Thursday, November 10, 2016


 “I was a rock star in the 80s,” my seatmate told me on a short flight to Baltimore years ago.  He looked the part--tall, English accent, 80’s shag haircut.

He wasn’t bragging--I had asked him how things were going and he told me he played lead guitar for The Outfield. “We were big for a while in the 80s.”

During the 80s I had three little kids and I wasn’t actively tracking emerging rock music, so I confessed that I didn’t know The Outfield, which surprised him.  I asked about their biggest hit, and he said it was a song he wrote called “Your Love” which nearly reached the top of the charts in 1986.  You probably know the song as it has been covered hundreds of times since then and it still gets radio play on classic rock stations, but I didn’t know it by name. So he immediately did what any self-respecting rock star would do—he started singing the song for me. I recognized it (as did most of the people sitting around us) and to this day everytime I hear that song I remember my brief encounter with authentic 80s rock star John Spinks.

The Outfield (John Spinks, Alan Jackman, Tony Lewis)

I was thinking of that incident again recently while watching election coverage and ruminating about personal authenticity, which experts define as: 

…being true and honest with oneself and others, having a credibility in one’s words and behavior, and an absence of pretense.

On one level, Spinks’ serenade on the plane was intended to help me recognize his hit song.  On another level, it was offered to provide support for his rock star story. He was “walking the walk”, i.e., establishing credibility by demonstrating his ability to do something he claimed he could do or had done.  Walking the walk used to be an essential part of developing character and reputation, of becoming authentic.

When I was growing up, if someone in my social circles claimed they could do something, it was a given that they would have to prove they could actually do it, not just talk about it. It really didn’t matter what it was--dribbling left-handed, juggling, doing a cartwheel, throwing a curve ball, naming the presidents—nobody got the benefit of the doubt.  So the accountability model was very clear: if you said you could, and it turned out you couldn’t, you were going to experience social and reputational penalties.

When I entered the corporate workplace, however, I learned that in my industry being willing and able to walk the walk wasn’t quite as culturally significant as it had been in my earlier life. Folks who couldn’t walk very well, but who were accomplished at talking about the mechanics of walking, or at recounting the history of walking, or at criticizing how other people were walking, were recognized and rewarded as if they were the best walkers ever.  That puzzled me, but I figured either the non-walkers had never experienced the accountability model I had grown up with, or they had forgotten about it as they aged. So many folks who were comfortable just talking the walk and being inauthentic--misrepresenting their skill levels and exaggerating their accomplishments—yet they weren’t being called on it.

How does a workplace thrive without authenticity, without accountability, and without an operating culture that values folks who walk the walk more than those who talk the walk? Why do people remain in such a workplace? Well, it’s socially awkward and politically incorrect in most corporate work situations simply to call out exaggerators and demand they demonstrate the proficiency they are claiming, particularly if the exaggerator happens to be a powerful senior leader.   And leadership failure contributes significantly to the problem since tone is set at the top and leaders set the standard for what is tolerated in the work environment. Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker of Indiana State University describe it this way:

The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.

Which means if a leader is unwilling or unable to demand authenticity, to insist that the accountability model be an integral part of the workplace culture, it probably won’t be. How do you deal with a culture like that? Depending on how pervasive, inequitable and offensive the behavior is, and how important it is to you, you generally have three choices: tolerate it, change it, or leave it behind.

Whether it was Aesop or Lou Holtz who told us “After all is said and done, more is said than done,” embellishment is human nature and we all know it is often much easier to talk about doing something than it is to do it.  Call me sentimental, but I remember life being simpler and fairer when authenticity and character were important and accountability meant doing what you said you would (or could) do. But let’s leave the final word on authenticity to Muhammad Ali, who while he didn’t hesitate to talk about what he could do (“I’m not the greatest, I’m the double greatest”) or how he felt about it (“It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am") certainly did see a big difference between talking and doing:

Braggin' is when a person says something and can’t do it. I do what I say.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Speaking Up--Redux

A few months ago, in an article called Speaking Up, I wondered why some people decide to speak up when they encounter another person they feel is behaving inappropriately or offensively, while others don’t. The article prompted some interesting reactions from readers whose comments, not surprisingly, fit roughly into the broad human behavioral response categories I had described in the article: passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive and assertive.

