Tipping the Balance from Social Loafing to Social Facilitation at Work

May 09 2024 | Observaciones
Two colleagues, a male and a female, sat at their desks discussing work.

What is social loafing

Research has shown that individual effort often reduces in large groups. Take clapping as an example, the larger the group the less perceived effort is required; this phenomenon is called social loafing (1).

Within the workplace, one of the easiest ways to achieve a goal is to work as a team. It’s the idea of, lots of hands make light work; with group members collaborating together and each individual contributing what they can, tasks can be undertaken quickly and to a high standard.

However, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes team members might sit back and reduce their effort because they know others are working to achieve the same objective. Maybe they don’t reply to a message or email that requires them to pick up a piece of work. Or maybe they stop contributing many ideas in team meetings. This is a prime example of social loafing in the workplace.

Why does social loafing happen?

The origins of the phenomenon social loafing come from the Ringelmann rope pulling experiment of 1913 (2). The premise is, if you placed one man against a group of men in a game of tug of war, while the group would win every time, if you measured the effort of each individual within the group on one side of the rope versus that of the individual man on the other side, it was noticeably lower.

Ringelmann identified two reasons why social loafing theory occurs. He found that the first, co-ordination loss, which is a lack of each man being simultaneous in their effort, contributed to social loafing most. The second, motivation loss and the belief that other members will make the effort, contributed to a further increase in lack of coordination, therefore contributing towards social loafing.

What is social facilitation

The social facilitation theory comes from social psychology. First proposed by Tripett in 1898 while studying the performance of competitive cyclists, he found that the cyclists that trained alongside each other performed better than those who attempted to beat their personal best time alone (3).

This idea suggests that when you’re in a group situation you automatically outperform how you would if you were alone.

Examples of social facilitation in the workplace

Have you ever felt as though you get 2x the amount of work done in the office versus when working from home? Psychology would suggest that that is because of social facilitation; being in the presence of your colleagues and knowing others are around increases your productivity.

Or perhaps you’ve been in a team meeting with others around you, trying to come up with an innovative solution, and ideas which you might not have thought of as an individual are being created. People are inspired by others, producing new, updated and creative ideas.

Social loafing versus social facilitation

For an organization, this idea of social facilitation could boost productivity and efficiency; working in teams or around others might have positive effects on performance, while social loafing could have a more negative effect. Having individuals in big teams feel as though reducing their effort is okay, purely because they’re around many others who are all aiming for the same objective. So, finding a balance between the two is key.

Expert advice to tipping the balance from social loafing to social facilitation

There is a fine line between social loafing and social facilitation and trying to achieve the very best from your employees. Here are our tips to offsetting the chances of social loafing in the workplace and moving towards the idea of social facilitation instead.

1. Encourage strong relationships and friendships in the workplace

Research has shown that there is a negative relationship between workplace friendship and social loafing (4). Essentially, better workplace friendships correlate with lower levels of social loafing in the workplace.

So, creating a comfortable culture and encouraging strong workplace relationships and friendships to thrive is key to reducing the effects of social loafing at work.

2. Set clear expectations

Most people want to avoid failing to deliver on expectations – the real culprit is lack of clarity. Studies have found that up to 27% of missed deadlines are caused by unclear processes (5).

To avoid any chance of social loafing or any decrease in effort from individuals within a team, ensure you’re increasing clarity over roles within a project, making sure there is clear ownership over deliverables.

3. Value individual contribution

People tend to socially loaf when they feel their efforts aren’t being valued. If they’re putting in effort but not being recognized for it in any capacity, it can be hard to motivate themselves to continue dedicating time and effort to something.

Research suggests that one way of reducing chances of social loafing is to measure performance and recognize valuable contributions from individuals (6). So, as a leader or an organization, try to recognize high performance in individuals. It can be motivating and spur on even further performance uplifts, leaning into the theory of social facilitation.

4. Limit group sizes or split into smaller subgroups

Finally, to reduce the effects of social loafing but still get the benefits of social facilitation, try to reduce the size of teams or groups. One way you might think about this is by splitting a combined goal up into smaller subsections, and similarly splitting a large group into smaller subgroups to tackle each part of the goal.

Within a smaller group, it’s much harder to lay low and stay under the radar while putting in the bare minimum. But, with others still around, the chances of being inspired and performing better actually increase.

If individuals are reducing their effort and effectiveness within a team, it might be down to something they’re feeling; perhaps they don’t feel motivated, or they feel as though they aren’t learning or developing and therefore their satisfaction is wavering. Or maybe they are questioning whether their role is the right fit for them. These are all potential causes for a decrease in performance and effort, and getting to the bottom of them with the help of coaching can help reduce any performance losses or staff turnover.

(1) https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Tommy-Nichols/publication/285636458_Social_loafing_A_review_of_the_literature/links/5aeb4f5faca2727bc003d360/Social-loafing-A-review-of-the-literature.pdf?_sg%5B0%5D=started_experiment_milestone&origin=journalDetail

(2) https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/sociology/social-loafing

(3) https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/psychology/social-facilitation

(4) https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/7794523

(5) https://asana.com/resources/anatomy-of-work

(6) https://globaljournals.org/GJHSS_Volume14/2-Some-Strategies-for-Reducing.pdf

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