7 questions managers should ask before assuming someone is ‘lazy’

I wince when I hear managers describe an employee as “lazy.” They say it when discussing staffers who do the bare minimum (or less), require far more hand-holding than others, and rarely come up with new ideas.

That’s underperformance, to be sure, and managers need to address it. But declaring people “lazy” brands them with an innate character flaw rather than bad habits that can be turned around. Before I agree that someone has the selfish soul of a slacker, I need to know more.

I want to know what it is they do, or choose not to do. What do they do well? What are their best skills? I want to learn what’s expected of them — and of everyone else on the team — and how it’s been communicated. I ask about what’s been going on in the workplace recently — what changes and challenges.

Most of all, I want to know more about how they’ve been managed. This isn’t about blame or shame. It’s about checking for underlying reasons in the everyday dynamics of organizations and supervisor/employee relationships, where misunderstandings and miscommunication can interfere with success.

Let me offer some questions that can help managers diagnose why a staffer may be hanging back. Fair warning: they require a look in the mirror, a potential change in your approach, and probably some tough conversations.

Here goes:

1. As a manager, are you a fixer instead of a coach?

If you routinely re-do peoples’ work to meet your standards, they may come to think this is the norm: they do the first pass, you polish things up. Without knowing it, you are training people to be dependent on you. They see themselves as part of an assembly line, not responsible for the finished product. Meanwhile, you, the unhappy (and overworked) boss believe they choose mediocrity because it’s easier. You have to break this pattern by coaching people rather than fixing products.

2. Do you exercise tight control over decision-making?

When people aren’t sure how much freedom they have to make their own decisions, they default to your judgment. Employees are reluctant to take initiative if they feel routinely overruled or criticized, especially in front of others. They shrink from being entrepreneurial or enterprising. To stay safe, (or maybe to punish the boss) they simply wait to be told what to do. Supervisors who micromanage often get compliance from employees, but less creativity and collaboration.

3. Have you talked about priorities lately? 

It’s hard to find an organization where people haven’t had additional duties added to their plates. They need to do more than ever before just to be considered productive. Without a clear sense of your priorities, people may do too much of what doesn’t matter or too little of what does. They may become overwhelmed and shut down. As my Poynter colleague Butch Ward teaches, they need a manager who helps them plan, prioritize and juggle, so you are working from the same play book.

4. Are new responsibilities or technologies making people feel dumb?

Here’s where I share my favorite thought from MIT’s Edgar Schein: Learning something new makes us temporarily incompetent. When people, especially those who once were high performers, are given challenging new tasks they didn’t ask for, some simply drag their feet. Without guidance to reduce their anxiety about ineptitude, they may simply duck and dodge their new responsibilities and cling to things they do well. This is particularly the case for veteran employees whose hard-earned reputations are jeopardized by updated assignments outside their comfort zone. Managers can help them overcome that sometimes paralyzing anxiety with customized training, candid conversations about fear, and earnest encouragement.

5. Is “change fatigue” making people feel numb?

When I wrote my book “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I knew it had to contain a chapter on leading change, because change is now a constant in organizations. Managers must understand the emotions people go through in the midst of change, including the primal reactions to major stress and perceived threats: fight, freeze or flee. They need to know how to read people and respond appropriately; listening, empathy, inspiration, and yes, some blunt conversations about new realities, responsibilities and the consequences of failing to adapt.

6. As a manager, do you use yourself as the benchmark by which you measure the commitment and productivity of others?

This one can be tricky. It’s easy to use ourselves as the definition of hard work.  Managers often start early, stay late, make themselves available at all hours for consultation and solutions. They conform their schedules to fit their own bosses’ needs (and whims) along with the organization’s strategic goals. They can become so accustomed to being on-call and always-on, that they judge others accordingly. I worked for a boss who would drag himself to work with a miserable cold or the flu (probably infecting the rest of us), and then complain when staffers called in sick. It’s important to remember that you chose to be a manager, with the attendant privileges, joys and perks (such as they are these days!) Your employees should be judged by what’s expected of their peers, not their bosses.

One final question:

7. Are you avoiding this employee?

I often ask managers of “lazy” employees how often they talk with that staffer about performance — or anything!  When we’re frustrated with people, we sometimes take the path of least resistance and simply steer clear of them. It’s hard emotional labor to dig into the issues behind a person’s lack of enthusiasm or enterprise. Sometimes we struggle for the right words to describe the gaps in their performance, or hate conflict, or believe we’ll just make things worse. That leaves us simmering in the status quo, doesn’t it?

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Think about it: I ran the risk of making you uncomfortable by asking these tough questions. You might be frustrated with me for suggesting that you use the term “lazy” too casually.  But it was a risk worth taking if it helps you succeed.

That’s why I urge you to take a risk. Look at your performance first, then have some candid conversations with staff. Together, you might be able to remove “lazy” from everyone’s vocabulary — and performance.

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Here’s the companion podcast for today’s column — along with a reminder that we focus on performance management in the upcoming Poynter Leadership Academy, October 20-15, 2013. Learn more and apply here by September 22.

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