Respondents in the passive category suggested the best course of action when confronted with offensive or inappropriate behavior is to let it slide--ignore it, walk away, don’t waste time dealing with it. They expressed concerns about assuming responsibility for policing the behavior of other people, for creating situations that could turn unpleasant or dangerous, and whether they had any legitimate right to judge whether another person’s behavior was offensive.

The passive-aggressive respondents were troubled by inappropriate or offensive behavior but believed it could be uncomfortable or dangerous to directly confront or challenge an offender. They were more comfortable complaining about the offensive behavior to others (or to a public authority) and hoping someone would do something about it. One expressed concern that confronting an offender might be interpreted as offensive behavior by others.

The folks in the aggressive category said they would not hesitate to confront a person, accuse them of behaving poorly, and demand an end to their offensive behavior, even if that behavior had been directed at someone else. These folks didn’t seem concerned that the confrontation might become unpleasant, or escalate into violence—some seemed eager to welcome that possibility. One invoked the film American Sniper, described the three types of people in the world (sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves) and said he was proud to be a sheepdog.

The most comprehensive comments came from folks who said that while they believed it was important to be assertive when confronted by offensive or inappropriate behavior, they thought it was equally important to pick their shots and respect the rights of others while standing up for their own rights. Several of these folks said that focusing intensely and objectively on exactly what was happening, and why, helped them moderate their emotions, determine whether to make an issue of something and appropriately manage their behavioral response. One woman reported on a recent experience in which she used the formula for assertive communication to ask a line cutter to go to the back of the line and much to her surprise he did.

While most of us use all of these response styles at one time or another, is there a best approach? The answer depends entirely on the situation and the person. When we encounter something we don’t like, we have a limited choice of responses (accept it, change it, get away from it) and we choose one based upon our interpretation of the situation. Two people caught in the same unpleasant situation may interpret it differently since they each filter the experience through their own mesh of moral values, ethical beliefs, behavioral tolerances, and social/cultural expectations. They then create a story about what happened and why, and that story triggers their emotional reaction (joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, or disgust) which in turn triggers their behavioral response.

Same stimulus, different interpretations, emotional reactions, and behavioral responses. Yet the flow from interpretation to emotion to behavior is neither automatic nor inexorable since humans have the ability to choose how to respond to a stimulus. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl described it this way:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.

So if there’s a best practice for determining how to respond to offensive or inappropriate behavior, it probably involves making the best use of that “space” between stimulus and response. That’s where we have the power to make a simple, personal choice to ignore behavior, or to fume about it, or to get in someone’s face about it, or to calmly and respectfully assert our rights—all based upon our interpretation of the situation, the degree to which it bothers us, and what makes us feel good about ourselves. It’s a uniquely personal, mindful process.

For a colorful, entertaining and salty point of view on how one man makes use of that space, check out Niall Doherty’s first-party rant about his quest to become more stoic and immune to insults. Also, you might enjoy Three Little Tricks to Deal with People Who Offend You by Leo Babauta and How to Deal with Annoying People by Marcia Reynolds.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator and watercolor artist.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors

Thursday, June 16, 2016

You Need to See It Before You Can Paint It

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” –Alvin Toffler, futurist and philosopher

Years ago, when I first started painting with watercolors, I attended a series of workshops run by award-winning Annapolis impressionist painter Lee Boynton. Lee preferred to paint outside, from nature rather than from photographs, and before we started painting he would always ask the group to study the scene we were going to paint and tell him the color of the sky, or the trees, or the water. These were trick questions, designed to expose the cognitive bias known as the curse of knowledge, which Chip and Dan Heath, in Made to Stick, described this way:
Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.
Students who hadn’t been exposed to Lee’s questions “knew” that the trees were green, and that the sky was blue, so that’s how they would answer, much to Lee’s delight. He would theatrically pull a few leaves off a nearby tree, poke a hole in the center of each, and ask us to take another look at the trees and the sky through the hole in the leaf and tell him what colors we could see. Invariably, this simple viewing device suspended the curse of knowledge by force-shifting our perception of the trees and sky and dramatically altering the colors we were able to see. Through the leaf, trees weren’t just green—they were blue, and yellow, and violet and green—and the sky now had elements of pink, gray, yellow, violet, orange and blue.

