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Working in a group can be difficult. In addition to differences of opinion, another more serious issue can crop up… when not everyone pulls their weight and some people just ride in your slipstream, cruising through life. This is known as social loafing, and it’s a scary phenomenon that happens at work, in family life, and in your social circles.
I’m sure you’ve seen many social loafing examples in your daily life. Perhaps you’ve even been guilty of social loafing (with or without knowing you’re doing it)? Find out about just what social loafing examples may have cropped up in your life and how to avoid them.
What Is Social Loafing?
Social loafing, also called the Ringelmann effect (after its founder) or free-loafing, occurs mostly in group settings where one or a few team members tend to put in less effort compared to the rest of the team.
In a group, everyone works toward a common goal, and ideally, each person should pull their own weight for the benefit of the group. But a social loafer contributes less (or nothing at all) than if their individual effort was evaluated.
Social loafing was identified by Maximilian Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, in 1913. Ringelmann studied group performance and found that groups don’t meet their full potential because they don’t put in maximum effort.
Two dominant forms of social loafing have been identified:
1. The Free-Rider Effect
A free-rider is a team member who’s careless about their responsibilities and obligations. They believe they don’t have or need to contribute (as much or at all) because someone else will pick up the slack.
Since it’s not easy to track each team member’s individual performance, a free-rider continues to socially loaf. They don’t pull their weight or pay attention to their tasks.
2. The Sucker Effect
With the presence of free-riders, the sucker effect results. The non-free-riders get demotivated and are unable to contribute effectively.
Those who actually work and put in effort feel overburdened, resulting in decreased productivity and feeling exploited. Eventually, they may abandon their assigned tasks.
Common Causes for Social Loafing
Here’s a breakdown of the causes of social loafing:
The bigger the group, the less each team member participates because they can hide in the crowd. In a small group, each person generally contributes more because they believe in working hard and equally to achieve the group goal.
A social loafer believes they aren’t as responsible for completing the project with the rest of the team. They also believe that their individual contribution won’t have a significant impact on the overall outcome.
It’s similar to the bystander effect, when people are less likely to help someone who needs it just because there are others that can help.
If a person isn’t motivated to participate in a group, it’s likely they’d become social loafers.
If you are part of a team, and you expect your teammates to slack off, you will too since you don’t want to be responsible for doing all the work. And with a team of high-achievers, social loafers expect them to do the work because they are perfectionistic control freaks.
If you want to learn more practical tips and strategies on how to stay focused at work and discover ways to enhance your productivity, then watch this video:
13 Social Loafing Examples
Social loafing is something that’s all around us, and we may not always be aware of it, but it has a serious effect on our productivity, values, and accountability.
Here are the best social loafing examples:
One of the most basic examples of social loafing can be found in a kids’ game—rope pulling or tug of war. In rope pulling, a team tugs against another team, each holding the end of a rope. Seems simple enough, right?
However, each team member doesn’t need to give their all to win. Instead, some team members may sense that there are stronger members in their team, which can lead to them not trying as hard.
And so, the presence of stronger team members may “inspire” other team members to slack and not participate. Why?
People can hide in a team. They are less individually accountable, and therefore, see themselves as not having to give their all. People may even hide so well that they convince their managers to hire more people to “pull on the rope.”
Managers may convince themselves that they need more people to get the job done, not realizing that more doesn’t necessarily mean greater effort.
How to Stop Over-Hiring:
When you suspect rope pulling is happening in your team, it’s important to assign each team member their own task, which makes them individually accountable, thereby canceling the loafing effect. As a manager, you can also check whether all team members are needed before you hire more people.
2. The Missing Team Member
Teamwork is part of life, and from our days at school to our last day at work, we will likely have to participate in team activities. While teamwork can be fun, it can also be fruitless when not all team members participate equally.
Some team members also hide in the shadows, not so much because they are lazy, but because they feel overwhelmed and insecure. Their inactivity and lack of participation can be seen as a sign of their low self-esteem, but it results in social loafing.
