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:

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.



(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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