“Now you are seeing the light. Don’t ever start painting until you can see the light,” Lee would say, pleased that he had helped at least a few people to question what they knew and experience what it feels like to “unlearn” and “relearn” something through objective observation.

Good advice for visual artists, perhaps, but what does it have to do with anything else? The curse of knowledge bias isn’t selective—it also interferes with teaching, and communicating, and problem-solving, and learning, and planning, and selling, and negotiating, and personal relationships. If you have ever had trouble teaching someone something because they just can’t seem to grasp it, or struggled to learn something because it conflicted with something you already knew, or misread someone’s intentions, blame it on the curse of knowledge. Ditto if you had a communication fizzle because it didn’t convincingly connect all the dots for the reader, or if you failed to anticipate or solve a problem because you let what you “knew” get in the way of what you saw (or should have seen.)

Not only do we tend to favor the familiar and known (blue sky) over the unfamiliar and unknown (pink, gray, yellow, violet, orange and blue sky), the familiarity principle means we also feel more secure when we stay with what we know. As we get older and more experienced, we deliberately try to stay within our comfort zone by sticking with what we know and avoiding situations in which we might have to learn or do something new. That can be dangerous in any environment in which things are changing rapidly. Margie Warrell describes it this way in her Forbes article Learn, Unlearn and Relearn: How to Stay Current and Get Ahead:
To succeed today you must be in a constant state of adaptation – continually unlearning old ‘rules’ and relearning new ones. That requires continually questioning assumptions about how things work, challenging old paradigms, and ‘relearning’ what is now relevant in your job, your industry, your career and your life.
If, as Warrell suggests, learning agility is not only the name of the game but also the key to unlocking your change proficiency, what can you do to enhance your learning agility?

Start by reading Adam Mitchinson’s and Robert Morris’ Center for Creative Leadership white paper which describes learning agility as the willingness and ability to learn by continually discarding skills, perspectives, and ideas that are no longer relevant, while learning new ones that are relevant. Next, climb out of your comfort zone and take an objective look at your situation. You are seeking objectivity, so you’ll need to shift your perspective (as Lee had us do with the leaves) in order to neutralize the curse of knowledge. You won’t be looking for light, of course, you’ll be looking for an unfiltered view of reality--what is actually happening, what’s important, where the opportunities are. Only then will you be able to determine exactly what you need to learn, unlearn and relearn in order to adapt and flourish.

Sadly, Lee Boynton passed away in April of this year, but I’ll always remember his appreciation of color and light, his painting skills, his leaf trick, and one piece of thoughtful advice which, much like “look before you leap”, is probably of value in almost any situation: "Dean, you need to see it before you can paint it."



Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired insurance executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor artist.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Speaking Up

“Don't expect to make a difference unless you speak up for yourself.” -- Laurie Halse Anderson
You know that prickly feeling you get when something happens and you feel you should protest, object, demand satisfaction or whatever--but you don’t?

Maybe some dolt cuts in front of you in line at the coffee shop, or the loudmouth sitting in front of you in the theater won’t stop talking during the show. Your colleague takes credit for work you’ve done, or your boss, distracted by her phone, is only pretending to listen to you. Trivial slights, you have bigger things to worry about, right? Sure, but sometimes when we let things like this slide, regret comes calling. We end up fuming privately, complaining to others, replaying the event in our head and imagining how differently things might have gone if we had just spoken up.

