Research by Michaela Schippers of the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, finds that social loafing need not negatively affect team performance, as long as the loafer is an agreeable person and the other teammates are high in conscientiousness.
Unlike previous research, which was laboratory-based, Professor Schippers used a realistic setting: she studied groups of MBA students in the classroom for a semester, and team performance was measured by grades. Team members chose their own groups and neither they nor the instructor knew the goal of the research. Schippers initially tested the personalities of group members to rate their agreeableness – a measure of likeability – and conscientiousness – attention to detail.
There were two tasks, one low in complexity and the next much higher. The higher complexity task had little structure and multiple potential solutions. It was possible but not probable that one student could complete all of the work alone (a strategy that some team members resort to when confronted by a loafing colleague).
The study found that the negative results of social loafing were mediated by agreeableness and conscientiousness. Lower levels of both traits (for example, an unapologetic loafer on a team whose members have a lower sense of duty toward results) lowered team outcomes. But the regardless of the loafer’s attitude, the conscientiousness of the rest of the team members still led to higher grades. While most of us would prefer to work on teams with no social loafing, performance need not suffer. For example, a person who loafs on one team may be carrying the weight on a team in different class. In other words, team members make a bargain to distribute the overall workload across classes.
Instructors who want to train students to work better in teams should do the following: teach appropriate team behavior, create highly structured projects, and teach students how to just deal with the problem. After all, students may meet a social loafer in the workplace, too.