Three tips to overcome social loafing

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Feb 01, 2010

You and your fellow team members are chatting in the break room. A technician comes in and asks who was supposed to restock the exam room drawers. No one answers. Why? It could be because your team members are lazy and don't want to admit it. But the more likely reason is that your team is suffering from social loafing.

This phenomenon is defined as the tendency for individuals in groups to lose their sense of personal responsibility and to make less effort to achieve a goal than when they work alone. Lots of team members everywhere experience this problem—and many don't even know it.

Working as a team comes with benefits—and challenges. I used to be hospital administrator at a nine-doctor, seven-day-a-week practice where I managed a staff that often topped out at more than 60. Therefore, I can definitely empathize with the difficulties your practice team may be facing. But I can honestly say that our large team worked well together despite its size. I attribute our success to great group dynamics and three main strategies that kept everyone focused and accountable. Here they are:

Tip 1: Write and discuss job descriptions
Defining expectations through written job descriptions is foundational to preventing social loafing. As a veterinary management consultant, I work with many practices across the United States. A large number of them haven't established job descriptions. Of those that have, many fail to update them or refer to them at all. The problem is that if team members don't know your expectations, they'll be unable to meet them let alone exceed them. Once team members know what they're supposed to do, then they're able to get the job done and show you all their capabilities. This is important regardless of whether employees are working along or in a group. If you're the practice manager, be sure to create job descriptions. If you're a team member who needs a job description, ask for one. Offer to help by writing a list of duties you currently do.

Just getting job descriptions in place is wonderful, but I encourage you to take them a step further. I challenge managers to not only provide employees—both current and potential—with a copy of their job description to read at their leisure but to also review it with them line by line. Why? Going over the individual points allows you to articulate what you think it means for a receptionist to provide superior customer service, for example. Although statements such as these might seem straightforward, they're left up to individual interpretation unless you elaborate on the specific responsibilities. The time you spend talking about the duties of every position paints a vivid picture of your expectations.

Tip 2: Provide phase-training programs
More often than not, veterinary practices are short-staffed. Therefore, many practice managers hire someone just to get a warm body in place. Then they get frustrated when this new employee doesn't immediately function at top level. This type of situation isn't fair to anyone, including the rookie team member, veteran staffers, manager, clients, and patients. What's happening here? Lack of training.

A quick way to de-motivate employees and open the door for social loafing is to improperly prepare them for the daily duties they're supposed to perform. No one sets out to be a failure. However, when employees are asked to do their jobs without training, they fail. They compromise your practice's vision and mission because they don't know how to respond to questions, assist the veterinarians, or clean an exam room. And this isn't the employee's fault but rather the manager's.

Phase-training programs prevent this "throw me into the trenches" scenario from occurring—plus it ensures all employees receive consistent instruction. Phase-training programs eliminate social loafing by assigning accountability to the employee as well as the trainer. In this educational system, each employee gets explicit details about what they're to do. And the knowledge that New Employee A receives during his training is the same knowledge New Employee B will receive during her training. For phase training to work, managers must outline a program that lasts at least 30 days. Another benefit of phase training: Once you've properly prepared an employee and he or she continues to fall short of your expectations, you can be sure you're facing a performance issue that needs to be addressed.

Tip 3: Conduct performance evaluations
Now that you've provided your written expectations and introduced a thorough training program, you've almost nipped social loafing in the bud. If team members think no one is monitoring whether they're completing their primary duties, social loafing either will occur in your practice or it already is. Employees must be held accountable, and a great way to make sure they are staying on track is to periodically evaluate their performance. I recommend managers conduct performance evaluations at the completion of a 90-day introductory period for new team members and at least once a year for established team members.

Unfortunately, most of these reviews become a time for managers to focus on poor performance. Managers, this should not be your goal. Instead, you should let employees know how well they're doing and how proud you are to have them on your team. Encourage them to keep up the good work. When you praise positive performance, you are reinforcing what works for you and your practice. On the other hand, when employees continually hear how badly they're performing, their spirits are lowered and the end result is an unmotivated social loafer topped off by a frustrated manager and team. All this is not to say that you should avoid bringing performance issues to light. You should definitely deal with any problems. But then move on. And remember to play up team members' strengths in the process. This will net you greater success correcting issues and creating a motivated team. It will also let team members know you’ve created standards, and, if they elect not to adhere to them, they are dictating their own destiny. (Don't have an annual review? Click here.)

While annual reviews are important, they're not enough. There's an old adage that says, "Don't expect what you don't inspect." So, managers, you must continually assess your employees. This doesn’t mean you should micromanage, but it does mean you should be aware of what's happening at the practice. For example, if you expect receptionists to send out reminders twice a month, you should create internal controls so you know whether these reminders are being sent. Set specific deadlines, such as sending the reminders on the 1st and 15th of every month. Then you could ask the front desk staff members to print a list of client names along with the date each time they mail or e-mail reminders so you know how many went out and when. This way you've established exactly what's expected, let the receptionists know you're holding them accountable, and leveraged them to get the job done all at the same time. Providing team members with a copy of the evaluation form or measurements you will be using in advance really sets them up for success.

A successful team that works well together is great. But when you employ individuals who work equally as hard when they're by themselves, it's awesome. When this happens, you've cultivated an environment that's better for managers and team members alike—and there's no social loafing to be found.