Social Loafing

What Is Social Loafing?

Many tasks at work are designed to be performed by a group of employees, with the expectation that groups are more efficient and effective than individuals. Yet group performance is not always synonymous with great performance. One reason is that some group members do not work as hard as they should. In such an instance, social loafing or free riding is said to occur.

Social Loafing (also called the Free-Rider theory) is the tendency of people to put forth less effort when they are part of a group than when they are individually accountable.

Although a number of authors have offered varied definitions of social loafing, the one proposed by Steven Karau and Kipling Williams is arguably the most complete. These authors define social loafing as

  • … the reduction in motivation and effort that occurs when individuals work on a collective task as opposed to coactive or individual tasks.

Collective tasks are those that most people would intuitively call a group task. In collective conditions, individuals work with other group members toward a single goal. Thus, individual performance is pooled to produce the group’s total performance.

Conversely, individuals working in coactive conditions work in the presence of others, but each individual’s work remains separate from that of others at all times. People working individually do not work in the presence of others, and their work remains separate from that of others.

A German psychologist named Ringelmann conducted an unpublished study where he asked people to pull as hard as they could on a rope, alone or with one, two, or seven others, and used a strain gauge to measure how hard they pulled. He found that dyads pulled 93 percent of the sum of their individual efforts, trios at 85 percent, and groups of eight at only 49 percent (Latane, Williams, & Harkins 2006, 298).

Some argued that the reduction in effort was not the result of social loafing but instead a result of coordination problems or group inefficiency.

To see what was actually happening, Ingham and colleagues first replicated Ringelmann’s study. In their experiment, individuals were blindfolded and led to believe that others were pulling with them, but in fact, they were always pulling alone. Similar results were found: people pulled at 90 percent their alone rate when they thought one other person was also pulling, and at 85 percent with two to six others believed to be pulling (301).

Distinguishing Between Social Loafing & Free Riding

Free riding is similar to social loafing, and the terms are often used interchangeably. The term free riding is often employed by sociology and economics scholars, whereas psychology and management scholars tend to employ social loafing to refer to the tendency to withhold effort in group work.

The main distinction between these two constructs is the amount of effort withheld, as well as the existence of a group benefit or reward that cannot be denied to any group member (e.g., all qualifying employees are entitled to health benefits regardless of whether they were involved in negotiating the insurance plan).

Thus, free riding involves withholding all effort because one can reap the benefits regardless of one’s contribution to the group. Conversely, social loafing involves withholding some (but not all) effort toward the group output; the existence of a public reward has not typically been studied.

Consequences of Social Loafing

Social loafing is detrimental to group performance and costly to organizations. However, there are also less apparent consequences to social loafing. When individuals are aware that a capable coworker is loafing, they will often respond by reducing their own task-related effort to avoid being taken advantage of (an occurrence termed retributive loafing). However, in some situations, coworkers might increase their own efforts to compensate for loafing.

When group members are aware that the coworker in questions does not possess the abilities required for adequate task performance, group members will typically maintain high effort and motivation Opens in new window. similarly, when the task is meaningful to them, non-loafers will work harder to compensate for a loafer’s poor performance (a phenomenon called social compensation).

Still, compensating for an underperforming or unskilled group member causes a disproportionate increase in the non-loafers’ workload. In time, this increased workload may be detrimental to their own task performance and may strain interpersonal relationships.

Social loafing is more likely to occur when:
  • Individual effort and outputs cannot be determined or valued.
  • The task is not meaningful.
  • There is no comparison group.
  • Members feel their inputs are redundant.
  • Members expect the other group members to perform without their input.
  • The group is large.
Ways to prevent social loafing:
  • Ensure that the task is challenging, appealing, and involving. Work high on the generative curve or work that gets the group into “flow” tends to engage everyone.
  • Build the board’s capacity for team play.
  • Form smaller work groups because it is tougher to hide with fewer people working on an issue.
  • Practice predecisional accountability so board members understand that they might be called upon to explain the group’s decision.