Addressing the issue of “social loafing” in large teams

 Large teams might be inevitable in certain large endeavors, but there are several benefits of small teams. A small team can build and maintain a strong culture and a character that gets better with time. Small teams quickly learn the invaluable skills in teamwork and interdependence that lead to higher efficiencies while ensuring that individual team members don’t end up competing against each other but rather collaborate on the common objectives. Small teams also mean small egos 🙂

One of the biggest motivations of making smaller teams is to provide higher levels of transparency and task accountability to individual team members. A large team tends to hide inefficiencies, both of its structure and of its people. One particular problem in a large team is the problem of “social loafing” – something that is perhaps best described in this poem by Charles Osgood:


There was a most important job that needed to be done,
And no reason not to do it, there was absolutely none.
But in vital matters such as this, the thing you have to ask
Is who exactly will it be who’ll carry out the task?

Anybody could have told you that Everybody knew
That this was something Somebody would surely have to do.
Nobody was unwilling; Anybody had the ability.
But Nobody believed that it was their responsibility.

It seemed to be a job that Anybody could have done,
If Anybody thought he was supposed to be the one.
But since Everybody recognized that Anybody could,
Everybody took for granted that Somebody would.

But Nobody told anybody that we are aware of,
That he would be in charge of seeing it was taken care of.
And Nobody took it on himself to follow through,
And do what Everybody thought that Somebody would do.

When what Everybody needed so did not get done at all,
Everybody was complaining that somebody dropped the ball.
Anybody then could see it was an awful crying shame,
And Everybody looked around for Somebody to blame.

Somebody should have done the job
And Everybody should have,
But in the end Nobody did
What Anybody could have.

This is a great description of how so many ‘obvious’ things don’t get done – either due to miscommunication, or misunderstanding, wrong assumptions, or sometimes just shirking away from the responsibility. One of my best personal examples is working for a community team as a volunteer. I believe working for a community as a volunteer is the greatest way to hone one’s teamwork – if you can get people who are not motivated by money or power or promotions to work together for a job, you can do anything! So, I was part of this team of a really nice bunch of 15-odd people who was required to serve this 400+ families. This so-called executive committee was required to plan social events for the community. What I found was that 80% of the people on this team were there just for the meaningless social prestige. Over 90% of the work was done by just one individual (and I was doing another 5% and rest of the entire team doing the remaining 5%). Those 80% of the people were otherwise regular nice people, but when part of this large team, they could not be counted upon to deliver the goods. We organized some wonderful events, but it was mostly the two or three of us who did maximum running around and the rest of the team just travelling First Class. After a few months, I was ready to quit (I eventually quit that team at the next team election. What I find is that the new executive committee team has very similar effort distribution – so it was clearly not me who was an aberration :)).

In my professional experience, I have been involved in some really large software teams, up to 190+ people on a single product. While these efforts were large and simply required those many number of people, we used small teams, not more than 7-9 people each, to divide and manage the work. Each of these programs was divided into such a number of small project teams, each a self-contained and autonomous unit that could deliver its functionality with minimum external dependency. Small teams have smaller number of communication paths, and allow fostering of meaningful teamwork rather than poisionous politics. It also is a great way to groom technical leadership and managerial expertise in the teams. A large team is no fun for people to volunteer and train for roles and tasks that require building special skills. But a small team must often replicate several skills in each team, and hence is a great way to groom future leadership apart from also acting as a derisking strategy to counter impact of attrition. Agile practices advocate small teams for achieving high team throughput, and the issue of social loafing is indirectly addressed by things like daily scrum meetings where social shame and the feeling of letting down the team ‘forces’ team members to get their act together. An excellent discussion of social loafing can be found here.

Conclusions

Social Loafing is a real team dysfunction not restricted to a given country, culture, society, industry or team size. It has been observed in all types of societies and all kinds of groups. Making the team size small is one of the ways to address social loafing. In the context of software teams, everything depends on how individuals make commitments and live up to them. And hence, it becomes extremely important for a manager to be aware of this team dysfunction and evolve strategies to deal with it. Having a small team with clear roles and responsibilities, and setting common standards for work evaluation are some of the ways that can reduce the extent of social loafing in teams and improve morale and team productivity.

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