Blog Barista: Jessica Davis | Sept 5, 2018 | Business Practices | Brew time: 7 min

Free riders are those people who do not contribute equitably to the team. Many of us have, at some point in our lives, worked on a team where at least one person did not pull their weight.  Resentments build and team performance is negatively impacted.

After 20+ years in the workforce, I came to believe that free riding was just a fact of life and that all teams are afflicted. However, experience has opened my eyes to another way of life which has caused me to think about what can be done differently to help avoid free riders.

Why Does Free Riding Happen?

Before we dig in on how to prevent free riders, let’s consider why free riding occurs. From my experience, free riders tend to take advantage of a team when:

  • They are asked to complete a task that is above their skill level;
  • They are repeatedly asked to complete a task that is below their skill level;
  • They think their contributions will not be perceived as valuable by the team;
  • The team is large so some members do not feel personally responsible for the team’s success; and
  • They wait to see what others are going to contribute so they don’t get taken advantage of themselves.

Let’s also consider what happens when we have a free rider. Generally, the team compensates for the free rider because other members of the team do not want to fail.  Another reaction is for other team members to contribute less, slowing the progress of the entire team and potentially even resulting in missed deadlines.

Whatever the case, free riders can make team dynamics toxic.  They interfere with progress and can be very costly to the company.

So how do you avoid and eliminate free riders?

Hire the Right People

For starters, hiring procedures that weed out incapable, unmotivated, or combative people is the first line of defense. Use a multi-phase hiring process that allows for many different types of interactions. These interview phases could include phone screens, completing real-world exercises, and in-person interviews in which the candidate presents a solution to a group of people.

This type of process, though somewhat exhausting for both the applicant and the company, ensures that applicants are willing to work hard to earn a spot on the team. It also identifies if an applicant is competent, capable of thinking critically, and can employ creative problem solving.

Having an exercise phase allows the applicant to showcase their expertise and gives the employer the opportunity to provide feedback to see how the applicant reacts. The act of presenting their solution and fielding feedback can tell a lot about the applicant’s ability to collaborate with team members and their ability to learn from experience. Defensiveness may be an indicator of future problems. This process is more about testing for intelligence and cultural fit than for verifying skills.

Skills can be learned. Critical thinking, creative problem solving, good communication, adaptability, and passion are attributes that indicate an applicant will be a productive team member.

Use Processes that Promote Transparency

Though good hiring practices will weed out most applicants that aren’t a good fit, they are not 100% foolproof. Free riding can also occur for other reasons, such as a team member who doesn’t understand how to complete a task and is afraid to ask for help. Implementing procedures that incorporate transparency for early detection can not only discourage free riding, but help managers identify and handle free riders.

Scrum (an Agile Methodology) is an ideal framework for achieving transparency and accountability. Though Scrum is primarily used in the software development world, it can be applied to other types of projects as well.

The Scrum framework of the Agile methodology incorporates self-managed teams. Teams come together to plan the work they will undertake in a given block of time, called a sprint. Team members decide the best approach to dividing work, whether it’s taking turns selecting items off the top of a to-do list or assigning tasks based on expertise, the process of figuring out how the work will be divided creates personal responsibility and transparency among teammates. Team members understand how they each affect the outcome of the sprint and how they are creating value for the team.  

Restrict Team Size

Large teams allow underperformers to hide, and to feel less responsible for overall team productivity. Large teams also make it difficult to manage personality conflicts and reach team consensus.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with employers who have noticed that team productivity tends to decline when team size exceeds five members. When a project calls for a large team, consider breaking the team into sub-teams. Sub-teams can work simultaneously, yielding more productivity and better team cohesion.

Give Kudos

It is my observation that people are more motivated by recognition and opportunity than by money (I know… money is important too). Fostering an environment that celebrates successes and contributions, in addition to tangible rewards, improves performance across the organization.

For example, occasionally host company-wide luncheons during which teams and individuals are applauded for professional and personal achievements. Managers can also send out company-wide announcements highlighting successful projects and milestones. A pat on the back in front of the entire company may make a team member blush, but it also makes them feel appreciated.

Showing gratitude can be more than providing a compliment. Providing a great benefits package can show employees just how much they are appreciated. Whether it’s sponsoring a paid internship, subsidizing higher education, sending someone to training, or giving someone the ability to try something new, it is building a stronger, happier, and more productive team through engagement.

Challenged, happy, loyal employees do not free ride.

Feed Passion

Passion drives people. But passion can fade if the flame is not stoked. One of the best way to turn a productive person into a free rider is by pigeon-holing them into one task simply because they’re good at it. Programmers who love to code will work day and night to solve a problem, but if they work on the same type of problem day in and day out they will eventually lose the spark that makes them highly productive.

Providing opportunities to grow and share knowledge across the organization brings employees together, keeps them engaged, informs them of new horizons, and keeps the passion alive. For example, establishing a lunch and learn program where employees present on topics they’re knowledgeable and passionate about can open new doors for employee engagement.

I had the opportunity to present on a topic I feel strongly about (proposal processes) and suddenly had many more voluntary contributors who say they enjoy the opportunity to be involved in winning work for the company. It’s fun and exciting.

Beyond organizational learning, managers need to remain vigilant in career development and continuous learning for their staff. Listen to employees’ desires. Watch them perform and take note of their strengths. Give them special projects that are outside their normal daily routines. Give them opportunities to learn and grow.

Too Good to be True?

After spending over 20 years in the workforce, I’ve learned that free riding isn’t just a fact of life. It isn’t unavoidable. It’s possible to be a part of an environment that fosters transparency, communication, appreciation, and passion, and as a result, encounter very few free riders.

During my time at KL&A, I personally have not encountered one free rider. In fact, most of the people I work with are willing to go above and beyond, offering to help other groups in addition to their regular responsibilities.

So, no. It’s not too good to be true. Environments such as this do exist and can continue to evolve by embracing these values.


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Blog Barista: Dana Graham | June 15th, 2022 | Culture | Brew time: 5 min
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