Social loafing – are you still loafing or are you already working??

Definition of social loafing and how you can avoid it

Social Loafing - Woman sitting at her desk and talking on the phone - Dr. Kraus & Partner Blog

Teams work more efficiently than individuals. This is a widespread credo. But this is not always the case. Teams often do not use their full potential. One reason: a person can hide in a group. This risk is particularly high in virtual teams.

The Ringelmann effect – does it mean anything to you?? Maximilian Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, studied horse performance in 1882. Here’s what he found: the performance of two horses pulling a carriage together is not, as you would probably guess, twice that of a single horse. This finding fascinated Ringelmann so much that he extended his study to humans. In tug-of-war, he found that the more people pulling on a rope, the lower the performance of the individual.

Based on his research results, Ringelmann developed a formula to calculate how effective teams are. According to this formula

  • two people performing a task together, not 2 × 100 percent, but only about 2 × 93 percent performance,
  • three people only 3 × 85 percent and
  • 8 people even only 8 x 49 percent.

This means that eight people together perform less than four individual people.

Ringelmann’s explanation for this is as follows: the larger a group is, the less the performance of the individual is perceived. As a result, individual effort decreases. This phenomenon is also found in companies. American psychologists have coined the term "social loafing" for this very purpose – which means resting at the expense of others.

Factors that lead to reduced performance

The biggest enemy of companies in terms of efficiency and teamwork is the "Ringelmann effect" / "social loafing". With teamwork, where different expertise is required, a higher output can supposedly be achieved. However, the exact opposite can also occur – especially in virtual teams or when team members work from home in a home office, as is currently the case, and social control is thus largely absent.

If Ringelmann’s findings are correct, then large companies in particular suffer greatly from inefficiency. The increase in efficiency would be correspondingly high if social loafing could be avoided. However, it would first be crucial to know which factors lead to a reduction in performance in the first place.

According to Ringelmann, these factors include the following:

  • Awareness that their own performance contributes little to overall success.
  • The fact that it is not noticeable (in) the group, what contribution the individual makes. And:
  • Not feeling a higher effect when you put in extra effort.

If you have a lot of resources, you (need) them – justified or not

Cyril Northcote Parkinson, an English sociologist, came to similar conclusions as Maximilian Ringelmann in 1957. He launched an investigation that looked at the evolution of the British Navy Department, which originally managed the entire British Empire. However, after its disintegration, the ministry’s staff size did not reduce. Quite the opposite: it actually increased.
Parkinson drew two conclusions from this fact: The number of employees in organizations correlates only conditionally with their volume of work, and organizations tend to keep themselves busy.

Parkinson identified the following causes, among others, for this:

  • How much time someone needs for a task also depends on the time available. It is simply consumed – regardless of whether two or five hours are needed.
  • People invest their time primarily in activities that are both perceived and rewarded. be sanctioned – and not put into those that would actually be necessary.
  • Power, prestige and recognition are linked to the number of employees in many companies. This is why managers always strive for a higher number of employees.
  • The next generation of managers creates new artificial needs for employees and management positions in order to open up better career opportunities for themselves.

Here’s how you can avoid social loafing in your company

If the findings described above apply to your organization, then management faces the challenge of combating these "natural" effects. Following Ringelmann and Parkinson, the following recommendations can be derived for social loafing:

  • Make sure your employees feel their engagement is registered and performance rewarded.
  • Create a "success community. Every member of the group should have the feeling: We are all in the same boat. When our performance is good, I personally benefit as well. The same applies in the opposite case.
  • Shake up your employees on a regular basis. Otherwise they fall into paralyzing routines. Keep launching new "shake-up" projects and initiatives that motivate your employees to get extra involved.
  • Make sure that compensation, career and prestige in your organization are not based on the number of employees. Instead, promote project and expert careers.
  • As a manager, ask yourself: Am I sending the right signals to my employees about what is important to me??
  • Conduct regular business process analyses. Every organization tends to put on "flab". This is why "diet cures" are necessary every two or three years.
  • Reduce resources "seemingly arbitrarily" for certain tasks. "Force" your employees to organize themselves to make do with remaining resources. Often efficiency-increasing ideas are born this way. And if your cuts turn out to be excessive? Then you can release resources at any time.

Virtual teams pose an increased risk for social loafing – Adjust your leadership behavior

To deal with the phenomenon of social loafing is especially necessary in the current time of Corona, in which many teams became virtual teams overnight, so to speak, respectively. because a large proportion of employees now work (partially) from home. This also removes some of the social control that occurs when team members see each other every day. It also increases the risk that team members will feel: My performance is no longer being noticed. This can cause employees who were previously pulled along by their colleagues to indulge in idleness. And with top performers who also show a high level of commitment in the home office? In the medium term, this can lead to a reduction in performance because they have the feeling that their high level of commitment is not perceived and valued by their superiors (and colleagues) anyway.

Therefore, in this changed leadership situation, managers must also rethink their leadership behavior and, if necessary, readjust it so that team performance does not decline.

➡️ If social loafing is also a big issue in your company and you need support in this regard, don’t hesitate to contact us for an initial consultation.

➡️ We are also happy to help you adapt your leadership behavior to virtual circumstances. You can find more information about this on our topic page "Virtual Leadership& Collaboration"

Author of this article

"Georg has been designing change processes for more than 30 years and, as CEO, has his finger on the pulse of Dr. Kraus& Partner. It is a magnet for inspiring people and projects. Stagnation does not exist in its vocabulary."

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