A Formal Study of Online Social Loafing

An important, but not always acknowledged, aspect of team work in social loafing or the tendency in some individuals on some teams to slack off and let others fill in the gaps. I think we’ve all experienced it from either end.

It’s not a pretty aspect of team work, but since it can impact overall performance, I’m glad there is research on this topic such as this article on social learning on online student teams. If nothing else, I think it gave me some real insights on why some conflicts seem to recur on almost every team and what I may be able to do to mitigate it.

In the “Literature Review” section, the author pointed out some findings from non-online teams, namely that:

  • Effect of Size – The larger the team, the larger the temptation to loaf. A smaller team may have more productive members than a large one.
  • Distributive Justice – Members who felt they were more likely to share in rewards and recognition were less likely to loaf.
  • Sucker Effect – Actually more like avoiding being a sucker. If a team member senses that they may be “stuck” with a lot of additional work from a social loafer, then that person will become resistant to taking on too much work (possibly to the point of loafing).
  • Task Visibility – Members who felt that outsiders (an instructor, supervisor, audience) were more likely to examine the final product were less likely to loaf.
  • Dominance – If a team leader or dominant team member devalues a member’s task/position/contribution, then loafing is more likely to increase. Interestingly, this can lead to a feedback loop because Dominant Person A can either try to do everything or assigning task elsewhere while Person B starts to loaf and gets a reputation of not being able to perform.

Do these sound familiar? They do to me. I think there are strategies a team leader can take to mitigate these such as making sure recognition comes to the entire team, taking on largish tasks if possible and understanding and acknowledging every member’s contribution (and maybe bring cookies every so often). Instructors in courses can build anti-social loafing strategies into team tutorials.

To these, I would also add that if you feel that some is “loafing”, it may be important to check with that person if something you don’t know about is going on. I remember scheduling a weekly meeting that a student was always late for only to find out he was leaving class on campus and trying to get downtown in 10 minutes – Oops.

I think the one thing that does NOT work is asking people to be “a better team player” without acknowledging that social loafing is a real and ever-present hazard of team work and a major source of conflict.

P.S. – I should point out that I think many of these findings assume that many team members are more extrinsically motivated (looking for external rewards) than intrinsically motivated (doing it for the love of it), but I think many teams in school and work are powered by extrinsic motivation. We can’t love all our duties/courses equally.

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