Social Loafing: What It Is and How to Prevent It at Work

By: | Updated: January 19, 2024

You found our guide to social loafing and how to prevent it.

Social loafing occurs when one individual in a group does not put in enough effort. Larger teams may struggle with this issue more, as it is difficult to keep track of individual contributions. Social loafing can lead to dedicated workers becoming overwhelmed with tasks or resenting their slacking colleagues. It is important for companies to both understand and address social loafing.

Social loafing is related to other workplace trends like bare minimum Mondays, grumpy staying, and quiet quitting.


This list includes:

  • social loafing definition
  • signs of social loafing in the workplace
  • effects of social loafing at work
  • how to fix social loafing at work

Let’s get to it!

Social loafing definition

At its most basic, social loafing refers to individuals putting less effort into group projects. This practice negatively affects teams’ abilities to effectively accomplish goals. Social loafing is also related to free riding, the Ringelmann Effect, and the bystander effect.

Social loafing vs. free riding

Both social loafing and free riding refer to a type of minimal effort in a group setting. The two may seem like identical terms, but there are some distinct differences. Social loafing refers to an overall reduced effort. Free riding refers to making minimal or no contributions to group goals. Another important difference is social loafing is often unintentional, and free riding is often strategic.

As an example, consider a group presentation that requires hefty research. Social loafers will put in less effort as the deadline approaches, assuming colleagues will pick up the slack. Free riders will not do any research at all but will still show up for the presentation to receive credit.

Despite their differences, the two issues can affect one another. Members who notice free riders may lessen their efforts due to lower motivation or as a punishment. Alternatively, social loafing can lead to intentional free riding, especially if the worker believes they will not be caught.

The Ringelmann Effect

The first observation of social loafing was the Ringelmann Effect. Max Ringelmann was an architectural engineer who was interested in efficient farming practices. The researcher ran a set of experiments to determine how efficient college students were at pulling or pushing loads. Students worked both individually and in groups. While Ringelmann simply wanted to see which was most productive, he noticed that participants seemed less motivated while working together. Overall, students used more force when pushing alone.

Psychologists have continued to study this issue. Further research suggests that the larger the group, the less work each participant does. Researchers Bibb Latané, Kipling Williams, and Stephen Harkins believed that a larger team size leads to less social pressure.

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The bystander effect

A similar phenomenon to social loafing is the bystander effect. This effect occurs during emergencies. Unless specifically told to do so, viewers of an accident or crime may not call the police because they assume another bystander has already done so. This effect is so common that first aid training teaches providers to point at an individual in the crowd and ask them to call 911, so that there is. That way, there is no uncertainty surrounding whose duty it is to call for help.

Social loafing in the workplace

In the workplace, social loafing occurs when individuals do not contribute to group projects and expect colleagues to pick up the slack. Examples of this issue include doing less research, writing less of an article, or staying quiet during meetings. Large teams who are working on shared goals may run into social loafing if membersthey do not properly distribute duties.

Social loafing is often unintentional. As with the bystander effect, workers may inadvertently assume their colleagues will take responsibility for certain duties. For instance, picture a project manager handing a team a large pile of tasks and allowing them to choose what to do at random. Workers may be more likely to assume their colleagues will handle most duties, leaving tasks unfinished. Further, dedicated employees end up with more work and less team support.

Signs of social loafing in the workplace

Keeping an eye out for social loafing in the office is essential, as it can hinder productivity. Here are some signs of social loafing to watch out for.

1. Heavy workloads

During large group projects, workers may come to management to discuss their workload. Employees may feel they have taken on too many responsibilities. If this issue occurs, then it may be time to look at the distribution of duties. The success of a project should never hinge on one single employee.

2. Sparse updates

Social loafers may struggle to hit benchmarks during the life of a project. Progress updates might be short or lacking. You may notice these individuals taking credit for minimal work or not speaking up when the team gives updates. These signs all indicate that a team member is not working to their full potential.

3. Missing deadlines

The team may be loafing as a whole if they miss deadlines or do not complete work. This sign is especially important to focus on. If too many deadlines pass go by, then the project will be majorly off track. Missing deadlines may be a symptom of a larger or different issue. However, once this problem occurs, it is a good idea to take some time to evaluate task distribution.

4. Disjointed groups

If colleagues feel disconnected from one another, then social loafing may become more likely. You may notice that coworkers do not talk often or do not connect well during meetings. This disconnect can also occur within the project. Perhaps teams working on a group writing project cannot agree on a structure, or maybe they cannot mesh their writing styles. Whatever the case may be, if you see a group struggling to connect, then it might be beneficial to intervene.

5. Lacking accountability

Social loafing can result from workers not feeling individual responsibility for their tasks. If accountability always falls on the entire group, then it is easy to assume other coworkers will pick up the slack. Leaders who only ask for large project updates from the entire team may inadvertently contribute to this environment.

Causes of social loafing in the workplace

1. Team size

Having too large of a team is also an issue regarding social loafing. The more individuals on a project, the harder it is to delegate and monitor tasks. Additionally, large teams will have a tougher time discussing which responsibilities they have claimed or completed.

