Do You Encourage Social Loafing?


business man relaxes at the laptop

You may be encouraging your high performing employees to settle for mediocrity and you don’t even know it.

“Social loafing,” a term from the world of social psychology, occurs when individuals exert less effort as part of the team than they would if they were individually responsible for outcomes. Loafing happens when employees feel their individual efforts don’t matter.

Your approach to employee performance management will either encourage or discourage this phenomenon. Here are three ways you might be encouraging social loafing on your team:

1. You give high performers the same performance ratings as lazier co-workers. When motivated employees see that they will get the same pay increase as everyone else, they reduce their effort or they leave the team. In turn, the slackers slack even more. Your top performers crave distinction and will produce at high levels if you reward the effort. You’ll quickly encourage social loafing, however, if the go-getters get the same as the slouches.

2. You give feedback to the team, not individuals. A weekly staff meeting has its purpose, but it’s not a replacement for individual conversations with each employee about their contributions or lack thereof. When an employee is not pulling their weight on the team, only a conversation with that employee can improve the situation.

3. You build a bigger and bigger team. Typically, the larger the group of people assigned to a task, the greater the likelihood of social loafing. It’s the same thing that happens when a group sings, “Happy Birthday.” If only one or two people sing the song, each will be heard. In a large group, individuals may sing more softly because the collective voice is loud enough and individual voices are not heard. The same thing happens on your team. If the team grows to more than five to seven individuals, it’s harder for strong performers to stand out and it’s easier for mediocre performers to hide. Bigger is not better, and if your team is large, you can reduce the tendency toward social loafing by breaking it into smaller, more accountable groups.

Social loafing isn’t a fait accompli when working in teams. Here are three strategies for rooting out social loafing in your group:

1. Differentiate. Not everyone on the team can be rated “Excellent” and not everyone is average. Applying your performance rating scale accurately will reinforce the performance you are trying to support.

2. Foster collaboration and goodwill. Social loafing is less likely to occur when people enjoy their work and the people they are working with. When individuals identify positively with the team and its purpose, they are less likely to want a free ride.

3. Set clear goals. Teams with clear, challenging goals outperform groups whose members have lost sight of their objectives. When each individual is committed to a common end result, they are more likely to carry their fair share. Your job is to define goals in a tangible and measurable way so that every member of the team can play a role.

We’ve all seen loafers on the job. Maybe you’ve even loafed a time or two. Given an environment that recognizes high performance, fosters teamwork, and defines the end game, anyone can improve his/her performance. As a leader, it’s your job to create the environment where social loafing can’t exist.

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