As a child of the 70’s I grew up with Star Trek and admit to being a bit of a ‘Trekkie’. Whilst the story lines are now very dated, certain episodes, symbols and phrases have stood the test of time. In particular Spock’s  “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is one saying that is very memorable for a number of reasons.

This implies that an individual will go the extra mile (or in Spock’s case sacrifice himself) for the greater good in order to achieve a required outcome. The antithesis of this is the ‘social loafer’ or free-rider.

Our experience of client situations and empirical evidence suggests that teams often do not produce the results that are expected of them.  This may be a consequence of the task itself, but more concerning, it may be that not all individuals are contributing equally. Perhaps you have been in a team in which you felt that others did not appear to be pulling their weight or adequately engaging in the task – was it their fault; were they lazy or do team structures, roles, rewards and individual objectives play a part?

‘Social loafing’ is the reduction in individual effort when individuals work together on a collective task, compared to when they work on an individual task. This would seem to be counterintuitive and undermines the espoused theory that a well-functioning team working collaboratively would deliver high performance results. The empirical evidence that underpins this includes Ringelmann’s ‘Rope Pull’ experiment (1913) and Karau & Williams ‘Collective Effort‘ Model (1993).  For more information see

Ringelmann’s experiment found that the more people that were in the group, the less they did and effort reduced to less than 50% when there were eight or more. (See Figure 1 below).



Figure 1.  Ringelmann’s Rope Pulling Experiment


Whilst his experiment focused purely on physical effort, the same effect takes place in cognitive environments and work-based situations in which the success of an outcome is predominately based on the additive or cumulative effect of skills, capabilities or effort of each group member.

The larger the team the greater the risk of social loafing occurring and in addition the increased perception (or reality) that others are ‘coasting’ or ‘free-riding’ as they believe they witness colleagues not contributing to the same degree as themselves.  Evidence and experience suggests that social loafing appears to be influenced by national culture. In China where collaborative or collective cultures exist, it is less prevalent or indeed non-existent, especially when compared to European and American cultures, where there is a greater tendency towards individualistic behaviour – which increases social loafing.

So, accepting that it exists, why does social loafing occur?

  • People expect each other to loaf – “why should I work as hard as I don’t expect others to be doing so”. Interestingly, individuals who explicitly announce they will work hard will tend to loaf
  • Individuals in collaborative situations often reduce their own contribution to avoid being exploited by others – “they won’t pick me”
  • Obscurity – where large groups exist, it’s easier to hide and avoid being held responsible for actions, also there is less impact both positively (if success is achieved) and negatively (if events are unsuccessful) – arguably the individual makes a judgement that the potential benefit is less attractive than the potential punishment!

In part it is linked to the wider performance debate – namely:

  • Individuals are prepared to exert effort on a collective task, if they believe / expect these efforts to be instrumental in acquiring valued outcomes (these do not need to be financial)
  • Individual effort must be related to individual performance (I am accountable for achieving something tangible) and individual performance must be related to achieving group performance
  • Group performance should lead to a valued group outcome – or why bother working collaboratively?
  • The valued group outcome must be related to a valued individual outcome – i.e. my skills, knowledge and physical effort.

Arguably if one or more of the above interactions does not occur, an individual will not consider their effort to be contributory and will not work hard on the required task – the consequence is intentional or un-intentional social loafing. Figure 2 illustrates the elements influencing social loafing behaviour.

The consequence in any workplace is that performance is impacted negatively and often any reward linked to performance and output is not usually adjusted, especially as it may be a ‘team’ bonus and as such really difficult to differentiate between colleagues.

Several options exist to reduce social loafing and improve team effectiveness, however this assumes that you or others recognise or suspect that it is happening.  After all, you cannot accuse someone without good reason or evidence and indeed some may not even realise they are actively doing it…



Figure 2.  Elements Influencing Social Loafing Behaviour


How to use ones ‘loaf’ to improve team performance:

1. Manage Team Dynamics

Managing team dynamics is a crucial aspect of addressing this issue and ensuring effective collaboration with clarity of accountability is a starting point. Rather than a random selection of tasks attributed to individuals, ensure that special tasks (alongside generic) are assigned to each team member for which they have to demonstrate suitable output and accountability.


2. Clarify Roles

Ensure that role content of each team member is suitably defined / described in order that clarity exists and that the special tasks are illustrated. Consider allowing the team members some freedom of choice in respect of the role they wish to undertake. Whilst this is not always possible, we are often guilty of prescribing roles to individuals based on our assumptions of their capabilities and skill sets.


3. Address Interpersonal Interactions
Linked to the above approach is addressing the interpersonal interactions that influence project management and collaborative problem solving i.e. :

  • High quality team problem solving which requires clear channels of communication e.g. communicate constantly, listen attentively and separate out issues
  • Assess the current level of performance and adapt accordingly e.g. discuss team dynamics, set expectations and monitor results, develop and re-evaluate personal plans
  • Assist others to complete the team’s objectives through leveraging expertise, providing timely feedback and keep teammates accountable for their outcomes
  • Engage in informal, candid conversations at the start of a project, reflecting upon an individual’s motivators and drivers to achieve outcomes, celebrate achievements and positively reinforce teammates’ collaborative actions.

A team (and its manager) must coordinate the actions and activities of the participants if it is to minimise social loafng and maximise team effectiveness.  In essence this requires thought regarding the approaches to adopt to help underpin success.

OE Cam’s recent work to ameliorate such situations includes role analysis and re-design following clarification of key accountabilities, responsibilities and decision making requirements. We’ve assessed team behaviour and team dynamics in order to strengthen team cohesion. Internal communication has been improved, reducing the opportunity for miscommunication. Objective setting and performance management structures have been revised in order to support team and individual performance. Training of ‘new’ teams (as a consequence of acquisitions) has included observing and reviewing meeting behaviours, collective problem solving techniques and ensuring appropriate involvement in the required objectives.

In conclusion; a combination of an awareness of the issue, good role design, effective objective setting and performance monitoring, recognition mechanisms and managers’ active participation in ‘managing’ a team can – “influence and elicit high effort from a group situation where there is an incentive for members to contribute / collaborate, where their contribution is indispensable and the costs of contributing do not exceed any benefit that might be derived from a good collective performance” (James A Shepherd -1995 American Psychological Society).

The experience of our clients demonstrate that this is effective in remedying productivity loss in collaborative situations.