Four ways to cut down on social loafing

Delegating clearly and obeying the “two pizza rule” will help your team work more effectively

FRENCH engineer Max Ringelmann was measuring the force exerted by workers pulling on a rope about a century ago. He noticed something interesting. When more men were added to the experiment, the pull on the rope didn’t increase proportionally. And it wasn’t that the new workers were weaker. With two men, each performed at 93 per cent of the average member’s ability, three-man groups at 85 per cent, while workers in an eight-man group pulled with only 49 per cent of the average member’s ability.

The phenomenon is called social loafing, and it’s not just a problem for tug of war competitors. The ease of shirking responsibility in groups means business teams can often be less than the sum of their parts. And Harvard Business School’s Robert Pozen has argued that the sheer size of the boards of Wall Street banks may have been a small factor in the 2008 financial crisis. Citigroup, he notes, then had 18 directors, making it easier for individuals to dodge responsibility and let others take the lead. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Alongside the psychological literature on social loafing is a series of potential remedies. Here are four of them.

A team from Ohio State University asked subjects to make as much noise as possible by clapping and shouting, finding that individuals would “hide in the crowd” when asked to do this as a group. Whether or not the scenario bears a resemblance to your project meetings, the principle holds. If it’s difficult to trace the individual not pulling their weight (as with the clapping example), the incentive to slack off only increases. With a crystal clear delegation policy, team members will know exactly what they’re responsible for, and social loafing should be reduced.

In group work, small can be beautiful, and Pozen’s point about excessively large teams shirking responsibility rings true beyond the board. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos famously enforces a “two pizza rule” – if a team is too large to be fed by a couple of Domino’s finest, it’s unlikely to produce top quality work, he thinks. Admittedly, some projects are far too large for this to be practical, and there’s no hard and fast rule about the optimal number. But Wharton management professor Katherine Klein said in a recent interview that groups tend to break into sub-teams beyond the ninth member. Officially splitting off these sub-teams is another solution.

Intra-firm competition is a hotly contested issue. Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton argued in a 1999 paper: “when employees have to compete for the company carrot, only a few can win. That means everyone loses — including the organisation.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School found, in his extensive 2001 study of the topic, that internal competition can provide a “strong motivational incentive to employees” when designed properly. Try rewarding people for the fastest completion of comparable tasks. Even just displaying relative performance on a leaderboard can affect loafers’ behaviour.

When selecting a project team, it’s tempting to pick as many of the firm’s star players as possible. But Carnegie Mellon University research found that measures like general intelligence are a poor predictor of group performance, and individuals are far more tempted to hide if they think others have the same skillsets as them.

Organise Your Teamwork

Internal company messaging software works well if all your team members are on site. But Chatwork allows groups to keep in touch across devices and locations. It also allows you to quickly share voice memos, images and text with the rest of the group, and comes with a “team member task assignment” function for speedy delegation.