Stop Loafing: Tips on Group Motivation

Let’s talk about groups and motivation.

I almost never write about this concept. This is primarily because I coach the majority of people one-on-one, and also because I have shifted much of my effort to the world of massage therapy and mindset – both of which are also largely one-on-one endeavors.

Friends have barked at me for a while to write an article to address this, especially those that coach groups and youth athletes, as they know that I know a fair amount about the topics, given my background as a Chief, years of my life I spent leading people, and a Sport Psychology degree.

So, fine, let’s talk about group motivation…

Group dynamics is an interesting topic. I have gotten in arguments with FitPros that seem to think that leadership a la one-on-one personal training will provide crossover skills sets that lend themselves to leadership of people in groups, either with group training or fitness classes, or even bleeding out into the corporate world.

“I can lead! I’m a Personal Trainer! I lead people every day!”

Yes. 100%. I’m not denying that Personal Training or one-on-one coaching is leadership, it is.


Ask anyone who has led a military division, coached a team (especially with youth athletes), or led a department in the corporate world, and they will tell you that an entirely different knowledge base and skill set is required to navigate group dynamics.

The reality is that I can talk about this forever, but there are two key concepts I want to talk about in this article that will allow me to give some practical recommendations that you can use when leading a group

Concept 1: Social Loafing

Ah, social loafing. I wanted to talk about this because it’s a pet peeve of mine, and it is also just fun to say. Go ahead and say it. Let it roll right off your tongue.

Social loafing is actually a real, scientific term.

Like, it’s a thing.


In the specific article I marked-up for the picture, Ying et. al (2012) do an exhaustive review of the literature which outlines the pervasiveness off social loafing. I’ll put some bullet points below, but I highly recommend getting the full text of the reference and cross-referencing their bibliography if you’d like to learn more:

· Social loafing has been noted in 5-year old populations. Yes. Not a typo. PRESCHOOLERS.

· Social loafing tends to occur in groups with male dominated leadership. I’d wager a guess that, based on patriarchal tendencies, the men in the group kick back and expect the weaker men and/or women to do everything for them, but I digress.

· Social loafing is very likely to occur in groups with “highly-individual” people.

· Social loafing is less likely to occur in groups of people with high n-Ach (need for achievement a la McClellan...just ask me).

Regardless of whether you are an academic, athlete, corporate employee, or some combination of the three, you have certainly experienced someone social loafing while working in a group. The loafer may even have been you. Some of us have had so many bad experiences with this that we hate working in groups in certain contexts. For me, I really dislike groups in academia.

Tangentially, this is something I should have kept in mind when going to get a Masters degree in Organizational Behavior and Leadership, where the Program Learning Outcomes (PLO) for the degree involve the study of group dynamics…which means you are put in groups in EVERY CLASS so they can see how you react and lead/follow depending on your role. Yeah, that’s all I’ll say about that. It was, er, lovely.

Anyway, the direction I’m going here isn’t a negative one. Rather I want to stress the point that loafing isn’t always caused by an individual’s personality. Granted, one’s personality can make them more predisposed to social loafing, but more often than not, it is the nature of the tasks that lead to loafing, more than individual traits and even leadership*

One of the studies that Xiangyu et. al reference is a meta-analysis done in 1993. One of the findings was that increased task difficulties and outside evaluations reduce social loafing (Karau & Williams, 1993). Hold onto this though because this offers us some key insight into how we can reduce social loafing, either with our athletes or employees, but to further explain this, let’s take a look at the Kohler Effect.

Concept 2: The Kohler Effect

Oh Otto Kohler, you clever dog you!

Kohler was a psychologist in the 1920s that did a pretty famous experiment with rowers in Berlin. He has rovers to a biceps curl exercise solo, in pairs, or in groups of three. Here’s the kicker: he made the barbells weight go up to ensure that the exercise could not be completed unless every member of the group performed it (Hill, 2019). For example, if one ember off the trio slacked off, then the exercise could not be completed.

Kohler noticed something interesting. When working in a group of three, the weakest performers would work harder than they would solo. Insert exploding head emoji. These types of tasks are called conjunctive tasks and are characterized by task completion being reliant upon the weakest member. The tendency of weak members to perform their best in a group setting is called – you guess it – The Kohler Effect (2019).

The military has been doing stuff like this for years as “team building”. Any of my Chief brothers and sisters that went through “The Process” in Oceana will remember “The Pipe”, which is very similar to “Log PT”. Essentially a heavy pipe or log is used such that the weakest members need to hold their weight (literally and figuratively) or the entire endeavor will fail.

So…What Does This Mean From a Practical Standpoint?

Good question! In light of the above mentioned topics, here are things to consider when leading or managing groups:

1. Pay attention to diversity in creating groups. In some contexts, this is challenging (i.e. fitness classes where you do not have control over who registers), but ensure there is a good mix of all ages, races, sexes, etc. Of particular note:

Watch out for the alpha males.

Ensure not all identified high achievers are put together.

Also, Hill (2019) notes that the weakest participant should be within 20-40% of the capabilities of the other participants. In some contexts (i.e. academia) this can be challenging, but in group fitness and sport, ensure there are multiple difficulty levels to accommodate.

2. Make sure tasks are sufficiently challenging to make them impossible to complete without full participation and effort from all. Take note of the above range for discrepancy in abilities and either adjust the group or task accordingly.

3. Provide evaluations and feedback on task completion.

a. Specifically, make sure that the evaluation or grading for the task is based on the performance of the weakest member.

4. Watch linguistics! Many off us with military backgrounds raise an eyebrow when we hear leaders say “I” or “You” in a leadership setting. Ensure inclusive language is used. Again, Hill (2019) noted that feedback with inclusive language further motivated weaker participants. This ties into Self-determination Theory (SDT) directly, and you KNOW I love some SDT.

5. Leverage your knowledge and common sense. Like anything else, many motivation theories tie into and inform one another. Use concepts from SDT, Equity Theory, Motivator-Hygiene, etc. in order to further bolster intrinsic motivation and create environments that are supportive to max inclusiveness and effort.

Although this is by no means an all-inclusive list, it is a good starting point. If you are a group leader, let me know what techniques you use and how you tie them in to motivation. Of course, I am always here for you if you’d like more information on motivation theory and how to leverage it to make your coaching as effective as it can be.

*Although it could be argued here that the leadership is ultimately responsible for the design of the tasks, as well as subsequent evaluations, so bear this in mind.


Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681-706.

Hill, C. (2019). The Hohler Effect: A motivational strategy of strength and conditioning. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 41, 90-95.

Ying, X., Li, H., Jiang, S., Peng, F., & Lin, Z. (2014). Group laziness: The effect of social loafing on group performance. Social Behavior and Personality, 42(3), 465-471.

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