What is social loafing, and how can companies prevent it?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 28 November 2022

Published 2 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Social dynamics play a key part in any business, with employees developing personal relationships, friendships and working agreements with their fellow members of staff. These are primarily beneficial for a company, as they increase the morale of members of staff, yet there are some unintended consequences of social dynamics in the workplace. Understanding social loafing as a by-product of workplace interactions can help you manage it better. In this article, we discuss what social loafing is, some impacts of loafing on an organisation and steps companies take in preventing loafing from being an issue.

What is social loafing?

Social loafing, otherwise called the Ringelmann Effect, is a phenomenon that occurs in social groups of people in the workplace. Initially discovered by French engineer Max Ringelmann, social loafing finds that groups don't meet their productive potential to the same extent as individuals do. Loafing is evident in large group projects, as the average output of each individual may decrease compared to their input and output ratio working alone.

Ringelmann's initial experimentation featured employees in his workplace pulling on a rope as part of a team. First, one person pulled the rope, exerting 100 units of pressure, followed by two exerting 186 until, finally, eight people working together pulled 392 units. Theoretically, the maximum potential of eight people pulling together is 800 units, demonstrating that there's a significant underperformance where people perform as part of a larger group.

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Causes of social loafing

The Ringelmann Effect or social loafing has a range of different causes. This is because social dynamics in a work setting are incredibly complex, and vary depending on both the type of workplace and the people working within it. Here are some key causes of social loafing and why they manifest in working groups:

Expecting co-worker performance

This cause has a basis in the social compensation hypothesis. The social compensation hypothesis states that where co-workers perform poorly in a range of tasks, members of staff work harder to make up for the underperformance. If most of a team is competent, the opposite is true. Every individual lessens their individual effort, as they assume that the competence of the group leads to better outcomes. This means that the group performs significantly lower than its ultimate potential.

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Hiding in the crowd

Depending on the size of a working team, some cases of social loafing stem from people believing that their individual effort isn't visible. For example, if an entire team focuses on painting one wall a single colour, there's no way of establishing which member of staff painted what amount of wall. This means that members of staff with a less prominent work ethic put less effort into the task, as there's no evidence that they underperformed in the task. This only occurs when individual evaluation isn't possible.

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Social impact theory

Social impact theory focuses on the idea that working efficiently within a group results from strong social dynamics throughout the group. There's a strong leadership structure, and the group works closely together in achieving its targets. If groups become larger and larger, social impact theory becomes more of a prominent feature. The social cohesion and dynamics of a group reduce, and individuals have a smaller level of personal investment in the outcome, resulting in lower effort in the project and lesser outcomes.

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Lower self-awareness

One theory is that people lose self-awareness when working in a large group. This is because people are aware of their own output when working independently, as they track their own progress and workload. As more people join the group, people focus on other people's work to a greater extent, losing track of their own work ethic and ultimately becoming less attentive to the demands of the task. This means a less significant work ethic and a fall in output from the employee.

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Although less of a social sciences theory, the concept of distractions means a clear impact on how people work in a large group. For example, if someone works closely with a member of their social group, they talk to them instead of focusing only on finishing their work. As large groups naturally form social connections between the participants, they work less effectively than individuals and smaller groups of two or three participants. This is one of the most difficult to solve causes, as limiting social interaction in a workplace impacts morale.

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6 tips to limit social loafing

Limiting the impacts of social loafing is a key part of operating a business to a high standard. After all, if social loafing takes hold in a company, becoming efficient again can be a challenge. Learn some steps for preventing social loafing below:

1. Clearly assign tasks

Assigning tasks to individual members of staff is a key step in ensuring that the individual completes the work in question. This is because setting straightforward tasks for people removes the opportunity for 'hiding in the crowd' to reduce the effort in the workplace. When the company sees everyone's personal output, such as the assignment of a section of wall to paint as an individual, rather than an entire wall as a team, seeing what each person does is easy. Individual people work harder when they're aware of the increased accountability.

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2. Divide staff into smaller groups

One way of avoiding the dilution of social dynamics in a company is by having much smaller working groups. This means that clear dynamics form within the smaller teams, with leaders and more talented members of the team focusing on keeping the team working as effectively as possible. As smaller teams work towards smaller and targeted outcomes, leadership structures remain in place and the group works as effectively as feasibly possible. When each group works more effectively, the company makes the most of its potential and profits from eliminating social loafing.

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3. Reward individual outcomes

People work within teams in their organisations, but this is no reason to limit rewards for individual effort. By using members of management staff in a supervisory role, find people putting in the most effort and offer rewards, including additional holidays, performance-related bonuses and even small tokens such as gift vouchers. This encourages everyone in the team towards better performance as they see that being the best has a positive outcome for them, rather than just benefiting the business' bottom line.

4. Supervise staff members

Using members of management staff in a supervisory role is another way of making sure that everyone performs at the best of their abilities as consistently as possible. Unsupervised members of staff see an opportunity for minimising their output because there are no consequences for a lower level of effort. Using members of management in a supervisory manner means that members of staff are at their most effective at all times, as otherwise, a manager holds them to account. Supervision is key in any group work, keeping every individual working effectively.

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5. Focus on cooperation

Where the social aspect of the workplace is inevitable, focus on using that social nature of a workplace to your advantage. This means implementing a greater degree of cooperative tasks. Tasks in which members of staff talk to each other and work together towards outcomes mean everyone is at their best, using the social side of their work alongside the productive aspects of their personality. Companies benefit from encouraging staff to work together, and social loafing becomes significantly less prominent.

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6. Use the Collective Effort Model

The Collective Effort Model integrates various findings of the Ringelmann Effect into one simple model. The model finds that there are two key elements defining an individual's effort in a task. These are their expectations surrounding their ability to reach the goal, and the specific value that a member of staff assigns to a goal.

In perfect conditions, the Ringelmann Effect, or social loafing, is negligible because of a combination of these factors. These perfect conditions entail a difficult, yet achievable, task with a valuable end goal. A high-value end goal means that members of staff strive for completion, as doing so is beneficial for them and the wider organisation. Similarly, difficult yet achievable goals mean that members of staff strive to achieve their targets. Setting goals for staff members of this ilk is important and benefits a company through a more efficient workforce.

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