Social Loafing: The Seedy Underbelly of Group Dynamics

by Stephen T. Messenger

February 15, 2022

Social Loafing: People in a group tend to be less productive and apply less effort than when working individually

Last week at work we played football. There were no plays or plans, and there were way too many people on the field. It was less football and more a free-for-all.

I’m pretty sure they didn’t need me.

My personal goal that morning was to not sprain anything. I stood on the right wing most of the time and casually jogged out and back after every snap. I caught a pass, missed one, joked around by the sidelines, and generally stayed out the of increasingly aggressive fray.

After the game, I realized I was something I rarely am: A Social Loafer.

Maximillian Ringelmann discovered social loafing in 1913 when he conducted a study on the classic game of tug-of-war. With one person per side, each gave 100% effort. But for every member he added to the rope, their individual effort dropped. With eight people on each side, each person’s efforts were measured at less than 50%!

In my football game, we had 14 people on each side, so my effort was probably around 20%…

Yet before the game, I was throwing and catching the ball with three other people and operating in the high 80’s. Once people were added, my individual effort dropped.

Social loafing occurs in all sorts of group settings:

Work. Some employees jump right into projects and take over. The rest can simply sit back and watch it happen.

Virtual Meetings. Today, it’s way too easy to be in a virtual meeting while not actually participating – I have a theory most people are checking email, talking to coworkers, or just not listening.

School Group Projects. How often do one or two people pull all the weight in brainstorming, building, and presenting a project? Always.

Home. If it’s house cleaning day and you surge the entire family, you may notice your 14-year-old isn’t exactly giving their full effort as you’re scrubbing the toilet.

The problem is that motivation to work drops when we’re in bigger groups for three reasons:

  1. Nothing is expected of me. A large group will find a way to get the job done. There’s really no one in charge and no accountability
  2. My effort doesn’t seem to matter. Even when I participate, my individual ideas get combined with others, and my work fades into the background
  3. The outcome doesn’t affect me personally. I receive no credit or recognition.  The result is going to be the same

Suddenly, your team of individual high performers becomes a lackluster group with one or two people carrying the load and the rest like me jogging down the sidelines at 50%.

But there’s hope. Leaders must identify the social loafers and bring them onboard using four steps:

  1. Delegate. Assign everyone a task. The leader is like the offensive coordinator on a football team. Each person has a vital role to play, and leaders assign and coordinate the actions of everyone based on their sweet spot (mix of talent and passion) to maximize performance
  2. Launch. Divide them into smaller groups. The more people together, the less collective work is done. Send people out with individual jobs to accomplish their task. Jeff Bezos says if your group can’t be fed with two pizzas, it’s too big!
  3. Integrate. Bring everyone back together and have them talk about the progress they’ve individually made and how it’s affected the group, good or bad – hold them accountable.
  4. Recognize. Constantly thank and recognize your people who are doing all the work. Individual effort fades when your people don’t think anyone notices.

The Good News: Most of your people don’t even realize they’re socially loafing.

The Bad News (WARNING): Many leaders are the root cause by micromanaging and doing all the work themselves.

Your people want to be a part of your team and pull their fair share. They just struggle to find their place. A great leader can identify those that need a little extra motivation, assign them tasks, up their productivity, and make them feel valued.

After all, you’re leading not because you’re expected to do all the work and get all the credit. Your job is to empower others and help them fulfill their full potential for the good of the organization.

It’s not about me, it’s about them.

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One thought on “Social Loafing: The Seedy Underbelly of Group Dynamics

  1. My mind is blown! When there is more people, there is less accountability. Maybe that’s why the Army has levels of leadership down to just a few Soldiers. Very interesting!


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