3 Reasons Why We're All Loafing At Work—And What To Do About It

People stop slacking when they work with people they like and respect. Are you ready to join the good culture club?

The mechanics of loafing are subtle.

To hear Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant tell it, at-work freeloading is a heady cocktail: a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, of internal motivation and social obligation—or a lack thereof.

The best ways to cure loafing, then, active those languid, latent energies.

But we must make one caveat: that loafing or slacking can be easily conflated with what we've taken to calling negative space, that is, the not-doing that is crucial to doing your best work. How so?

  • Einstein would take the time to think over questions before he started venturing to answers—so having some "slack" in your day is a way to allow for innovation to emerge.
  • LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner makes sure to make pockets of time throughout his day to actually think and strategize—a best practice for leaders.
  • Busy is the new lazy—overscheduling can numb us to the fact that we aren't connecting our daily grind to our life goals—which might be thrilling for a day or a year, but isn't the way we want to spend our lives.

That said, there is such a thing as truly nonproductive slacking—it's the reason Jonah Peretti built BuzzFeed as your bored-at-work pleasure fix. It's the reason we love the epically obese Homer.

Grant's tips, then, help us to move in the opposite direction: motivate the unmotivated, galvanize the GIF-bound, and otherwise make sure everyone's carrying their weight.

Make it meaningful

Folks slack off when they don't think their work matters—a lack of intrinsic motivation that is also a symptom of burnout, the ultimate bugbear of productivity and at-work wellness. But when they see that their work is important, they work harder and smarter, Grant says.

One experiment of his shows why:

Years ago, colleagues and I studied call center employees who were raising money for a university, but felt that their individual efforts were just a drop in the bucket. To highlight the significance of the task, we invited a scholarship student who benefited from their work to speak with the callers. It was a randomized, controlled experiment: some of the callers heard about how their fundraising had improved his life, whereas others didn’t. After a five-minute interaction with one scholarship student, the average caller spiked 142% in weekly minutes on the phone and 171% in weekly revenue raised. The largest effect was on the free riders, who quadrupled in weekly donation rates.

The lesson, then, is to be aware of the way our work affects our colleagues and users, customers, and other humans—an understanding that will deliver motivation and also happens to be why the happiest people have the hardest jobs.

Reduce the group size

Grant mentions an experiment in which people were asked to make noise—either in groups, in pairs, or alone. Folks in groups of six were only 40% as loud as they could be—while as the group size went down, the racket went up. People in groups of four made noise at 51% of their capacity—while the noise reached its height at 71% when paired with only one person.

"The smaller the group," he says, "the more responsible each member feels for contributing."

Similarly, as Grant notes in the full post, assigning unique responsibilities prompts greater productivity, as does making individual inputs more apparent. Seems that the more our work is exposed to the world, the more motivated we are to do it well—which resonates with Brené Brown's point that doing awesome work means making yourself vulnerable.

Build a stronger relationship

In one study, the startups that had the lowest rate of failure and the highest chance at an IPO had an edifying quality to them: Their cultures were organized around commitment, meaning that hiring focused on fit and team members treated each other like family. Why is that so effective?

Another one of Grant's points helps us to see why: "People don’t worry much about letting down strangers and acquaintances," he says, "but they feel guilty about leaving their friends in the lurch."

This has been seen elsewhere: A social loafing meta-analysis found that people stop slacking when they work with people they like and respect—social bonds become productivity bandwidth. Once again, we see that connections create value.

Hat tip: LinkedIn

[Image: Flickr user Hans Splinter]

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2 Comments

  • Professoratplay

    Drake, thanks for this article and highlighting Professor Grant's work in the area. 

    One other point I'd add has to do with rewards doled out by leaders and their companies, drawing on equity theory.  If people feel inequitably underrewarded for their efforts they are likely to become more selfish and less team oriented. 

    For example, underpaid professional basketball players take more shots per minute played (become "ball hogs") compared to the rate in their careers up to that point.