How and why people ‘shirk’ | Blog | Phil Hesketh | MFL

How and why people ‘shirk’ and how to stop them doing it by Phil Hesketh

We’ve all spent time in think tanks, tasked with generating as many ideas as possible. But although this may be a fast way to achieve volume, is it the best way to generate quality?

Well according to psychologists in the US, probably not. Their studies prove that many people ‘hide’ in a group situation and become much less productive than if they were working alone.

How and why people ‘shirk’ and how to stop them doing it

American psychologists call this phenomenon ‘social loafing’. In Harrogate that means distributing bread to the homeless, but I digress. This theory is supported by an experiment by Professor Max Ringelmann. He got people to pull on ropes and measured how hard they pulled. He found that the more people were introduced to the task, the less effort each one put in. The graph shown here demonstrates this. Notice how people did half as much work when there were eight others in the group than when they were alone. Bell ringers take note.

More recently, Professor Bibb Latané asked people to cheer, shout and clap as loud as they could. He found that when people were in groups of six they only shouted at one-third of their full capacity. This is probably why panto audiences never give a big cheer at the first time of asking. Or why the away fans at football matches always seem to make the most noise. So how do you stop social loafing? Here are four top tips.

Cut down group numbers

Psychologist George Miller discovered that people can only cope with up to six things at one time. For example, when dots of light are flashed on a blank screen for a fraction of a second most people can only correctly guess the number if it’s less than six. Similarly, if we try to store more than seven numbers or words in our short-term memory, we struggle. And this same phenomenon is true of managing people. So don’t have more than six or seven in a group.

Make the task important

Studies show that when people think the task is important they do less loafing. An experiment by Zacarro in 1984 found that groups worked harder to construct ‘moon tents’ when they thought the task was important. Personally, I’ve always valued the construction of moon tents. If anybody knows what they are, let me know.

Make the group feel important

Similarly, when the group is important to its members, they work harder. One study had two groups of people building paper chains. One of the groups wore their normal day clothes whilst the other was given white coats and name tags plus a sense of competition. This latter group produced five more paper chains. But, personally, I wouldn’t swap them for a moon tent.

Evaluate each member

Finally, if each member’s contribution is evaluated they won’t want to be identified as a loafer. Although I remember Sir Clive Woodward once telling me how one of his rugby players would deliberately run up and down the pitch when the ball wasn’t in play just to get his metabolic rate stats up. We were speaking at the same conference and he arrived – and left – on the back of a powerful motorbike. We’d had a nice chat and I couldn’t resist the opportunity as he was leaving to say to a Knight of the Realm; “Right mate, on yer bike.”

And he chortled as he left.

Key thing is this: people can be made to work harder by cutting off their natural tendency to hide in the group.

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