Social Loafing in Teams
Developed by Lærke Viuff Petersen, Spring 2022
It is assumed that working with others in a group has an energizing effect, causing people to work hard. But this only occurs when collective efforts are rewarded and if the people are ready to cooperate with each other. Unfortunately, what is experienced in group work can be completely different, as people are not always willing to do their best. Therefore, they inhibit themselves from making a significant contribution, while remaining unnoticed by the rest of the group.
One of the roles of a project, program, or portfolio manager is to motivate the team and make sure they perform at their best and contribute to the work . However, this can be challenging due to non-contributing team members, a concept also known as social loafing. This effect which despite having been studied for years, has recently become popular due to the need for organizations to understand underperformance and loss of productivity.
Social loafing is a social psychology theory that describes the loss of individual motivation while working in a group or team, as opposed to working alone. This loss of motivation leads to a reduction in performance and effort exerted by the individual in the team .
This article will introduce the concept of social loafing and the underlying theories that explain the phenomenon and the factors affecting it. Furthermore, the relation to project, program, and portfolio management will be described as well as practical ways of reducing the effect of social loafing. Lastly, limitations of the theory and the research will be explored.
Social Loafing and Motivation
Social loafing is a social psychology theory that describes “the reduction in motivation and effort when individuals work collectively compared with when they work individually or coactively”  Social loafing is, thereby, a concept that affects individual motivation, group dynamics, and team performance.
According to the PMBOK guide, people perform better when motivated and are motivated by different factors. They describe motivation as being either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual, i.e., the feeling of achievement or the feeling of making a difference, while extrinsic motivation is found from an external source, i.e., praise or bonuses. Knowing how to motivate project team members is an important task of the project manager as it can elicit more effective engagement, higher team performance, and thereby better project outcomes .
Social loafing refers to a motivation loss and can be explained by several different theories, described later in the article. The opposite of social loafing is a gain of motivation, referred to as either the Köhler effect or social compensation. These effects describe the tendency to exert more effort into a project, when you expect the teammates to perform moderately better at a task than you, or when you expect them to perform worse than you on what you deem as an important task .
The first experiment of social loafing was done in the 1880s by a French agricultural engineer called Max Ringelmann. He conducted a series of experiments where groups of varying sizes were to pull a rope while he measured the total pulling force. He had expected that the total pulling force would increase with the same amount when increasing the number of group members, as the total pulling force would be the sum of the individuals’ performance. However, he found that when the group size increased the newly added pulling force was increasingly less. This has been named the Ringelmann effect.
This was explained by either a coordination loss by the participants in larger groups or by a motivation loss. In the 1970s these explanations were separated and evidence of motivation loss in groups was found, and thereby the term social loafing was substantiated. Since then, a lot of research and experiments on the topic have been conducted, to find the causes and ways of reducing the phenomenon .
Theories of Social Loafing
The explanation for the concept of social loafing can be found in different social psychology theories. In 1993 Karau and Williams published an article called “Social Loafing: A Meta-Analytical Review and Theoretical Integration” where they analyzed 78 previous studies on social loafing and interpreted them into a model. The study presents different theories that could explain the concept of social loafing as well as the model they created. Five of these theories and the model they created will be summarized in the following section using both the article from Karau and Williams and a chapter in a book written by Karau. 
Social Impact Theory
In the social impact theory, people are seen as either a source or a target of social influence, and the amount of social influence depends on the strength, immediacy, and the number of sources and targets present. The number of sources increases the social impact while the number of targets reduces it. By working alone as a target, all the social influence of outside sources is directed at you, however, in a group setting the source of social influence is divided on to the different team members or targets. Therefore, the amount of responsibility experienced by the individuals in a team is less than when working individually. Social loafing will, therefore, be more present in larger groups as opposed to smaller ones .
