Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 289
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Loafing on the Job

New research helps explain loafing in work groups and offers guidance on how to reduce it.

Do you recognize this scene? Itís a hot summer day. Traffic suddenly slows, and turn signals from cars in the curb lane tell you a construction project ahead has blocked the lane. When you finally reach the construction site, some workers are bent over their tasks, vigorously completing their work, while others are standing perfectly still. Some of these may even be resting their chins on arms folded over the ends of their shovels.

Do you recognize this scene? You approach the counter of a fast food restaurant stroking your chin and studying the menu choices, but as you do so, you also notice the workers behind the counter. Some are busy. Others have noticed you and are waiting for you to let them know you are ready to order, and one or two have turned away from you. These last employees arenít doing anything at all, but they have signaled to you and the other workers that they wonít be helping with this order.

Now, letís go to your workplace. You and your employees have encountered an unfamiliar problem that has stopped you cold. Youíre going to have to figure out a way to proceed. Some of your people step forward and engage the problem, and as you make progress, they throw themselves into the effort. Other employees seem to take a step back. They follow along but not closely enough to either share responsibility for the decisions or expend much effort in executing them.

In each of these examples, some of the workers are loafing, and supervisors tend to have feelings about this. After all, it is their responsibility to insure that all their employees do a fair share of the work. If thatís not happening, then the supervisor is at fault. Right? It is at just this point that supervisors mutter ďpure laziness . . .,ď and then add other descriptive terms I canít print. However, this response may not be helpful. Shifting the blame for loafing to the employee by calling him ďlazyĒ tends to excuse the supervisor from trying to do anything about it.

Perhaps the researcher can help.

Past research into loafing has revealed some intriguing connections. For example, when each personís contribution to a group task is measured and made part of the employee evaluation process, then loafing is reduced. Such measurements, unfortunately, are very difficult to make. Another past study found that when the highest ability members of a work group set the agenda for a group task, then the lowest ability group members tend to loaf. Conversely, when the lowest ability group members set the agenda for a group task, then the highest ability group members tend to loaf.

Kenneth Price, from the University of Texas at Arlington, is interested in workplace loafing. He arranged 514 people into 144 teams that met for 14 weeks. He assigned them projects that required many steps and diverse skills to complete. As they worked, Price observed and measured how they worked together, and he tested two influences which he suspected might play a causal role in loafing. He found that they did.

The first of these influences is dispensability. When employees join a work group, they quickly make a judgment about their new work environment. They compare their own skills and abilities with the others in their work group. If they compare favorably, then they will consider their own contributions to be important, possibly indispensable. If they compare unfavorably, then they will consider their contributions of little value Ė dispensable. When this happens, they come to believe that their more capable fellow employees carry greater responsibility for successful completion of their assigned tasks. Armed with this logic, they loaf.

The second of these influences is fairness. When employees join a work group, they also quickly make judgments about the fairness of the decision making procedures. For members on the fringe (members who are different from other group members in age, ethnicity, gender, or marital status) majority-rule decisions typically silence their voice. It is this experience of being silenced that causes a feeling of powerlessness, and this leads to the same conclusion as dispensability, that is, that other group members carry a greater responsibility for completing group tasks. And so, they loaf.

Priceís findings lead him to specific recommendations for supervisors, but he is not optimistic. His suggestions are difficult to implement. First, he suggests that employees who are asked to work together as a group should not have overlapping strengths. Each member should bring a strength that is needed by the group, and by doing so become indispensable. This can also be accomplished by dividing the work so that each person has responsibility for a crucial portion. This forces people to work together to bring the separate pieces together.

His second suggestion involves influences on decision-making. Each person should feel his/her voice is heard when decisions affecting the group are made. To accomplish this, supervisors must listen and react with encouragement to their minority members. Supervisors can also make a practice of discounting the voice of the majority by selecting solutions that make the most sense, regardless of who proposes them.

Reference: Price, Kenneth, David Harrison, and Joanne Gavin (2006) Withholding Inputs in Team Contexts: Member Composition, Interaction Processes, Evaluation Structure, and Social Loafing. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(6), 1375-1384.

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