Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 155
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Loafing on the Job

Researcher discovers ways to structure work that discourage loafing.

Do you ever wonder if your employees loaf on the job? . . . that a hidden camera would show them with their feet up reading comic books when you're away?

All business owners have opinions on this subject, but these opinions are often based on prejudices and stereotypes. The problem is that employees carefully hide their loafing from managers, so if you feel ill informed, then your people either don't loaf, or they're good at it, but which is it?

Researchers have examined employee loafing for many years, and most believe it's common. They've also learned several ways to discourage it (but standing over workers with a cat-o'-nine-tails isn't on the list).

In experimental settings, loafing disappeared when members of a group worked together, when they freely communicated with each other, when the group had specific standards and performance goals, and when reaching these goals brought a reward or recognition.

With these conditions, individual worker's efforts were on public display before people with a reason to encourage their work, and the means to punish loafers. Notice, that the manager's contribution is limited to establishing the group, setting performance standards in measurable terms, creating reasonable and challenging goals, and providing rewards for achievement. Unfortunately , it isn't always possible to structure work to meet all these conditions.

In 1989, a researcher named P.C. Earley demonstrated a link between culture and loafing that found Chinese employees working to contribute to a group's efforts while U.S. workers placed in identical conditions tended to loaf. This study also found that when asked to work alone, U.S. workers performed much better than the Chinese. Under solitary working conditions, Chinese workers loafed.

Miriam Erez, from the Israel Institute of Technology, carried this research one step further in a series of experiments comparing workers from Jewish kibbutzim to urban Israeli workers. Erez's experiments posed a series of 4 working conditions beginning with individual work, and ending with work groups with standards, goals, and incentives.

Overall, workers from the collective kibbutzim outperformed the urban workers. Their culture was similar to the Chinese collective. But Erez was most interested in the appearance of loafing, and only one of the sixteen combinations of work conditions she tested brought it out.

Loafing occurred when urban workers, accustomed to working alone and being accountable for their efforts, were placed in a group which combined the output of several people but failed to make each person's output measurable. Under these conditions, individuals reduced their efforts - they loafed. And this is the condition many business owners create on a work site when they neglect to supervise their employees.

People vary in their identities regarding others. Some see themselves as individualists, while others think of themselves in relationships with others. Individualists gain satisfaction through individual accomplishments. This enhances their self view. Opportunities to achieve are attractive if their own contribution is clear. Remove that condition, and achievement loses its attraction. It can't enhance their individualist self view, and they're likely to loaf.

People accustomed to a relational identity, as a member of a team, gain satisfaction by contributing to the group. The success of their group is their success. Erez demonstrated that people with these relational identities didn't loaf when their contributions were lumped with others as did the individualists in the urban group.

Erez's research is good news for managers. It demonstrates that most combinations of work conditions discourage loafing, so it need not be a concern unless you've created the one condition that stimulates it: preventing individualists from identifying their contributions to a group's output. She also found that the most important work condition is to set specific standards for group performance. Overall, this condition demonstrated the strongest negative effect on loafing.

Reference: Erez, Miriam, and Anit Somech (1996). Is Group Productivity Loss the Rule of the Exception? Effects of Culture and Group-Based Motivation. Academy of Management Journal, 39 (6), 1513-1537.

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