Management of Teams: Social loafing/social striving

May 10, 2021
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Fundamentally we all suspect that it is better to work alone than to work in a group. No matter how much we like our co-workers, we often feel that there are significant disadvantages to being constantly required to work with others (emotional and social load, peacekeeping and getting along, dividing responsibilities, relying on others, accepting and respecting others etc). Yet, everyone who has ever been employed has probably been required to work in a group or team. The use of teams in workplaces has dramatically expanded over the last 25 years. Even those who have traditionally maintained solitary working conditions, such as researchers, are now likely to be asked to join a team or a group to do their everyday work. Whether for the achievement of institutional level goals or unit level achievements, group work is now a common requirement of employment for pretty much everyone. But not all groups or teams are the same, some have more problems than others.

Social Loafing/Social Striving two halves of the same coin

One well known issue associated with groupwork activities is Social Loafing. Social loafing is broadly defined as when a person does less (loafs) when they are part of a group than they would do when they are working alone. The less well-known twin to social loafing is Social Striving. Social Striving is where a person does more (strives) when working in a group than they do working alone. As managers understanding what conditions lead to loafing and striving can make or break our effective use of teams in the workplace.

So, what can you do to limit social loafing and increase social striving?

The causes of striving and loafing in groups and teams are complex and multifaceted, but there are things that you can do when working with your teams to limit social loafing and increase social striving:

  1. Assign a Leader and a Team, not “groups”
    Groups are, by definition, people who have a common interest but have come together for their own individual purposes. Whereas teams are people who have come together for a common goal and have assigned tasks, roles, and expectations. Assigning a leader tends to reduce loafing, as does having people work in assigned teams rather than self-defining groups.
  2. Increase positive rewards and avoid punishment.
    Identifying the positive behaviours within the team and rewarding this desirable behaviour is likely to have better long-term effects than actively punishing social loafers. Punishment for loafers tends to just result in greater levels of loafing in future activities.
  3. Construct incentives and evaluations that measure both the team output and individual contributions. 
    Identifying the personal efforts of the people in your teams discourages social loafing and increases social striving by highlighting each person’s unique contribution. This both rewards them as an individual and holds them accountable for their actions within the group.
  4. Use teams for complex multifaceted tasks but not for limited simple tasks.
    The complexity and difficulty of a task has an impact on behaviour. The more complex or difficult the less likely people are to loaf when working in a group, but conversely the simpler the more likely. This makes sense, the reason why we should be using groups is to tackle tasks that are unlikely to be successfully solved by an individual.

It is important to remember that social loafing in teams is not always a bad thing, people cannot strive all the time, this leads to “burn-out”. Sometimes people loaf as a self-protective measure, reducing their participation to reduce their individual cognitive load or stress load at any given point in time. It is only a problem when it is the same person all the time.

If you are interested in some of the research behind social loafing and social striving take a look at:

Simms, A., & Nichols, T. (2014). Social loafing: a review of the literature. Journal of Management Policy and Practice15(1), 58.

Miller, R. L. (2013). Social Striving. The Encyclopedia of Cross‐Cultural Psychology3, 1207-1210.

Written By Cassandra McCreadie. Cassandra is a business and professional development professional with 15 years experience at the forefront of Education at multiple institutions.

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