Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Lazy, Good-for-Nothing Employees

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Are you one of the lazy ones? That has been one of the charges leveled by some of those in congress at people who are unemployed. The idea apparently is that there are plenty of jobs out there, but “lazy” Americans are unwilling to take them. One member of congress wants all unemployed people who receive assistance to take mandatory drug tests, implying that at least a portion of those unemployed are in that state because of drug or alcohol addiction (likely so in any economic climate), and are unworthy of assistance (that is a different issue). Both of those charges carry with them a judgment that people, by-and-large, have gotten into the predicaments they are in due to character issues.

This is at the heart of locus of control research, which demonstrates with some variations, that people tend to credit their successes to internal strengths, (e.g. smarts, friendly, innovative, drive and hardworking) and their failures to outside influences (e.g. economy, unfair competition, changes in technology). Others who succeed are labeled as lucky, in other words, they happened to be in the right place at the right time and others who fail are labeled as having personality, character or ability issues. In other words there is a natural tendency among humans to see our personal success as being due to who we are, our failures as being due to circumstances, other’s successes being due to circumstances and their failures as being due to who they are.

You could surmise that this mental coping mechanism evolved as a survival technique, allowing, say hunters (or politicians, sales people etc.), to attribute their lack of hunting success to circumstance, and enabling them mentally get back out there the next day and the next and the next. Hunters who were unsuccessful however, could be seen by others as not very good hunters ability-wise, and may have been avoided, since I would want to hunt along-side someone who had a track record of success.

One recent research study explored the concept of “laziness” and came up with a somewhat remarkable finding. Participants in this experiment came to a research lab having not recently eaten. A subject upon entering the lab found on the table two bowls. One bowl contained freshly baked, very aromatic, chocolate chip cookies. The other bowl contained radishes. Each participant was told that the experiment was about taste and smell sensations. Half of those in the experiment were instructed to have a few chocolate chip cookies, the other half were allowed to nosh only on radishes.

The researchers then left each subject alone in the room for a period of time; the idea was to induce temptation on the part of the radish eaters to have a cookie. As it turns out, no one in the radish condition snuck a cookie so there was a certain level of will-power being demonstrated. And here is where it gets interesting. A second researcher now entered the room and asked the subject to participate in a supposedly unrelated study about solving puzzles. Each subject was given a complicated geometric shape to trace with the requirement that they not retrace any lines.

These puzzles were unsolvable and each participant in the experiment was measured on how much time they would spend on attempting to solve the frustratingly difficult, unsolvable puzzle. Those who got to eat chocolate chip cookies originally, using up lower levels of “will-power expenditure”, spent on average 19 minutes and made 34 attempts at solving the puzzle. Those who had to use will-power and only eat radishes in the original condition spent on average 8 minutes puzzle-solving, making 19 attempts. The conclusion that the researchers came to is that will-power is an exhaustible resource.

If we stretch this finding a bit to present day job searchers, we could perhaps conclude that if day-to-day circumstances create frustration, and require you to “use up” the amount of will-power you have available to you, that when faced with a difficult task, such as a job search, those who have already used up their will-power will give up on the task sooner, perhaps being labeled as lazy. This notion shifts at least part of the definition of lazy from an internal condition, a personality issue, to an externally influenced condition. People can tend to act “lazier” when certain trying external circumstances must be coped with. The research on learned helplessness would have a substantial impact here as well, I would imagine.

All of the research on employees at work points to a differing conclusion than the one suggested in which the unemployed are labeled as lazy however. You see the evidence suggests that the vast majority of people want to do a good job at work and in fact would much rather be overworked than underworked. For when I am overworked I feel valued, when underworked I feel dispensable and not of value.

Like most things we measure in life and at work, the desire to work falls along a normally distributed continuum. There is a small portion of those at work, who no matter how they are treated will continue to work hard. And there is a small portion of those at work who will do whatever they can to get out of working. And then there is the vast majority, 85 to 90 percent of us, who want to work hard, want to be engaged by the organization, but if we view ourselves as not being treated well, or our circumstances as frustrating (e.g. working for an ineffective organization, maybe one with no vision, or one that treats people as disposable) we will retreat from the organization, some faster than others.

So those organizations out there that have lower employee engagement scores, congratulations, you have overcome a natural tendency on the part of most people to want to be engaged, to want to participate in the organization in a meaningful fashion, and a desire to contribute to success.  And to those who accuse others as being lazy? First understand your own internal tendencies towards labeling and second understand how environmental conditions impact people’s ability to perform. Try to avoid another natural tendency on the part of humans – a rush to judgment.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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4 Responses

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  1. Intrigue twist…lots of “food” for thought. Great post.

    Karen B Paul

    October 20, 2010 at 10:46 am

  2. Good blog! I specialize in helping organizations make a stronger connection with those from different generations. Millennials, the twenty-somethings who are joining the workforce in large numbers are often judged as being entitled and “lazy” – as if it is all coming to them. They are stereotypified as the environmental conditions are not as conducive to how they learn, how they acclimate and how they are socialized so they are not tapping into their full potential. Millennials are not lazy at all, but without the tools they are accustomed to using, like social networking and a clear understanding of what’s expected (they are schooled to understand how to utilize the Rubric model and need to know how to get an “A”) the working environment is failing them, they are not failing us. Your two points are so key – understand your own internal tendencies toward labeling and understand how environmental conditions impact people’s ability to perform.

    Regards, Diane Spiegel, The End Result


    October 20, 2010 at 11:43 am

  3. […] The busiest day of the year was October 20th with 446 views. The most popular post that day was Lazy, Good-for-Nothing Employees. […]

  4. […] less concerned about customer treatment, etc. People of course want to do a good job at work, (see they understand what is defined as doing a good job in a company they join and they tend to […]

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