Issue 14

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BoardWorks International
Issue 14, 2013

Does Your Board Suffer From 'Social Loafing'?

A common expectation we have of a board (or of any group) is that its capabilities and achievements will be greater than the sum of its parts. On many boards, however, most of the 'heavy lifting' is done by a relatively small sub-set of the group while others contribute comparatively little.  Consequently the group as a whole is less effective than would be expected from the capabilities of its individual members.

There could be many reasons why some directors contribute less than their colleagues. They may be unclear about their roles and what is expected of them; they may lack confidence and/or competence; their motivation may differ from that of their colleagues; they may not feel valued; the board's process for engaging its members may be flawed.  This list could go on but the explanation might lie in a common phenomenon psychologists refer to as 'social loafing'.

What is social loafing? 

Social loafing is the tendency for individuals to put less effort into a task when they are working as part of a group than when they are working alone. (1)

As an experienced observer once suggested, governing boards are often little more than incompetent groups of competent people. (2) A board might be less effective than it could be because its work is disorganised.  While true in some circumstances, social loafing is distinct from a board's underachievement due to poor coordination or an inadequate conceptualisation of its work.  Social loafing is about reduced effort on the part of individuals in a group. (3)

The phenomenon of social loafing was first noticed by German researcher Max Ringelmann.  He found that a group of workers pulled harder on a rope when they did it individually than when they were pulling as part of a team.  Subsequently, it has become apparent that social loafing occurs not only in relation to physical tasks but also when, as in the board room, groups of people are involved in creative, evaluative and cognitive tasks.  This phenomenon has been observed across a range of demographic and cultural characteristics although there are some interesting variations. For example, in one analysis researchers found 'free riding' in groups was more common among men than women and in Western than in Eastern countries. (4) This pattern occurs because women and people in Eastern cultures tend to value the performance and well-being of the collective more than do men and people in most western cultures.  Others have commented that unskilled group members are more likely to loaf than skilled ones.

Social loafing is especially problematic when it occurs in the boardroom because boards make decisions and are accountable for those decisions collectively.  When one or more directors are not contributing to the full extent of their capability potentially valuable individual contributions are lost.  This has implications for the dynamic of the board as well as for the quality of its collective performance.

When and why does social loafing occur?

Social loafing does not result because individuals are flawed, lazy and looking for a free ride.  People are most likely to become less motivated and loaf when:

  • They believe their individual effort (good or bad) will not be so visible and, therefore, is less likely to be evaluated and acknowledged by others in the group.
  • They believe their attendance and/or effort will not necessarily have consequences for the performance of the group (i.e. the group's work will be accomplished irrespective of their personal effort - which they may think has little value).
  • The work of the group or the task they are personally assigned holds little interest or meaning for them. When people care about the work they are more likely to make an effort. They may also lift their game if their contribution is likely to win approval and acceptance from the group or if they are committed to the collective success of the group.

Missed meetings and poor meeting preparation, superficial, sporadic or non-existent contributions to board dialogue, inattention or even obvious disinterest, and late arrival and early departure may all be indications that loafing is present.  Certain conditions may even encourage it.  For example, the larger the size of a board the more likely it is that social loafing will occur.  The size factor is likely to be compounded if members are representatives and/or subject matter experts.  Both are prone to define their contribution to the board in relatively narrow terms and engage only when the interests of their constituency or their speciality make it onto the table.

Protecting against social loafing in the boardroom

The characteristics and incidence of social loafing can vary widely but there is a wide range of initiatives worth considering to keep this problem at bay.

  • Individual directors should have reason to believe that their contributions will be both valued and observed. This calls for the careful selection and induction of board members to ensure that their experience and capabilities are a good fit with the organisation's needs and that they understand what is expected of them.
  • There should also be restrictions on the size of the board. Social loafing is far more likely to occur once board size increases beyond single figures. The smaller the board, the more compelled each member is likely to feel to contribute.
  • Many organisations have made the transition from elected, constituency-oriented boards to boards selected for their ability to make a substantive contribution to organisational performance. Because board membership is not random, individuals are less likely to be uncertain about what and how they should contribute.
  • Active management of board meeting structure and content to ensure this is worthy of board members' time and attention. Too many boards are passive recipients of management reports and presentations which have little relevance to the true responsibilities of directors and the real issues facing their enterprises.
  • Active management of board meeting process to ensure that all members are both expected to, and are enabled to, contribute actively to the board's dialogue. This requires skilled facilitation by the board chair.
  • Active engagement between formal board meetings. This can be achieved in a number of ways. For example, assigning members to small task forces to work through specific issues or proposals ahead of collective consideration by the whole board. Also consider site visits and other forms of observation of, and engagement in, the life of the business. When chairs and chief executives seek out the views of individual board members between meetings this is another way of turning the spotlight on individuals and making them feel valued. Some boards also assign 'portfolio responsibilities' to individual directors. This should be done with great care, ensuring that the portfolios relate to governance and not to management responsibilities.
  • Board and director performance evaluation. For evaluation to be a useful and valid process, board and director roles and responsibilities need to be clear and expectations of individual performance stated up front. Individuals then get regular structured peer feedback on their contribution to the board. Board charters and letters of expectation provided to directors upon appointment are related and useful tools.
  • Build strong relationships. Because boards meet infrequently compared, for example, to their management teams, generating effective teamwork is difficult. Board membership that is subject to regular turnover can compound this problem. Establishing personal connections, however, encourages boardroom team-mates to become more committed and dedicated. People generally feel guilty about leaving their friends and respected colleagues to carry the load.



(1) Merchant, Kenneth A. and Katharina Pick (2010).  Blind Spots, Biases, and Other Pathologies in the Boardroom. New York, Business Expert Press. p.15.

(2) Carver, John (1990). Boards That Make a Difference. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers

(3) A related concept describes some people as 'free riders'.  Free riding occurs where individuals contribute little to producing a result but still benefit from the fact that others have done the work.  The concepts are similar - they involve a decrease in motivation when there is a group of others also contributing - but are also said to have different roots and should therefore be treated separately. (see Merchant and Pick, op cit.) 

(4) Karau, Steven J. and Kipling D Williams (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 65(4), 681-706).


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