How to Manage Social Loafing and Free Riders?

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Devayani Vyavaharkar
Student (University), Germany

How to Manage Social Loafing and Free Riders?

This post is about social loafing, a phenomenon that is regarded as one of the main reasons groups are often less productive than the combined performance of their members working as individuals.
Imagine that your boss assigns you a project that has to be completed in a team of seven colleagues. You notice that some people in the team work (considerably) less than others, while (as a result) others have to put in the extra effort.
Why does this work-evasive, opportunistic behavior (called social loafing) happen and what can you as a manager do about it?

What is Social Loafing? Introduction

The English word "loafing" means: to avoid activity, especially work; doing nothing; idling one's time away.
Social Loafing (SL) in psychology and sociology is regarded as the tendency of individuals to reduce efforts when working on a collective task (i.e., when outputs are pooled with those of other group members) as compared to when the individual works alone. It happens because all members of the group are combining their efforts to reach a common goal. The group members tend to contribute less than what they would if they had to do a task alone. For example, during brainstorming sessions, SL is more likely to occur when people let more skilled and experienced members guide the course of the meeting and expect them to carry the entire load. It is also seen in hotels, restaurants, shops, and in general all business with a front office when there is a relatively low number of customers present. In such cases, lazy employees ("free riders") often sit back and let the other, skilled and senior employees take responsibility and do the work.

History of Social Loafing

Maximilian Ringelmann conducted the earliest experiment on SL. He took a rope and asked people to pull on it. After that, he asked the same people to pull the rope but now, in a group. He measured and compared how hard the participants had drawn the rope in both situations. After analyzing the results, he found that members of a group exert less effort in pulling the rope as compared to when they pulled it individually. It is also widely known as The Ringelmann Effect that is the tendency for individual productivity to decrease as the size of the group increases.
Bibb Latane first coined the term social loafing. In a study conducted by Latane, Williams, and Harkins in 1979 to determine how much noise people make in a social setting, male subjects were asked to clap and cheer as loudly as they could. The participants in this study were asked to wear headphones so that the actual noise of other participants' performance wouldn't influence their performance. Participants could not see who all were making noise along with them. They were just told how many others they would be shouting and clapping with. This task was performed either in groups of two, four, or six participants. This study obviously revealed that the total amount of noise created increased as the size of the group increased. However, the amount of noise produced by individual participants dropped significantly.

Causes Of Social Loafing

  • Diffusion of responsibility: When employees are not made accountable for a given task individually, they become reluctant about their responsibilities and prefer to depend upon those who might take care of their duty.
  • Nature of task: If the goals are straightforward to accomplish and not challenging enough, the employees feel demotivated and have minimal interest in accomplishing these goals. On the other hand, if the task at hand is very complex, then the employees are more likely to give up as they find it impossible to achieve.
  • Motivation: Individuals who have low levels of motivation will more likely engage in social loafing if they are part of a group.
  • Expectations: If the employees perceive that they are working with highly skilled people, they develop a feeling of inferiority and depend more on them to accomplish the task. However, if someone expects their team member to slack, one may end up engaging in social loafing to avoid unnecessary burdens.
  • Lowered sense of efficacy: When employees perceive that their efforts in the group will be ignored, they think of social loafing to escape from these responsibilities.
  • Non-involvement: According to studies, social loafing is more likely to occur when employees are not personally involved in the task assigned. Whereas when they have a crucial contribution to the assigned task, the level of social loafing reduces.
One might say SL is caused by a lack of employee (organizational) commitment.

How to Reduce Social Loafing in Organizations? Counter Measures

  • Smaller group size: This makes it challenging for social loafers to depend on someone to assume that someone will take responsibility for their task. Smaller group size develops unity and team spirit, which helps the members feel that their contribution does add significant value to the task assigned.
  • Regular evaluation: As the frequency of evaluations increase, chances of SL decrease.
  • Minimize free-riding: When members of the group realize that others are doing less work than themselves, and these free riders are getting similar benefits, it often leads them to feel less motivated and lose interest in working hard. To minimize free riding, it is essential to value and acknowledge productive individuals for their efforts and for the success of the group as a whole.
  • Strengthen group/team cohesion: When individuals derive their sense of identity and feeling of responsibility because of being part of a group, SL is replaced by social labouring (where individuals take extra efforts to make worthwhile contributions to the group).
  • Set up accountability: Specify the contribution of each employee in accomplishing the goal to provide individual recognition. Similarly, SL is reduced when employees are rewarded as a group for their work rather than rewarding only a selected few employee.
  • Promote involvement: SL is less likely to occur when people are involved with their work and enjoy working in a group. As a consequence, the employees don't just enjoy working and being part of a group, but also are satisfied with the results and feedback achieved.
In the end, we must remember that everyone is motivated to contribute to the group only when their efforts are appreciated and acknowledged. Thus, we can use the tactics mentioned earlier to combat SL and make use of our human resources effectively and optimally.

Baron, R. A., Byrne, D., & Branscombe, N. R. (2006). Social psychology. Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon
Cherry, K. (2020, May 04), "How Social Loafing Explains Why We Do Less when We're in a Group", Very Well Mind
M, P. (2020, March 07). "What is Social Loafing? Definition, Types, Causes, Effects, Prevention", The Investors Book
Schneider, T. (2016, November 30), "The Psychological Theory that Explains why you're Better off Working Solo", QZ


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