A recent article in the Sunday Times (David Smith, Economics Editor, Money section 21st April) discussed the impact of low pay and minimal pay rises across the majority of the UK workforce.  He concluded that in order to raise productivity, the current decline in real wages needs to be addressed, as demoralised workers are stuck in a rut and disinclined to deliver to expected performance levels.

This led me to reflect upon individual and collective behaviour and to revisit ‘social loafing’ or the art of doing just enough.  Social loafing is the reduction in individual effort when individuals work together on a collective task, compared to when they work on an individual basis.  Is there a behavioural link between current levels of pay and productivity?

In the current pay climate, are many employees doing just enough or hiding behind the few that are working excessively because they believe (mistakenly) that their level of effort correlates with the current level of actual pay?

Average salaries are at least 1% behind inflation and have been for the last two to three years and this could be influencing productivity and performance as employees think, “what is in it for me to do more?”   How many employees get a bit of boost when they receive some additional reward or recognition?

Against the backdrop of low productivity (and conversely full time employment rose by 60,000 over the past three months) growth is stubbornly slow.  Have managers taken their eye off monitoring performance within teams as they juggle chasing order winners and satisfying customers with rising production costs?

Here are a few things for managers to reflect upon:

1.  Manage team dynamics

Managing team dynamics is a crucial aspect of addressing social loafing, and ensuring effective collaboration with clarity of accountability is a good 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.  Clarity of role

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 requires clear channels of communication, i.e. communicate constantly, listen attentively and separate issues;
  • Assess the current level of performance and adapt accordingly, i.e. 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 keeping team-mates 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 team-mates’ collaborative actions.

A team (and its manager) must coordinate the actions and activities of the participants if it is to minimise social loafing; in essence this requires thought regarding which approaches to adopt to help underpin success.

Whilst we can always rely on 10-15% of the workforce to give high performance quite naturally, the efforts at encouraging the next 70% to stop ‘residing in the wings’ may have stalled.  If we can encourage as little as 10% to recognise and resist loafing, this could impact on overall levels of performance and consequently lead to a return in meaningful pay increases.