So why is it that some people speak up when they feel someone else’s behavior is offensive while others don’t? Certainly personality type has some influence (test yours here), but we all have the ability to choose to respond to any situation by behaving in one of four ways:
  • Passively (letting it slide)
  • Passive-aggressively (muttering to ourselves or others)
  • Aggressively (criticizing, blaming or attacking)
  • Assertively (standing up for our rights appropriately and respectfully.)
What’s more, most of us use all of these styles at one time or another.

How do we decide which style to use? It all begins with a stimulus, of course, something happens that bothers us. We analyze the stimulus, interpreting it to come up with our own version of what happened and why. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t very good at perceiving an event objectively because of attribution bias, which means we tend to attribute the behavior of other people to something personal about them rather than to something about their situation. In Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson described it this way:
Just after we observe what others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a story. We add meaning to the action we observed. We make a guess at the motive driving the behavior. Why were they doing that? We also add judgment—is that good or bad? And then, based on these thoughts or stories, our body responds with an emotion.
The emotion we feel generates our behavioral response. Let’s say you are cut off by another driver. You slam on your brakes and avoid a collision, but your coffee spills all over the passenger seat. If your interpretation of the event is that the other driver behaved recklessly and inconsiderately, you might feel angry and go into attack mode—blowing your horn, yelling, or gesturing at the other driver. If, however, your interpretation is that the other driver was driving fast because of an emergency situation, you might be annoyed or concerned, but not react at all. If that sounds wildly unrealistic, realize that attribution bias is more common in individualistic cultures, so if you are reading this in the US there’s a good chance your default behavior involves blaming the person, not the situation.

Psychologist Robert Plutchik identified eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. He also identified an escalating range of emotions within each, so anger includes annoyance, hostility, rage and fury. Different people experiencing the same situation may come up with a totally different interpretation because their value and belief systems and attribution biases are different, which shapes their interpretation of the situation, their emotional reaction, and their behavioral response. That’s why many of us might simply be annoyed by being cut off in traffic, while others may feel rage and fury, prompting them to respond with threats and violence. (See road rage data for US and UK)

In primitive times, our basic stress response (fight or flight) helped us deal with life-threatening situations, and it still does, but “fight or flight” isn’t really appropriate for most of the personal offenses we need to manage today. Psychologist Randy Paterson, author of The Assertiveness Workbook, says that while people may shy away from conflict and criticism, assertiveness is a proven way to deal with offensive behavior. Assertiveness, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary means:
Forthright, positive, insistence on the recognition of one's rights.
Assertive people believe they are in charge of their own behavior, and that they alone will decide what they will do or not do in response to a situation that bothers them. They examine the offending situation carefully, testing their interpretation because they understand what they “think” is going on might not be what’s really going on. They assess the significance of the situation (is it worth pursuing?), they consider their goals in asserting their rights (what do they want to happen?), and they choose their battles realistically before moving forward.

According to the Mayo Clinic, behaving assertively can help you:
  • Gain self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Understand and recognize your feelings
  • Earn respect from others
  • Improve communication
It takes courage to assert yourself, but there’s a very simple but effective formula for assertive communication that frames up around these talking points:
  • When you (describe the other person’s action or the event of concern in a purely factual way)
  • I feel/I felt (describe your own feelings in response to the above action or event – for example, sad, angry, hurt, frustrated)
  • Because (describe your interpretation of the event and the reason why you feel the way you do)
  • What I would like in the future is or what I would prefer is (offer a future alternative that better meets your needs whilst not infringing on the needs/rights of the other person).
So to a line cutter you might say something like:
Excuse me, I noticed you just cut in front of me in line. That troubles me because it’s not fair to me or any of the people behind me for you to try to cut in front of us. The line forms at the rear, so please go to the back of the line.
How will the line cutter respond? Research tells us most line cutters who are challenged will back off, some will deny cutting the line, a few will ignore you, and the rest will respond aggressively and tell you to mind your own business (or worse). The line cutter’s response and your emotional reaction to the story you tell yourself about the response will influence what you do next. Whatever you do, remain calm, confident, and in control—no screaming or yelling—ever mindful of Mark Twain’s advice:
Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.
Finally, since you can’t control the behavior of other people, focus on controlling your own behavior. Whether or not you achieve your goal by being assertive, the very act of standing up for yourself will boost your confidence and self-respect and help you become a more effective communicator.

