Cyberloafing: A New Problem in an Old Social Dilemma that Keeps Leaders Awake at Night

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:

Bad Dreams

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 [].)  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).


Works Cited

Folger, R., & Konovsky, M. A. 1989. Effects of procedural and distributive justice on reactions to pay raise decisions. Academy of Management Journal, 32(1): 115-130.

Hardin, G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162(3859): 1243-1248.

Knights, M. 2007. Gambling at work costs employers UK plc ₤306m, Computerworld UK.

Laschinger, H. K. S., Finegan, J., & Shamian, J. 2001. The impact of workplace empowerment, organizational trust on staff nurses’ work satisfaction and organizational commitment. Health Care Management Review, 26(3): 7-23.

Lawler, E. E., & Hackman, J. R. 1969. Impact of employee participation in the development of pay incentive plans: A field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 53(6): 467-471.

Lawrence, T. B., & Robinson, S. L. 2007. Ain’t misbehavin: Workplace deviance as organizational resistance. Journal of Management, 33(3): 378-394.

Lim, V. K. G. 2002. The IT way of loafing on the job: cyberloafing, neutralizing and organizational justice. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23(5): 675-694.

Murnighan, J. K. 2012. Do nothing! How to stop overmanaging and become a great leader. New York, NY: Penguin.

Schachter, H. 2014. Eight questions that cause leaders to lose sleep, The Globe and Mail. Toronto,  ON: The Globe and Mail Incorporated.

Srivastava, A., Bartol, K. M., & Locke, E. A. 2006. Empowering leadership in management teams: Effects on knowledge sharing, efficacy, and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 49(6): 1239-1251.

Tripp, T. M., & Bies, R. J. 2009. Getting even: the truth about workplace revenge–and how to stop it. New York, NY: Wiley.

Van den Bos, K., Vermunt, R., & Wilke, H. A. M. 1997. Procedural and distributive justice: What is fair depends more on what comes first than on what comes next. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(1): 95.

Van Lange, P. A. M., Joireman, J., Parks, C. D., & Van Dijk, E. 2013. The psychology of social dilemmas: A review. Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, 120(2): 125-141.

Van Vugt, M., Jepson, S. F., Hart, C. M., & De Cremer, D. 2004. Autocratic leadership in social dilemmas: A threat to group stability. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(1): 1-13.

Vroom, V. H., & Yetton, P. W. 1973. Leadership and decision-making. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

2 comments on “Cyberloafing: A New Problem in an Old Social Dilemma that Keeps Leaders Awake at Night

  1. Renee says:

    That was a good article! I work for a company that gives the employees a great deal of freedom. In return, I see most all of the workforce embracing their jobs and taking great pride in what they accomplish.

    The members of my team are not given a specific time that they have to come in to work or a specific time that they need to stay on the job. When I first started, I couldn’t believe that I could just waltz in and out whenever I wanted. In time, I started to see that employees generally put in well over the expected 40 hours per week! We can go to our doctor appointments, take care of personal business, or any other event that arises without the worry about our job security. Because we can set our own hours and work from home as well, people are often working late into the night.

    It has been such a revelation for me so see such passion coming from so many employees of a large company. As your article suggests, I recognize that having a sense of control and autonomy over our projects makes us more productive.

    • Jennifer says:

      I have to agree with Renee That was a well written article. I too also get a great deal of freedom and work at a job that pays me salary. However, I do see a great deal of people shopping on the clock and suffering on the web.

      In the organization I work for everything is time sensitive and I feel at times people procrastinate a little too much and therefore their work seems rushed and towards the end they seem stressed. We have all the same freedoms that Renee has expressed in her statement, which does help you to feel empowered. We also put in more than our 40 hours but just because you are physically there does not mean you are there and at the same time it does cost the company money. So how productive are these individuals? I think it depends, I do see a lot of dedication and these workers do work hard when it comes down to it. I have seen all kinds of management including those who like to micro-manage and they did receive less out of the employees when orders were constantly being barked and in result of this employees have quit their jobs or posted to new positions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s