If you were starting a project or business, common sense would tell you that you could produce 5x as much output if there were five people working on your goals than if there were just one person. If you are running a counseling program, ten counselors should be able to do 10x the work as a single counselor, right? If you are starting a candle company, twenty employees should be able to produce 4x the work as five employees, right? If you are a mom cleaning out a garage, you should get more done with your three kids helping you, right?
Wrong. This is one of the rare areas where common sense miserably fails because it is coming up against a powerful psychological force that is hardwired into humans after thousands of years of biological adaptation.
It turns out, that as you add people to a group, although group effort in an absolute sense increases, individual effort falls off a cliff due to a psychological phenomenon known as social loafing. This means that a group is almost always, by default, operating at far below its maximum capacity, whether you are baking bread, manufacturing widgets or building houses for the poor. Much organizational behavior can be understood when viewed through the lens of this particular mental model.
The good news is that there is also a solution to social loafing but it requires you to put in very specific systems in place to combat its powerful, subtle influence.
By learning to fight social loafing, you have a chance at drastically improving productivity and results for any project you manage. This has significant ramifications for anyone who is starting a business, running a company, helping a charity, working with a church, building homes for the poor, trading commodities, running a training program or undertaking any activity that requires the cooperation of people.
The Two Keys to Social Loafing
Psychologists have proven that humans are wired for social loafing in virtually all activities. The first, and most famous, test involved a tug-of-war contest where they were able to isolate and measure the effort of individual “tuggers” pulling a rope by themselves and then, later, with a group. It turns out that when people were added to help tug on a rope, individual effort fell by 18% to 66%, a massive loss of productivity. Furthermore, all of the original “tuggers” believed they were pulling just as hard with the team as they had been on their own.