You’ve hired some great talent. Most of them are meeting the challenge of this year’s disruptions.
They pushed past the overwhelm and pulled together to move forward.
But their performance still isn’t what you know it could be.
You also have one team member who seems to have slowed down. He isn’t putting in as much effort as he did in times past.
Do you have a social loafer on your team? If so, this may be the very reason your team isn’t performing to capacity.
Social loafing is a phenomenon that occurs in groups asked to pool their efforts to meet a common goal. Interestingly, individuals within the group tend to put forth less effort when this happens.
Researching why this happens first began with Max Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer.
Ringelmann observed that, although groups collectively outperformed individuals, these groups did not do as well as they could, had the individuals all performed to their individual capacity. In other words, individuals measured at one level of performance when working by themselves would reduce their productivity when they were placed in a group. For more on this, see Ringelmann’s Rope-Pulling Experiment.
How might this play out on your team? And what can you do about it?
Here are a few examples of social loafing I have encountered as I work with teams to elevate their performance.
1. Low expectations of team performance.
Susan had been a high performer and eager to make a difference. But I was called in to support her because, over time, her leader had noticed she was showing signs of disengagement.
“I meet deadlines, so what’s the problem?” asked Susan. “In past positions, I always got things done faster and could produce at a higher rate than my fellow team members. Why should I do this, now? And by the way, we are making goal, so I don’t see the problem.”
Susan’s assessment of her team members was faulty. After a deep-dive inquiry, I found that the entire group was made up of high achievers. Moreover, the team’s collective productivity had decreased because of Susan’s decision to slow down. In fact, it actually impacted their ability to meet the stretch goal of launching an additional new product. And at an organizational level, this product would have captured much more market share.
If you are a leader who sees a team member disengaging, act quickly to give them the support and accountability they need in order to thrive. This situation can otherwise greatly impact your organizational health and your ability to outperform your competitors.
2. Evaluation potential.
Mark secretly knew he had overrated his experience in order to get the job. He also knew instinctively that he could meet the requirements if given a chance. But Mark unwittingly overrated his abilities. When I met with Mark’s leader, she was confused.
“The team isn’t working to capacity,” Sharon shared. “I know COVID has thrown a wrench into the works, but we are well beyond the initial crisis state. I’m also noticing something disturbing. The team members work together more than usual on certain projects, which would normally be taken care of by individuals. What’s going on?”
What was happening? Mark was “hiding in the crowd,” and it had impacted the team’s performance. The crisis COVID had created allowed him to huddle with others more frequently and disguise his inability to perform. Whenever his area was tasked with an initiative and something felt out of his element or beyond his grasp, he would partner with one or two others to ask for their ideas. In the beginning, they appreciated the collegiality. But as time progressed, this dynamic prompted them to feel ownership in his area, and they would speak on his behalf or do part of Mark’s work. This dis-empowered Mark in the eyes of others. At the same time, it also affected the performance of those who shouldered with Mark when they should be focusing on their own areas. Were things getting done? Yes. Were the results as they could be? No. Social loafing induced a chronic mediocrity to which people became accustomed, labeling this stress from COVID conditions.
If you are a leader who sees too much teamwork (yes, this is possible!), it’s time to sit together and reassess how things are getting done. And if you have someone who is hiding in the crowd, this will quickly come to light.
3. Low value placed on the goal.
The goal may be attainable, but if your executive doesn’t see it as meaningful or relevant, they will not place their full energy into helping to achieve it.
James had been on the team for a couple of years when his leader, Bob, noticed James seemed disengaged. Further, he waited until the other executives weighed in on a particular decision, and then agreed with the majority, rather than to provide his own perspective. When I urged Bob to sit with James, this was an eye-opener.
“Patti, James wasn’t clear on how the goal related to the larger vision,” Bob shared. “It was as if he lost interest in helping to meet the goal because he couldn’t see the relevance.”
“Bob, you figured it out,” I responded. “James has been a social loafer. And you have pinpointed the problem. But you have a larger challenge, now. At his level, I’d expect James to speak up if he isn’t clear or is feeling disengaged. And he hasn’t done that. He has been coasting along, and you have lost a lot of valuable productivity from him. It will now be important for you to hold James accountable for speaking up when he isn’t clear on directives or a particular goal.”
These are just a handful of reasons that social loafing can occur on a team.
How do you begin to eliminate this so that your team can perform at optimal levels?
- Be sure that, when collective goals are identified, responsibilities for each individual team member’s role in this are distinctive, clearly defined, and well-articulated. Let the team members know they will each be evaluated, not only on the collective outcome, but also for their individual part in it.
- Establish how you will hold your team members accountable and set these expectations with them so you can catch any diminishing performance quickly and course-correct it. And ask yourself what information you need to receive on a regular basis in order to monitor and facilitate progress.
- Identify and quickly intervene when you suspect someone is “hiding in the crowd” or “coasting” for any other reason. Recognize that one person’s compromised performance affects the entire team, whether this is readily visible in the early stages or not.
If your team isn’t working to capacity, it’s your responsibility as leader to make the necessary shifts to rectify this. The difference between good performance and high performance may define your company’s future and its impact.
© Patti Cotton and patticotton.com. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that attribution is made to Patti Cotton and patticotton.com, with links thereto.
Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.