Monday, June 8, 2009

Harnessing the power of group productivity

Does the number of people in a group improve the group’s productivity or does it just enable more in the group to slack off?

The authors at PsyBlog explained the answer in a post about the psychological effects group dynamics can have on productivity. It turns out that many workers will use the cover of group work to slack off.

Psychologists call the workplace phenomenon social loafing. And it’s the reason why you may want to think twice the next time you start adding more employees to a group when you want them to complete more work.

Since the idea was introduced in the 1890s, researchers have fount that social loafing can affect people in a wide range of group settings. From pulling ropes to yelling and even clapping, when people were in groups of six or larger their output was only one-third of what it was on their own.

The author does note that the findings don’t necessarily translate to groups focused on knowledge-based production:

For example a group problem-solving session relies on the brains of the best people in the group - social loafing wouldn't necessarily reduce productivity in this group as markedly.

However, it may be easy to find examples of social loafing in our own group work or in the actions of a former group member.

Why do people slack off in groups?

Standard explanations for the social loafing effect involve three main factors:
  • Expectations - That person is probably slacking off, so I can slack off too.
  • Anonymity - When the work is spread out, so is the blame.
  • Standards - Most groups fail to establish clear standards, so some will be confused about how much they need to do.

Understanding the reasons behind social loafing can help us reduce it. Here’s how the author suggests deterring it:

  • Task importance. If workers think the task is important enough, they’ll work harder and slack off less.
  • Group importance. When workers can identify with the group or feel a better sense of belonging, they’re less likely to partake in social loafing.
  • Understanding workloads. Or as the author explains it, the “sucker effect” is when you feel misled when you think others in the group are slacking off. Understanding that everyone has a responsibility can eliminate such feelings.

Unfortunately, most of us have either been guilty of slacking off in a group setting or have had to deal with a social loafer at one time or another. Knowing how to deal with those slackers can make a big difference in the group’s productivity.

How do you deter employees from “social loafing” in group work settings? What have you found that worked or failed to keep employees contributing equally?

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