Are you guilty of social loafing?

We've all had those colleagues who seem to skate by without... doing any actual work.

You, on the other hand, are flat out. Of course you'd like to take a moment to sit back and relax, but the work just needs to get done... and so, you pick up the slack.

You might be burnt out, overworked and resentful... meanwhile your colleague seems to be doing just fine, and... very little.

This isn't at all an uncommon occurrence. In fact, the irritating work habits of your free-loading work mate actually has a name: social loafing.

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Video via Mamamia.

Put simply, 'social loafing' is a term used to describe people putting in (much less) effort when they're in a group situation.

It's something a lot of us probably first experienced in school, after being assigned to a group project with a few classmates (there was always that one kid who did nothing right?!). 

While one person in the group coasted along, dodging their portion of the assignment, others (you?!) drowned in the workload of several people. Because ultimately, the assignment was judged as a whole, and everyone would receive the same mark – with no extra points given to those who worked harder (and no ramifications for those who sat back and enjoyed the free ride). 

It's annoying enough in the classroom, but this kind of behaviour at work can be extremely problematic – and many of us have experienced it.


"I've definitely had to pick up the slack for others at work before," Lara tells Mamamia. "And I caught up with a friend the other night who's recently resigned, and told me that at her company, there was a handful of people who just didn't do the work they were meant to do. She and a few other team members were constantly working late to cover their arses, making sure the work got done."

Social loafing at its finest. 

Okay, so why does social loafing happen?

There's a scientific explanation for social loafing – research has found that the size of a group can have a pretty significant impact on how the group performs, and that putting people to work in a big group usually leads to at least half of the participants not pulling their weight.


According to the study, people put in a lot more effort when they're working by themselves or in a smaller group. Which makes sense, if you think about it – when you're the only person working on a project, and its success rests on your shoulders alone, it's pretty obvious who's in the firing line if it doesn't get done.

But when put into larger groups, these researchers found that, while people felt a lot of pressure to look busy, they didn't feel the need to do the actual work. Hmm.

That... kind of sucks?

But it's a phenomenon that's been seen in studies since, and let's be honest, it's a dynamic a lot of us have seen play out in the office.

Researchers Steven J. Karau and Kipling D. Williams also explained that this behaviour happens when people don't see the value in the goal they're working towards, or don't believe their contribution will make a difference. Both these factors decrease a person's motivation to try when in a group setting, which adds up to them being less likely to help much (if at all).


In the end, though, it leaves those trying to collaborate with a social loafer incredibly frustrated, possibly resentful and potentially burnt out.

How to stop a social loafer.

When one or two people aren't pulling their weight, it can have a serious impact on group performance and efficiency, so for everyone's sanity (and a calm work environment), it's the kind of thing you want to nip in the bud. And yes, it absolutely is possible.

"Social loafing isn’t inevitable," writes social psychologist Ron Friedman. "It happens when responsibilities are ambiguous and collaborators aren’t clear on where their role ends and another’s begins." So, make sure everybody on the team is super clear on exactly what they need to do to fulfil their part of the project.

Another potential issue? The tendency some of us have to pick up the slack can actually enable the loafers to keep... loafing!

"Some people slack because they feel their efforts don’t matter and the job is going to get done with or without their efforts," writes Shawn Meghan Burn, a Professor of Psychology. "Ironically, workhorses can enable this perception. By jumping in and doing so much of the group’s work (or redoing others' work), other members feel unneeded and sometimes, unwanted." 

So once you've established those clear guidelines about who's doing what, try taking a hands-off approach and give the social loafer a chance to shine. Take a step back and ask yourself: have they been given the chance to take control of their part of the project? Have they had the opportunity to contribute? 

"Loafers may even assume that the workhorse likes doing most of the work," adds Burn. "They’re surprised when the workhorse suddenly whinnies about others’ lack of participation."

Feature Image: Getty/Mamamia.

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