Large teams can also cause social loafing to spread. As Latané, Williams, and Harkins found, bigger group sizes lead to increased loafing.

2. Unclear task list

If leaders or project managers do not specify who is assigned to which projects, then social loafing may occur. Without outlined duties, employees will pick and choose duties based on interest rather than skill or necessity. Workers may also avoid responsibilities that are confusing or complex. Thus, important pieces of the puzzle may get left behind. When this issue occurs, teams may miss essential deadlines, which can lead to massive delays.

3. No shared visibility

Projects that rely on team members completing tasks individually are at a greater risk of social loafing. Workers without internal accountability may fall behind on deadlines. In addition, not having shared duties or documents can hinder creativity and communication. Lacking a team connection can make members feel less important, more distant, and less motivated.

4. Disconnection from work

Folks may feel unmotivated to work hard because they feel too separate from the project’s outcome, like a cog in a machine. Employees with this mindset may be upset they will get less recognition for the project’s completion, or they may think their role is insignificant. Either way, this mentality can make employees feel uninspired, leading them to wait until the last minute or produce substandard work.

5. Skill mismatch

Members who do not feel qualified for their assigned duties may loaf from confusion. Especially if these employees are working on projects alone, they may not know what to do. This misunderstanding can lead to workers producing subpar work or doing jobs incorrectly. Projects are a great time to upskill team members, but they need to have the proper support during the process.

Effects of social loafing at work

1. Unfinished or underwhelming projects

SUltimately, social loafing lessens productivity. Therefore, teams who struggle with this issue may find they cannot complete projects on time. Alternatively, projects may be done, but they may not be up to par in terms of quality. Either way, unsatisfactory projects either need to be completed or redone, which affects the deadlines of future tasks as well.

Worse, if these projects are client facing, then social loafing may snowball into negative reviews or lostsing clients. This issue may end up creating a poor reputation or hindering company growth.

2. Team conflict

Social loafing at work can cause rifts to form between colleagues. Hardworking employees who want to complete projects to the best of their abilities may end up picking up the slack. Thus, team members may come to resent those who are not pulling their weight.

Further, social loafers may get credit for work they did not complete. This issue both takes credit away from those who completed tasks and leads leadership to believe loafers are being productive.

3. Social loafing ripple effect

One side effect is the possible spread of loafing. If employees see their colleagues doing less work and getting the same credit, then it may cause them to feel uninspired and do fewer tasks as well. In turn, teams will miss more deadlines, complete less work, and pass more tasks onto others.

4. Erosion of trust

More often than not, social loafing is an unintentional behavior. However, other team members may take notice of this behavior and become resentful. IfEspecially if these employees are taking on additional duties, then they can become distrustful of their loafing colleagues. Social loafers prove that they will pull less of their weight, so coworkers will be less likely to trust them on future projects. If this behavior goes unchecked, then it might escalate to colleagues being unwilling to work together.

5. Impact on innovation

The core issue of social loafing lies in a lack of motivation. When teams are not inspired or driven to complete their tasks, then they are less likely to come up with creative solutions. This issue can snowball if other parts of social loafing are in play, such as mistrust and team conflict. Colleagues who cannot communicate, do not get along, and do not work well together cannot collaborate on innovative ideas. The result is lackluster products or services.

6. Decreased team morale

Social loafing can cause lower team morale or vice versa. If colleagues start out a project with poor connections, then they may not be motivated to work together. Alternatively, if groups begin to notice social loafers, then it can cause them to feel less driven. Either way, social loafing makes projects feel uninspired and unimportant, negatively affecting morale.

7. Group burnout

Workers who are not loafing may find themselves on the fast track to burnout. Since these employees pick up the slack for their colleagues, their task list quickly becomes unmanageable. Some team members may be unwilling to bring this issue to their managers’ attention, leading to burnout. C If companies that do not address signs of burnout and loafing, then they run the risk of losing high-quality talent.

How to fix social loafing at work

1. Have a clear workflow and structure

Creating a clear workflow and structure is one of the top ways to prevent social loafing. You can choose from several structure options, including Lean, Six Sigma, and Agile.

Here is more information on each style:

  • Lean: Focuses on minimizing waste, optimizing processes, and fostering constant improvement
  • Six Sigma: A data-driven approach that aims to identify and eliminate defects
  • Agile: A time-based method that uses short timeframes to prioritize tasks

You can mix and match these project management styles as well. Whichever method you choose, be sure to decide from the beginning of the project. That way, team members know what to expect during the project.

2. Clarify task assignments

Social loafing often occurs from communication breakdowns. Employees may be unclear about assigned tasks and deadlines. Having unclear expectations contributes to social loafing as members scramble to determine an order of importance for their duties.

To combat this issue, it is essential to have clear expectations from the beginning of a project. Be sure to match duties to workers’ skill levels and expertise while assigning tasks. With this method, employees will understand what you expect of them and have the ability to complete the job.

