Let Science Explain Why Your Coworkers Are Slackers

The more people on a team, the greater the likelihood that not everyone will pull their weight.

Let Science Explain Why Your Coworkers Are Slackers
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

It’s the 19th century, and you are a foreman on a farm. You have two dozen strong laborers working for you, and you need some of them to grab a rope that will pull a plow. The rope is long enough for all the men to pull it. How many would you assign to the task?

In 1913, Max Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, conducted what many believe was the first recorded social psychology experiment meant to answer this question. He carefully measured how much force people exerted when they pulled a rope alone, and when they pulled it with up to 28 other people.

His results were surprising. Whenever another person was added to the rope, everyone pulled with less strength. When there were two people on the line, each one pulled with 93% of the force of a single person working alone. Three people each pulled with 85% of the force, and so on. By the time eight people joined the rope, they were each pulling with half the force of a single person. As a result, a team of eight pulled the rope with no more total force than a team of seven. These people weren’t pulling their weight—literally.

This phenomenon is widespread in the 21st-century workplace, too. Putting more team members on a project might not necessarily lead to greater productivity.

The Science Of Slacking

The Ringelmann Effect, or the “free rider problem” as it’s more commonly known, is serious and pervasive. The observation that in large groups people tend to contribute less, rather than more, has been confirmed in almost 80 additional studies. But Ringelmann himself took the issue a step further and examined the structural elements of cultures that encourage this behavior.

There are three main causes, which we see underlying workplace issues at companies from Amazon to the startup world. Or you could just think back to your last family dinner gathering–where there’s always that one relative who never lifts a finger to help set the table or wash dishes. People are unlikely to pull their weight when:

  • They feel their work has little intrinsic meaning or value (e.g., washing dishes)
  • The value of their own contribution is indistinct (“If I wait long enough, someone else will volunteer to do it.”)
  • Their team doesn’t feel like a real community (“Why should I wash dishes for my family if they don’t support me in other endeavors?”)

In the workplace, many people can’t see the impact of their work, diminishing the importance of both their individual contribution and the work in general. Needlessly competitive environments make things worse, pitting would-be teammates against each other, discouraging collaboration, and undermining any feeling of community.

Everyone Pulling Together

So how do you solve this problem? Simply minimize those three main causes for it. Make sure your team members can see the impact of their contributions on customers, colleagues, and the mission that binds you all. Think proactively about your company’s structure. Can it be designed differently to optimize group size and cohesion? Its reputedly intense work culture notwithstanding, Amazon practices the “two-pizza rule”: If everyone in a meeting can’t be fed by two pizzas, it’s too big.

Anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar famously observed that humans create “villages” of about 150 members, with three progressively smaller sub-groups within each. He’s found this basic organizational pattern in hunter-gatherer societies, military units, and even in terms of maximum social connectivity on Twitter.

Finally, structure teams like societies, not marketplaces. Performance management systems that rank employees on forced curves ensures that the law of tooth and claw, and not collaboration, govern team relationships. You want to hide innovations from your market competitors, but not between teammates.

Instead, fostering real community–and making sure everyone can see the impact of it–reduces emotional pressure, creates a greater sense of purpose, and drives higher performance. On teams like that, there’s scant room for slackers.

Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi are co-authors of Primed to Perform, a book exploring the counterintuitive science behind powerful work cultures. They are also cofounders of Vega Factor, which helps organizations of all sizes and across sectors create high-performing cultures.

Related: Are You The Toxic Coworker?