Social Loafing & Its Impact on Team Projects

Ron Thompson (with Elizabeth Baker)
Summer 2016

By its very definition, teamwork implies collaboration with all members joining in a common effort to produce a result. If team members do not put forward their full effort, project outcomes can suffer. It can happen for a variety of reasons.

One of them is social loafing. And it occurs with moderate frequency in a variety of team-based project environments.

Previous research has shown that social loafing is more likely in larger teams and may also be more likely when a worker has ambiguity in their role. Social loafing is less likely when team members believe their supervisor can easily observe their effort level and work outcomes, and may also be less likely the more a team member needs to work with others to complete tasks.

To reduce social loafing, team members should believe they are being fairly rewarded or compensated according to their contribution to the project. This also impacts a team member’s overall degree to which they believe their organization or project supervisor values their contributions and cares about their well-being. In general, we anticipate more positive perceived organizational support would be associated with lower levels of social loafing.

To identify the relative influence of these various factors on social loafing we collected questionnaire responses from project team members in two related field studies. For both samples, we looked for potential respondents currently working as a member of an Information Systems project team with at least five members on a project lasting at least three months.

As part of our initial data analysis, we identified a new factor that we termed “perceived organizational indifference.” Our questionnaire included three questions that measure this factor, including “Even if I did the best job possible, my project task supervisor would fail to notice,” and, “My project task supervisor fails to appreciate any extra effort from me on the project.” We originally expected these questions would help measure perceived organizational support, but further analysis showed that the two factors (organizational support and organizational indifference) were actually distinct, and not simply mirror opposites of one another.

We discovered by far the biggest factor influencing self-reported social loafing was the perceived level of indifference on the part of a team member’s organization and project supervisor. This was measured using questions such as “I pretend to be busy when working on the project” and “I put forward less effort when working on the project when others are around to do the work.”

Our findings suggest that while implementing control mechanisms such as stronger reporting requirements and instituting fair compensation policies may help reduce social loafing, these types of actions are not sufficient on their own. Our results suggest that the single most important element is the relationship between the project team member and the project supervisor. If one goal of a project supervisor is to reduce social loafing, our study suggests that fostering an environment where each team member believes their individual efforts will be appreciated and acknowledged is the most effective way of doing so.

While these findings may not seem surprising to some, we note that many resources that focus on project management tend to stress project control mechanisms rather than interpersonal relationships. We aren’t suggesting that these control mechanisms (such as breaking deliverables into smaller components to increase task visibility) are ineffective, or that they should be abandoned; rather, we are advocating an approach where interpersonal relationships are treated at least equally in importance.

Finally, while our study focused on team members involved in Information Systems projects, we expect we would observe similar outcomes in other team-based environments. As such, our results have the potential to have considerable impact on both future research efforts as well as organizational practice.




Ron Thompson is the John B. McKinnon professor and an area chair at the School of Business. Elizabeth Baker is assistant professor of management information systems at UNC-Wilmington.