When groups of people work together to complete projects, one of the dangers is a pesky phenomenon called “social loafing.”
Not Quite Working Together in a Motivated Way
Social Loafing. When people are working on a group project, there’s this all-too-human tendency to slack off—to invest less effort than when working alone. In studies, people in groups might invest half or even only a third the effort, depending on a number of factors.
Obviously, that’s a lot of lost productivity.
Teamwork Mostly Inevitable. Because our work today is often complex, requiring differing expertise from multiple team members, we’re going to end up working in teams fairly often, despite the dangers to productivity.
Ways to Reduce Social Loafing
So, what’s a manager, project manager, or instructor to do? Here are some ways to increase individual participation and reduce social loafing.
- Value. Emphasize the importance of the group’s goals. People work harder if they believe that what they are doing is useful, or interesting, or will help them to achieve other, important goals.
- Clear Expectations. Teams should develop or adopt ground rules that describe how they’ll work together. Individuals should have specific assignments: roles and responsibilities as team members (developed by a leader or by the group). The overall goal (and any interim milestones) for the team should be crystal clear.
- Cohesion & Competition. If participants believe that their group is important, they will work harder. Encourage team names and other unique ways to set the team apart (for example, t-shirts, team logos). Set up healthy competition (but be sure teams are not sub-optimizing the work of others in your organization just to win). Sometimes the answer is to compete against
themselves, the schedule, a competitor, or teams that went before (but are no longer active).
- Respect & Varied Expertise. Team members bring different skills and experience to a project. Emphasizing the contributions of each member can help everyone to stay engaged. If there are less experienced, less knowledgeable people, they will perform better—and increase their contributions—with respect and support from the rest of the team.
- Collaboration and Cooperation. Team dynamics can make or break a project. When discussing how things are going, emphasize team interactions as a factor for continued or future success. Provide support for ways to work together efficiently, if needed.
- Team Size. The more people on a team, the greater the tendency for members to coast. So assign the minimum number of team members who can accomplish the project in the time allowed.
- Individual Evaluations. Although evaluating individual contributions can be challenging, when people cannot disappear into the anonymity of “the team,” they invest far more effort. Establish procedures for monitoring progress and for collecting periodic self- and peer evaluations. If practical, include individual assignments as part of completing team projects.
In some organizations, people are adept at forming and working in new teams when assigned a to new project. They’ve done it so many times, and the culture for working in teams is so strong, that they almost appear to be interchangeable (given the requisite knowledge, skills, and experience). However, nearly automatic, healthy team formation is far from the norm everywhere. And, where people are new to working in teams, or where the organization and environment are not supportive, then managers, project leads, and instructors must actively assist team members to provide their best efforts.