When a particular team member feels undervalued and unseen, they will refrain from taking an interest in the team, the work, or their role in things. We find this in marriages, relationships, company staffing situations, and even at school with school projects.
Any form of group work can result in one person falling through the cracks. Instead of helping, they hover around the edges, believing that others can do better, so they should do nothing.
How to Work with the Missing Team Member:
Reduce social loafing from “missing” team members by doing a health-check with your team and the people in your life. Before you simply see them as being uncommitted, try seeing things through their perspective.
Remember, people vanish in a crowd, which can make them withdraw and put in less effort to participate.
3. Customer Service Call Centers
“Please hold while I transfer your call.”
These words are likely the worst sounds on earth, right? You are looking for help, so you call customer service, but instead of helping, they pass you around like a worn-out rag. This is a classic example of social loafing, where people pass the bucket of responsibility so they won’t have to own up and stick their neck out.
It’s easier to send the “problem” (aka you, the customer) to the next person. Instead of working and owning up, social loafers slip out of the pressure point and hang idle in the background.
How to Eliminate Passing the Bucket:
Companies seem to undo social loafing or passing the bucket by hiring fewer people and using automated systems like chat bots. In real life, it can be harder to avoid this form of social loafing as you can’t replace friends with “bots” (at least, not yet).
But when you ask someone for something (Bob, may I borrow some sugar?), don’t let them transfer you and the responsibility to someone else.
Instead, ask them if they are unwilling to help, which usually triggers a guilt response, making them step up and help (even if they don’t really feel like it).
4. Group Conference or Video Calls
In one of the last companies I worked at, the team would meet via an online conference every Friday. However, it was interesting how many employees sat quietly, never participating in discussions, and were usually the first ones to leave the meeting.
It comes down to not being invested in the activity, not feeling that they can contribute, and not seeing themselves obligated to add value. Yet, these people get a paycheck, the same as you.
Social loafing takes the form of members muting their microphones, playing games on their second screen, or watching Netflix while nodding in the screen’s direction (as if listening to the meeting).
How to Discourage Group Meeting Social Loafing:
Ensure the people attending your meeting can see the value of that meeting. Most meetings are completely unnecessary and waste people’s time. Like the popular meme says, “Just survived another meeting that could have been put in an email.”
Discourage social loafing in your meetings by giving everyone a task, keeping it short, and only discussing relevant issues. When everybody feels seen, they will participate more and loaf less.
5. “You Pick a Place”
Don’t you hate it when your friends or SO (significant other) constantly tell you to make the plans for Friday, to choose the restaurant, or decide where you are going. It’s like you are the designated driver of your relationship.
Like Ringelmann said, as soon as more than one person is involved, it reduces the effort of the second (and third and so on) person. So your SO will happily pass the bucket and hold you responsible, allowing them to sit back and not so much as lift a finger.
It’s easier for them to let you do the work than to step up themselves.
How to Change up Being the Designated Driver:
When the people in your life loaf and don’t want to take responsibility for making plans, it’s time to use formal structures. Set boundaries that include taking turns to make plans or pick restaurants or pay for meals.
6. Brainstorming Meetings
Another typical example of social loafing is when someone is supposed to join a team effort or participate in a public activity like brainstorming or collecting tags for charity. Instead of helping, these people do the absolute minimum (usually, nothing at all).
A social loafer will hang back because they innately believe that someone else can do it. Community communication groups have many of these people who only show up to criticize others.
How to Include Social Loafers:
Help social loafers participate by calling them to action by name. Ask them what they have contributed, making them aware that action is required of them.
7. An MC or Musician Asking the Audience to Clap or Participate
Ever attended a concert only to have the MC or a performer shout at the crowd to cheer louder? This is an example of social loafing. Not all people in the crowd cheer (others are already doing it, so why should they?).
