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High performance or social loafing – How does the team size impact the results?

Leading a team and enable the team members to deliver best possible performance is a challenging task. Beside the team members’ competencies, motivation, team-working skills and the superior’s leadership skills there are other aspects which have an impact on the overall output and the results: for example the design of the team, the team size, the tasks and the team composition. All these aspects are crucial for the performance.

A really interesting influence seems to be given by the number of team members. Having a look at the relation between team size and productivity everybody would agree that ‘the more the better’ is not always the best recipe. But, what is the perfect size of a team then? Of course this again depends on different preconditions like for example the task, the competencies of the team members etc. Anyway, for every team there is one aspect strongly related to the size of the team which every team leader should be aware of and avoid: Social Loafing.

This phenomenon was first discovered by the French engineer Max Ringelmann and thus is also called the “Ringelmann effect”. It says that human beings reduce their effort when working in teams compared to the efforts they bring while accomplishing a task on their own. This is because they feel less responsible for the output and rely on other team members to jump in and do the work. I am sure everybody observed this behavior already in working life, school, whilst studying or in any other situation. As soon as we are not the only responsible person we tend to slightly “lay back”, not giving the same effort and passionate performance any more as when dealing with a task by our own.

Being aware of this effect, what can then we do as a team leader to prevent social loafing?

  • Regarding the team size basically one could say that ‘Less is more’. So if you have the possibility to control the number of team members make sure, that you only have the amount of people you really need to accomplish the given task. When push comes to shove the output will probably also be better having less people as actually needed for the task – compared to the result when having more people in the team.
  • Often an influence on the team size is not possible. Think about a splitting of tasks with building subgroups so that people can not ‘hide in the crowd’. Even though this might not be “real” teamwork any more it might give you better results Nevertheless sufficient competences, experiences, skills and creativity in the subgroups must be ensured.
  • As social loafing occurs when it is difficult to figure out the specific contributions of each team member for leaders it is important to keep track of the responsibilities within the team and the progress of subtasks. Keep in touch with all the team members, ask for latest status, give feedback etc. The best way to ensure that specific contributions are figured out is measuring and rewarding the individual performances of the team members.
  • Last but not least the probably most reasonable way to avoid social loafing in your team: Assign the different tasks according to the interests of the individual team members! If they understand why they are doing their work and if the task is meaningful for them they will be highly motivated in an intrinsic manner and you do not have to fear social loafing!

 

If it seems that social loafing is already common in your team make sure you react soon. Working in the team is quite comfortable for the ones who rely on others while not giving 100 percent of their effort, but it is annoying for the team members who are motivated and passionately engaged. So in the end you will loose exactly these passionate team members – not the ones who gave themselves an easy time. And take into account that social loafing could be contagious: If team members are getting aware of somebody doing it, they might try to reconstitute fairness by reducing their effort as well. But – believe it or not – there are also positive aspects about social loafing: As Annette Feuchter and Joachim Funke have searched out, the unconscious reduction of motivation of the team members could have a positive effect on the quality of the output in complex tasks. As error rates increase when employees are stressed and have to exert themselves the relaxed cooperation in a team leads to higher quality.

 

For more information on the experiment of Max Ringelmann see this video.

 

 

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