December 4, 2019

Social Loafing for Jesus

last supper

Even if you have never heard the phrase social loafing before, you have almost certainly experienced it many times. In the briefest possible terms, social loafing refers to our tendency to expend less effort when we are part of a group than we would on our own. It is one of the primary downsides of group projects and team-based work. That's not to say there aren't some valuable upsides, but this is one problem of which we must be aware.

If I am given a job to do and I am the only one being asked to do it, I know that its success or failure falls on me. If I do a good job, it is my good job. If I do a bad job, it is my bad job. The outcome will be a direct reflection on me. Things change dramatically if my team is given a job. It will never be completely clear if our success or failure is due to what each of us has done or more attributable to any one individual. With the diffusion of responsibility, it becomes easier and more tempting to coast. If I have help, I shouldn't have to work as hard. Let somebody else do something.

I think we've all had the experience of being part of a team where someone else was loafing. We resent it most of the time. The idea of someone else getting the same credit we are but putting in far less effort seems unfair. Managing this dynamic is one of the many things that makes group work so challenging. We cannot resist comparing our own contributions with those of the others on the team. If we perceive ourselves as working harder than someone else, we might slack off.

I've been dealing with an example of this at work lately. We have a small group working to accomplish a large task. For the most part, everybody seems to be taking it seriously and putting in the required time and effort. While some have vastly different work schedules and may seem to do little for a few days, they usually complete what they were aiming to do before the agreed-upon deadline. But there's one exception. There's always one exception, isn't there? One person in the group has been doing nothing at all, and some of us are starting to get frustrated. It will soon be time for an ultimatum: pull your weight or get off the team.

When I hear evangelical fundamentalist Christians talking about how they must "pray on" every decision or "let Jesus take the wheel," I am sometimes reminded of social loafing. If they really think Jesus is going to swoop in and fix all the environmental damage we have caused before it is too late, why would they be motivated to make even the smallest sacrifice in their lives? I don't think they would. Besides, Jesus is not just a member of one's team; he's a member of one's team who happens to have super powers! Why not just let him save us all?

It has been a long time since I found myself on a group project with an evangelical fundamentalist Christian. It would be unfair to say she did nothing on the project. She showed up to almost every meeting, prayed during almost every meeting, and made sure we knew that she was praying between meetings. She talked about Jesus and how he was guiding her. Unfortunately, we never saw any evidence of this. She did not complete her portion of the project and eventually had to face the consequences because the rest of us did not think that being extra "Jesusy" warranted a free ride on our work.