How to Motivate Participation:
Making each person feel like they are seen and that their participation counts is why basketball and baseball games have crowd TVs.
8. Crowd Inaction
A sad form of social loafing is when something happens, but only one person in the crowd takes action to prevent it, such as nobody helping to put out a house fire. Instead of helping, the social loafers merely watch (and record the event on their phones).
This happens because they believe someone else will step up and do, and that they have no responsibility to take action.
How to Create Crowd Responsibility:
Organize a crowd to get what you need. Make eye contact, and point at specific people you want to do stuff. Assign duties (fetch water, call 911, and help those with injuries).
9. Diluted Rewards
Ever notice how someone works extra hard when they are the sole beneficiaries of their efforts? That’s because when rewards get shared, motivation drops. Since you have to share, you don’t want to work since you believe you are potentially doing more than others and then have to share the rewards.
How to Counter Reward Disillusionment:
There’s a reason team leaders take the time to thank everyone personally for contributing to their success—it fosters commitment and involvement from team members.
In marriages or relationships, the same principle should be used to ensure your partner is devoted to you. Take the time to thank them for their efforts, rewarding them for being present with acknowledgment.
10. Credit Jealousy
When you already believe you won’t be heard, you don’t bother speaking up. Likewise, if someone else in your group has brilliant ideas, you won’t risk being ridiculed for your ideas, so you keep quiet, choosing to ride on the ideas of others.
Eventually, you expect others to come up with all the ideas as you lack the personal agency to contribute. However, instead of being grateful for others who step up, you criticize and feel jealous when you don’t receive any credit.
How to Avoid Credit Jealousy:
If you or the people in your group show signs of credit jealousy, use a rotational system to allow each person to come up with ideas, or even an idea jar with anonymous ideas in it. This means that everyone has to contribute, so everyone gets credit.
11. Lack of Initiative
Ever been in a group planning something, only to have everyone look at the leader with the expectation that they will give everyone instructions? A lack of initiative is a form of social loafing where everyone waits for someone to tell them what to do.
How to Create Initiative:
Avoid social inactivity by stimulating initiative. In school, kids are often allocated a row of stars on an activity chart in the classroom. The same can apply for families, corporate groups, and more. The idea is to get people striving toward excellence and a reward.
12. Voter Disillusionment
People who choose not to vote are an example of loafing, also known as voter disillusionment, and it happens because people don’t feel heard and don’t believe their one little vote makes a difference. Instead of fighting to be heard, the non-voter simply rides the stream of whichever party is leading.
How to Ensure Voting Power:
At times, the only way to get people to participate and not loaf during an election is by offering an extrinsic reward, such as a meal ticket, free gear, or a discount—as most political parties well know.
13. Remote Work Lazing
In a world driven by more and more companies working from home, a sad phenomenon has risen of remote loafing. Instead of working diligently, some people begin lazing as there’s a lack of supervision.
There have even been instances of remote workers taking on more than one full-time job, accepting both salaries, but doing minimal effort at either job.
How to Prevent Remote Loafing:
Prevent remote loafing by doing more quality checks and setting daily and weekly targets (for yourself and your team).
Final Thoughts about Social Loafing Examples
We’ve all been guilty of not putting in 100% effort at some time in our lives, whether it’s because we’re tired or just not committed to the work. A once-off lazy day is fine, but when it becomes a pattern of social loafing examples that fill your day, it’s time to get your game on and get motivated to participate and work.
Being a part of a team and meeting personal excellence is the best way to avoid becoming another social loafing example. Improve your focus with these 7 ways to not get distracted at work or while studying.
And if you're looking for more resources on work habits, be sure to check out these blog posts:
- 5 SMART Goals Examples to Improve Workplace Teamwork
- 23 Good Work Habit Examples to Build a Successful Career
- 19 Leadership SMART Goals Examples for Your Workplace
Finally, if you want to level up your productivity and time management skills, then watch this free video about the 9 productivity habits you can build at work.