Work is now commonly organized into teams in most organizations, and conventional wisdom is that working in groups is more productive than individual work. Yet, research on work in groups shows that teamwork can actually inhibit or even damage productivity.

Why? One reason is that under the cover of group work people are less productive, sometimes even satisfied that others are the same. Originally, this behavior was called “social loafing,” a term coined by a French professor, Max Ringelmann in the 1890s. His studies showed that people in groups exerted far less effort than they would individually.  Since Ringelmann’s studies, others in more modern times have come up with similar results. Bibb Latanne and Samuel Wolf published studies in the 1980s that showed that when working group size increased, work capacity declined. This effect has been found in many cultures and countries around the world.

The studies show that social loafing is most detrimental to the productivity of a group when it is carrying out “additive tasks”—ones where the effort of each group member is summed. The studies pointed the following explanations for social loafing:

  • People in the group expect that others will loaf, which gives them a license to do the same;
  • When groups are large, individuals become more anonymous, and can become in a sense invisible;
  • Often groups don’t have set standards so there is no clear ideal set of expectations to perform against.

According to researchers S.J. Zaccaro and Stephen Worchel, social loafing in groups can be reduced, and the negative impact on productivity reduced by paying attention to ensuring the group tasks are viewed as important by all group members, and reducing what could be termed the “sucker effect”—the feeling of being duped when an individual is working hard, and all the other group members are loafing.

In a similar vein, research studies have shown that creativity is often stifled in groups because of the phenomenon of group conformity, according to studies by S.M. Siegel and colleagues and I. Advares-Yorno and colleagues.

In a study by Natalie Allen a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario and Tracy Hecht, of the Department of Management at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, entitled “The ‘romance of teams’: Toward an understanding of its psychological underpinnings and implications,” published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology in 2010, the authors argue “many claims are made in the popular and quasi-scientific press about the effectiveness and indeed superiority, of team-based work,” but empirical data supporting those claims are “much less impressive.” They cite the example of the research on group brainstorming—thought to be the most productive—generates far fewer ideas compared with combined efforts of several individuals working alone.

Empirical evidence relevant to the issue of team effectiveness comes from both laboratory and field settings. They conclude that “overall, there appears only minimal evidence that group activity offers performance advantages compared with combining the performance of the same number of individuals working alone or even, by a single talented individual. Indeed, the majority of laboratory studies suggest that working as a group either provides no performance advantage or reduces performance on various activities, including creativity tasks, decision-making/judgment tasks, and the recollection of past events.” The authors do concede working in groups provides several social-emotional benefits and fulfills universal social needs.

What are the implications of this research for leaders in organizations?  Allen and Hecht suggest the following:

  • Avoid the urge to use teams for everything; many tasks don’t require them;
  • Avoid the practice of putting everyone on a team; often the size is detrimental to productivity for the sake of inclusion;
  • Ensure there are adequate support systems and resources for teams;
  • Institute rigorous financial and other accountability systems for teams.

The authors conclude, “the promise of teams may well be real. It would be most unfortunate, however, if that promise went unfulfilled simply because our belief in teams was based on infatuation rather than reality.”

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