How to Avoid “Social Loafing” on Your Next Project

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Successful collaboration isn’t just putting a group of skilled people together and hoping that they’ll pool their talents with outstanding results. It’s also not about using the best collaboration tools, though the right tools chosen for the right reasons can be helpful.

Before we even think about results or what tools we should use, we should start with the core of collaboration: the group itself. What challenges prevent the group and its members from performing optimally?

One of the problems with collaboration is that when it’s done without much planning, it leads to what’s called “social loafing,” where members of a group working together exert less effort than they would if they worked alone. This phenomenon is especially apparent in  face-to-face brainstorming sessions. To avoid this tendency, here are some aspects of the group that we should work on before embarking on a collaborative project:

  • Identifiability. In one study, one of the suggested causes of slacking off during group work is that individuals can hide in a crowd. To avoid this tendency, make each member of the team stand out. You can divide the tasks so that each person has his or her own individual deliverables that are easy to measure and evaluate.
  • Diversity. When we form groups or committees that will work on important projects, we tend to pick the “star players” or “big thinkers.” This is especially true in large organizations that have a lot of talent and manpower to draw from. But having intelligent individuals in a group doesn’t really seem to influence its performance. Also, according to several experiments, people tend to work harder if they expect some of their colleagues to perform poorly. So it’s important to create a group with members that have varying  skills and performance abilities.
  • Group size. Apart from supporting the points mentioned above, this paper from the Journal of Management shows that increased group size was related to increased social loafing. Keep group size to a minimum so that it’s easier to account for everyone’s work. The larger the group, the more each individual can hide behind its size. 37Signals suggests that a group of three is enough to start with for a software development project. Amazon is known for having two-pizza teams, which means that if two pizzas aren’t enough to feed the team, then the team is too large.
  • Group cohesiveness. Several sources also indicate that increasing the group’s cohesiveness helps to avoiding social loafing. This means that the members of your group should like each other and want to work together to pursue the same goals. They don’t have to be close friends, but they should experience a feeling of unity that makes them feel that slacking off would let down the rest of the group.

In your experience, what qualities should a team have to ensure that each member performs well?

Interested in learning more about how to get teams to collaborate effectively? Check out our Net:Work conference in San Francisco in December.

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