Idleness is one of the evils of our time. Laziness, a lack of desire to work, too much available time… Something strange often happens when we work in a group – the whole is less than the sum of the parts. What each person contributes is less when they are in a group. This is known as social laziness.
Social laziness is when we exert less effort in a group task when it probably won’t be noticed, than when the same task is performed alone. The experience of working in a group can lead people to exert less effort with give a lower performance. Some of the causes of this are a lack of motivation and the problems of organization and coordination. Let’s investigate this in a bit more detail.
The beginning of laziness
In 1880, agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann was the first to study social laziness. Ringelmann chose 14 people to drag a load and he recorded the strength that each one exerted. He also told the same people to drag the load individually. The results showed that when people dragged the load alone they were stronger than when they were all together.
Although Ringelmann attributed this loss of effort to poor coordination, later studies discovered other causes. In a study in which the participants had to applaud and shout as loud as they could, it was found that the level of noise that each person made diminished the larger the group they were in. They concluded from this that many people prefer to hide in the crowd.
Being as lazy as others
People don’t worry about having a lower performance in a group when their individual contribution is not identifiable. When people can’t be blamed for not trying as hard as they can, they tend to make less effort than they could. But social laziness doesn’t only depend on whether or not we can identify the contribution of each individual involved.
Equity and social comparison are factors that also intervene. The fact that one person in the group does less will lead other people to conform to doing the same. On the other hand, comparing the performance of each one with that of the others produces a feeling of pressure to do more than you can physically do.
Social laziness doesn’t occur only when performing tasks that require physical effort. It also occurs in cognitive tasks, especially when we have to think. For example, in a brainstorm. The larger the group, the more the number of ideas each person contributes will be reduced. The same as with the physical tasks, doing mental tasks can also lead to laziness when working in areas where equity and social comparison abound.
An area where social laziness occurs a lot is in teams at work. When we have to work as a team, we often don’t make quite as much effort, and the same will be true of all the members. However, if there are good coordinators who can assign tasks well, then it is often the case that the worker gives their all. When one or more people give their all, then others often want to follow their example. There are others whose reaction to this is to do the the minimum.
The importance of combating laziness
A big influence in all of this is the type of task that the worker is carrying out. Social laziness happens less often when tasks are interesting. Also, when the level of dependency is high, laziness is reduced. If the tasks of each individual are necessary for a successful outcome, then there will be less laziness due to the social pressure to achieve success.
Therefore, social laziness does not always occur when working in a group. Some ways to avoid it or at least reduce it are the following:
- Make the effort of each person identifiable.
- Increase commitment towards the successful execution of the task.
- Give the opportunity to evaluate individual contributions and the group as a whole.
If we have to perform a group task it is important that all team members have high motivation. If not, we can at least try to assess the performance of each person, and communicate the importance of the final goal. Good management of work in teams will ensure that each member will value their work and their colleagues’.