The arousal reduction theory is an extension of the social impact theory. Again, people can either serve as sources or co-targets of social impact, with the distinguishment between coactive and collective tasks. In a coactive task, individuals work alone in the presence of others that act as a source of influence. In a collective task, individuals work together and serve as co-targets of social impact. The theory argues that when performing a simple task individuals perform better when working coactively, while the opposite is true for complex tasks .
The evaluation potential theory proposes that social loafing is more likely to occur when it is not possible to identify the work of the individual. Working in a team can allow the individual to feel more anonymous and thereby not be made directly responsible for a bad outcome. On the other hand, it also comes with a loss of individual credit, which can lower the motivation of the person. Therefore, a reduction in social loafing can be made by making the individuals’ work in a team identifiable .
Dispensability of Effort
The dispensability of effort theory suggests that individuals may exert less effort when working in teams as they feel that their inputs to the group work are not essential in achieving a high-quality end result, meaning that their work is dispensable. However, this reduction in effort can happen even though the individual's work is identifiable, and it, therefore, contradicts the evaluation potential theory .
Matching of Effort
The matching of effort theory suggests that when working in a team, people tend to match their teammates' efforts. Thereby social loafing occurs when individuals think that others in the group are going to slack. This follows research done about job attitudes, where it was found that individuals’ attitudes and motivation towards a task were highly influenced by their co-workers .
Collective Effort Model
Based on the different theories of social loafing from the meta-analytical review, a model of individual motivation in groups was created by Karau and Williams called the Collective Effort Model (CEM). It is based on an individual-level expectancy-value model of effort created by Vroom with added elements from the social identity and self-evaluation theories. In the original model, the motivation is dependent on three factors; expectancy, instrumentality, and valence. Theses terms are described as: "(a) expectancy, or the degree to which high levels of effort are expected to lead to high levels of performance, (b) instrumentality, or the degree to which high-quality performance is perceived as instrumental in obtaining an outcome, and (c) valence of the outcome, or the degree to which the outcome is viewed as desirable."
The CEM is an expansion of this for motivation on collective tasks as Karau and Williams found that motivation in collective tasks was not as simple as individual tasks and that collective tasks included more contingencies or barriers. Because of these extra contingencies, individuals are more likely to engage in social loafing on collective tasks. Based on the studies done previously, they found other factors that affected motivation in groups that did not affect individual motivation. For example, the performance of other group members and the diffusion of group outcome on the different group members. Also cultural, personality, situational, and individual differences affected the motivation as well as group variation. 
Factors Affecting Social Loafing
Several different factors affecting social loafing have been determined through experimental studies. These factors and the implications will be described in the following section.
A decrease in social loafing is found when the task value increases. This follows the intrinsic motivation model, as the motivation will increase if the team member feels that the project is important or that they are making a difference. As an example, a research and development team is less likely to loaf, than a team working on a routine job, as the intrinsic value is greater for the research and development team .
An increase in social loafing is found the more redundant the contribution of a team member is. This means that the more unique the task is, the tendency to loaf is decreased. Therefore, social loafing is more prevalent in monodisciplinary teams as opposed to multidisciplinary teams. In monodisciplinary teams, everyone is capable of the same and their role can thereby feel redundant, whereas the roles in a multidisciplinary team are unique .
A decrease in social loafing is found when the individuals in the team are evaluated, given feedback or when their work is identifiable. This follows the evaluation potential theory. If the individual’s work is not identifiable, there is a loss of responsibility and thereby it is easier to loaf .
A decrease in social loafing is found when the group value increases. Group value could include more familiar team members, high group cohesion, or strong group identity. When the group feels valuable to the individual, it is seen as more desirable to stay in the group and the individual will therefore be less likely to loaf. .
An increase in social loafing is found when increasing the group size. This is found as the responsibility is divided onto several people in larger groups, following the social impact theory, and it is, therefore, easier for the individual to hide in the crowd. A reduction of social loafing is therefore found in smaller groups .
The effect of social loafing is found to be higher for western cultures compared to eastern cultures. This is explained by eastern cultures being more collectively oriented than western cultures. A study was conducted that found that Israeli and Chinese participants worked harder on group tasks, whereas the American participants worked harder on individual tasks .