By the way, if you are ever confronted with a “chat and cut” situation, this Larry David clip could be helpful, but try not to behave like this guy. And since queue jumping is a global phenomenon, you might enjoy reading about the queue reality in the UK, queuing in Europe, and effective line cutting defenses in China.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired insurance executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator and watercolor artist.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors

Monday, April 25, 2016

Leaders and Servants

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” ― Max De Pree

I bumped into an unhappy former colleague at an industry meeting a while back. He told me that the insurance world had changed, and that now claims executives were expected to practice something called “servant leadership.” He rolled his eyes as he emphasized “servant.” He seemed genuinely concerned but I suspected he, like most people, probably wasn’t entirely clear on what the term “servant leadership” meant. So I asked him to tell me more.

His CEO, fretting over lackluster results, decided it was time to transform the company’s operating culture and improve results by reducing the employee turnover rate and increasing customer satisfaction and persistency. He had hired a consulting firm to engineer a leadership team makeover, to move the group away from a “transactional” leadership mindset and into a “servant” leadership mindset. The firm was scheduled to be on site the following month.

“What exactly are you concerned about?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be a servant. I am a senior executive, a leader. My job involves establishing strategy, securing resources, attracting and developing good people, setting performance objectives, measuring performance, and delivering results.”

Of course, he had done some research and discovered Robert K. Greenleaf, who launched the modern servant leadership movement in 1970 when he published The Servant as Leader. He showed me Greenleaf’s paper on his phone, but at 27 pages long it was too onerous to be immediately useful. He read somewhere else that servant leaders believe in the concept of an inverted pyramid organization in which top management “reports” upward to lower levels of management and ultimately to front line employees.

“Imagine that—30 years in this business and now I am supposed to report to my employees? That’s ridiculous.”

He had another commitment, so we agreed to get together later that day to talk further. Curious, I pulled up the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership site:
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
Larry Spears, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, identified ten servant leader characteristics:
  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Healing
  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Conceptualization
  • Foresight
  • Stewardship
  • Commitment to personal growth
  • Building Community
Dr. Kent Keith, the former CEO of the Greenleaf Center, offered a definition of servant leadership that includes this explanation:
Greenleaf said that "the servant-leader is servant first." By that he meant that that the desire to serve, the "servant's heart," is a fundamental characteristic of a servant-leader. It is not about being servile, it is about wanting to help others. It is about identifying and meeting the needs of colleagues, customers, and communities.
Nothing particularly nettlesome so far, but what about the inverted pyramid?

Ken Blanchard, in Servant Leadership Revisited, argued the pyramid should be right side up for matters such as vision, mission, values and goals, but inverted when it comes to implementation or execution. His inverted pyramid has customers at the top and customer contact people right below them. The customer contact people are responsible for meeting customer needs, and the managers and executives below them on the inverted pyramid are responsible for helping the customer contact people succeed in doing that.

When I got back together with my former colleague later that day, I asked him to think about the ways in which he was responsible to his employees. In other words, what did he provide that they expected and needed from him? His list included strategic clarity, adequate tools and resources, fair and measurable performance objectives, timely and accurate communication, feedback opportunities, inspiration, trust, integrity, honesty, accountability, coaching and career development. We talked about the pyramid, and how responsibilities and expectations flow both ways, so he made a similar list of the things he expected and needed from his employees.

Finally, we looked at the Oxford Dictionary definitions of servant:
  • A person who performs duties for others, especially a person employed in a house on domestic duties or as a personal attendant.
  • A person employed in the service of a government. 
  • A devoted and helpful follower or supporter
The first definition bothered him, the second didn’t apply, but he liked the third and agreed he definitely had a responsibility to be a devoted and helpful supporter of his employees.

