Group problem solving can sometimes lead to breakthrough ideas that individuals working alone wouldn’t be able to come up with. Yet, often group problem solving not only doesn’t work as expected, but simply becomes an intellectual miscarriage. One important element for improving group problem solving and encouraging better ideas is to eliminate social loafing, which is a major reason why groups often a major reason why groups often fare worse than individuals working alone.
Social loafing stands for the idea that when individuals become a part of a group, they view their individual efforts as less important, so they naturally put less effort while being part of the group. Social loafing may affect everything from quality of basic brainstorming to more strategic judgments and decisions.
Social loafing is related to the Ringelmann effect, named after Max Ringelmann, a 19th century French agricultural engineer. Ringelmann found, for example, that when people had to pull a rope, they put significantly less effort when pulling together with other people than pulling alone. Ringelmann also found that this phenomenon applies not only to humans but to other animals as well, including horses and oxen. Later research found that social loafing is responsible for diminished group performance on all sorts of physical and mental tasks, including brainstorming, evaluating employees, or making causal judgments. Of course, people themselves are rarely aware of their inclination for social loafing.
Social loafing increases when people expect that their colleagues will perform well. There are also cultural differences, with people from Eastern cultures being less likely to loaf.
Reducing Social Loafing
There are several ways to reduce social loafing and improve overall group problem solving :
- Group Value. Social loafing can be reduced or even eliminated when people work with someone whom they highly respect and value. Thus, when thinking about optimal composition of the team, consider how likely are members of the group to value each other.
- Meaningfulness. Loafing reduces noticeably when people find tasks meaningful. Therefore, it pays off to explain clearly the purpose behind the task, why it is important to solve that particular problem, and how it relates more broadly to organization’s work and how it can also contribute to people’s personal goals.
- Responsibility and Accountability. People become more involved if they think that they are the only ones responsible for the problem, so if possible, assign each member of the group some separate and identifiable portion of the problem. Evaluation and accountability also works. Yet, accountability effectively increases people’s involvement only if they expect to justify to someone whose views are unknown; when people know the views of the person to whom they will have to account, they often take the cognitively lazy option of simply adopting the same views and not analyzing information more carefully.
- Group Size. Limit the size of the group, because social loafing increases with the size of the group, and the larger the group the less effort individuals will put in.
- Maximal Goals. Set a maximal goal, a goal that can be achieved only if each member of the group puts in maximum effort.
 Donelson R. Forsyth, Group Dynamics (Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning; 5th ed. 2009) pp. 293-294.
 Steven J. Karau and Kipling D. Williams, Social Loafing: A Meta-analytic Review and Theoretical Integration, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681–706 (1993).
 Philip E. Tetlock, Accountability and the Complexity of Thought, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 74-83 (1983).