By Martha C. White
January 15, 2016

Q: We work on a lot of team projects in my job, and there’s always one—or more—people who just phone it in and coast on everybody else’s hard work. Short of complaining to our supervisor, which I don’t want to do, how can I make them step up their efforts?

A: Workplaces are getting more collaborative today, which can be a good thing in terms of brainstorming and strategizing, but teamwork has its drawbacks, too. You’ve hit on one of the big ones: People who take advantage of the group structure to slack off on their contributions. Academics call this “social loafing,” and to get it to stop, you have to figure out where it starts.

Poor communication is often at the root of the problem, said Chris Lam, an assistant professor of technical communication at the University of North Texas who has studied social loafing and its causes. Although he conducted his experiments in an academic setting, Lam said the findings are applicable at workplaces, too.

“The takeaway here is that communication matters,” said Lam. While that may seem obvious to anyone who has ever tried to wrangle their coworkers on a project, “the hard part is really the ‘how’ question,” he said. “My argument is that it starts with the medium itself.”

In other words, you get the best results when you tailor the communication method to the task at hand—and everyone agrees on the protocol in advance. That might mean using email “for communications that require rich detail but don’t require immediate feedback,” Lam explained, and avoiding mediums with “low ‘reprocessability,’ ” such as a phone chat, when communicating complex information. Slackers often use the excuse that they didn’t know they were responsible for something, or didn’t know how to obtain key data, Lam said. “Keeping these detail-rich decision points in an retrievable document that is written for everyone to access, [like an] email thread or project management software, can curb slacking,” he suggested.

Keeping your project work well documented can also help by establishing a “paper trail” that makes it harder for lazy co-workers to skate on other people’s efforts in group projects by highlighting exactly who’s doing what.

A couple of other factors that come into play are the size of the group, Lam found; bigger groups offer more opportunity for slacking, so if you’re the one choosing your team, keep it small. And don’t just pick your friends; in fact, Lam found that groups in which the members chose to work together were more prone to lazy behavior than groups that were randomly assigned to work together.

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