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How to Get Lazy People to Work

by Kevin Eikenberry on November 29, 2010

In our Bud to Boss Workshops we get asked different versions of this question frequently. Sometimes it is asked in a more politically correct way. Sometimes it is asked as a curiosity. Most times, however, it is asked bluntly, directly and with frustration:

“How can I get lazy people to work?”

As a coach and consultant, I’ve also been asked, so I know it isn’t an isolated or fleeting question.

Will all due respect to those who have asked me and to those of you reading and nodding your head in agreement, you are asking the wrong question.

What is wrong with the question you ask? At least three things:

  • You can’t “get” or “make” people do anything (at least not for very long or without unintended consequences).
  • “Lazy” is a relative term – one person’s lazy might be another person’s normal (or even motivated).
  • “Lazy” also is a word full of judgment and baggage. Including it in your question reduces the likelihood that you will have success anyway.

So let’s see if we can explore what you can do, and in the process see if we can help answer this all-too-prevalent question. OK?

The Real Question

I’m pretty confident the real question, regardless of how I’m asked, is:

“How can I get people to do more, or do what I think is important?”

Or, stated in a more accurate way, based on what is actually within your control and influence:

“How can I influence others to do more or to do the things that are most important to me (or the team or the organization)?”

Hopefully this accurately re-describes what you or anyone really means when asking the question.

Consider the Other Person

This question is about two things – someone else’s behavior and your perspective on it. Let’s start with the other person – I’ll get to you in a minute.

Over time, people tend to do what is in alignment with their goals and their view of the world. In other words, people do (or don’t do) what makes sense to them. If you want to understand better why other people are doing something, you must first understand their perspective.

This isn’t a novel concept, and while you probably aren’t (and this article won’t make you) a psychologist, most people forget this basic premise.

If you would like someone to exhibit different behaviors and make different choices (i.e. work harder, you lazy bum!), consider why they are doing what they are doing. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What is important to them?
  • What do they see that I don’t?
  • What does success look like to them?

Consider Your Perspective

Your perspective is likely different than that of those you are leading, or you might not be asking this question or reading this article. You see the world differently; you understand the purpose and needs of their work differently. Your perspective makes complete sense to you – as much as theirs doesn’t!

However, your values and ethics also impact your perspective. What you define as lazy, how you define a work ethic, what you believe is the right work/life balance for you – all of these and more play into your perspective – and judgment – about whether someone is “lazy” or not.

Not having ‘your’ work ethic doesn’t in and of itself make the other person ‘lazy.’

Influence Strategies

Consider this a starter set of influence strategies for the situation we’re discussing.  While these alone may not “solve the problem,” they likely will make a big difference, and help you determine what the next steps might be.

Let go of your preconceived notions and labels.

Understanding your values and beliefs about work is a good starting point. Recognize that however firmly you believe in these values they are not absolute truths. Recognize too that everyone is willing to work hard for things that truly matter to them. Lose the judgment and focus on influencing based on the other person’s perspective.

Talk to the other person – and understand his/her perspective.

This step is more about asking non-judgmental questions. Questions like the ones asked above are a good starting point. Ask for understanding, not proof or as the starting point of a debate or argument. Remember you can’t change the behavior; only help the person make a new choice. Ask the questions to help both of you understand his/her motivations.

Connect to their why.

When people have a big enough why – they make choices to accomplish just about anything. In order to influence others, you must understand and tap into their deepest motivations. When you can help them connect their work to their why, everyone wins!

Set clearer expectations.

Often the gap in behavior, and therefore your frustration and judgment, stems from a difference in expectations. Most people feel like they are doing a good job and accomplishing what is expected of them. Sometimes that is a deluded or distorted view. More often, in my experience, there is a gap between what you expect and what others think is expected of them.

Focus on results not activity.

