By Chuck Violand
In the late 1800s, a French agricultural engineer named Max Ringelmann conducted experiments to determine if people pulling on a rope pulled as hard when they pulled as a group as they did when pulling individually. To his surprise, he discovered people pulling individually actually pulled harder than when they pulled as a group. In other words, when the group pulled together, someone in the group was loafing. This became known as the Ringelmann effect. Fast forward to more recent studies conducted by researchers at both The Ohio State University and Fordham University. The results of these studies confirmed the Ringelmann effect and led to the term “social loafing,” the phenomenon of people exerting less effort to achieve a goal when they work in groups than when they work individually.
Social loafing = Weak links
Social loafing is one of the reasons workgroups are sometimes less productive than the combined efforts of people working on their own. I don’t think the concept of social loafing is a mystery to anyone who’s owned a business. After all, it’s probably this concept that leads to expressions like “water seeks its own level,” “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and the unflattering term “lowest common denominator” that frequently refers to the weakest member of a team.
The place I see this concept play itself out most often isn’t with the workers in an organization at all but, instead, with the business owner. I’ve seen it most often in two specific areas.
The first is when business owners, following through on sound advice, surround themselves with competent people in their organization—what we at my company refer to as “A players.” These are people who don’t need to be prodded or cajoled to perform their jobs at a high level.
Rather than one of the members of this motivated team doing the loafing, it’s the owner who unconsciously starts to idle. With such a competent and motivated team in place, he might be inclined to think he can take his foot off the proverbial gas pedal and coast for a bit. After all, his people are doing an outstanding job.
The second area I’ve seen social loafing creep into a business is when the owner gets bored, overwhelmed, exhausted, or for whatever other reason, decides to check out. I’ve written extensively in the past about the perils of an owner checking out. It’s one of the leading causes of a company seeing growth stall for multiple years or sliding into decline.
One of the reasons this type of social loafing is so harmful is because it carries a double whammy. Not only is the owner checked out, but with the owner mentally absent or reluctant to make tough decisions, the people in the organization are inclined to do the same—either consciously or unconsciously.
Whether they realize it or not, people follow their bosses’ examples before they follow their words. So being mindful of our actions is always important, even when surrounded by the most competent of teams. Doing so will help show our people how important it is to always be pulling hard on the rope.
Chuck Violand is the founder and principal of Violand Management Associates (VMA), a highly-respected consulting company in the restoration and cleaning industries.
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February 21, 2023