Teams are an integral part of all organisations. Without an aligned team it's almost impossible to achieve the strategic aspirations that have been envisioned by the leaders at the top. Our commonly held belief is that what a team can achieve an individual can't. We also believe that in high-performing teams the outcome is greater than the sum of contributions made by individual members. However, this always not the case. A team's performance can suffer because individuals do not deliver in accordance to expectations. Such individuals can let the entire team down. There are two primary scenarios when it comes to team members delivering sub-par performances.
Most of us have seen occasions when individuals working in a team put in less effort than they would have done when working alone. Their individual contribution is much less than their full capacity.
When the group size is large, individuals get lost and the importance of their role seems diminished.
This phenomenon is called "social loafing". Here the individual is less motivated while working in a group and puts in lower amount of effort. The first research on this was done about 100 years ago by a French Agriculture professor named Max Ringelmann who found that group members in a rope-pulling experiment put in less effort than they would have done while working alone. Hence, this is also called the "Ringelmann Effect". Social psychology researchers have subsequently replicated these findings.
There can be several reasons for social loafing. One could be that individuals don't see how their work will impact the final outcome of the group. Also, when the group size is large, individuals get lost and the importance of their role seems diminished. People slacken when they see that irrespective of their effort there is no change in reward. They think, why not get away by doing the minimum? Sometimes team members feel less responsible for what they are supposed to do. This happens because the team size is large and no one knows what others are doing. Also, when size increases, the level of coordination reduces and we don't nudge others to do what they are supposed to do. Social loafing also happens when individuals have something more pressing on their plate and don't give sufficient time to the group effort. Members also don't give their all when there is no standard of performance and there is no one to hold them accountable. Besides, they may observe others slacking and thus decide to follow suit!
Individuals who make no contribution to a team are called "free-riders". The term "free-rider" is from the world of economics and refers to individuals who use common resources without paying for them. For example, a citizen may enjoy the use of roads, free education and subsidised healthcare without paying taxes.
Many of us have been part of teams where the bulk of the work is done by a few people while others just float around without adding value.
Teams too sometimes have free-riders who get by without doing anything. Many of us have been part of teams where the bulk of the work is done by a few people while others just float around without adding value. Such people usually operate on the principles that their efforts are not required and they can get away with it. The other reason is because nobody has called out this behaviour. With such members in the group, overall productivity of the team goes down and those who have been high performers slowly converge towards the group average. Unlike social loafers, free-riders believe that they are dispensable and their effort is not required.
Clearly, both the above types of people are disastrous for a team. It not only impacts the team performance but also degrades its culture. Yes, there are instances where some team members pick up the slack and keep the overall performance up to par, but this is not sustainable over a long period of time. It is essential, therefore, to solve the problems of "social loafing" and "free-riding" in a team.
Dealing with the dead weight
Here are some strategies that can help deal with social loafing and free-riding in a team.
- Make sure all members in the team feel their work is meaningful and know how it contributes to the big picture of the organisation.
- Define clear ways of working for the team, clearly listing "acceptable" and "unacceptable" behaviours.
- Hold each other accountable. If someone is behaving like a free-rider, call them out.
- Ensure all members have a clear role with sharp deliverables that can be measured.
- Keep the team size small. You can read more about the advantages of this in this post.
- It helps if the team has a distinct identity that the members enjoy associating with.
- Provide regular feedback to team members
- Rotate the leadership of the team so that everyone is on top of what's happening.
- Don't wait for problems to happen. If you see the beginnings of dysfunctional patterns, take immediate action.