Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Deal With People Who Won't Do Their Fair Share

New research on the psychology of slacking and collaborating.

Key points

  • People who constantly rely on others can make it impossible to get anything done.
  • New research on the psychology of collaboration provides insights into the causes and cures for slackers.
  • See the slacker's behavior in a new light and help them increase their ability to help, as well as your own success.

All relationships rest on an assumption that there will be give and take, and that, on balance, things will even out. If you're the type of person who likes to give, you may find it hard to understand why anyone would want to do nothing but take. You probably know someone, either at work or in your personal life, who enjoys riding on other people's coattails, taking credit for something they didn't do, and making everyone else have to pitch in that much more.

The Social Psychology of Collaboration

According to a new study by the University of Pittsburgh’s J. Lukas Thurmer and colleagues (2022), the balance between give and take in relationships is so important that it serves as the basis of “the success of the human species.” Lest this seems like hyperbole, consider their justification: “One weak link may determine whether a professional sports team wins, a surgery team saves a life, or a disaster response team prevents a catastrophe."

Surprisingly, the researchers note, there is relatively little psychological science that addresses the question of whether people who slack do so on purpose and how this affects everyone else engaged in the same effort. It is certainly of interest to know why someone refuses to pitch in to support a group’s effort, but even more relevant, Thurmer et al. believe, is how their behavior affects everyone else. The thinking behind this question is as follows. If you believe that the unhelpful member of the group would like to help but can’t, you’d be likely to give them a pass. However, if you believe that the individual actually doesn’t want to contribute, you’ll be more likely to get annoyed.

Perhaps you’re taking up a collection for a group gift. One member of the group is financially strapped and, as much as they would like to add to the kitty, they just don’t have the resources. Few people would become irritated at this. However, if this person seems to have plenty of disposable income, you and the other group members will get angry. Your reaction, then, will depend on the attribution you make about the cause of this apparent selfishness: Is it a lack of good intentions or a lack of ability to pay?

Wanting What’s Best for the Group

People who want the best for their group will do everything they can, up to their limits, to help out. They will put in the effort but if they lack the ability can go no farther. However, Thurmer et al. believe that there’s another factor to consider. What if the person could get the ability if they just put in more effort? Couldn't this person just try harder, maybe skimping on their morning latte? Or if they wanted to help in other ways, couldn't they offer to do something else to help, like wrap the gift for you? This would mean they are high, in the Pittsburgh study's framework, in "pro-group intent."

To test the prediction that people in a group would consider the effect of pro-group intent on the ability to contribute, the research team conducted a set of five experiments on over 1,000 participants teamed up in groups of three in both scenarios (simulated) and lab-based contexts. Having established the validity of their model in the online studies, Thurmer and his associates then tested whether people would react similarly in person as they did in the simulations. In each study, participants rated the pro-group intent of the poor performer based on how this individual described their own lack of contribution as due to a lack of interest, lack of effort, and desire to work toward the good of the group.

Consistent with their theoretical model, participants did take pro-group intent into account when making judgments about the poor performer, including whether they would want to work with that person in the future. Although some tasks may indeed be out of reach for an individual, by showing that they’d like to acquire the necessary ability, poor performers are less likely to be regarded negatively by their team members.

Getting the Taker to Give

The Pittsburgh findings now provide you with a possible explanation for the poor performance of your slacker as well as the reasons you might judge that person so harshly. A person who seems to lack pro-group intent is not someone you want on your team. However, is there a way to extract more effort from that person, especially if you’ve got no choice but to work with them? As Thurmer et al. note, “poor performers who are viewed as pessimistic about the utility of effort … may receive opportunities to prove themselves."

Turning that pessimism into optimism requires that you overcome your own negative reaction to the person as you take on a supportive role to get them where you’d like them to be. If they think they can’t gain the necessary ability, encourage them to try in small steps. Someone who genuinely wishes to give will gratefully and enthusiastically accept your help.

To sum up, it’s possible to promote positive feelings in a group by bringing out the best in everyone. Supporting rather than rejecting the "taker" may lead to surprising results. You may not solve the problems of the whole human species, but you'll bring out the best in the people who matter most to you.

Facebook image: Odua Images/Shutterstock


Thürmer, J. L., & Kunze, F. (2023). Reaction to poor performers in task groups: A model of pro-group intent. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 124(1), 123–144.

More from Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP
More from Psychology Today
More from Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP
More from Psychology Today