How To Deal With Slackers

Social loafing – the bane of teams everywhere. Even the name, social loafing, sounds like trouble. I can just see one person frantically working on something at their desk while their team member goes to get yet another cup of coffee, stopping to chat with anyone and everyone along the way.

But let’s call it what it is.  Social loafing is the official name for ‘slacking off.’  And, as you can probably guess, it occurs in groups where one or more people put in less effort than the rest of the group.  It is also a great source of frustration, decreases motivation for the whole team, and erodes the trust needed to accomplish big tasks.

Social loafing is a common trend and affects any type of team, from the classroom to the boardroom.  Regardless of education level, income, or position in the company – slackers are everywhere.

In his book, Group Dynamics for Teams, author Daniel Levi discusses social loafing and a few of the reasons why some people don’t pull their weight or as he says more eloquently, “…the reduction of individual contribution when people work in groups rather than alone”.

  • Social loafers don’t believe their individual efforts are important.
  • Also known as “free riders”, social loafers know they will share in the group’s reward, regardless of their individual input.
  • Team members may unknowingly fail to contribute their fair share because they don’t know how much effort the rest of the team is contributing.
  • Social loafers are not concerned with how their efforts (or lack thereof) are perceived by other members of the group

I don’t need to tell you why social loafing is bad.  We’ve probably all felt the frustration and resentment when one of our team members doesn’t contribute to a project, or worse, becomes a roadblock to the success of the entire team.  At best, it causes unnecessary stress for some or all the other team members.  At worst, it de-motivates the entire team and negates the benefits of team efforts – the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

So what can you do to eliminate social loafing on your team?  

  • Ensure every member’s contribution is observable and measurable.  Success may only be measured by the end result of the team’s work but measuring individual effort becomes motivating through the social pressures of performance.
  • The task or project should require input from and coordination with all team members.  If someone can slack off and the project still gets done, perhaps they don’t need to be on the team at all.  More is not always better when it comes to the number of members on a team.
  • Teams are motivated (and social loafing is less likely to occur) when the task is interesting and challenging.  Daniel Levi states, “A satisfying job creates three critical psychological states: experienced meaningfulness, responsibility for outcomes, and knowledge of results”.  A project that requires a variety of skills, allows some autonomy for its completion, and continuous feedback are excellent ways to create interest for team members.
  • Create interdependence in the task or project – the outcome is contingent on all participant’s contribution.  Consider creating cross-functional teams rather than choosing members from the same department whose skill sets overlap.
  • Maintain a balance between individual- and team-based rewards for successful outcomes.  Setting up both peer-to-peer evaluations as well as evaluation of the group as a whole ensures that each individual knows their performance is evaluated, not just the final outcome of the project.

Social loafing is a common human condition.  Understanding why it occurs and taking steps to reduce it will help build team trust, encourage innovation, and ensure better outcomes. Team projects don’t have to be the scourge of your existence – when done right, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.