Free riders in the team: “The good-natured are the stupid”

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If free riders are tolerated in a team, the others will at some point deliberately perform less. For a while, the hard-working can make up for the laziness of their colleagues. At some point, however, the team will no longer be able to act, warns business psychologist Prof. Dr. Florian Becker. He recommends cracking down on deliberate idlers to prevent laziness from spreading like a disease.

You are the last to come to work and the first to leave. They are busy and little work. Lazy people annoy hard-working colleagues. Right?

Prof. Dr. Florian Becker

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Just because someone comes late and leaves early doesn’t mean they are lazy. Sometimes people like that are just efficient. It is a widespread opinion in Germany that whoever comes first and leaves last is considered hard-working. Perhaps the high time investment is due to a lack of productivity. We should therefore not make generalizations, but take a closer look. However, anyone who tries to get maximum output from a group with minimal input at the expense of others is right to cause trouble. I even think it is necessary for teams to protect themselves from free-riding. If they don’t, others will see that they too can get through the day with little effort. A black sheep can easily become a small herd of like-minded people. The good-natured are then the stupid and react by reducing their performance.

Is free-riding the same as lazing around?

It depends on a person’s skills and abilities. Someone may not be able to achieve much, for example because he or she is incompetent or ill, perhaps because he or she is having a difficult time at home. But if someone consciously does little and that happens at the expense of others, then they have to pay for the anti-social behavior. Free riding describes intentionally lazy behavior to the detriment of other group members. Free riding is thus a form of social lazing around in teams.

How widespread is social free riding in companies?

When people are confronted with this topic, almost everyone immediately has a face in mind, they think of a specific person in their work who behaves like this. Social free riding is widespread and it is human. Like other mammals, we humans are generally rather lazy. This becomes obvious when we are supposed to motivate ourselves for something. We are not made for a modern performance society. Students are an example of this: it is very difficult for many to study regularly. They only start when they really have to – namely before exams. This is because our ancestors had to use their physical resources sparingly in order not to starve. Often there was very little to eat. Today there is food in abundance, but laziness is still within us and is therefore widespread.

What kind of guys are they who come through the day free-riding: Are they the clever or old-fashioned who talk their way through evolution?

Both not. Social free riders are perfidious types who consciously implement their strategy. Because they do little, others have to do their job. Studies show: It is more men than women who cheat their way through everyday life at the expense of their colleagues. Women, on the other hand, are less likely to let others down. Research also shows that social free-riding has a cultural component. Cultures in which the own ego is the focus tend to be more likely, for example Americans. In China, where the ego counts little and the we almost everything, such behavior would be a social death sentence. We Germans have a culture that invites abuse by gladly apologizing for wrongdoing.

How do you recognize the social free rider, the one who is consciously and without having to be lazy?

They are work avoiders. And that has many forms. For example, they take frequent breaks, have lengthy and superfluous conversations, they ignore inquiries, are often ill, incapable of pretending and then in the end have often managed to get others to do their job. Free riders have a feel for victims who let themselves be exploited. Every free rider needs his packhorse.

What about social free riding in the IT age?

Employees who work together digitally rarely see each other. The team spirit suffers as a result. This is why there are more conflicts in virtual teams that last longer and are more difficult to resolve. Studies have also shown that such teams are more willing to go free-riding. Those who rarely see each other take advantage of others because the social bond is weak. In these cases, people are more willing to maximize their personal gain. But there are also advantages of modern working environments: software makes who works what much more transparent, responsibilities and goals can be clearly defined. This transparency is the greatest enemy of free riders. It’s hard to hide in a well-set up agile Scrum team.

How should someone behave if they have a lazy colleague on their team?

First let the observation set and reflect on whether the apparent laziness could have reasons other than social free-riding, perhaps personal, temporary problems. If not, share the idea with others in the group and ask if they have similar perceptions. If other team members confirm their own experience, a clear announcement should be made to the free rider about the experiences with them, e.g. overtime. In the conversation it should be stated unequivocally that such behavior will not be accepted. At first alone, if that doesn’t help, as a group and only when that doesn’t work, the escalation follows: the whole group with the supervisor. The manager will react if they don’t want an unstable team. If several members say that someone is disturbing the team, they have to leave the group.


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