Who is the ideal employee? Someone who’s diligent, unquestioning, dedicated and hardworking, right? That’s what we in corporate behavioral research have always assumed. But what if another style of employee—one that’s a little more “lazy” in mindset—is equally valuable and essential to business survival today?
How could laziness be an advantage in business? First off, it’s not laziness in the way you typically think. Instead, let’s look at the disadvantages or traps that the most diligent employees might fall into.
Because diligent employees are so focused on steady, productive action, they often act first and think second. They do incredibly well when someone else has thought through the strategy of what they’re doing and prescribed a plan for action. But if the strategy still needs some thought or is incomplete, this type of employee usually won’t pause to think through things first and create their own.
This work style was incredibly important as the United States came out of the Industrial Revolution, when much of the work people did was repetitive, routine and needed to produce homogenous production-line results.
But today’s modern industry requires less of that and much more creative, innovative, problem-solving output, which requires something other than diligence. It requires a different skillset, an ability to look for efficiencies, shortcuts and—honestly—ways to do less work, all things a lazy mindset is predisposed to seek out.
What makes this kind of thinking even more important is the fact that it aligns with human nature. We all seek ease and simplicity in what we do. Take this example: Given the choice between the stairs and an escalator, human beings will overwhelmingly choose the less labor-intensive option (much to the disappointment of our personal trainers).
However, by designing work that sits with our natures rather than forcing us to adapt or force-fit ourselves to the work we do, we also increase the chances of increased engagement and success.
So believe us when we say it: We all need lazy employees. Here are the reasons why:
1. “Laziness” drives creativity.
A lazy mindset is always looking to simplify the process of doing things… anything. It doesn’t just get down to work—it questions first. And questioning sits at the root of creativity because it allows for open-ended options, rather than the closed loop of an instruction. If we want innovation and efficiency (and we do), we need to be open to “thinking lazy.”
2. Challenging the need for work helps us avoid contextual blindness.
One of the greatest issues we face in business is that of contextual blindness. We have so much knowledge about the way we think things should be done that we fail to see alternatives. This is where questions like “But why?” and “Do we have to?” actually benefit organizations.
Innovation often comes from sources outside an industry, because insiders lack an objective eye. The underground transport maps now used around the world weren’t the product of the great cartographers of the time but of an electrician—someone who was not bound by the limits of distance and scale the way a mapmaker would be, someone who could simplify a diagram and design so that it was easily and universally understood.
3. Hard work isn’t the same as smart or effective work.
Do you know this metaphor? A team efficiently cuts their way through a forest only to have the leader rise up above the canopy and say, “We’re in the wrong forest.” It’s a parable warning about the bias toward hard work over smart or successful work. Sometimes a lack of action, or delayed action and a little more thinking first, is precisely what we need to ensure that our team is working effectively, not just hard.
Obviously no one wants employees who coast along, just riding the coattails of their hardworking co-workers until the job’s done. But maybe employees who seek the path of least friction, who have a “lazy” way of thinking, of doing things, are an asset we should embrace.
Behavioral strategists Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan are the authors of the new book Selfish, Scared & Stupid. They specialize in unlocking human behavior to create organizational and cultural change and to build environments that lift performance and engagement.