Social loafing a potent barrier to group success

Southern Illinois University



Social loafing a potent barrier to group success

January 29, 2015, Katja Sonkeng


Dr. Steven Karau, Professor of Management

Strong communication, organizational acumen and interpersonal skills are in high demand by employers these days, and for good reason. These top three qualities are directly linked with efficient and successful teamwork, which is a necessity in today’s modern corporate world.

From Little League baseball to projects in high school and college, working in groups is a vital part of the general education system. Yet, if not done wisely, group work can turn into a nightmare for the hard-working members of a team when “freeloaders” take advantage of their teammates efforts while contributing little themselves. This phenomenon, called “social loafing,” can be a major barrier to the success of a group project.

To date, social loafing has been documented in more than 100 studies. Steven Karau has been a significant contributor to this research over the past 20 years, contributing dozens of empirical studies.

In an influential paper published in 1993, Karau and his colleague Kip Williams of Purdue University conducted a statistical synthesis of prior studies and introduced an integrative theoretical model that a number of scholars have used to design or inform studies over the years. Karau, who was one of nine awardees of the Summer Faculty Research Grants (SFRG) in 2014, used his grant to further this theoretical model and plan more studies.

“My colleagues and I have focused on identifying strategies for reducing or eliminating social loafing” Karau notes. “Our studies have found that social loafing can be eliminated when people have a high motivation for achievement, identify strongly with the Protestant work ethic, or are working in cohesive groups where they like their teammates and want to see the group succeed.

“Another interesting aspect involves ‘beliefs about groups’ or the attitude an individual has about whether groups are generally a good thing or not.”

To study group beliefs, the scholar and his team came up with a scale.

“Peoples’ beliefs about groups can range from positive to negative,” he said. “Some people just hate working in groups, whereas others really like it, as they have the opportunity to work with other people.”

Karau said he hopes that the beliefs about groups scale might help predict motivation in classroom and laboratory settings.

“We’ve also tried to identify factors that might produce motivation gains in groups, meaning that people actually work harder in a group than they would on their own,” he said.

Karau’s early collaboration with Williams led to the identification of one such motivation gain in 1991: a phenomenon called “social compensation” that occurs when people work especially hard on a group task they care about but don’t expect their teammates to contribute much.

“Let’s say that you are an ‘A’ student and you are assigned to a group paper with a bunch of slackers, but you want to get an ‘A,’ ” Karau said. “You might write the whole paper yourself, because you don’t have any choice. So that’s a good example of social compensation.”

So what does social loafing mean to the corporate world?

“Organizations use a lot of work teams,” Karau said, “and so they are really concerned with how to manage teams more effectively.”

The Purdue alumnus added that there are many more aspects that the research hasn’t covered just yet.

“The crucial challenge for organizations is learning the best strategies for designing teams that combine the right mix of individual personalities, skills and abilities with the best environment, structure and interaction process for keeping motivation levels high,” he said.

Karau hopes to keep doing research that contributes to our understanding of teams. And most surely, SIU College of Business students will be the first to know about it.

“One of the advantages of faculty research is that students know what’s going on,” he said. “Active researchers know the most recent studies and can bring those insights to the classroom, so it’s not just a generic presentation. It’s cutting-edge knowledge.”

In that regard, Karau recognizes the significance of a knowledge- and research-driven institution such as Southern Illinois University.