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Social Loafing – Free-Riders Vs Suckers

December 2, 2017

Regarding to the fact that I’m a project manager I work with teams and team members most of my time. I’m also very keen on learning agile methodologies, hence I’m learning about Scrum at the moment. While reading a book about Scrum I came across a very interesting topic that drew my attention.

We can probably all agree that large teams with more than 10 people can be very unproductive because they provide a wonderful camouflage to lazy people. If you have ever worked in a large team you probably noticed that some team members were not working as efficient as they could. Why is that so? Some people have tendency to exert less effort when they believe there are others who will pick up the slack. The researchers call that phenomenon the Social Loafing. In short it says that the more people you throw at a problem, the less each contributes. In software development we have a well known Brook’s law which says that adding manpower to a late software project makes it even later.

The simple act of paying positive attention to people has a great deal to do with productivity. -Thomas J. Peters

Social loafing is also known as Ringelmann Effect, because it was first identified by French professor Maximilien Ringelmann in the 1913 when he measured the pressure exerted by individuals and teams pulling on a rope. He found that the sum of the individual pulls did not equal the total of the group pulls but it was less. For instance, group of eight people exhibited less than four times the individual average. The group result was much less then the sum of individual effort because the individual pulls harder alone than as part of a group.

Social loafing manifests in two ways:

Free-rider effect – some individuals reduce their effort when they realise that the performance of the group will not suffer because of their lack of effort

sucker effect – some individuals lower their effort in response to the free-riders attitude, to avoid being the “sucker”.

There are several ways to prevent the effects of social loafing within a group. Here are a few tips for avoiding social loafing:

Keep it small – a number of studies have shown that individual effort in inversely related to team size. Consequently, the ideal Scrum team size is five to nine individuals. For instance, Amazon refers to their teams as “two-pizza teams” meaning a team should be so small that can be fed with two pizzas.

Emphasize team importance – when the team (project) is important to its members they work harder. Management can boost the team’s morale by emphasizing the importance of the team and the value the team adds to the organization. Free-riding does not occur when team members feel that the project itself is important.

Increase task visibility – make sure everyone in a team knows that they can easily be evaluated by others. Scrum solved this problem with a Scrum daily meeting during which each team member provides answers to the following three questions: What did you do yesterday? What will you do today? Are there any impediments in your way?

Define responsibilities – roles and responsibilities have to very clear be defined upfront.

Social loafing is a behavior that organizations want to eliminate, because it has negative impact on performance of organizations. Social loafing is most abundant in the organizations and teams that lack simple and open communication and where individuals are constantly dealing with undefined project goals, tasks and responsibilities.

And the game between free-riders and suckers can begin…

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