The Free Rider problem is studied in social sciences and refers to people who benefit from a collective (mainly public) good without participating in its production.
We have lots of them in our organizations. They sit on the side letting others pull their weight. These ‘others’ are the usual suspects, people who are always asked to get involved and end up being the 20% (or less) that always deliver and is reliable.
Putting up with Free Riders is not only a simple productivity problem but a serious demotivating one for many people, including the ones who may be naturally inclined to contribute. The existence of the Free Riders is in itself an invitation to become one. It’s very important to note that this may be far from conscious, malicious, or even selfish. Most of Homo Imitans behaviour is unconscious. But Free Riders are simply signalling the door is open to it.
Some Free Riders play experience or seniority. A dangerous form or organizational Free Rider is the one played by people going from team to team, meeting to meeting, expressing their ideas, contributing perhaps with a warning, and often leaving after their pontification because they are required to fertilize other teams and meetings.
There is no magic solution to avoid the Free Rider Problem in our organizations but, at the very least, here are three recommendations:
- Task Free Riders with specific goals in order to remain part of the team, or benefit from its achievements (including visibility)
- Try to avoid completely the ongoing ‘partial attendance’ of people to a meeting.
- If somebody is genuinely important (advise, knowledge, expertise) but genuinely unable to be present and act like the rest of the group, declare it like this. Name him/her adviser!
Free Riders are noxious to collective action. They should not be taken as an anecdote