Managers & free riding : take the risk of trusting …



Temps de lecture

6 min


It is a paradox that managers and business leaders are not always familiar with: in trying to do the right thing, we can sometimes accentuate the problem we were trying to tackle. This can be the case for managers who are looking to combat free riding in their teams. Free riders are people who benefit from the activities of a group to which they belong, without really contributing to the collective output. By deciding to fight against such behavior, managers could paradoxically increase the phenomenon. Our work has shown how, in certain cases, the search for the “common good” can be a much better bulwark against free riding, while taking better account of employees’ vulnerabilities.

Free riders benefit from the company’s common resources without contributing proportionally to their production. They may, for example, benefit from teamwork (for example this could relate to innovation, negotiation, or even the development of a communication tool) or take the credit for the outcomes, without necessarily having contributed significantly. More generally, they enjoy the benefits of cooperation without really participating.

Free riding is particularly feared in large organizations where there is a clear separation of tasks between departments or individuals. Large companies can also have a competitive culture, and some employees may suspect colleagues of engaging in fictitious or worthless activities. Managers can therefore consider it important to detect people who are not really playing the team game. In doing so they are required to mobilize time and resources, without always achieving convincing results.

Managers working in such organizations run the risk of overestimating the frequency of free riding behavior. If they assume that their employees are focused on their own interests, they may interpret unexpected behavior as opportunism. For example, they may see a refusal to take on certain responsibilities as a lack of commitment, whereas this refusal may be linked to personal or ethical reasons.

Lose-lose situations

Similarly, if they believe that their employees are only receptive to rewards and sanctions, managers will multiply standards of comparison, evaluation criteria, reward systems and control processes. As Brian Carney, editor of the Wall Street Journal‘s opinion/editorial pages, and Isaac Getz, professor at ESCP and theoretician of the liberated enterprise, wrote in Liberté et Cie, this “management for the 3 percent”, which consists in developing rules and processes to control abuses committed by an extremely small number of individuals, risks creating a widespread feeling of mistrust and demotivation among almost all employees. It is a real lose-lose situation, since not only is the stated objective not achieved, but the measures put in place to achieve it also have a negative effect.

Yet there is another way of looking at this problem, from the perspective of the common good. This approach is rooted in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and Christian thought. It offers a different vision of the human being, placing particular emphasis on the way in which he or she needs to feel the object of trust within a community that prioritizes internal goods (especially virtues) over external goods (profit, power and status). From this perspective, and under certain conditions, managers can express unconditional trust in their employees and be attentive to their vulnerabilities. Using two examples, we show how this posture helps to overcome the obsessive fear of free riding behavior.

Generalized trust

Rather than being conditional on the certainty of a response, unconditional trust is given independently of any evidence of the recipient’s reliability. For example, in a Korean bakery that is committed to helping vulnerable people on their local area (notably by making more loaves than can be sold, in order to give some to those in need), the entrepreneurs and managers express their trust by giving their employees the opportunity to take (in parallel) additional training courses relating to baking/pastry making.

“There are many people who are qualified thanks to the company …” (pastry cook).

The trust expressed by managers is aimed less at achieving a particular result that they can claim as their own, than at creating a level of generalized trust from which others can benefit:

“By learning the culture of love and trust, we learn to look at others and society differently … We got together with our colleagues to understand together how we could give. The wife of one of us was working in a center for disabled children. We started with a few, now we are about 30 (sales employee)”.

This solidarity, even beyond the organization’s borders, responds to the organization’s mission, which is focused on the social needs of the local community. As such, it is not perceived by managers as a disengagement but, on the contrary, as our work also reveals, as an intense participation in the culture of trust and giving. This shared state of mind contributes to the greater good pursued by these entrepreneurs and managers, and by all their employees.

Caring for the most vulnerable

Unexpected behavior, rather than being seen as free riding, can be seen as an expression of vulnerability that should be taken into account. For example, in a Paraguayan cleaning company which hires unskilled women living in shantytowns, in order to provide them with social protection, the personal situations of the cleaners are taken into account in order to understand absences/withdrawals. One cleaner-turned-manager admits that she was unreliable at the start of her career:

“I was a person with many problems. When I had problems, I didn’t come, and they would ask me why, with patience. Then I finally told them … you know … violence … violence against women … They sent specialized people to help me and thanks to them I got out of it” (supervisor).

Managers are aware that attention to employees’ personal or professional vulnerability can be the best way of preventing withdrawal and absence that could be interpreted as free riding:

“If we realize that a person wants to work, is interested in work, knows how to work, and has a problem for some reason … we try to find a way to help them so they can solve their problems…” (operations manager).

Not only does this managerial perspective, based on solidarity, trust and giving, promote the right to make mistakes. It also advocates the use of sanctions as a last resort and for educational purposes:

“When you make a mistake, superiors will never yell at you; instead, they will talk to you in private, explain the consequences and listen to what you have to say” (cleaner).

In these two solidarity-focused organizations comprising nearly 900 employees, it may – be relatively easy to practice trust as a response to vulnerability and to initiate a virtuous dynamic of engagement.  It is possible indeed that these organizations attract and recruit people who are particularly capable of decentering and engaging in activity. It is also possible that the cultural context in which these studies were carried out favors this approach, as the countries in question are recognized as having collectivist culture.

In other organizations, it would be a mistake to rush into a proliferation of control and sanction mechanisms as the only possible response to the risk of free riding. We argue that even in these larger organizations, and even in an environment particularly marked by individualism and competition, it is possible to foster a culture of trust and gratitude, and a positive presupposition towards unexpected behavior.

For these organizations, it is a question of setting up recruitment systems that prioritize motivation over qualification. It also means that managers are willing to take the risk of trusting others, and to demonstrate a vulnerability that makes it easier to talk about difficulties encountered, work practices, spontaneous projects and necessary changes.


Sandrine Frémeaux, AudenciaAnouk GrevinUniversité de NantesGuillaume Mercier, IÉSEG School of Management & Roberta SferrazzoAudencia

This is a translated version of an article published on The Conversation France.

The Conversation

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Management & Society


Guillaume MERCIER

Guillaume MERCIER

Srategy & Sustainability

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