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Your colleagues probably aren’t lazy

It’s a common excuse when dealing with frustrating coworkers, but it may actually be an issue of mismatched priorities. Here’s how to fix it.

Your colleagues probably aren’t lazy
[Photo: Aleksandar Cvetanovic/Unsplash]

I was having a conversation with someone working for a big company who was frustrated with how unwilling her colleagues were to embrace a change the organization wanted to make. She ended her diatribe by saying, “I think they’re all just lazy.”

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It’s a common sentiment in the office, but what exactly does it mean to say someone is lazy?

Generally, when we call someone lazy, we mean that they do not want to put effort into some activity that we want them to engage with. As it turns out, brains are quite picky about what we choose to think about and do. The reason for that is that even thinking about something requires a lot of energy. Your brain is about 3% of your body weight but uses 20%-25% of your daily energy supply. That energy is spent on the many chemical processes the brain uses to send electrical signals. In addition, learning new things requires making physiological changes to the brain’s structure, which also requires a lot of energy.

That is, energy is the currency in our body’s economic system.

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In our evolutionary history, we did not have grocery stores and restaurants all over that would make available a seemingly limitless amount of food, and so we evolved to conserve energy and to be careful about what we spend it on.

That suggests your colleagues aren’t lazy—they just have different priorities about how they spend their valuable energy.

Here are three things you can do to help shift the balance (in ascending order of effectiveness) when engaging with coworkers who have different priorities:

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Raise the costs of noncompliance

The go-to response for people (including parents) when dealing with a difference in priorities is to use some form of threat of punishment for not doing the desirable behavior. Threats are basically a way of changing priorities by increasing the cost of failing to do the right thing. When a threat is first made, it often works well. You can quickly get people to engage with their work by yelling or suggesting that a lack of effort could have implications for their jobs.

But threats don’t work well in the long term. For one thing, threats create fear and stress, which are unpleasant emotions. Most people would rather not have stressful jobs, and so there are high levels of turnover in offices that use threats as a primary means of motivation.

In addition, when people experience a threat, their motivation is to remove the threat—not to do the desirable behavior. So people will find the easiest way to make the threat go away. That can lead employees to cut corners or do things that create the appearance of compliance.

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Make the desirable behavior easier

If people are doing a cost-benefit analysis, then making desirable behaviors easier to perform certainly helps. For some kinds of behaviors, this is the best solution. For example, one of the graduates of the Human Dimensions of Organizations masters program at the University of Texas did a project in my class focusing on a problem she observed at her factory. Employees would leave the factory floor and step outside and throw the foam earplugs they were wearing on the floor rather than using the trash receptacle inside the factory by the door.

After observing the behavior of employees, she found that many kept their earplugs in until they stepped outside and the noise subsided. Simply by placing the trash receptacle outside rather than inside, she was able to cut down on litter substantially. That is, she made a desirable behavior easier to perform.

There are often tasks and behaviors at work that are important to the organization but are not likely to be that enjoyable or to help employees to fulfill their long-term goals. For these behaviors, making them as easy as possible to perform is a great way of increasing compliance.

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Make the desirable behavior more desirable

A third alternative is to engage with people to help align their goals with the desired behavior. People will work hard when effort will allow them to do something enjoyable or to reach a goal that is important to them personally. This is the best means for creating a long-term focus on the desired behavior at work.

Angela Duckworth, Katherine Milkman, and David Laibson distinguish between things people want to do (in the short run) versus what they think they should do (in the long run). The best way to get people to do the latter is to also make that thing what they want to do. Creating a workplace that is fun and in which there are some intrinsic rewards to do the work itself is most likely to engage people for the long term.

Of course, there are also differences between people in what kinds of work they like. Identifying people who enjoy the kind of work that your organization requires is also valuable. Just because someone is good at something doesn’t mean that they really enjoy it. It can sometimes be better to have employees who are truly engaged in the work rather than those who might be more skilled but less likely to be in it for the long term.

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