Daniel Schwarz Previously, design blog editor at Toptal and SitePoint. Now I advocate for better UX design alongside industry leaders such as Adobe, InVision, Marvel, Wix, Net Magazine, CreativeBloq, CSS-Tricks, and more.

Social loafing: What it is and how teams can overcome it

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Social Loafing: What It Is And How Teams Can Overcome It

Solitude provides an environment that’s great for productive thinking, but sometimes you just need to bounce ideas off of other people. This is why collaboration is so important.

Without collaboration, teams can end up missing out on critical perspectives. However, collaboration requires everyone to feel comfortable and uplifted for it to be productive.

For some people, this comes naturally (enthusiastically even), but for others, it comes reluctantly. We call these people social loafers (not out loud!) because they tend to be idle/put in less effort when working in a team, but it’s not necessarily because they’re lazy.

In this article, we’ll look at the different types of social loafers, what causes them to be quiet when in a group, what can be done to ensure that they voice their probably terrific ideas, and more importantly, what can be done to make them comfortable and uplifted enough to do so enthusiastically.

Jump ahead:

Adopting the right mindset

It’s important to keep in mind that people aren’t problems to be fixed. Instead, overcoming social loafing is largely about finding ways to work compatible with the different types of brains that people have. If they’re flathead screwdrivers, then the collaborative exercises that you choose need to be flathead screws, since that’s what they’re equipped for.

Let’s dive in.

Why does social loafing occur?

Social loafing occurs for a number of reasons, with the main ones being shyness, introversion, difficulty staying focused, or that the person simply may be checked out. If you learn to work with these factors, you can help lessen how much social loafing is happening on your team.


Even if you don’t know anything about social loafing, I’m sure that you can guess that one of the reasons why someone might “socially loaf”’ is because they’re shy and they dislike the spotlight that participating puts on them.

They might also have the mentality that not participating absolves them of any responsibility, so they can’t be blamed when things go wrong. Since negative outcomes are perceived as psychologically/emotionally more severe than their equivalent positive outcomes (hello loss aversion), social loafers tend to avoid what they think is looking silly rather than taking a shot at looking smart.

A positive outcome that they contributed to could make them feel good for a short while, whereas a negative outcome that they contributed to could feel emotionally scarring for a long time. When shy people avoid negative outcomes, it’s just because their brain is utilizing its risk/reward mechanism.

People that are shy are likely to be quiet and avoid social interaction, so if they have great ideas, it can be difficult to get a hold of them. However, shyness by itself (i.e., not in combination with any other personality traits) is fairly easy to overcome. As mentioned earlier, the approach in any case should be to accommodate their way of thinking.

Firstly, when it has no effect on the outcome, give people the opportunity to work in private rather than out in the open where everyone else is. It’s been proven that async collaboration (where teams don’t collaborate in real-time) and remote collaboration (where teams don’t necessarily collaborate face-to-face) is better for some people.

Adverse reactions to them are usually the result of forcing them on those that enjoy working closely with others, so in other words, consider taking the hybrid collaboration approach, where everyone’s individual needs are accommodated. To ensure that everyone is their best self at work, don’t make it either/or.

For some people, shyness can be temporary — they’ll come out of their shell if they’re made to feel comfortable. One way to do this is to send affirmations their way when they do something good. If they do something that leads to a negative outcome though, simply explain that it’s just a part of the process and encourage them to keep trying. Also, treat others the same way so that they don’t feel like they’re being babied or treated differently.

As a product manager, you just have to say “no” to things sometimes, even if it’s hard for people to hear. However, rather than voicing no’s outright, implying them can make them easier for people to digest. One way to do that is to let the evidence speak for itself (backing up decisions with facts and stats is something that you’re probably doing anyway). To the same effect, make your team’s collaborative exercises democratic by having team members vote on ideas (this’ll also reframe “bad” ideas as potential plan Bs!).

And finally, just be nice and check-in with people. Confidence is something that grows over time, so be patient.


