When you build your all-star team for your next project, you will inevitably try to grab as many superstar performers from around the organization as you can.  If one accounting whiz is good, two are better, and the same is true for your managers and strategists, right?  Why not have a second set of eyes on something?  It seems obvious that your team will benefit from the addition of these skill sets.  It’s why scouts and headhunters scour the globe looking for talent – to populate your teams with as many performers as possible.   1 + 1 = 2.  There’s no debate.  What could go wrong?

Well, what if 1 + 1 didn’t equal 2?  

What if under certain circumstances it equaled less than that and, more importantly, how would you explain it when that deficit relates to your team’s performance?

After you were done trying to explain why you don’t have 2 units of performance output (“spontaneous innovation-fueling synergistic combustion,” maybe), you would most likely want to know how such a seemingly fundamental idea could lead you astray.  Why would two economic agents, acting together, not combine their skills, resources, and capabilities to maximize their efforts?  What makes the difference between Sherlock Holmes and Watson and Ray and Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber?

This is where social psychology comes in.  But first, a thought experiment:

Think back to your high school or university days and remember one of the many moments when your teacher uttered the words “group project” when reading over the course syllabus.  Depending on your preferences, your reaction to this memory will evoke different emotional responses, likely ranging from being overwhelmed by the addition of an extra four- person’s-worth of work to your schedule to being overjoyed at the extra TV time available in the coming semester (you know who you are!).

Now think back to your group interactions and the division of labor among the team.  Think about the natural ebbs and flows of the breaking up and doling out of different tasks and responsibilities throughout various phases of the assignment.  Some students stepped up and shouldered the load, often claiming that they were “good at” or “talented in” the area, while others said nothing or waited for what was left.  Some of this was explicit, particularly early on in the project, and some was implied or “just happened”, particularly as the project came to an end.  When all was said and done, the final project handed in, there was almost always a wide spectrum of perspectives ranging from “Wow, did I ever do a lot of work on that assignment” to “Whew, hopefully they did a good job on that one!  Wasn’t Breaking Bad great this season?”

What is most interesting is that social psychological research has shown that these perspectives develop regardless of our initial joy or disdain for group projects.   It’s not just straight-A students who hustle and slackers who loaf. We all have the capability to do too much as well as too little, depending on the project and often we’re unsure how this happened.

Again, this effect can happen regardless of how talented or engaged you feel and most often without you even knowing it!  We can all be hard-workers on one project, putting our best forward for the good of the team, and loafers on the next, coasting off the accomplishments of others.  This is the social loafing phenomenon and understanding it can help you maximize your team-building capabilities.

Welcome to Social Loafing: 

No matter who you are, recent studies have shown that you engage in a complex set of social calculations each and every time you are in a group.  These calculations are based on social comparisons with who you’re with and are set up to maximize your abilities in any given set of circumstances. These dynamics function in both conscious and subconscious ways, guiding our behaviour without our having the faintest idea.

Social loafing is a phenomenon that causes people to adjust their effort based on their perception of their teammate’s capability.   If they think their teammate has lower capability, they will try harder.  This perception can be as overt as knowing, believing, and having proof that they are more capable than their teammate or as subtle and abstract as connecting clothing, behaviour or grammar with ability.  This is the positive side of the social loafing coin known as social facilitation or social striving – when we are made better through our perceptions of being the strongest in the group.

Unfortunately, it has also been shown that this compensation effect works the other way as well.  When we perceive that we are the lesser-skilled individual in an interaction, we automatically downgrade our effort and performance.  We conserve our energy and capability (whether we like it or not) to use for other tasks.  This is social loafing.

Now this wouldn’t be a problem if we could allocate our tasks to individually skilled team members, but it is precisely when collaboration is required most, in joined team tasks, that our psychological mechanisms may start to work against us.

Though much about this phenomenon is still be discovered, this much is clear; ask two people with similar skillsets to collaborate on a task and a complex series of calculations will lead to both overcompensation and social loafing.