Often I have found (and I work on it myself) that we look at how many hours people work or how diligent they appear to be as a sign of their “laziness factor.” I mean, if people are busy that’s good, right? Likely, the better measure is results, not time spent. Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t use that measure for others is that we don’t want to hold ourselves to it.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Alan Tutt November 29, 2010 at 10:38 am

Hi Kevin,

Great article. I completely agree that getting other to do more is a matter of inspiration and not coercion. One of the best ways I’ve found to inspire folks to do more is to ‘arrange’ a series of exposures to great examples of successful people and the amount of work they do for their success.

When people understand that doing more of the right things works for so many others, they start to understand that to get more of what they want, they have to do more of the right things.

Sometimes, this can be as simple as referring to how other successful folks have handled a particular task, and in the process, casually mentioning the amount of work they did in the process.

Sometimes, it’s posting an biographical article on someone likely to be admired by the person you want to motivate. Of course, this can also take the form of ‘gifting’ a book or biographical video to the other person.

There are many ways to inspire others that have nothing to do with coercion.

Reply

Kevin Eikenberry November 29, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Alan – thanks for your comments – I believe that is an excellent strategy. I have used versions of it.

K :)

Reply

Leigh Harwood July 27, 2011 at 9:44 am

As I see it, we all have a duty and responsibility to pull our own weight in life. If people do not pull their own weight, then inevitably someone else ends up having to compensate for it. Granted, there are exceptions to this rule e.g. disabled people, etc., but I would most certainly argue that people who are partly or fully capable of working should be doing precisely that.

It’s purely a question of – good work ethic vs poor work ethic!

Reply

Ross November 14, 2011 at 11:33 pm

So what is the answer? What if I talk to the other person and can only come to the conclusion is they are procrastinating because they dont like the job? If someone is not willing to do their job you have to “see it their way”? What if their view is they should come in at 10am and leave at 3pm and only produce 1/3rd as much as everyone else? Other employees notice, it ruins morale and the behavior is infectious. If you define a performance standard for the job and the person doesnt meet it but everyone else does, they need to be told they need to improve, be given a chance to improve, or be let go. It doesnt matter whether they think they are doing a good job or not what matters is if they achieve the results defined in their job.

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Leigh Harwood January 24, 2014 at 1:49 pm

The employee does not make the rules – they follow them.

If the employer wants a 10am-3pm finish – then that is the rule that ALL must follow without exception. If exceptions are made by the employer to a certain employee (and no one else) – then hypocrisy emerges as a result of that double standard.

Consistency is always the ‘tell-tale-mark’ of a good employer. It reflects fairness and honesty towards all employees without deviation.

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Frank January 27, 2014 at 2:20 am

I agree with Leigh. I am in upper management for a large retail chain and I have seen “unmotivated” people of many different varieties. Color me a cynic, but I consider retail businesses to be a microcosm of American society: 30% of employees working their butts off to cover for the 70% that don’t. I have seen first-hand how different rules (exceptions) for different employees can destroy efficiency and morale in a workplace. I have no problem with an employee who asks “why” (I have always been that type of employee) when given a task and I am proficient as a manager at giving positive feedback to this question other than, “Because I said so!” or “Because you will lose your job if you don’t!”. Managers that are intimidated by “Why?” or that take the question as a personal challenge are insecure in their own abilities as a leader. I think a balance of leading by example, giving positive feedback, rewarding productive employees, freedom to take ownership and less coercion are effective ways of managing employees who show signs of initiative. But, when an employee shows no initiative or even unwillingness to follow the simplest of instructions, accountability is the only tactic that remains. Fairness and even-handedness are effective ways to build teamwork, but they are also the most effective ways to eliminate weak links on a team. Teamwork is the key to achieving a collective goal, and catering to each individual within a team and their specific needs or wants most often proves to be inefficient in my experiences. Being a drill sergeant squashes creativity in my opinion, but coddling and hand-holding promotes complacency and inactivity all the same. So, I try to find a balance of the two. I will bend over backwards to help my employees and I will exhaust all avenues of motivation, but ultimately it is the employee’s responsibility to retain their position with the company.

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