Why Executive Teams Can Sometimes Be Lazy

Let me share with you a psychological concept called social loafing,  It explains why and when you & your executive team can be susceptible to being lazy.  I’ll then share a few ideas to prevent laziness, or social loafing creeping in.

The why and when executive team members can be lazy:

Any person in a group or team can exhibit social loafing.

Social loafing is the tendency for individuals to reduce the effort they put into a task when they are working as part of a group as opposed to working alone.

Social loafing was first observed in experiments by Max Ringelmann (*).  He carried out research in which he asked workers to pull on a rope as hard as they could, first individually and then as part of a group with seven other individuals.  Each pulled harder when pulling individually than part of a team.  Though the group generated greater pulling power overall, it was lower than expected when taking into account the sum of individual performance.  

The same happens in your executive team.  Executive team members are prone to put less effort into say decision making when part of the executive team, than when they make decisions by themselves.

The times when you and your executive team colleagues are most likely to loaf are:

- when you believe your effort will not affect overall group effort on a task

- when you believe your performance will not be visible or identifiable to others.  

We are also cunning, and are likely adjust your effort depending on the effort we expect others to make.  So we have a tendency to “free ride”.

So although as an executive team member you may want to shine, you may unwittingly loaf or don’t try as hard when you think your effort won’t be visible to others.  

Social loafing will most typically occur in an executive team when members feel they are acting as a collective.

Think of tasks where you and your colleagues need to make a collective decision.  For example,  setting compensation or approving strategic decisions.  These are times when social loafing is likely to kick-in.  Consequentlyexecutive team members don’t contribute to the discussion or decision as much, and a vail conformity can descend over the entire executive team.  The net result being that quite possibly a lower quality decision is made.

Clearly when directors care about the task they are less likely to loaf.

However, social loafing does explain why cross functional initiatives can grind to a halt.  With all the collective decisions that need to be made, people simply start to ‘switch off’…and lethargy can set in, despite everyone’s gung-ho intentions at the initiatives inception.

Is there a cure for social loafing?

Well if it were possible to evaluate individual contributions then people are less likely to loaf, but this is hardly or rarely practical with an executive team or Board.

Simply being aware that social loafing can kick-in can help prevent it.  Asking each member of the executive team to clearly articulate how they plan to contribute to ‘XYZ’ initiative that needs a collective decision can help curtail loafing. Also along the route ask for executive team members for their thoughts & opinions so they are still involved.  For larger initiatives try having smaller groups so there is nowhere for people to hide and loaf.

(*) Kravitz, D. A., & Martin, B. (1986). Ringelmann rediscovered: The original article. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 50(5), 936-941

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