What Is Social Loafing in the Workplace?

Social loafing hurts the performance of work groups.
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Work groups sometimes fail to live up to their potential for no other reason than some people pulled when they should have pushed. However, social loafing can also play a role in preventing work groups from reaching their potential. In this case, an employee consciously or unconsciously chooses to exert less effort when working as part of a group than when working alone.

Individual Anonymity

    Social loafing occurs in part because an employee believes that other group members won't recognize his personal contribution to the group's objectives. Steven Breckler writes in “Social Psychology Alive” that the less likely it is that a group can attribute a particular accomplishment to one member, the more likely it is that he will engage in social loafing. As a result, as the size of a work group increases, the number of people exhibiting social loafing behavior, as well as the degree of social loafing, may increase.

Group Capabilities

    Breckler suggests that employees may commit social loafing regardless of the work activity. For example, employees may be as willing to shirk their responsibilities in brainstorming sessions as in more complex tasks, such as monitoring a technical system or completing employee evaluations. In all instances, the employee may justify the social loafing with a belief that other group members have the capabilities and commitment to complete the task; therefore, his limited commitment to a group project will not be noticed. Perhaps it is this belief that enables a social loafer to do as Donelson Forsythe describes in “Group Dynamics,” which is to claim he is putting forth his best effort even if objective evidence suggests he is loafing.

Group Objective

    Breckler states that the more an employee identifies with a group objective or becomes engaged in work processes, the less likely he will commit social loafing. In fact, a 2009 study by the Corporate Leadership Council found that a 10 percent improvement in employee commitment increased the employee's level of discretionary effort by 6 percent and performance by 2 percent. This research also indicated that the performance of highly committed employees exceeded that of non-committed employees by 20 percent.

Group Cohesiveness

    According to Breckler, the cohesiveness of an employee's work group also affects the likelihood that he will engage in social loafing. When the employee works with friends or others he admires, he is motivated to perform well, rather than poorly. As a result, the more the employee values participation in a particular group, the less likely he will engage in social loafing. This assumption is confirmed by the 2011 study, “Effects of Workplace Friendship on Employee Job Satisfaction, Organizational Citizenship Behavior, Turnover Intention, Absenteeism, and Task Performance.” It found that workplace friendships positively affect the attitudes and behaviors of workers. This study revealed that, of the 51 percent of the employees who worked with a best friend, 100 percent stated they “worked with a passion” and felt a “profound connection to the company.”

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