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Why social loafing is more about clarity than productivity

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia Martins
January 26th, 2024
5 min read
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Social loafing is the idea that some people put in less effort when they’re judged as part of a group. But the truth is, no one wants to do a bad job. In this article, we explore how perceived social loafing is actually a symptom of a different problem—lack of clarity. Read on to learn how to boost clarity at work and empower your team members to get their best work done.

We all remember the dreaded group project from school. No matter who was in the group or what the project was about, it always felt like one person ended up doing less than the rest of us. Yet at the end of the project, everyone got the same grade for the group work, with no negative consequences. 

It can be really frustrating to feel like a team member did less work than you and yet still received the same grade or credit. This phenomenon is called “social loafing”—the idea that some people put in less effort in a group setting. According to social psychology, social loafing occurs when there is a diffusion of responsibility and a shift of focus from individual performance to group performance.

Social loafing during school group projects is one thing. The big question is: does social loafing really happen in the workplace? And if it does, how can you empower your team members to get their best work done—even if they’re working in a group setting? 

What is social loafing?

Social loafing is the perceived psychological phenomenon that team members do less in a group setting. The social loafing effect states that individuals don’t pull their own weight when they’re judged as part of a group. 

Download: Aligning teamwork to your organization’s mission

Where does social loafing come from? 

Max Ringelmann first described the social loafing phenomenon in 1913. A French agricultural engineer by trade, Ringelmann discovered social loafing by asking a number of people to tug on a rope. He measured that individuals put more effort when they tugged individually than when they pulled as a group. What was first dubbed the Ringelmann effect was later renamed social loafing.

Social loafing has been extensively studied. In the article Many Hands Make Light the Work: The Causes and Consequences of Social Loafing, Bibb Latané, Kipling Williams, and Stephen Harkins measured the volume of sound individuals produced while clapping and shouting—both when they were by themselves and in a group. Their research found that the larger the group size, the less effort each individual put in. They believed this was because bigger groups meant less social pressure on each member of the group. Later in 1993, Steven Karau and Kipling Williams proposed that social loafing was caused by individuals feeling less connected to the reward or credit they would receive at the end of a project. 

The social loafing myth 

Playing tug of war or shouting in a group may in fact reduce individual effort. But these studies don’t translate directly to the modern workplace, and comparing simple exercises to our always-on working environment doesn’t fully represent what the modern knowledge worker actually experiences.

Teamwork and group work aren’t the cause of reduced individual contributions. The real culprit? Lack of clarity. When knowledge workers don’t have clarity into what they are working on or how that work is impacting their company, they can’t effectively prioritize or execute on high-impact work. This is a huge contributor to burnout, which 71% of global knowledge workers reported experiencing at least once in 2020. Of those knowledge workers, one in three reported feeling burnt out and overworked from a lack of clarity on tasks and roles. 

So if your team member seems to be underperforming or under participating, they aren’t a social loafer—they could actually be struggling. Figuring out what is impacting their productivity or motivation can help them get better work done. Ultimately, this will also help ensure each individual feels more comfortable and supported at work. 

Download: Aligning teamwork to your organization’s mission

4 steps to providing clarity at work 

The truth is, no one wants to do a bad job. What we perceive as social loafing is actually a symptom of a lack of clarity or motivation. To help your team members succeed and get their best work done, here are four ways to provide more clarity and context at work.

1. Identify who’s doing what by when

The first thing you can do to provide clarity and alignment on your team is to identify who’s doing what by when on every project or task. Go through the tasks and projects on your team—is there anything that has more than one owner? Without a clear, singular owner on each piece of work, team members can get confused about who is responsible for that work. 

This lack of clarity can mean delayed or unfinished work. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, 27% of missed deadlines are caused by unclear processes. In fact, at Asana, we feel so strongly that each task should only ever be assigned to one person that we’ve built it into our product.

For example, imagine you’re on a content team, and you and a coworker are writing an ebook together. Without a clear understanding of who owns what, you might end up getting delayed or failing to alert the designer that the copy is ready to be staged—simply because neither of you technically owned that work. Alternatively, both of you might try to communicate with the designer about the work, which could lead to confusion and lack of clarity. 

Lack of clarity of roles, ownership, and deliverables is fueling a rise in duplicative work—teams are spending 13% of their time on work that’s already been completed. That adds up to 236 hours per year lost to duplication efforts. Clear processes and ownership can help you avoid this, and instead spend more time on unique, high-impact projects.

2. Coordinate work in one centralized tool

Not only do you need clarity about who’s doing what—and by when—you also need a way to track all of that information. If each team member manages their work in a different tool, it’s nearly impossible to get clarity on what everyone is working on.

Instead, make sure your team is coordinating work in one centralized tool. Naturally, we recommend using a work management tool like Asana to do this. Work management is a way to track ongoing processes, projects, and tasks to provide clarity across your team. According to our research, nearly 70% of knowledge workers feel they’d be better equipped to hit personal targets if they had clear processes for managing work. By coordinating cross-functional work and tracking progress in real-time, you can create these clear processes for your team.

Read: Introduction to work management

3. Reduce work about work 

Duplicative, manual work can lead to stress and burnout. But so much of our day is spent on these tasks. The average knowledge worker spends 60% of their time on work about work, like chasing approvals, searching for documents, or attending status meetings. 

When you reduce work about work, you can make it easier for your team to prioritize high-impact, skilled, and strategic work. A few strategies to reduce work about work include:

  • Cutting out status meetings—instead, look to share project status updates in your work management tool.

  • Automating manual work and routine tasks so your team has more time to focus on impactful work.

  • Integrating your favorite business tools to avoid app overload. 

4. Connect daily work to company objectives

Without a clear understanding of how your work connects and contributes to company objectives, it can be hard to prioritize—and it can feel like you’re just spinning your wheels, even when you’re giving it your all. But this type of clarity can be hard to come by—in fact, only 26% of knowledge workers have a very clear understanding of how their individual work relates to company goals.

To bridge the gap between daily tasks and organizational priorities, make sure your team members understand how their work ladders up to key company objectives. This isn’t just great for motivation—it can also help team members reprioritize work or shift deadlines if necessary. When they understand which tasks are business-critical, team members can effectively navigate tight schedules and shifting priorities.

Connecting daily work to company objectives can also help your entire team move in the same direction. Instead of muddled or unclear priorities, everyone will be able to clearly see how each team member is contributing. That way, all members of the group can be confident that the work they’re prioritizing is in line with what their coworkers are doing, too. 

The problem isn’t social loafing—it’s clarity 

To help your team get their best work done, focus on increasing clarity instead of reducing social loafing. Support your team members by providing clarity into processes, aligning around the same priorities, and centralizing work in one tool. That way, you can ensure your team has everything they need to succeed and move in the same direction, together.

Download: Aligning teamwork to your organization’s mission

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