016.144
13. Mihelič & Culiberg (2019)