Social Loafing – People Don't Add Up

No Slacking Any Time

The term “social loafing” is synonymous with social psychology. And this term is equally apt, if not more, to the corporate context of 2011.

Social Loafing:

Social loafing describes the tendency of individuals to put forth less effort when they are part of a group. Because all members of the group are pooling their effort to achieve a common goal, each member of the group contributes less than they would if they were individually responsible.

Trying to Get More From Less

I mention this because businesses are once again challenged to create synergy or ‘more with less.’ This stems from the hangover from a binge on financial credit leaving much of the world’s major economies feeling groggy and less inclined to indulge in the same poison, even in smaller, healthier doses.

As always, the first thing to cut is the HR budget line:

  • Less training
  • Less staff
  • Smaller bonuses
  • Pay freezes

Teams are told to create more with less.

The Sum of Its Parts

German Max Ringelmann’s 1913 studies were a pre-runner to our contemporary understanding of “synergy”; the magical osmosis that takes place when you put a group of people together with a shared goal; the result greater than the sum of its parts.

Ringlemann Graph

Ringelmann actually discovered that people perform greater as individuals than they do as part of a group.

Simply put – groups do less work.

Further studies in 1974 by Ingham (et al) discovered that the greater the number of participants in any group, the lesser the effort expended by each individual in that group – even when the resultant output was found to be greater.

This phenomenon gave rise to the term ‘social loafing’.

Simple Math

Expressed in numerical terms for example:

  • 8 people each giving 90% effort would equate to 720%
  • 10 people giving 80% (10% less effort than the smaller group) would achieve 800%
  • 12 people giving 70% effort would achieve 840% collectively and so on.

As the number of participants increases, the collective output is greater but the individual input is reduced (90%, 80%, 70%) whilst ‘social loafing’ remains masked by the cumulative result (740%; 800%; 840%) as a result of focus on outputs and outcomes rather than inputs.

Tying all this together with more contemporary studies into employee engagement and the recommendation companies should seek to tap into an individual’s discretionary effort to make businesses sustainable, viable, and competitive, what can managers do?

Small Groups

If possible, nullify the opportunity for social loafing by creating short term, small membership groups.

If possible, allocate responsibilities to individuals.

Collective responsibility creates and encourages social loafing as accountability for failure will be dispersed across all participants leaving you, as the Project/Programme Manager, with the blame so try to break the goal into parts and allocate these to individuals.


If people are doing the same or similar work, basic mathematical equations can determine a collective “norm” or average.

Basing individual performance targets on collective averages negates any anomalies and exceptions thus leaving no room for manoeuvre when it comes to attaining these targets.

Such systems also aid meaningful appraisal of an individual’s performance and contribution.  When people realise their performance is being measured in a fair and equitable method and their individual effort will be recognised, they’ll set out to impress or you’ll have meaningful evidence to start conversations about ongoing suitability to do this line of work.

The benefit of measuring ‘averages’ is that it aggregates out anomalies and it’s statistically unlikely that the same staff member will always get things like:

  • The difficult case
  • Poor machine
  • Difficult clients
  • Slow computer
  • Poor sales leads
  • Whatever other variable you care to substitute in.

Such systems create virtuous circles.

Spin Off

Don’t let functions get too big or too diverse.  Some of the most successful entrepreneurs recognise the power of “spinning off” business ideas.  This keeps the small units focussed whilst capitalising on opportunities for growth.


The collective result of individual performances will always create synergy – but that can be ‘negative synergy’ or ‘positive synergy’.  Focussing on the inputs as well as the outputs will help ensure that the synergy you’re team’s creating stays positive!

Colin Millar is Operations Manager for the CRBS in Scotland
He is an Official Ambassador of the Chartered Management Institute and EFQM Business Excellence Practitioner & Assessor

EmailLinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Skype: colin_b_millar

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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Scott Crandall on June 9, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Right on, Colin: I believe this “team” mind set — so prevalent over the last dozen years or so in business, and very ingrained in the upbringing of the Millenial Generation — seems to be both the cause of the decline in “engagement”, and the effort to emphasize, measure, and improve it.

    However, I still think it gets back to one thing: engagement and leadership are directly and inextricably related; where the leader expects and enforces individual accountability, “social loafing” decreases, the sense of engagement increases, and people feel more tied to their job, their responsiblities, (paradoxically) their team, and their organization.

    Bottom line: too many managers have let the team-nature of our culture, organizations and mindset become a crutch, or a babysitter, whereby they don’t do their job of example, mentoring, involvement and accountability. If we had leaders who truly led, despite the team nature of too much of business, we’d see “social loafing” reduced — and real engagement increased.

  2. Colin Millar on June 9, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the feedback / comments, very much appreciated.

    I was reading an article on Greek military strategy where they believed the optimum fighting unit comprised 5 or 6 people plus a single leader. This aided things like team bonding and communication / alignment to strategy.

    Of course, in these modern times, it would be wholly unacceptable to have a line manager for every 5-6 staff and the current vogue (in the U.K. anyway) is to question the value of “middle managers”, so it’s unlikely we’ll see an expontential increase in their numbers any time soon. In fact quite the opposite.

    However, there is comfort in numbers, people can and do hide in the crowd and the responsibility for failure is spread so thinly that by the time it gets to the front line, it most likely sounds like praise!

    I completely agree that engagement and leadership are linked and that great leaders are able to tap into the discretionary effort of individuals thus increasing individual and collective productivity.

    I’m not wholly convinced that the long standing “carrot and stick” approach stands the test of time, I think the 21st century leader will need to be far more subtle and ‘in tune’ with their teams.

    Interesting times for leaders and managers across the globe.

  3. LaRae Quy on June 9, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Hi Colin,

    “Social loafing describes the tendency of individuals to put forth less effort when they are part of a group. Because all members of the group are pooling their effort to achieve a common goal, each member of the group contributes less than they would if they were individually responsible.”

    A great definition! Good article.

    LaRae Quy

    • Colin Millar on June 9, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      Thanks LaRue,

      Really appreciate the feedback / comments.

      I think for me, I always try to impress that it’s not necessarily through conscious behaviour that people contribute less but that it may reflect their feeling a loss of value for their individuality & effort & that we, as leaders, should seek to reflect the effort of individuals in our feedback & make them feel valued for this.



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