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Why Working in Groups at Work Doesn’t Work

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Sometimes I think if business leaders would spend more time paying attention in psychology class, we’d be living in the future. Today’s lesson is about freeloaders, which is a serious challenge for anyone at work.

First of all, I’ve pointed out plenty of times that well-established scientific research recommends the exact opposite of what many businesses do every day. That includes everything from working in an office to paying for performance to decision making.

So now it’s time to turn your psychology textbooks to the chapter on social loafing.


© Flickr user sbarkley

Here’s what the research says: In groups of people, individuals tend to put in less effort than if they were working on their own. That is, if you want to get something done and you can divide it up where everyone is working independently, you’re more likely to get the best possible outcome.

How can we know this? Experiments. The original study dates back over a hundred years to 1913, when Max Ringleman found that men hired to pull a rope did not work as hard collectively as they would individually. Similar studies have been done with all kinds of tasks from business projects to team building exercises.

So how can you reduce the social loafing effect? An article on the Psyblog advises:

Task importance. Studies have shown that when people think the task is important they do less. [Participants] worked harder if they thought the relevance of the task was high, thought they were in competition with another group and were encouraged to think the task was attractive.

Group importance. When the group is important to its members they work harder.

Decreasing the ‘sucker effect’. The sucker effect is that feeling of being duped when you think that other people in the group are slacking off. Reducing or eliminating this perception is another key to a productive group.

What does all of this mean? First of all, don’t make it a group project unless there’s a good reason to do so. And if you do, make sure people know why they are all being asked to work together. Build some camaraderie and purpose.

Otherwise, just divide up the work based on where people want to contribute and the unique skills they bring. That way, you’ll avoid loafers and get the best result in the end.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 18 hours ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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