3. Use project management software

Using online project management tools can help combat the effects of social loafing. With these tools, leaders can create clear task lists, assign duties to specific team members, and keep track of finished items. These sites have several useful features, such as task categories, item completion, and outside integration. For instance, you may be able to set up the software to send you a message or email when a worker marks an item as finished. Then, you can check on that item or reach out directly to ask for an update.

4. Automate repetitive tasks

Boredom can unconsciously lead to loafing, especially when workers believe their efforts are insignificant compared to their peers’. In this case, it may benefit your team to automate more mundane and repetitive tasks. For example, you can automatically import data into the correct spreadsheet, or you can automate emails to clients. Removing these less interesting steps leaves teams more time to work on interesting, meaningful jobs.

5. Create smaller groups

The bystander effect is more likely to occur in larger crowds. Thus, one method of preventing social slacking is splitting groups into smaller teams. The ideal group size depends on your project size and life cycle, but smaller is better. That way, teams can communicate and distribute work more effectively.

6. Assign project managers

If social loafing happens often or is a big concern, then consider assigning project managers to each small group. This role does not necessarily need to go to trained project managers. Rather, an employee from each team who is willing to lead is a great choice. That way, each small group has a worker to keep tasks on track and colleagues accountable.

7. Celebrate efforts

One reason employees may be less motivated is they feel their contributions are less important or will go unnoticed. To combat this feeling, remember to celebrate small wins throughout the project. This celebration can include shout-outs, small prizes, or additional privileges.

It is important to strike a balance between over- and under-praising teams, as you do not want to seem inauthentic. Instead, consider setting small goals or creating raffles to make praise-giving more genuine.

You can also encourage members to give each other shout-outs, which may forge stronger bonds and motivate teams to work together.

8. Integrate team building activities

One reason teams may fall into loafing habits is a lack of connection. Whether folks do not know each other well or struggle to get along, team building activities can help.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Team outings: Happy hour, bowling, mini golf, karaoke, team dinners
  • Indoor competitions: Scavenger hunts, paper airplane building contests, board game tournaments
  • Outdoor activities: Office Olympics, field days, ropes courses, kayaking

Once team members bond, they will become more motivated to work together and support one another. In turn, the quality and consistency of work will improve.

Check out our top team building activities.

Project management software examples

If you decide to incorporate project management software into your strategy, then here are some options to consider.

1. Monday is a to-do list that you and your team can use to manage projects and tasks. The site helps the whole team stay on the same page, making work more organized and collaborative.

In this digital workspace, you can create boards for different projects or tasks. Each board is like a project hub where you can list tasks, set deadlines, and assign them to team members. You can use colorful boards, charts, and widgets to see your work in a way that makes the most sense to you. You can also track the progress of tasks, add comments, and share files right there on the platform.

Check out Monday.

2. Asana

Asana helps colleagues get on the same page and work together smoothly. This program is full of useful features, including calendar views, dependencies, and team pages. With Asana, you can create projects, break them into smaller tasks, and assign them to your team members. In addition, you can set due dates, share files, and even have conversations right where the work is happening. This software is one of the most popular project management programs.

Check out Asana.

3. Trello

Trello is a digital bulletin board that simplifies teamwork. This user-friendly project management tool uses boards, lists, and cards to keep tasks organized and easy to understand. You can set up projects on a board and break them down into lists. Each task is represented by a card. You can drag and drop cards, add due dates, and assign tasks to your teammates. Trello is all about simplicity, as it is similar to having sticky notes and a whiteboard online. You can attach files, leave comments, and see at a glance who is working on what.

Check out Trello.


When working on large group projects, leaders need to keep a keen eye on social loafing. Employees often do not know they are engaging in this behavior, so it is up to management to be proactive. If leaders notice uneven workloads, burnout, or team conflicts, then it may be time to investigate social loafing. Once social loafing occurs, managers can clarify duties, use project management tools, and build teams to combat the symptoms. Managing social loafing can prevent free riding, boost team morale, and improve project quality.

To learn more about keeping employees engaged, check out these articles on ways to boost motivation, ways to beat work-from-home fatigue, and employee incentive ideas.

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FAQ: Social loafing

Here are answers to common questions about social loafing.

What is social loafing?

Social loafing happens when team members in a group project contribute less than if they were to work individually. This behavior is often unconscious and can result from unclear expectations or large group projects.

What are some signs of social loafing?

If you are trying to keep an eye out for social loafing, then there are several signs to watch out for.

Examples include the following:

  • Missing deadlines
  • Heavy workloads
  • Disjointed groups

When teams start missing deadlines, producing substandard work, or disagreeing often, it might be time to intervene.

How do you fix social loafing?

Leaders can take several steps to combat social loafing.

Here are some ways to fix this issue:

  • Clarify team duties.
  • Use proper project structures.
  • Create smaller groups.
  • Bond as a team.
  • Celebrate small victories.

By taking an active role in projects, you can keep an eye out for social loafing and address the issue as it arises.

Author avatar


CEO at
I write about my experience working with and leading remote teams since 2010.


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