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The Secret To Removing Social Loafing From The Workplace

Social loafing tips: workplace groups do's and dont's

Be honest: there have been times when you noticed the printer was broken, audibly sighed, pressed a few buttons, then slowly walked away, effectively washing your hands of that pesky problem. It’s okay, we’ve all done it. No one likes fixing the printer.

But what if, in reality, you are the only person who has noticed this problem, and you didn’t do anything about it? What if you never report it, and the poor sap that’s about to do an important demo can’t print their notes just minutes before their meeting? Yikes, this scenario escalated quickly.

Social Loafing: What’s Holding Us Back In Groups?

Social loafing is the culprit of low performance and reduced productivity. Social loafing is the phenomenon of a person making fewer contributions to a group effort than they would if they were solely charged with the responsibility. In other words, when any number of people can potentially take it upon themselves to fix the printer, a high percentage of individuals in the group will assume that someone else will take the initiative to complete the task.

A hundred years ago, a French engineer named Maximilien Ringelmann investigated the loafing tendency through a series of rope pulling experiments. He discovered that as group size increases, the effort exerted to a task decreases. So if more people were in the group, the less harder each individual person would pull. He found that eight people in a group didn’t even pull as hard as four people.

Social loafing among golden retrievers

More researchers have suggested that this diffusion of responsibility is due to decreased pressure on any one person, and that a bigger group size dictates less individual effort. Overall, group development theory has shown that people approach tasks differently depending on the quality of their relationships with their co-workers.

In a large company, you’re more apt to believe that surely there must be someone else that elects to fix the printer. ...Right? Anyone? :crickets:

Don’t Do Nothing, Social Loafers

Michael Pryor, co-founder and Head of Product at Trello, is determined to eliminate the mentality that occurs when a person on a team assumes other people will address a problem. He has a simple saying he reiterates during all company meetings: Don’t Do Nothing.

Michael makes this mantra clear to the entire company because he believes in empowering his employees to make decisions for themselves. By telling them “Don’t Do Nothing,” he is giving them agency in the decision-making process to take any next steps they see fit to solve the problem.

“We have always said our goal is to hire smart people and then get out of their way and let them do their job,” Michael explains. “By giving people agency, we are basically telling them: own a decision.”

Don’t Do Nothing is self explanatory: if you see an issue that needs to be addressed, make a decision about what the next steps should be. The Don’t Do Nothing concept is a group norm has caught on like wildfire around the company, inspiring memes of Michael and even a custom emoji.

When a person has the motivation to go to another team at Trello to bring something to their attention, their statement is often prefaced with, “In the spirit of Don’t Do Nothing, I noticed that…”

Don't Do Nothing: Trello anti social loafing slogan

This flattering photo of Michael turned into the poster child for Don't Do Nothing. In unrelated news, he's awesome.

Empower Your Employees

Reducing social loafing tendency and increasing contributions among your team comes down to trust. If you don’t place trust in your employees and colleagues to make the right decisions, the outcome and the effects can be dire. Not to mention all the extra work you create for yourself by needing to approve every little thing. According to Gallup, establishing trust in the workplace is one of the factors most highly correlated with employee satisfaction and motivation.

“The hardest thing for an entrepreneur is ceding control to other people,” Michael explains. “You spend so much time doing everything by yourself that it becomes second nature. But you can't scale a company by yourself. Hire people you trust and then give them the ability to make decisions. It's the only way you'll grow.”

Michael routinely relies on his management team to report to him on projects surrounding Product decisions, Sales requests, Marketing campaigns, Engineering capabilities, and HR feedback. Without placing his trust in these people and their teams, he would be working around the clock and spreading himself too thin trying to keep up.

It also comes back to servant leadership, a concept to which Michael fully subscribes. Giving his employees the autonomy to make decisions allows them to expand their confidence, cultivate strong groups, and ultimately empower everyone to improve the company any way they see fit.

MHP“The hardest thing for an entrepreneur is ceding control to other people. You spend so much time doing everything by yourself that it becomes second nature. But you can't scale a company by yourself. Hire people you trust and then give them the ability to make decisions. It's the only way you'll grow.”

- Michael Pryor, CEO of Trello

Putting Theory Into Action

"Don't Do Nothing" is not just a meme, it actually compels Trello team members to take action when they otherwise wouldn't. It has significantly improved cross team communication, and has reduced stress.

On multiple occasions a developer has pinged me about a broken link or a typo in a blog post. Fresh eyes are always great, because even copy editors miss a few. The little extra effort (coupled with the good intention to help the company rather than point out someone's mistakes) has a positive effect in all aspects of our day-to-day responsibilities. 

The Web team has an "Incoming" list on a Trello board where anyone can report a bug they notice. The team addresses the cards in the queue as time allows. One time a Server developer noticed through his own work that the Web client seemed to be taking too long to switch from a large board to a small one. Instead of assuming the team knew about it, he made a card on their board just in case. Turns out his observations were right, and the fix was added.

All team members, including those not on technical staff, are encouraged to report bugs and performance issues:

Example of stopping social loafing in the workplaceThis is an actual exchange between myself and Lou, an iOS developer.
PS. Trello iOS 3.3.5 now available with a fix for this.

Sometimes You Should Actually Do Nothing

It’s not just about galvanizing people to take action. It’s also about giving them the option to not take action, if that’s what they think is the right course. Michael also trusts his employees to assess a problem and say, “this isn’t worth anyone’s time.”

He is essentially saying that if someone sees a problem and decides not to address it, he trusts that they made a thoughtful decision before deciding not to alert anyone else. After all, as NYTimes bestselling author Charles Duhigg told us: "A huge part of productivity is exposing yourself to the knowledge that alternative ways of thinking are possible."

And as Michael explains, “You don’t make the decision to ignore something because you assume it’s someone else’s problem. That’s the distinction. Because you are aware of it, it is now your responsibility to deal with it.”

You Can’t Fix Everything

It may seem overwhelming, especially at a small company where you are wearing many hats, to think that you need to fix every error you spot. The point is not to drop everything and immediately try to do something. If everyone was reactive when addressing a problem, the result would be a lack of focus. Rather, the point is to take responsibility for the knowledge you have gained, and make a decision about what to do.

And most importantly, now you never need to feel guilty about that darn printer again.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in March, 2016 but we've added a whole heap of new ideas and nuggets of information to it.

Next: The Eisenhower Matrix Productivity Method [Video Tutorial]