Group Social Loafing Matrix
Social loafing is something we encounter in ever day life whenever we have teams or group meetings that are too large. We encounter this in meetings where a few of the attendees are idling and not contributing. They do not actively participate since everyone else is doing the work to accomplish the task. If no one in the group challenges them to participate, they continue to be idle and reduce the group’s overall productivity.
This is not something new. Back 107 years ago in 1913 Maximilien Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer found that having group members work together on a task actually resulted in significantly less effort than when individual members acted alone.
This became known as the Ringelmann effect and it is defined as the tendency for individual members of a group to become increasingly less productive as the size of their group increases. When this occurs meetings are less efficient, responsibilities are unbalanced, a few members are overworked, and all leave the meeting unhappy except those who were idling.
How to get these idling members to contribute is the job of the meeting leader. As the leader you want to have a highly efficient and effective team or meeting. The following 10 questions are designed to help the leader uncover if there is social loafing and then how to correct it.
Question 1: Do I have social loafing in my team or meeting?
Determine how many of the members are social loafing by using Figure 1 as a guide by counting how many of the participants are in each quadrant. If you find that a few are doing most of the work and a number are idling then it is time to take action to get the group moving to quadrant 3 and then to quadrant 4.
Question 2: Do I have the ideal team or meeting size to accomplish the task at hand?
How big a team or meeting should be is a topic that is frequently written about. It seems from the literature that 5 – 10 participants is the ideal team or meeting size to get something accomplished. I like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos's 'two pizza rule': if you can’t feed a group with two pizzas, your group is too big.
Question 3: Is this meeting necessary?
Sometimes teams or groups are put together on a task for purely political reasons. The members of these teams or groups quickly understand that they are there for show – so that, to management, it looks like we are doing something about it. This results in the selected participants having a loss of credibility for management and increased frustration on the part of team members that they are wasting their time and effort on trying to do something that has no relevance. When this occurs the idling factor involves almost all of the participants since they know they do not have to accomplish anything.
Question 4: Is the task we are working on not interesting to the group?
If the task is not interesting to the group, work on making the task more interesting by dividing it up into smaller pieces that are achievable and then tackle them in a logical order. Sometimes members social loaf since they feel the task is too large or a solution is unattainable. If you can design the work or task to be more interesting and stimulating it may help to create more engagement and excitement to accomplish the assigned task.
Question 5: Are responsibilities to get things done evenly distributed among the team or meeting members?
Too often a few wind up doing all the work and the rest watch them do it. Make sure at the end of a team or group meeting everyone has an assignment to be accomplished before for the next meeting. This will help distribute the work load more evenly and keep everyone engaged.
Question 6: Do I need to directly confront the social loafers?
If a few are social loafing, try to engage them and encourage participation by calling on them and asking for their opinion during the team or group meeting. If this does not work, the leader may need to have a one-on-one meeting with each social loafing member and find out the reason they are idling. Remember when nobody’s noticing what you are or aren’t doing, the easier it is to keep doing nothing.
Question 7: Does each person in the meeting feel that their contribution matters?
Sometimes people social loaf because they feel they do not have the skills, knowledge, or experience to contribute. The leader needs to reassure each participant that they were selected and invited to the meeting because they have the knowledge and experience to contribute to a solution to the task that was assigned.
Question 8: Are the members in the meeting close or equal in rank in the organization?
If you have an imbalance in the organizational hierarchy at the team or group meeting the “HiPPO” effect can be a contributing factor to social loafing. The HiPPO effect is that the group defers to the "highest rank person's opinion.” This effect often occurs in large groups which tend to discourage creative thinking. HiPPO describes the tendency for lower-rank employees to defer to higher-rank employees’ opinions.
Question 9: Do we have goals that are realistic and sensible?
Many times teams or groups attempt to tackle problems such as world peace or global climate change. It does not take long for the participants to realize that they will never come up with a solution and they tend to withdraw and not participate. Make sure you have goals that everyone feels are SMART – Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time bound. When the improvement to be accomplished feels attainable by the team or group it will help to keep motivation high to make it happen. The improvement can be a stretch but it must be believable to those who must make it happen.
Question 10: Do the participants feel this is an urgent issue to be addressed for the organization?
If the participants feel the issue is of little importance to the future of the organization, they tend to not want to be involved. A sense of urgency can be achieved by the leader by making sure the task is realistic (SMART Goals) and relevant to an important organizational issue.
The most effective way to reduce the social loafing effect is through peer pressure by having the team or group self-police themselves. One way to accomplish this is to measure each group meeting around some agreed upon measures. Some simple group engagement measures, such as shown in Table 1, can be used to gage how a team or group is performing. Doing a team or group measurement provides greater transparency by opening up a feedback mechanism that can help the team or group mature into a high performing team or group.
The leader can summarize the results after each meeting and note the areas that need to be improved at the next meeting. Measurement makes the meeting participants self-police and confront social loafing by challenging those who are not participating to engage with the other participants. This peer pressure is very effective in stopping social loafing.
Example of a team or group measurement:
Answer each question by checking the box below that best describes your current team’s environment:
 John W. Moran, Ph.D. is a Senior Quality Advisor to the Public Health Foundation. Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota, School of Public Health in the Division of Health Policy and Management 2011-2015. A former member of PHAB’s Evaluation and Quality Improvement Committee 2013 – 2015. Adjunct Professor Arizona State University College of Health Solutions' School for the Science of Health 2013 – 2016. President of the Board Healthy Maine Partnership - of Choose To Be Health in York County, Maine 2011 – 2016.