1 + 1 will equal whatever the overcompensating team member is able to muster, but if they can easily do the work of 2 people, then why have them on that team in the first place?  Why not let them work alone?  And what of the social loafer?

As a manager with knowledge about this phenomenon, ask yourself these questions:

  • How will an individual who is constantly overcompensating and striving to overcome the deficits of their teammates will feel?
  • Will your top performers burn out faster?
  • Will your top performers become disgruntled as credit is shared throughout the team, their outsized performances washed away?

Imagine the complications and dynamic effects if these emotions and tensions cannot be verbalized because these binding perceptions are implicit, subconscious, and unbeknownst to these high performers.

Ask yourself what will happen to the skills and capabilities of the loafers?  Without even knowing it, these individuals will lose their edge, sell themselves short, and reduce their capabilities.  They’ll feel like they haven’t really been challenged and look for greater challenges elsewhere, challenges that they are most likely unprepared for.   These challenges will likely be awarded by an unaware manager given the consistent success of the loafer and their team (“look at how well they did on that last project!”).  This house of cards will surely collapse when the loafer’ skills do not meet the challenge for which they were never really prepared.

There will be more negative implications for team dynamics, as loafers will most likely be unable to fully understand why their disgruntled team member has become increasingly ornery and difficult to work with.  It is worth restating that though some of this will be explicit, team members will see and consciously experience some of these emotional side effects, other elements will operate subconsciously and be triggered by things that are outside of their control.

So what do you do?  How can you mediate these effects and build high performing teams?

  • Identify unique talents
  • Create time/task-specific partnerships and teams
  • Incorporate teaching into team processes

One of the best ways to avoid these problems is to identify an individual’s unique skills and emphasize their domain-specific role on each individual project.  By having a “researcher specialist”, a “numbers guru”, a “team leader”, and a “write-up whiz”, four accountants can become a dynamic band of specialists, each contributing their 1 unit to the output equation.  This focus on specific and unique individual skills or components has been shown to mitigate the effects of social loafing*.  Even if two individuals are stronger at researching than at writing, by separating and emphasizing their unique tasks, you will be able to eliminate the social comparisons that are so costly to overall performance.

An interesting way to use the social facilitation phenomenon in your favor is to create time-constrained partnerships.  In this model, individuals will be responsible for their area of the project but collaborate for discrete periods of time with either a “catalyst” – one who knows less than they do about the specific area of the project and is responsible for either learning about, integrating or managing the project –  or a “specialist contributor” who knows more about a specific area and is responsible for contributing or providing special support to your teammate.  Working with the “integrator,” or less specifically-capable individual, will increase the output and performance of your employee, while interacting with a “specialist contributor” will have two effects.  Though there could be an initial drop in output (the social loafing effect), the specialist will peak their knowledge while interacting with your employee and the specialists absence after their interaction will kick your employee into a socially facilitated overdrive as they bounce back to being the sole contributor but with new, heightened expectations.  The addition of either a less or more capable contributor for a short period of time can be a useful strategy when you need to add a vital psychological kick to your team project.

You can also use social facilitation to improve your own skills by incorporating teaching or mentoring into your work processes.  Rather than dragging around extra weight as in a similarly-skilled team setting, teaching will provide an opportunity to facilitate and elevate your own skills while allowing those under your tutelage to develop their skills at a pace the is more appropriate to their capabilities.

The social loafing and facilitation phenomena can also be used as a way to evaluate the talent of your team when making staffing or team decisions.  By keeping a close eye on who is doing the bulk of the work, you can begin to develop a sense of how both the implicit and explicit skills, as well as the team’s beliefs about these skills, are organized.  Keeping tabs on your employee’s output through regular meetings, coupled with knowledge of the social loafing phenomenon, can also help you to understand who is truly delivering for your team

Social loafing and facilitation are powerful psychological phenomena that when properly understood can be used to dramatically improve the efficiency and performance of your high-performing teams.  If you have any questions about social loafing or any other psychological or social psychological ideas and their effects on your team, please feel free to contact Clarity.

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