The effect of social loafing is found to be higher for men compared to women. This is again explained by women being more collectively oriented than men .
Expectations of Others
A decrease in social loafing is found when they expect other team members to perform badly. In a study, they found that when team members announced that they were going to work hard other team members were more likely to loaf, and opposite when they announced, they were not going to work hard, the other team members loafed less .
The effect of social loafing is found to be less in people who score high in need for achievement or work ethic. It is also found that individuals who feel superior to others are more likely to loaf compared to individuals with average self-beliefs. This is thought to be because the individual who feels superior believes that a lower effort will be enough for them to produce an adequate performance .
The effect of social loafing is found to be less with higher communication quality. In a study, it was found that more than 53% of the variance in social loafing could be explained by communication quality and task cohesion. They found that this could be because open and honest communication allows the individuals to easier express their contribution to the project, and thereby increase the evaluation potential. Furthermore, it allowed the individuals to feel heard and valued by the other team members .
Social Loafing in Project, Program, and Portfolio Management
Most tasks in organizations are done collectively, so teams are ubiquitous in both project, program, and portfolio management. A study conducted by Kirkman et al. in 1996 asked 486 employees that worked in teams what their three biggest worries about working in a team were. Here, evidence was found that one of the biggest worries was social loafing, as 25 percent of the comments made were about social loafing. For example, the employees worried about having to work extra to compensate for slower team members. Therefore, the challenge of social loafing is important and deserves attention, in order to improve the performance of team members. To do this, the manager needs to understand the causes of social loafing, when to consider it, and ways of reducing it. 
When comparing what has been described in this article to the ISO standard 21502, the challenge of social loafing can be found in resource management, specifically human resources. Therefore, an impact on social loafing could be made when establishing, developing, and managing the team. When establishing the team, team members are chosen, and the roles and responsibilities are divided. Here, the project manager should consider skills, expertise, culture, cost, and group dynamics. As mentioned before, some of these are factors in the level of social loafing and could thereby impact the effect of social loafing. However, the project manager is not always in control of choosing the team members. Therefore, in the development of the team phase, the aim is to help the team members work in a cohesive and collaborative manner. In the development of the team, it can be necessary to try and improve the performance and interactions of the team members, to enhance teamwork and motivation. The aim of managing the team is to keep them motivated and make them feel involved and make sure they perform at their best. The project manager’s job is to optimize the team members’ performance by i.e. providing feedback and encouraging collaborative work . This follows the evaluation potential theory that describes a motivational loss with the lack of feedback, and thereby more social loafing.
Reducing Social Loafing
Based on the underlying theories and studies of social loafing described in this article, practical initiatives for the project manager can be identified. These initiatives can be used when establishing, developing, and managing the team to reduce the effect of social loafing.
- Create smaller teams
- Create multidisciplinary teams
- Include people with high work ethics
- Include women and people from eastern cultures
- Make sure the team members are familiar and have a strong group identity
- Make sure the project is important to the team
- Create unique tasks and roles within the team that are essential
- Make the individual team members’ work identifiable
- Give individual credit and feedback
- Have open and honest communication
Social loafing is a phenomenon that has been observed in more than 130 experimental studies. It has been tested on different types of tasks and by different populations and is thought to be a very robust social phycological concept .
However, the way that the experiments have been conducted has been criticized. Most of the studies done on social loafing rely on laboratory groups as opposed to real-life groups. Laboratory groups are randomly picked groups in controlled settings, with a limited existence, thereby they do not have a past or a future. They are also not embedded in organizations as groups normally would be in the real world and are only set to perform one simple task. Most of the studies are done with students, so less is known about social loafing in organizational teams with more complex tasks. It is therefore not possible to predict how people would act on multiple tasks; if a person will loaf on one project and then compensate in another, or if people are less inclined to loaf if they know they have to work with the same people on a future project. A study was conducted about social loafing with real life groups, where the members had known each other for at least 6 months. 16 conditions were tested where the groups either were with or without goals, communication, rewards, or collectivist values. Here, they only found evidence of social loafing 1 in the 16 conditions. Therefore, more experiments with real-life groups are needed to get a fully comprehensive view of social loafing .
