It is easier for people to take less accountability for performance when doing work as a part of a team. Known as social loafing, it is a common social phenomenon where a team member works less because their work is not visible to the broader team. This concept was first investigated by Max Ringelmann, a French professor of agricultural engineering, in 1913. Ringelmann asked a group of men to pull on a rope and discovered that they pulled harder when they were alone than they did collectively.
This impact of individual “loafing” affects the overall productivity of a team, especially in a cross-functional team that aims to work across functions. Among these groups, it isn’t always clear who is in charge or who should be involved in decisions. Team members may view the work as someone else’s responsibility, so they don’t take ownership. This low degree of “identifiability”—when our individual performance is not clearly observable—allows us to more easily “hide” and avoid taking accountability for our role in the team’s poor performance.
One example of the impact of identifiability on accountability and performance comes from a study that looked at the times of the members of the Ohio State Swim Team in a competitive event. The study found that when swimmers’ scores were not made public, they exerted less effort and swam both the individual and relay events more slowly. When individual scores were made public the swimmers swam faster in both events.
In a business setting, if everyone underperforms then the final product is not going to reach the standards of the set goal. As a further consequence, blame may be thrown around as individuals attempt to protect their accountability. The mix of poor results in an accusatory environment negatively impacts team performance.
In these situations, it’s the leader’s job to monitor performance and motivate the team to excel. Here are three things leaders can do to minimize social loafing and enhance individual accountability within cross-functional teams.
Steps to Prevent Social Loafing
Keep Project Teams Small
Larger teams don’t necessarily mean greater output. Social loafing is more likely to take place in a large group since individuals will rely on others to pick up their slack under the assumption that their lack of contribution is less likely to be noticed. Leaders can prevent this situation by putting together smaller teams around clear, challenging goals where each individual has a task and commitment to the project. Smaller groups do better communicating as well, streamlining the workflow. This practice won’t only stop social loafing, but also increase output since there is less of a focus on bureaucracy and more on accomplishing goals.
Track Team and Individual Progress
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) display progress toward an intended result or goal, but they can also be used to spot “low identifiable” individuals. If the team’s ultimate goal is to increase sales, it’s easy to evaluate the sales manager based on monthly revenue. It may not be as easy to evaluate the marketing manager’s performance, but it’s just as important. Utilizing KPIs will fill that gap. Consider which metrics you can use to evaluate each role. Regularly monitoring and reporting on concrete metrics takes away any illusion that team members are able to operate under the radar while creating a sense of objectivity and fairness.
Don’t simply assign a task and walk away either. Establish key milestones with estimated completion dates, and use those milestones as opportunities to check in with individuals. Take the time to discuss their progress and identify any roadblocks. If someone is falling behind on a particular task, find out why and provide coaching when appropriate.
Social loafing is more likely to take place when there’s no system in place for monitoring progress. Without regular check-ins, procrastination may come into play, which often leads to a sloppy or rushed final product.
Reaching milestones can create a sense of reward and gratification. Encourage team members to support and celebrate small achievements to keep motivation high. Recognizing good work increases productivity and incentivizes positive output.
Ensure Transparency of Individual Tasks and Goals
Within a cross-functional team, a lack of clarity about who will work on a specific task is not uncommon. This can be avoided by taking the time to develop action plans and making them visible through shared documents or project management software, such as Basecamp or Jira.
When the tasks are clearly defined and assigned to a specific person with a set deadline, it is easier to hold them accountable for completing his or her work on time. In addition, the realization that others are aware of the work they are responsible for will also increase their level of engagement and accountability.
These practical actions not only reinforce an individual’s role in making the team a success but also make their role and contribution transparent to others. This results in a high degree of identifiability, which enhances overall team performance and makes it easier to prevent social loafing.