How to Prevent Social Loafing in the Workplace

Macgill Davis

We’ve all been a part of a group project or presentation where at least one person isn’t doing their part to help the team. Whether they’re constantly relying on others to help them finish their individual tasks or being absent during meetings, it can be quite frustrating and downright detrimental to team morale to have teammates that prefer free-riding to actually putting in the work.

Those team members who put in less effort that end up being more of a distraction than a benefit to the group are commonly known as the social loafers. In this article, we’ll explore what social loafing is and how to prevent social loafing in the workplace.

What Is Social Loafing?

Social loafing is a social psychology term initially defined by the French agricultural engineer and professor Max Ringelmann after he conducted a rope-pulling experiment in 1913. Ringelmann observed that when he asked a group of men to pull on a rope, they didn’t try as hard when pulling as a group as they did when pulling alone.

The so-called Ringelmann Effect was proven again by an experiment published in 1974 where a group of co-workers were put through the same rope-pulling experiment. The experiment proved once again that individual performance declined significantly with the addition of each co-worker but eventually leveled off once group sizes grew larger. 

Simply put, social loafing is the psychological phenomenon that the more people there are in a group, the less work each person tends to do. Social loafing can be a sneaky drain on productivity because it’s not immediately obvious, especially in large group settings. It becomes apparent when you dig a bit deeper by measuring individual performance. It’s because of social loafing that the collective effort of groups can sometimes amount to less than the combined performance of individuals working alone.

What Causes Social Loafing?

There are several causes of social loafing in the workplace, with the following reasons being the most common:

  • Tasks not clearly defined: When group tasks aren’t clearly defined and assigned, it’s common for others to assume that the responsibility lies with someone else. Not having clearly defined tasks can lead to a diffusion of responsibility, where certain tasks fall through the cracks, making it difficult for someone to assume responsibility. When tasks aren’t clearly defined, it’s easy for everyone to start pointing fingers and placing blame instead of addressing the issue.
  • Large group size: The larger the group, the easier it is for some team members to avoid making meaningful contributions. While it may seem counterintuitive, a smaller group can often be more productive because everyone will recognize how much their contributions matter. People will naturally quit trying as hard when group size gets too large because they think nobody will notice.
  • Gaps in skill level: If some members of the group believe they aren’t as skilled as their teammates, they may be more likely to let others pick up their slack. A significant skill-level gap can quickly disrupt group dynamics and divide the team between the high achievers and free-riders. It’s critical to understand everyone’s strengths and skill levels to ensure that each team member can contribute in a meaningful way.
  • Misaligned goals: If the end goal isn’t clear or is seen as unproductive by the group, it’s easy for team members to lose motivation and not try as hard. Having well-defined group goals that everyone can rally behind — or, at the very least, respect — will help with team cohesiveness and prevent team members from procrastinating or sabotaging the group’s progress.

How Social Loafing Kills Your Productivity

How to prevent social loafing: employees working at an office

Social loafing can lead to many negative side effects that can kill productivity and erode teamwork. If left unchecked, it can rapidly spread throughout your organization as other team members recognize that they can get away with not putting in as much effort. It’s a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break out of once it becomes commonplace.

Even worse, social loafing can also cause great harm to relationships within the office. Frustration and resentment can easily build up between co-workers when they recognize that some group members aren’t pulling their weight. This can ultimately lead to a lack of trust and make collaboration difficult on future projects.

Social loafing can also create an unhealthy balance in responsibility, where some team members will feel like they need to work even harder to pick up the slack. Working longer hours and taking on new responsibilities to cover for others can quickly lead to burnout and employee turnover. Employees who think that they aren’t being valued for their individual effort may look elsewhere for a workplace that will.

Tips for How to Prevent Social Loafing

How to prevent social loafing: entrepreneur using a laptop

Although some level of social loafing is quite common in the workplace, especially among larger companies, it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Here are steps you can take to prevent the consequences of social loafing by addressing negative behaviors and environmental factors head-on before they damage group performance:

  • Define the objective: Everyone on a team should know their role and responsibilities before group work begins. If there’s any ambiguity or uncertainty from the beginning, they need to be addressed immediately. Otherwise, there’s a risk of multiple problems cropping up along the way. Every group member should know the team’s goal, their individual goals, and how they play a part in the grander scheme.
  • Establish accountability: Having an accountability system in place for everyone to receive feedback and support is critical for getting through big projects requiring a lot of time and effort. Scheduling routine team meetings is a good start, but getting the most out of an accountability system requires meeting with individual members to better understand their insights, struggles, and motivations.
  • Create appropriate group sizes: Assigning the right number of people to a project or task is essential for holding everyone accountable. The free-riders can’t hide as easily when placed in smaller teams where their contribution is critical for the team’s success. If you’re unsure how many people are needed for a project, starting with a small group and adding more people as pain points arise is easier to manage than picking out and removing the dead weight from the team.
  • Evaluate individual performance: Regular peer evaluations are an excellent tool for discovering which team members may need extra support and which are excelling and could be deserving of a promotion. Evaluations are also good opportunities to highlight individual contributions for people who tend to slack off. Taking notice and complimenting their efforts can provide them with the right kind of motivation to get more involved and work harder. 
  • Track time: Time tracking is a useful tool that leverages technology to ensure that everyone on the team is doing their part. Whether collaboration happens in the office or remotely, time-tracking software like the Rize app makes it easy for team members to monitor their own focus and productivity. This can help people see where they need to improve to ensure they’re contributing as much as they should (or recognize if they’re putting in more time than they should). The Rize app also runs automatically in the background, so it doesn’t add another task to someone’s plate.

Eliminate Social Loafing by Measuring Your Performance Your Performance

As the saying goes, “Many hands make light work.” But this may not be true if members of a group aren’t pulling their weight. 

Social loafing is a dangerous phenomenon in the workplace because without certain checks in place, it can quickly go unnoticed. Knowing how each team member performs individually is critical for maximizing performance and meeting deadlines. Learning how to prevent social loafing at work requires staying organized and communicating effectively between team members.

Whether you're part of a small team or a large organization, the Rize time-tracking app can help with reducing social loafing by tracking your performance and categorizing how you spend your time. Rize’s intuitive dashboard automatically tracks your daily tasks so you can see how much you’re contributing to the team. Download the Rize app today to see how it can help you be more productive.