Lazy, good-for-nothing employees. (Or maybe it's something else.)

Are people, or more specifically, employees lazy? That's a question that gets lobbed about from time to time, whether by the current president, in the halls of Congress, or among management teams, including some CEOs. Some people in power may scoff at the idea that people can't find financially sufficient work, accusing the unemployed (or underemployed) of simply being too lazy to take the jobs that are out there. These charges carry with them a judgment that people are in dire economic situations mostly due to character issues, rather than external circumstances.

This is at the heart of locus of control research, which demonstrates that with some variations, people tend to credit their own successes to internal abilities or strengths, (e.g., being smart, friendly, innovative, driven or hardworking) and their personal failures to outside influences (e.g. the economy, unfair competition, or changes in technology). On the other hand, people tend to views the success of others as due to luck; they happened to be in the right place at the right time or some kind of stellar alignment took place. Those who fail are often labeled as having personality, character, or ability issues. To put it bluntly: there is a natural tendency among humans to see our personal success as due to who we are, our failures as a result of circumstances, yet other people's successes 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 among early humans. Hunters (or politicians, or sales people) could attribute their lack of hunting success to circumstance, enabling them to mentally get back out there day after day, to persevere. Hunters who were unsuccessful however, would be seen by others as too risky to team up with and to be avoided, since most people would want to hunt alongside someone with a track record of success.

One research study explored the concept of "laziness" and came up with a somewhat remarkable finding. Participants were instructed not to eat before the experiment. They arrived at a research lab where they were asked to sit at a table that contained 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, while 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 entice 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 willpower 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, say the inability to find a job, create frustration, and require you to "use up" the amount of will-power you have available to you, those who have already used up their will-power will give up on the task of job hunting much 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 they are faced with certain trying external circumstances must be coped with.

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. Wanting to feel valued is a fundamental human characteristic.

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 will continue to work hard no matter how they are treated. 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, 90 to 95 percent of us, who want to work hard and 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 and the level of effort given at work will decline. Some people leave faster than others.

So those at organizations with lower employee engagement scores can take heart. It may take some serious organizational effort, but you can drive improvements that will eventually tap into your employees' natural tendencies to want to be engaged, to participate in the organization in a meaningful fashion, and to contribute to its 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.

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