How to combat social loafing and create a high-performing team culture

7 min read

11 May 2016

As more people work on a task, the less each of them individually contributes – even if all of the team members feel they are working hard. Are your teammates a bunch of loafers? Not necessarily. But there is a good chance that counter-productive team dynamics are creating a drag on your collective output.

Picture this experiment: You are pulling on a rope tied to a boulder, sweating as you try to drag it as far as possible. To help you out, another person joins you and the boulder moves a little more. Then another person joins you, and another.

You start noticing something odd. With each additional person, the boulder moves faster, but not as fast as you would expect. By the time the tenth person grabs onto the rope, the group is barely pulling harder than when it was only six.

This is the gist of a famous study conducted by French engineer Max Ringelmann in the early 20th century. It led to his discovery of what we now know to be a common source of frustration on teams: social loafing.

Write the rules for your team culture

Fortunately, you can neutralise counter-productive dynamics and take steps to boost your team’s performance. The key is to proactively build the right team culture. That might sound too fuzzy for your tastes – the stuff of happy hours or casual Friday policies.

But actually, as social scientists know, culture is the shared set of rules – stated and unstated – that guide how groups interact and get work done. High-performing teams are productive because they align behind a small set of rules that keeps them focused so their commitment doesn’t flag.

High-performing teams operate according to rules that produce results. As a team leader, then, you should help write the rules. Research shows that, when it comes to this task, three broad areas are most important: goals, roles, and norms.

Read more on company culture:

(1) Goals

Rules related to goals guide the team’s direction. Goals encompass a shared vision as well as specific objectives that establish clear performance targets. Goals should also tap into the values that are meaningful to individual team members.

(2) Roles

Rules that specify each member’s contribution define roles that include both the formal and informal aspects of teamwork, such as facilitation, coaching, and mediation.

(3) Norms

Norms are rules that determine how team members share information, make decisions, and resolve conflicts.

High-performing teams don’t leave their culture to chance, because they know that if they do, the culture that emerges in their group will likely not be the one they would want. The key is to have explicit conversations about the rules guiding how your team will collaborate and get things done.

Continue on the next page to understand how a focus on a few rules can make an impact – just as it did for TV show The Shield.

Image: Shutterstock

Focus on a few rules that make a difference

While you might be tempted to come up with a laundry list of rules, it is best to focus on a few that will have the greatest impact. On every team, these must-have rules will be different.

Take, for example, how the television producer Glen Mazzara made the rules for his team working on The Shield. Mazzara wanted to create an environment that promoted inclusive decision-making. But he noticed that two of his younger female writers would stay quiet during meetings while the men dominated the floor.

Mazzara paid careful attention to the team dynamic at the next brainstorming session. What he saw made him understand the young women’s apprehension. Whenever they threw out an idea, a man would interrupt them and take over the discussion.

Recognising the problem, Mazzara cleverly laid down a norm for the whole team without calling out the gender dynamic. He instituted a rule that no one would interrupt another person who was pitching an idea for the show.

By focusing on a rule that really mattered for the team’s success and making it explicit, Mazzara created an environment where woman could contribute much more. The team became more productive, and the quality of the show benefited as a result.

How can you write effective rules for your team? Focus on the top three to five things that you think will be most important for the team dynamic based on what you know about your particular group and the work that needs to be done.

The paradox of high-performing teams is that, by focusing on the seemingly intangible issue of culture, they create the conditions for producing hard results. There is an oft-quoted saying that goes, “The soft stuff is the hard stuff.”

You would do well to remember it the next time you have a discussion with your team about the work it needs to do. Culture is a shared set of rules for solving problems.

High-performing teams operate according to the rules – the ones they write for themselves.

Meet the five businesses you should never copy when it comes to company culture.

Dr. Mario Moussa and Dr. Derek Newberry are the authors of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance. Moussa teaches in the Executive Programmes at Wharton School of Executive Education. Newberry is a lecturer at the Wharton School of Business. The duo can be accessed on Twitter @Committed_Teams.