Introversion can masquerade as shyness, but it’s actually a whole other mindset. If satisfaction was a tank, you could say that an introvert’s tank fills up rather easily, so after a win or a little bit of conversation, they’re ready to take a break. Pushing through can make them feel burnt out and overstimulated very quickly.

Although this can make introverts suddenly zone out, introverts tend to conserve their energy for critical moments, so their energy can seem like a rollercoaster — it comes and goes throughout the day, usually in short bursts. For this reason, introverts are best suited to async collaboration — they get more alone time and can manage their tasks in accordance with their energy levels, as well as conserve energy for synchronous collaboration if necessary.

When synchronous collaboration is necessary, introverts work best when ideation exercises can be done in solitude and the discussion aspects get right to the point. When it’s time to discuss feedback, you’ll want to get to the introverts before they start mentally checking out of the conversation. You’ll also want to give them time and space to form their opinions because they’re critical thinkers and it can be difficult for them to think in crowded spaces.

The upside is that they’re often terrific observers and listeners; they’re able to provide unique perspectives on other people’s ideas, whereas others might be more invested in their own ideas.

To summarize, just let them do their thing!

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Difficulty staying focused

Some people have trouble staying focused. This can impact their lives in many different ways, but in the context of collaboration, it can mean getting distracted easily. Distractions include intrusive thoughts such as ideas, counter arguments, or things that are completely random while other people are talking (causing them to miss critical parts of the conversation) and energetically switching between multiple tasks of lesser or no importance.

Now you’re probably thinking: that doesn’t sound like social loafing at all! Well, you’re right; however, those that have difficulty concentrating on conversations and primary tasks can be self-conscious of the fact that they can behave that way, and as a result act in the opposite way (i.e. staying quiet and nominating others to carry out key tasks) to avoid feeling embarrassed about it.

A great way to approach this is to adhere to a product design framework because they provide specific opportunities for everyone to have their say. Product design frameworks also keep teams laser-focused, especially if they’re lean. Also, hands-on frameworks are effective because there’s less talking and more doing, which is often more engaging for those that get distracted easily (especially if there are multiple tasks on the line vs. one big task). That being said, when they get into deep work, they’re pretty much unstoppable!

They’ve checked out

It’s entirely possible that somebody who appears to have completely checked out, has in fact completely checked out. Perhaps they had never really checked in, or perhaps a negative event or series of negative events have left them feeling deflated. This can happen to people when their ideas get shot down (disrespectfully or otherwise) or when things are going in a direction that they strongly disagree with.

If a person truly doesn’t want to be there, then they shouldn’t be. Their subtle negative energy will drain the motivation of other team members. That being said, never assume to know what’s going on with someone — reach out to them first and see if there are any issues that can be resolved (and if they can’t, then parting ways should be a somewhat mutual decision).

If they do want to be there (or they did at some point), then there are two things that can be done to bring someone back into the fold. Firstly, check in with them one-on-one and get to the bottom of what’s going on. This is very much a listening exercise where you might have to accept that you and/or any number of team members aren’t making them feel heard. The fix is simple, old-fashioned communication followed by direct action.

Secondly, never shoot down ideas — give them the time and respect they deserve. Make it clear that unused ideas are plan Bs and plan Cs and so on. Instead of saying “no,” let facts and stats or team votes speak for themselves, or if a “no” is warranted, ensure that it’s respectful and comes with a carefully articulated reason. If you put in the effort, so will they.

Closing thoughts

Managing individual social loafers isn’t too difficult; it’s when teams are made up of multiple personality types that things start to get complicated.

On that note, I’d definitely recommend that teams get to know each other’s personality types. I myself am an ISTP-A / ISTP-T (Virtuoso), and I noticed that my productivity and relationships with people improved significantly after learning what that means and explaining how my mind works to people (especially in the workplace).

If you have any questions or you’d like to share what other people can do to make it easier to work with you, the comment section is just below. And thanks for reading!

Featured image source: IconScout

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Daniel Schwarz Previously, design blog editor at Toptal and SitePoint. Now I advocate for better UX design alongside industry leaders such as Adobe, InVision, Marvel, Wix, Net Magazine, CreativeBloq, CSS-Tricks, and more.

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