Tuesday, November 12, 2013

No fair! Social loafing in the boardroom

Photo purchased from Bigstock Photo

Have you ever served on a board with that one person who never seems to follow through on anything? Who can't be counted on to assume any real responsibility? Whose only purpose seems to be keeping a seat warm - literally?

Is social loafing an unspoken, accepted practice in your nonprofit boardroom?

Social loafing occurs when a member steps back and gives less than his or her best effort in a group. One common assumption driving this phenomenon: someone in the group will make sure it gets done, even if I don't. The group is responsible, after all. The group will take care of it. My own pressure to perform is reduced - or at least I think and act as if that were true.

In some highly dysfunctional boards, there may be a sense of impotence or lack of commitment the work to be done. Frankly, who cares? If it won't make a difference amidst the chaos, why should I make this a personal priority? Maybe we watch our fellow members shirk their own responsibilities and feel less motivated ourselves. So we loaf.

One of the better descriptions of social loafing, one that should make sense for those of us serving on nonprofit boards, is a synopsis of a Human Relations article, "A Model of Social Loafing in Real Work Groups." See of some if these additional potential factors ring a bell:

  • Perceived lack of influence over task outcomes - doesn't matter what I do (or don't do). My individual effort doesn't matter in the end.
  • Unmotivating task - I don't care if I complete this task; it bores me and doesn't connect to anything that matters to me.
  • Perceived relative task ability - I'm pretty sure I'll fail. I'm in way over my head on this one. What's worse, I'm pretty sure my fellow group members would do a better job.
  • Perceived lack of potential for evaluation of one's contribution - I won't be held accountable, so it doesn't matter.

That last bullet point is particularly important. Social loafing frequently comes down to a lack of accountability - official accountability via regular individual and group-level assessment, and informal accountability, via a culture that upholds commitment and engagement as foundational group values. If we know our effort (or lack thereof) will be noticed, if we feel responsible for our role in the collective success of the board, the vast majority of us will step up and follow through on our responsibilities.  In a volunteer leadership role, like board service, we want our effort to make a difference.

Because social loafing may emerge from different scenarios, offering one magic solution is risky to impossible. But in general, I do have a handful of recommendations for reducing the risk that our board members will fall into this trap.

  • Build the foundation for board service on active participation and leadership. Set the bar high and articulate clearly what is expected from the recruitment process forward.
  • Define clear markers for member success and take steps to verify that members understand and accept the responsibility given to them.  Be explicit in securing agreement, verifying that members understand what is being asked of them.
  • Offer regular check-ins and opportunities to not only remind members of their responsibilities but catch and address issues before they become full-fledged obstacles.
  • Take steps to ensure that members have a reasonable chance of success. Stretches are great, even essential when reaching for grand visions of the future. But they must be realistic stretches. Otherwise, you - and they - know that you are setting them up to fail.
  • As much as possible, fit tasks to member expertise and interests. Start them from a foundation of strength and motivation.
  • Provide whatever additional support is needed for members to succeed at the tasks they're assigned. They need the tools, information and resources to have a reasonable chance of accomplishing what they are expected to do.
  • Share the work and the leadership responsibility broadly. Reinforce the message that the board's ultimate success relies on all members willingly assuming their share of the work. (Note: This does require that some of us give up our martyr status, where we take on more than our share of the work because "it'll never get done if I don't do it." It will, because our fellow board members understand and accept their equal leadership responsibility. We have to give them a chance, though.)
  • Institutionalize goal-driven assessment processes for individual members and the board as a whole. Use those processes as formal opportunities to stop, evaluate, and make any necessary adjustments in a timely manner. Use them, too, to set and reinforce the high leadership bar that board members really want (vs. solely as a stick with which to punish "loafers").

The bottom line:
Build, reinforce and celebrate a culture where board members are not only expected to contribute and lead, but where they receive the support and acknowledgment they deserve when they actually do.

Build a culture where loafing is not only unacceptable but unthinkable.

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