Another way studies have been done is either by the participants self-reporting whether they social loaf or by the perception of whether team members social loaf. A study showed that 3.7% admitted to personally engage in social loafing while 35.7% believe that the others in their group were socially loafing. This difference in numbers indicates that people are less likely to admit to social loafing and the results of self-reporting studies can, therefore, be underestimated.  Therefore, the best way to conduct studies with social loafing would be to use real-life teams with objective reporting.
Most of the core research about social loafing was done in the 1970s and 1980s but articles are still being published about the topic. Then the studies were more about the causes and factors, while today the research is more focused on social loafing in different industries and with different technology. For example, social loafing in human-robot interactions and social loafing in virtual teams have been studied recently.  However, the understanding of social loafing and technology is still limited, so more research needs to be done. The knowledge about social loafing keeps evolving and new factors and ways of reducing social loafing keep getting proved or disproved.
- Karau, S. & Williams, K. (1993). Social Loafing: A Meta-Analytic Review and Theoretical Integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681-706.
This article is a meta-analytical review of 78 studies done about social loafing. In the article, they summarize the classical theories of social loafing and go through the characteristics and results of the previous literature. They use the analytical review to create the Collective Effort Model that is described in this article.
- Karau, S. J., Wilhau, A. J. (2020) Chapter 1 – Social Loafing and Motivation Gains in Groups: An Integrative Review. Karau, S. J. Individual Motivation within Groups. Academic Press. Pages 3-51. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-849867-5.00001-X
This is a chapter in a book about individual motivation within groups. It gives an in-depth overview of social loafing, the classical theories, the factors that affect it, and motivation gains in groups. It is written by one of the same authors as the meta-analytical review, so it covers some of the same topics, but is newer and, therefore, includes more recent studies.
- Rutte, C. G. (2008) Chapter 17 – Social Loafing in Team. International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working. wiley. Pages 361-378. DOI: 10.1002/9780470696712.ch17
This is a chapter in the International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working. The chapter covers social loafing in relation to teams and organizations. It also covers some of the theories of social loafing and describes possible remedies against social loafing in teams.
- ↑ Gil, Francisco. n.d. ‘Social Loafing’
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 Project Management: ISO 21502 (2021 Edition)
- ↑ 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 Rutte, C. G. (2008) Chapter 17 – Social Loafing in Team. International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working. wiley. Pages 361-378. DOI: 10.1002/9780470696712.ch17
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Karau, S. & Williams, K. (1993). Social Loafing: A Meta-Analytic Review and Theoretical Integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681-706.
- ↑ Project Management: A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide), 7th edition (2021)
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 Karau, S. J. (2012) Social Loafing (and Facilitation). Encyclopedia of Human Behavior: Second Edition. Elsevier Inc. Pages 486-492. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-375000-6.00335-9
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 Lærke Viuff Petersen (2022)
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Karau, S. J., Wilhau, A. J. (2020) Chapter 1 – Social Loafing and Motivation Gains in Groups: An Integrative Review. Karau, S. J. Individual Motivation within Groups. Academic Press. Pages 3-51. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-849867-5.00001-X
- ↑ Lam, C. (2015) The Role of Communication and Cohesion in Reducing Social Loafing in Group Projects. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. Vol. 78(4), pages 454-475. DOI: 10.1177/2329490615596417
- ↑ 11.0 11.1 Rober, L. P. (2020) Behavior‒output control theory, trust and social loafing in virtual teams. Multimodal Technologies and Interaction. Volume 4, Issue 3, page 1-22. DOI: 10.3390/mti4030039
- ↑ Onnasch, L.; Panayotidis, T. (2020) Social Loafing with Robots – An Empirical Investigation Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting Volume 64, Issue 1, page 97-101