In 1913, a French engineer named Maximilian Ringelmann found out that when two horses are pulling a coach, both horses' power does not equal twice the power of each horse. Each horse pulls with less power. He extended the research to human beings, and surprisingly, he found out that in a tug of war contest, on average, if two were pulling the rope on each side, each invested just 93% of their individual strength, when three pulled, it was 85%, and with eight people, the number is only 49%.

This effect has been studied ever since, and it is known as “Social Loafing” or the “Ringelmann Effect.”

You have probably witnessed this effect many times. One place that always surprises me is the banks, the more tellers available, the slower everything seems to go.

Unfortunately, this can affect work teams also. If you really want to see it in action, try to assign two people to a task in your favorite task management tool and see what happens. (I have been lucky enough to finally find a tool that does not let you do that!)

Two sources have been identified for this problem:

In this case, the individual performance is lower when they are part of a group. The interesting fact researched is that oftentimes this is something the individuals do not believe to be true. They subconsciously reduce their performance.

Kenneth Price from the University of Texas found two factors that can increase social loafing due to loss of motivation. These two factors were dispensability and fairness. If team members believe their skills are inferior to those around them; in other words, they are dispensable, then they tend to fall into social loafing. The other factor, fairness, was how the employees perceived the work environment if they sensed any kind of unfairness (due to gender, ethnicity, or any other arbitrary factor.) If they sense unfairness, social loafing will increase.

Here, the decreased performance is due to problems in communication and coordination between the team members.

Knowing about the Ringelmann Effect and Parkinson’s Law, you will be left with zero hope for enhancing your team’s productivity by adding new people or extending the time and pushing back the deadlines. This is a nightmare. What can be done?

Is There Any Hope?

There is always hope!

Dan J. Rothwell has suggested one, and it is about the three C’s of motivation. The following three things can increase the motivation of individuals in teams, and hence you can hope for the elimination of social loafing.

1 — Collaboration: Involving everyone in the group and giving everyone meaningful tasks. Tasks need to be assigned so that knowledge sharing happens in the group. Having specific obligations will make group members feel valued, and they will take their tasks seriously not to let the group down.

2 — Content: Identifying the importance of the individual’s task within the group. If group members see their role as that involved in completing a worthy task, they are more likely to fulfill it.

3 — Choice: Giving the members freedom in picking what to do. This will encourage the members to work as a team and reduce social loafing.

Furthermore, in 2008, Praveen Aggarwal and Connie O’Brien studied several hundred college students to see what might affect social loafing. They concluded the three points below:

1 — Limiting project scopes: Smaller projects with more manageable chunks proved to reduced social loafing.

2 — Limiting team sizes: The smaller the team, the harder it was for someone to hide behind others.

3 — Peer evaluations: Social loafing will be visible to the whole team. Being accountable to the whole team reduces social loafing.

There is quite a lot of research both on what increases social loafing and what can reduce it. So apparently, there is, in fact, some hope.

Finally, here are two other studies that are my favorites:

Participation in Team Sports Can Eliminate the Effect of Social Loafing
This study shows that individuals who did team sports were much better than others when it comes to social loafing. (Go and hire those team players!)

A team fares well with a fair coach: Predictors of social loafing in interactive female sport teams
In this study, those teams with fair coaches showed less social loafing. (Be fair to the team!)

No team wants to be less productive because of having more people and I believe this to be a crucial subject for team leaders to study and reflect on while examining the unique situations in their teams. The above-mentioned researches are only a tiny fragment of the studies and ideas on this important topic. There is a lot to consider and ponder when it comes to the alchemy of teams.

A Mage at Dead Mage