When people come together in groups, there’s usually at least one member who slacks off. Whether you call it shirking or social loafing, it’s a major source of misery, and it prevents teams from achieving their potential.
It turns out that the worst offenders are American men. When psychologists Steven Karau and Kipling Williams carefully analyzed 78 different studies of free riding in groups, they found that it was more common among men than women, and in Western than Eastern countries. (On average, American men tend to be more individualistic and less group-oriented than women and non-Americans.)
When you’re stuck working with free riders, how can you motivate them to step up to the plate? Karau and Williams identified a series of factors that encourage people to contribute their fair share.
(1) Make the task more meaningful. People often slack off when they don’t feel that the task matters. When they recognize the importance of their efforts, they tend to work harder and smarter. Years ago, colleagues and I studied call center employees who were raising money for a university, but felt that their individual efforts were just a drop in the bucket. To highlight the significance of the task, we invited a scholarship student who benefited from their work to speak with the callers. It was a randomized, controlled experiment: some of the callers heard about how their fundraising had improved his life, whereas others didn’t. After a five-minute interaction with one scholarship student, the average caller spiked 142% in weekly minutes on the phone and 171% in weekly revenue raised. The largest effect was on the free riders, who quadrupled in weekly donation rates.
(2) Show them what their peers are doing. Sometimes people simply don’t realize that they’re doing less than the norm. In this situation, the key is to help them compare their contributions against their peers. For example, a research team including the psychologist Robert Cialdini showed that people conserve more energy when they can see how much their neighbors are conserving. When the company Opower randomly assigned roughly half of 600,000 households to receive home energy reports that included neighbors’ usage, conservation skyrocketed, especially from those who were wasting a lot of energy. Once they saw that their neighbors were conserving more, they raised their own conservation efforts. Simply showing people their neighbors’ conservation rates saved as much energy as increasing the price of electricity by 11-20%.
(3) Shrink the group. When working in a large team, it’s easy to question whether individual efforts really matter. In a famous experiment, psychologists invited people to make as much noise as possible in groups, in pairs, or alone. In groups of six, each individual averaged only 40% capacity. As fewer members were involved, people made less noise in total, but each member’s average contribution increased. Individual contributions increased to 51% capacity when the group was reduced from six members to four, and spiked to 71% capacity when people worked with just one colleague. The smaller the group, the more responsible each member feels for contributing.
(4) Assign unique responsibilities. Many groups balloon in size because people are trying to be polite—they want to include everyone and offend no one. In these cases, it’s not difficult to shrink the group, but in other situations, the group is large because the task requires many members. In those contexts, the easiest way to boost effort is to make sure each group member has a distinctive role to play. Karau and Williams found that free riding was common when people saw their contributions as redundant with other group members’ efforts. If each member is delivering something different, it can’t be taken for granted that someone else will cover your tracks.
(5) Make individual inputs visible. When it’s impossible to see who’s doing what, people can hide in the crowd. Once everyone knows what each group member is adding, no one wants to be seen as a slacker. In an experiment with brainstorming groups, when people submitted ideas with their names attached, they contributed 26% more ideas than when they submitted anonymously. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once put it, sunlight is “the best of disinfectants.”
(6) Build a stronger relationship. If it’s challenging to change the task or the results, it may be time to work on the relationship. People don’t worry much about letting down strangers and acquaintances, but they feel guilty about leaving their friends in the lurch. Karau and Williamsdemonstrated that people stopped slacking when they worked with colleagues they liked or respected. If you can establish a personal connection, teammates often become more committed and dedicated.
(7) If all else fails, ask for advice. Sometimes it’s useful to go right to the source. What if you approached a slacker and said the following? “I’m trying to get some members of this team to contribute more, and I wanted to seek your guidance on how to do that.” Research by Katie Liljenquist reveals that when you ask for advice, you flatter your colleagues—they feel important that you chose them—and encourage them to look at the problem from your perspective. Feeling good about you, and having walked a mile in your shoes, they’re more likely to advocate for your interests. They might start adding more value themselves, or lobby colleagues to pick up the slack. At minimum, you’ll get some good ideas from the viewpoint of people who aren’t as motivated as you are.
For more on motivating people to contribute, see Adam's new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMGrant
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