What if your co-workers AREN’T lazy and work is just designed all wrong?

People love to get on the cross and bitch about their lazy co-workers, implying in the process how relevant and important they are. None of this should be a surprise. The quest for relevance at work is extremely important, because work is deeply tied to self-worth for many people. (By the way, that’s an incredibly dangerous thing to link your self-worth to, because work ain’t designed to love you back.)

Plus, being busy makes us feel high, and that’s fun. So let’s all hop on the cross, talk about how much we do, and blast a few lazy co-workers along the way.

But let’s try a different idea now. What if these cubicle jockeys are not lazy pieces of trash but rather, the work is designed all wrong?


I’m going to start with an article from Harvard Business Review about managerial storytelling. This article is interesting, but largely bullshit. If you choose to read it, there’s a story about Shake Shack, ketchup, and a two-year-old. It’s kind of odd. I won’t spoil it.

The author chooses to link a research paper called “The neural network of the basal ganglia as revealed by the study of synaptic connections of identified neurones.” Nice! Egghead academics and their paper titles!

That paper basically says this, in essence: “As tasks become more routine, we dedicate much less cognitive time to them.”


So how do we design work?

Typically we hire someone (horribly) into a specific job role (often unclear) housed in a specific silo (Why God Why) and then they do the same essential tasks for a couple of years. There might be some “stretch assignments” and “urgent projects” here and there, but in general your base functions will remain similar for a couple of years. I think they call this “learning a job” but to many managers, it’s simply “having bodies.”

But as you do a set of tasks more and more, you dedicate less cognitive time to them. They become rote. This is logical, because our brains don’t have the energy to keep reinventing how we think about something we do every day. But it’s horrible in terms of how we function work.

Dropped assignments? Of course, because people aren’t thinking. They’re just doing. (And sadly, this is what most bosses would admit they want in a closed door session.)

Lazy? Not so much. Just dedicating less time to this stuff because my brain has adapted.

The other side of the anthropological coin

The reason you hate your boss is also tied to brain science, FYI.

But we can’t design roles that change all the time, can we?

No, you’re right. We can’t. Silos comfort people — they know who owns their work and advancement. And sometimes, specific work needs to get done. Oftentimes it’s rote. Automation and technology will help with this, but also eliminate jobs in the process. Win/loss.

Here’s what we could do, though:

  • Notice people who can take on more
  • Give them opportunities to do so
  • Shift responsibilities a slight bit for everyone every two months
  • If you buy tech to automate certain tasks/roles out, find a value-add for those human beings
  • For example, maybe they worked in marketing but were really interested in people issues
  • Could they potentially design a program that allows for more career training or knowledge sharing?

See, the crux of fixing this brain science/rote task issue is that you need to notice people and be comfortable removing them from the specific box you know them in. That’s incredibly hard. Moreso at work, where people are heads down focused on their own stuff all the time.

I worked in marketing roles for years. If you’ve ever read this blog once, you know I have a bunch of ideas about the people space. You think anyone ever gave me a chance there? Maybe 1-2 times max. It’s because you get slotted as “This Thing” and if you want to become “That Thing,” it’s a process.

But within that process, the idea of true cognitive learning at work is often DOA.

Combine this with poor management and you start to understand some of the global numbers around people caring about their jobs.

What else you got on this topic?

Ted Bauer

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