Shirking by Surfing
Most of us have experienced the frustrations of lost productivity in workgroups because of social loafing. Social loafing occurs when workers are able to shirk on the contributions of other members while still attempting to enjoy the rewards achieved by the group. Think back to any high school group project where you shared a grade and you most likely experienced social loafing. While social loafing is an old problem, an emerging problem is a different form involving the Internet: cyberloafing.
Cyberloafing is when employees use “their company’s Internet access for personal purposes during work hours” (Lim 2002, p. 675). Cyberloafing is expensive to an organization. Knights (2007) reports $470 million in annual costs to UK firms from cyberloafers. Indeed cyberloafing is a social dilemma because the cyberloafer uses the Internet for personal use while dispersing the costs of shirking across other workgroup members. However, if all (or enough) members cyberloaf then the organization suffers.
(A cyberloafer – source: http://myintrinsichealth.com/2012/03/12/cyberloafing/)
A squib in The Globe and Mail suggests that leaders are kept awake at night trying to answer the “how can I stop my workers from cyberloafing on the job?” (Schachter 2014). Some working research by Brice Corgnet (Chapman University), Roberto Gonzalez (Universidad de Granada), and me provides a solution to cyberloafing: participative leadership.
What We Found and Why It Matters
Before I tell what happened, know briefly what these people were doing in our experiment.Participants were placed in 10 person teams with 1 teammate being a boss. The task was the addition of numbers of spreadsheet tables – similar to clerical and data entry jobs. The time to work was separated into two parts. In part 1, teammates worked on the task while also being able to surf the web. Between part 1 and part 2, depending on the condition, the Internet could be turned off (either by team vote or unilateral decision from the leader). Part 2 involved the teammates commencing with work either with or without Internet access.
Depending on the condition the boss could (1) work and watch employees (control condition), (2) work, watch, and unilaterally turnoff the Internet after a period of time (autocratic leadership condition), or (3) work, watch, and hold a team vote with all the other employees to turnoff the Internet after a period of time (participative leadership condition). There were 6 teams in the control condition, 10 in the autocratic leadership condition, and 6 teams in the participative leadership condition. For the participative leadership condition, a majority rule was used to decide whether the Internet remained on or off. The task lasted roughly two hours and participants earned on average $12.25 / hr. (This wage rate is comparable to professional data-entry clerks in the USA [where we ran the study]. Data-entry clerks in the USA earn currently a rate of $13.37 / hr. ± $2.75 [www.salary.com].) Now for the results.
In both the autocratic and participative leadership conditions, the Internet was shutoff in all but one team. In the control condition (where the leader could do nothing to stop cyberloafing), our virtual team’s performance suffered: Internet usage in the control condition increased from 13.7% in the first part of the experiment to 25.2% in the second part of the experiment. Both autocratic and participative leadership were near equally effective in stopping cyberloafing: from an initial level of 14.2% and 13.6%, average Internet usage declined to 4.6% and 5.5% in the autocratic and participative leadership conditions. However, these leadership processes did other things. Teams in the autocratic leadership condition produced $56.06 on average – which is $5.67 less than teams in the control condition – whereas teams in the participative leadership condition increased their production with respect to those in the control condition up to $65.30. This difference was because of the change in behavior of the cyberloafers between the autocratic and participative leadership conditions.
In particular, while both leadership processes led to Internet policy that stopped people from cyberloafing, participative leadership was the only process that increased a cyberloafer’s work performance. This effect was occurred found even among cyberloafers who had opposed the Internet policy.
In short, using participative leadership when handling cyberloafing lets leaders have their cake and eat it too. For those wanting to know why these effects were found, read on after “Wake up and get involved”
Wake Up and Get Involved
A popular approach to navigating an organizational social dilemma is to change the decision-making rights about what workers can do on the job (Van Lange et al. 2013). Two ways you can change decision-making rights is to have an autocratic or participative leadership process. Autocratic leadership was first advocated by Hobbes (1671) and more recently by Hardin (1968) in his seminal work The Tragedy of the Commons. Autocratic leadership is a process where a leader makes all decisions about what the workgroup members can do (Van Vugt et al. 2004). Participative leadership is when workgroup subordinates and the leader make decisions together (Vroom and Yetton 1973).
Why does it matter whether we use a central authority of give some discretion subordinates? It seems to matter much when it comes to social dilemmas like cyberloafing in workgroups.
Autocratic leadership is effective when it comes to efficiency. The autocratic leader sees a problem – like cyberloafing – can unilaterally take steps to fix the problem. When cyberloafing, the autocratic leader can set limits to Internet access.
But dictating terms comes with a cost. You can never do merely one thing (Hardin 1985). Most of us value our autonomy at work (Laschinger et al. 2001). We feel frustration or even spite toward those who try to force us to do things (Lawrence and Robinson 2007). A cyberloafer, though restricted to Internet access, may still slack on the job out of spite (Tripp and Bies 2009). We suspected, based on these ideas, that cyberloafing could be stopped by the autocratic leader but that cyberloafers would not increase their work effort on the job.
Participative leadership, we suspected, would be a different story when it came to the cyberloafer. Participative leadership is all about a leader relinquishing control and letting subordinates get involved. The participative leadership process gives workgroup members a sense of ownership over their work and trust in each other (Huang et al. 2010). The presence of commitment and trust, brought upon by participative leadership, increases workgroup performance (Srivastava et al. 2006).
But wait there’s more! Participative leadership also gives subordinates voice over how things happen at work. Having voice over process is often more important to a person than the outcome of that process (Folger and Konovsky 1989). Research in industrial psychology reminds us that worker productivity increases merely after giving workers voice about rules on their jobs (Lawler and Hackman 1969). In fact even if the decisions made are counter to what someone wants in a group, that person is more likely to support the group’s decision if they had some voice in the matter compared to not having any voice (Van den Bos et al. 1997).
In relation to the findings presented in the previous section, cyberloafers were willing to work harder when given a chance to vote (and had the Internet shut off) compared to when a leader dictated terms to them. It seems that to get people under control, leaders should give up control (strategically) (Murnighan 2012).
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