Express News Service
It’s not uncommon for graphic designer Swati Aneja to drift off and daydream about all things other than the group project at hand. But this does not happen always. When tasked with an independent assignment, she works with steadfast focus. But when she’s made to work in a group, her mind loiters easily. This tendency has a name. It’s called social loafing and we’ve all been there at some point.
It has become a common occurrence today but the origins of social loafing dates back to 1913. French agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann was the one to introduce this theory through an experiment, which later came to be known as the Ringelmann’s Rope-Pulling Experiments. He asked participants to pull a rope, first alone and then in a group. Ringelmann noticed that in the case of the latter, participants exerted much less effort. He found that individual productivity decreased as group size increased.
What’s at play here?
A loss of motivation primarily. When the contribution of every member is put together to achieve a collective goal, loafing happens more easily. One does not feel the impulse or excitement to put their best foot forward. As a result, there is a diffusion of responsibility. One might think that somebody else will eventually do it, so why bother? The result is a compromised outcome. “When nobody’s noticing your effort, it is easier to put things off. There is a lack of accountability too. You do the bare minimum and take a mental back seat. Lack of ownership makes things worse because if the project gets flack, you cannot be blamed for it,” says Delhi-based leadership coach Sudhir Krishnaswamy. Productivity takes a hit. Social loafing reduces the impact of a project. In short, it can be detrimental to professional outcomes.
There are ways to reduce this at the workplace.
Group size: Studies have shown that social loafing is less prevalent in smaller groups. This is because it is easier to notice individual contributions. The larger the group, the more chances of one’s efforts getting diluted.
Work allocation: Instead of letting the team figure it out, making each member responsible for a set of tasks can reap better outcomes. By this, the morale of the staff improves as well. They know they are being watched and thus, perform well. “A pro tip: Try allocating tasks based on individual strengths of team members. Use their skills to improve the efficacy of outcomes. If they are put to a task they genuinely enjoy, the chances of them doing it well increase multi-fold,” says Krishnaswamy.
Smaller team collaborations: The smaller the group, the better chance for ownership. There is no need to pile people up on a project. For maximising potential, keep the group size to four to seven members. With this, there will be better engagement and communication. In her study, ‘Why individuals in larger teams perform worse,’ Jennifer S Mueller from the University of Pennsylvania, the United States, found that ‘employee perceives that support is less available in the team as team size increases… larger teams diminish perceptions of available support which would otherwise buffer stressful experiences and promote performance.’
Have one-member teams: In some professional environments or specific projects, one-member teams can be more beneficial than larger groups. Contrary to popular belief, working solo gets the job done as efficiently as collective ones. “Some people thrive when working by themselves as it gives them all the flexibility. It puts them in the driver’s seat and gives them a sense of power. They can take more risks. It eliminates conflict too,” says Gurugram-based management consultant Sheena Raj.
Evaluation: Rather than leaving this crucial step to the end of the project, it is better to take stock a couple of times in the middle. “One can achieve this by setting milestones. It is an effective way of gauging progress and monitoring performance. It also allows time for course corrections,” says Raj.
Social loafing creates two distinct identities within the group. One, ‘in-group’ or people who identify with the common goal of the group and do what is expected by contributing equally. The other being the ‘out-group’ or people, who by contrast, do not participate actively, leading to a contribution disparity.