Persist and Learn! How team learning affects social loafing.

Recently, while walking around the University campus, I spotted some graffiti – not particularly artistic – but I did empathise with the artist: “Resist!”, I was told.  After reading Jason Hickel’s book, The Divide, last week, the sentiment certainly resonates. The deep societal and structural issues we need to address to promote global equality and sustainability are now obvious to many people. We need to resist and ultimately replace the neoliberal ‘rules’ that govern international trade, taxation, and wealth distribution.  In their battle to abolish every rule that constrains free trade, the neoliberal elite have surreptitiously created a set of rules that benefit themselves to the detriment of everyone else.  It will take a sustained team effort to replace the existing rules and there is no guarantee the disempowered and deprived masses will win that battle.  And somehow, when I saw that graffiti on campus, my hopeful imagination later conjured not a single artist, but rather a group of artists, now deep in animated conversation – a group of Morisots, Monets, Renoirs, Cassatts, spilling coffee and cheering together in café 37.  I hear them cheer and chant above the neoliberal powerbrokers: “Persist!”, they say.  And I agree.

You see, in order for a team to become truly effective, they need to persist and learn together as a team.  The process of team learning helps team members overcome an inherent inertia, which operates almost like an iron law of groups.  The inherent inertia we refer to here is social loafing: the behavioral tendency, and powerful lure, for an individual to “contribute less effort” than other members of their team.  Of course, in the battle for equality and justice, or the introduction of new regulations and taxes, this is what the neoliberals want to sustain – inertia amongst those who seek to impose any rules – and a cultural focus on the individual self, coupled with the allure of social loafing: “Relax, do less, care less [for collective effort]”.  In the battle to sustain collective effort, the true, deep culture of teamwork is fundamentally different: it implies interdependent working to achieve a common goal, and it involves sharing responsibility for team outcomes.  

Social loafing is a common dysfunction of teams. It can lead to a downward spiral of distrust, lowered morale, and low team cohesion and performance; and it may bottom out in a grinding, halting inertia and the failure of a group to move, collaborate, cooperate.  We see it everywhere, and don’t be surprised if we see more of it before we rediscover the way out.

But there is hope, and a new study by Gabelica, De Maeyer, and Schippers (2022) highlights a key dynamic that may arise when we persist. Gabelica, De Maeyer, and Schippers note that social loafing is not a static phenomenon, it can change over time.  In particular, it can change as a consequence of team learning.

Previous studies highlighted other ways to combat social loafing: improve task management and reward; increase team familiarity and identifiability of team members; decrease team size; build cohesion; and foster within individuals a mastery or learning orientation. Gabelica, De Maeyer, and Schippers posit a different way, specifically, by increasing team learning, they argue, teams develop strategies to reduce social loafing.  They demonstrate this effect of team learning in a sample of 675 business students who were working together in three- or four-person teams (195 teams in total) over the course of a year.  Gabelica, De Maeyer, and Schippers measured social loafing and team learning at three timepoints during the year, while team members worked together conducting literature reviews, developing conceptual models and hypotheses, working on case study reports and other challenging academic tasks.

Team members tracked their own learning using rating scales, reflecting on key aspects of team learning: “We learned from our mistakes in our tasks,”; “We learned how to improve at our tasks,” and so on.  Team members also provided self- and peer-ratings of social loafing, using scale items that asked them to reflect on their tendency to defer responsibilities and put forth less effort than others, let the others do the work, and so on.  

As expected, the analysis of social loafing over time revealed that loafing is not static, it fluctuates significantly. And while the study also included measures of individual goal orientations, the only significant predictor of change over time in social loafing was the team-level variable: team learning.  Specifically, an increase in team learning lead to a decrease in social loafing.

Gabelica, De Maeyer, and Schippers note that their study findings highlight the need to consider the temporal aspects of team operations, including team development and the dynamics of team socialization. Indeed, more research is needed to examine team dynamics generally (i.e., the way teams change over time), as the majority of studies focused on teams simply take a snapshot of the team at one point in time. 

Gabelica, De Maeyer, and Schippers also note the limitations of their research. For example, by using self-report measures of team learning, they can only speculate as to the underlying nature of team learning.  Objective measures of team learning are needed. Also, research will need to examine the factors that influence how an increase in team learning results in a decrease in social loafing.  Does this occur as a result of positive interdependence, an increase in group-level information processing and regulation, or the perception of team learning as a form of reward that prompts effort? Or perhaps team learning reinforces a sense of community and cohesion that motivates and sustains effort?  There are many questions for future research to consider, but for now I think Gabelica, De Maeyer, and Schippers have struck a chord with a valuable empirical contribution.  For now, I think we can return to café 37 and the ongoing battle between the valorous artists and crestfallen neoliberals and we can shout across room, one last time before closing time – “persist in your team learning, my friends. Good things will come!”. 

Featured Study: Gabelica, C., De Maeyer, S., & Schippers, M. C. (2022). Taking a free ride: How team learning affects social loafing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 114(4), 716–733.

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