I told him I thought he would probably have an easy time of it with the consultants because it appeared he was already thinking like a servant leader—even though he had never thought of himself in those terms.

“We’ll see,” he said. “Unfortunate choice of terms, though. Why couldn’t they have called it something less provocative?”

“Ask the consultants,” I suggested.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired insurance executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator and watercolor artist.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors

Friday, January 22, 2016

Slackers and Social Loafers: "Playing" the Team Players

America loves teams and team players, even outside of sports. What’s not to love? Team players are selfless—they set aside their personal goals and focus their talents on coordinating efforts with their fellow team members to achieve a common goal. Teams personify cooperation and collaboration and synergistic effort. And, of course, we’ve all been taught that teams inevitably generate better outcomes than individuals do.
So it’s good to be on a team, and teams do good work, which means teams and teamwork are iconic realities of life in America--socially, educationally, and professionally. It really doesn’t matter whether you are a toddler, a college student, a retail clerk, or a corporate executive—today you regularly find yourself slotted onto teams (or onto committees or into small groups) where you are expected to behave like a good team player.

How does a good team player behave? According to leadership coach Joel Garfinkle: “You just need to be an active participant and do more than your job title states. Put the team’s objectives above yours and take the initiative to get things done without waiting to be asked.” He identifies five characteristics that make a team player great:
  1. Always reliable
  2. Communicates with confidence
  3. Does more than asked
  4. Adapts quickly and easily
  5. Displays genuine commitment
Seems obvious, but think of your most recent team experiences—were your team members behaving that way? Were you? Not likely, and J. Richard Hackman, a former Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams, knows why. When interviewed by Diane Coutou for a 2009 Harvard Business Review article (Why Teams Don’t Work) he said:
Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration. 
Problems with coordination and motivation interfering with team collaboration and performance—doesn’t that sound like a rather modest challenge that could be resolved with more effective team management? Sure, to a certain extent. Teams are often too large, they are thoughtlessly staffed (proximity and position rather than proven talents and ability to produce results) and they are routinely launched with murky objectives, vague group member accountabilities, and no formal support network for team process management. In other words most teams don’t meet the five basic conditions that Hackman, in his book Leading Teams, said that teams require to perform effectively:
  1. Teams must be real. People have to know who is on the team and who is not. It’s the leader’s job to make that clear.
  2. Teams need a compelling direction. Members need to know, and agree on, what they’re supposed to be doing together. Unless a leader articulates a clear direction, there is a real risk that different members will pursue different agendas.
  3. Teams need enabling structures. Teams that have poorly designed tasks, the wrong number or mix of members, or fuzzy and unenforced norms of conduct invariably get into trouble.
  4. Teams need a supportive organization. The organizational context—including the reward system, the human resource system, and the information system—must facilitate teamwork.
  5. Teams need expert coaching. Most executive coaches focus on individual performance, which does not significantly improve teamwork. Teams need coaching as a group in team processes—especially at the beginning, midpoint, and end of a team project.
But there’s another challenge, and it is presented by the people who don’t want to be team players. People who, when added to a team, immediately focus their attention and effort not on being a good team player but instead on dodging work, avoiding exposure and manipulating the conscientious team players into doing more than their share of the work. This is known as social loafing (or slacking) and it describes the tendency of some members of a work group to exert less effort than they would when working alone. Kent Faught, Associate Professor of Management at the Frank D. Hickingbotham School of Business, argues in his paper about student work groups in the Journal of Business Administration Online that social loafers can’t be successful, however, unless the other team members permit the loafing and complete the project successfully:
…the social loafer must find at least one group member that CAN and WILL achieve the group's goals and ALLOW themselves to be social loafed on. "Social Loafer Bait" is the term used here to describe the profile of the ideal target for social loafers.
This problem isn’t new. Max Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, conducted one of the earliest social loafing experiments in 1913, asking participants to pull on a “tug of war” rope both individually and in groups. When people were part of a group, they exerted much less effort pulling the rope than they did when pulling alone. According to Joshua Kennon, Ringelmann’s social loafing results were replicated over the years in many other experiments (involving typing, shouting, clapping, pumping water, etc.) leading psychologists to believe that humans tend toward social loafing in virtually all group activities. Kennon shared two other conclusions:
  • The more people you put into a group, the less individual effort each person will contribute
  • When confronted with proof that they are contributing less, the individuals in the group deny it because they believe they are contributing just as much as they would have if they were working alone
I recently asked a group of friends and colleagues who have been involved in group work at school or in their jobs to respond to a brief, unscientific survey on how they deal with social loafing. Their response pattern is shown in parentheses, and although respondents varied in age from 20 to 50+, answer patterns didn’t seem to vary by age group:

