Why Your Company's Worst Performers Are Happy As Clams

It seems paradoxical, but the worse performing a worker, the happier they are. Here's how to figure out where they're hiding and give your organization's real star performers a boost.

Your slacker employees may be going to great lengths to avoid doing much at work, but they actually love their jobs. A new study by Leadership IQ found that in 42% of companies, low performers report high levels of engagement. These employees are more motivated and more likely to enjoy working at their organizations than middle and high performers do.

When I first heard this news, I couldn't believe my ears. And then, the light bulb went on. In most organizations, low performers are pretty much left alone. They are happy as clams because no one notices or bothers them. They can just sit there quietly and won’t be discovered as long as no one does anything to alter the terrain. And if someone does come along and notice something isn't quite right, they can bury themselves further in the organization where it will be months and sometimes years before they are discovered. If that weren't scary enough, low performers were also more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work than were others in the organization. Just what a company needs. More low performers.

Mediocre performers can do a really good job of hiding under the surface. Most are experts at busywork, which they bury themselves in to appear busy. The boss usually dashes on by and heads for their ace performer, who by the way is now doing the work of at least two other people. Which probably explains why top performers in these organizations aren't nearly as happy as the lazy clams.

Top performers are exhausted from treading water daily as they try to stay afloat. Many started out wanting to be a big fish in a small pond, but are now rethinking their strategies. Fish, you see, can be caught and held out to dry if they make just one wrong move. Clams? Well, they stand a much better chance of not being found as long as they move with the tides.

According to the study, top performers are stressed out at work and are undervalued by bosses despite making the most effort. Work is often assigned to them because they are the only one the boss can count on. They are afraid to say no and lose their place among the elite in the organization. But at some point, something will give. They will either die of exhaustion or they will be lured away by promises of a better work environment elsewhere. Then what will you do?

It's time to put your clam rakes into action. Look around the organization for tiny bubbling holes that might indicate there is a clam playing Words with Friends buried under all that paperwork. It may not be obvious at first, but do spend some time looking and you're sure to root up a one or two of these guys. Once you are able to locate one low performer, there will most likely be more around the same area. Like clams, low performers prefer to be in groups close to each other.

Once you rid yourself of these low performers you can then seed your organization with a new crop of people who will welcome the opportunity to work alongside other great performers. This will signal to your top performers that you really do care if they sink or swim.

[Image: Flickr user Mark Mark]

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  • Engage

    Hi Roberta,


    I must say, while
    well-written, your article is fundamentally flawed in that it is based around
    one single piece of “research” and that itself is based around one single study
    of a single organisation. It’s hardly a representative sample. The best
    research tends not to come from such a blatant piece of marketing.


    I’ve written a more
    in-depth analysis of this “study” in a blog post here: http://www.engagegroup.co.uk/B....


    I’d love to hear your thoughts.



    Dr Andy Brown

    CEO, Engage Group

  • Ben Simonton

    Great issue Roberta, and certainly one needing attention by higher management. If top executives would take the time to listen to the concerns of their people giving them more than enough opportunity to voice them AND respond to those to the satisfaction of employees or better, these problems would be exposed and fixed unless management does not satisfy employees.

    No one wants to do more work because someone else is allowed to slack off by some unsatisfactory manager. Shining a light on problems is the only way to make them go away.

    Of course, most executives use the command and control approach to managing people and will never listen to their people or satisfy them. This makes these executives the worst enemy of their company since CC stops them from knowledge of problems. Studies show that the top knows about 4% of all problems, that percentage increasing somewhat going down the chain but not getting to 100% until we get to the very bottom.

    Listening and responding is the way to raise performance by hundreds of percent, not just a few tens.

    Best regards, Ben
    Leadership is a science

  • Rlumholst

    I agree with all that is said but think you also have to take into account type A's and type B's, could be a reason why the "poor" performers are happy. They would be laid back and happy in most situations. Type A's are likely to be unhappy in most situations as they are constantly striving to achieve. Personality does play a huge part in business behaviours. 
    When companies are going through tough times your high performers have a tendency to bail out quickly, the low performers hang on like grim death. Clear them out sooner than later and perhaps the company would not be going through the tough times in the first place.
    There are systems in place to do this however more often than not managers do not use these systems and keep these people in place far too long which has a huge impact on morale and productivity.

  • C.S. Weaver

     The management must be cognizant of the low productivity of other workers and tap into it before making their hardest workers feel put-upon, then, to add insult to injury, overlooked. When a hard worker sees the 'happy clam'  getting pats on the back for taking on one project that they had to turn down, the bitter taste can linger a long time. 

  • Jkimberlin

    Please send this to our US President. He should be able to find Bushels of Government workers that are happy clams.

  • Dave

    I don't disagree with your analysis, but there are some workers out there that are very happy to have work they do, but work under managers who haven't a clue, and aren't interested in hearing anything about that.  What happens to these folks, who many times are high producers but feel getting noticed by a manager or managers who are clueless.

  • jackiero

    Absolutely agree about shelling the clams. One question though: How does this help the fish? History shows that patterns are hard to change, and most managers will still go to the same old OVERWORKED folks who are just dying for a break. The assumption is that the new fish will be ready and willing to work, but in my experience these managers just bring in new clams because they tend to be charming and personable and manipulative, thus repeating the cycle. Otherwise, great points!

  • notrealy

    Agreed Jackiero, and clams have a lot of time on their hands to be political.  Long story short, when a CEO consistently hears "the inside truth" from a trusted adviser, he should be alert for the stink of bad clams...

  • Robert Gately

    Hello Roberta, can we afford to keep around the hiring managers who hired the worst performers and the supervisors who keep them around?

    The report makes a persuasive argument against letting employees self identify as engaged.

    I also agree that employee happiness is not a good indicator of employee success.

  • Ray

    If we were to adequately assess many of our organizations today we would find that most of our problems exist at the management level. Limited management skills allow clams to stay around longer and continue to infest an organization. These clams are not only inefficient and lazy but they are also making decisions that will eventually hurt the organization.

  • Robert Gately

    Hello Ray, I agree that, "most of our problems exist at the management level" and maybe even more than most. I agree with your assessments but how and why do clams get hired.

  • Dave Gardner

    Roberta...I so agree. I have observed this in organizations for years. One company I worked for offered a 6-week sabbatical plus accrued vacation every fours years. It didn't keep the people we wanted; it encouraged those other employees to stay forever hiding below the treeline. This is a very real issue. I see this as a management issue to hold people accountable for performance and adding value, e.g., think about Yahoo's problem with telecommuters--a leadership problem.

  • Roberta

     I couldn't agree more Dave regarding Yahoo. The move of bringing the telecommuters back to the office will do little to save this company.


    Thank you for your comment. Simple and to the point!