Most of us have been part of a group project during our formative years that really solidified our hatred for them altogether. Not to mention when people are involved in group projects at their jobs in their (more) adult lives. While many people can thrive in group settings, it almost feels like individual participants’ effort gets a little watered down in group work settings versus when people are working on a project on their own. This concept is referred to as “social loafing.”

Social loafing is defined as “the concept that people are prone to exert less effort when working collectively as part of a group compared to performing a task alone.” In effect, it is that people work more diligently on something when their reputation or career are on the line, or there is more momentum to stand out amidst the crowd.

While we can certainly appreciate this effort, social loafing is said to reduce the amount of impact a group project could have. In fact, social loafing was initially identified by French agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann. His studies led him to find that people and animals in groups were not meeting their potential.

Any time an adult brings up a group project from their past, you can almost guarantee a sigh of disdain will come from one of the parties involved in the conversation. Each group project brings with it memories of people who steamrolled your ideas, projects that bombed because the wrong person was in charge, lazy schoolmates and coworkers and many more small traumas from group projects gone awry. Why does it feel like one or two people always control the narrative? Why is it that some people feel like they can slide by without contributing? Is this the best work you can all do, collectively?

People’s expectations of each other’s work based on previous experience can drastically shift how they view a group project. The Psychology Department at Purdue published findings supporting the existence of the concept of social loafing. “Individuals loafed when they expected their co-workers to perform well or when no expectations were provided but did not loaf when they expected their co-workers to perform poorly. However, effort levels were not significantly higher collectively than coactively when participants expected their co-workers to perform poorly.” When everyone is valued and feels good about the project, the environment tends to attract more innovative ideas and employee confidence.

So, what does this mean for the workplace? If social loafing is, indeed, real, then it would be wise to carefully consider how you manage projects.

Social Loafing Solutions

Determine if the project is meant for a team or a team player

If a project would do fine with just one person on it, do you really need to involve the entire design team? Perhaps having a department meeting and then assigning the project to just one or two people is a concept that would drive innovation your workplace.

Some work environments or groups of people are more susceptible to different creative styles. So, people who work on their own may end up being more successful because all of the pressure is on them. You truly cannot know for sure unless you try it out. Consider a couple of upcoming projects that could be used as trials to examine different brainstorming and working solutions.

Create mini-challenges

If you are managing a project that requires many hands on deck, there are solutions to when the project feels uninspired. If you are facing social loafing with your project, consider creating mini-challenges that focus more on each individual colleague invested in the project itself.

For example, perhaps you ask everyone to come up with three ideas to pitch on a social media content deck for a potential client and send them to you by the end of the week. Or perhaps you have a few projects coming up and want to have everyone pitch ideas they are into or handle solutions in a creative way. You could even go as far as to promise free coffee–or another perk like paid time off (PTO) – for those whose ideas end up on the final deck. This way, everyone has a shot at a friendly (and anonymous) competition that could help them bring their A-game to the next meeting instead of relying on others for ideas and solutions.

Lead with empathy

No matter how you choose to manage the project, ensure that the needs of your workers are being met. Lead with empathy. Listen to your workers, examine their needs at this moment in their lives and help them identify solutions to their challenges. Whether you choose to make a project a group effort or assign it to one person, leading with empathy guarantees success, adding value to your working relationships regardless.

Perhaps you’ve found, through your experimentation on group work versus one-worker projects, that a select few work well isolated. Is there a way to work complete alone time – or a remote work solution, if it does not exist already – in their work environment?

Celebrate your team members

Even when you are facing a group project or team environment, remember that celebrating individual successes along with group wins can really help boost team morale. Taking time to point out individual wins will better enable each person on your team to feel valued and excited about their work.

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