You are working on an important, time-sensitive project with a group of people. One of the group members is slacking off, not contributing to project work. What do you do about it? (choose one)
  • Ask/Tell the slacker to commit to the project and start contributing (40%)
  • Report the slacker to the project sponsor (3%)
  • Complain about the slacker to other team members (10%)
  • Work harder to pick up the slack and ensure the project is successful (30%)
  • Follow the slacker’s lead and reduce your commitment and effort (0%)
  • Other (17%--most respondents who chose this reported they would employ more than one of the listed strategies)
How effective is the response you identified above?
  • Solves the problem (27%)
  • Partially solves the problem (53%)
  • Fails to solve the problem (17%)
  • Causes other problems (3%)
Respondents who took some action (talking to the slacker, or reporting the slacker to the project sponsor) were much more likely to report that their actions solved all or part of the problem. Complaining to other team members failed to solve the problem—no surprise there. And even though 30% of respondents elected to address the slacking problem by working harder to pick up the slack (earning themselves a “social loafer bait” ID badge) the effect of doing so was mixed, spread fairly evenly among solving, partially solving, failing to solve and causing other problems.
What’s not clear is why we are so willing to tolerate social loafing on group projects and why we are so reluctant to call slackers out and hold them accountable. According to Kerry Patterson, co-author of the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High:
93% of employees report they have co-workers who don't pull their weight, but only one in 10 confronts lackluster colleagues.
I suppose the reality is that unless work groups are tightly managed, they offer excellent cover for slackers--relative anonymity, little or no pressure from team members, great individual performance camouflage--with only a slight threat of exposure or penalty for not being a good team player. So the solution to the social loafer problem probably involves not only changes in how groups are formed, resourced and supported, but also changes in the group work dynamic to eliminate the cover and camouflage and to illuminate how each individual contributes to the group work effort (this is sometimes accomplished in university student work groups by using a formal peer review process to help group members hold each other accountable.)

As you might expect, Google is serious about team work (all Google employees work on at least one team) and they want their teams to be successful. Their recent study of team effectiveness at Google determined that five team dynamics (Psychological Safety, Dependability, Structure and Clarity, Meaning of Work, and Impact of Work) are more important to successful teams than the talents of the individuals on the teams. To help their teams manage these dynamics, Google developed a tool called the gTeams exercise, described by Julia Rozovsky of Google People Operations as:
…a 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics, a report that summarizes how the team is doing, a live in-person conversation to discuss the results, and tailored developmental resources to help teams improve.
According to Rozovsky, Google teams reported that having a framework around team effectiveness and a forcing function (the gTeams exercise) to talk about these dynamics was the most impactful part of the experience. That’s not surprising, since any “forcing function” that puts a public spotlight on ineffective or unacceptable behavior makes it easier to identify and eliminate that behavior.

Given the concentration of talent at Google, I imagine the social loafers there probably boast a more refined slacker “craftiness” pedigree than most of us normally encounter. Still, I am betting the Google slackers aren’t very pleased with the light and heat generated by the gTeams exercise spotlight.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU,  is a retired insurance executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator and watercolor artist.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors