How psychology can help you handle your slacking coworkers

Do you often find yourself overloaded with work that was assigned to someone else? Do you feel like your team is holding you back? You may be working with slackers – and not know how to handle it.

In the office, slacking took many forms, like surfing on your phone during business hours or bringing a book to read under your desk. But now that everyone is working from home, slacking is everywhere. From a lack of childcare to working in pajamas, it’s much easier to slack at home than it is at the office, where a boss’ oversight and coworkers’ scrutiny is limited.

There might be some bright sides to slackers in the office, such as opportunities for management to engage in task-shifting and downsizing, saving money and promoting those who deserve it. Unfortunately, this can leave stressed out hard-workers with much more to do in the meantime, with very little appreciation or acknowledgment.

“As long as I’m getting the work done, what does it matter when I do it?” they say. Well, you want to say, you’re not getting the work done. So it does matter – that’s why it’s important to know what kind of slackers you’re dealing with at the office, and how to use psychology to handle them.

What are the types of slackers?

Slacking coworkers come in many shapes and sizes, but these three categories can help identify not only who you’re working with, but also how to handle them.

1. Excuse-making slackers

These slackers might be the most irritating kind – those who continually make excuses as to why they can’t complete their work on time. After a while, family issues, health issues, financial issues, or daily annoyances become insurmountable for this person, and it seems like the sky is falling every day for a different reason.

Unfortunately, this person can easily derail not only conversations about the project but sometimes, entire meetings. You know when a project goes to this person, they’re more likely to talk your ear off about their latest gripe than about the task at hand, and it will either be done late, not well, or fall to another team member entirely.

2. Flat-out procrastinators

Procrastinators are some of the most confusing slackers, as their lack of communication often leaves one in the dark until it’s too late, and deadlines have already passed. These are the people who thought cramming for a test was just as good at studying, but once they got in front of the textbook at midnight, they spent the entire time distracting themselves without thinking about why.

While these slackers can be frustrating, they can also be the most sympathetic of the three categories. Oftentimes, people have deeper-seated psychological reasons for procrastinating, like a fear of failure, a sense of overwhelm, or generalized anxiety. Many times, these are the only type of slackers that will admit to slacking and want to do something to change it.

3. Overthinkers

Sometimes, being a bad worker isn’t a malicious pursuit, and instead is a result of someone who knows too much, and does too little. Maybe your Sigma-trained project manager thinks of too many sub-deliverables, or your legal advisor thinks of too many potential lawsuits, and your projects stall as a result. Whoever this overthinker is, they often fall prey to contemplating their navels instead of producing results.

With these people, slacking is often excused by their need for so-called perfectionism or meticulousness. But this is just a pretext for the deeper psychological issues at play. Overthinkers often have an obsessive need to analyze all the options; perhaps as a way to overcompensate for not feeling knowledgeable or efficient enough.

How psychology can help?

No matter what kind of slacker you’re working with, they can each present different hindrances to productivity. In order to help yourself lighten the workload and help this slacker grow out of their destructive habit, you can use psychological techniques.

Positive Reinforcement

The pioneering psychologist B.F. Skinner analyzed various methods of reinforcement, and how humans (oftentimes children) best perform based on the reinforcement they get. One of those types of reinforcement is called positive reinforcement, which involves the “introduction of a desirable or pleasant stimulus after a behavior. The desirable stimulus reinforces the behavior, making it more likely that the behavior will reoccur.”

For excuse-making slackers, this type of reinforcement may be the best option. If there are no incentives for them to do better, why would they try to break their patterns?

There are a number of Skinnerian positive reinforcement schedules, but for the slacker, there are two options. One can either provide reinforcement on a fixed ratio, meaning that a specific amount of occurrences, the slacker is positively reinforced or praised. This could even come in the form of office competition; make five sales, or come in before the deadline on five projects, they earn a reward, like a gift card or a day off.

They could also be praised on a variable interval schedule, meaning that after a fixed amount of time, their behavior is reinforced. This can be compared to an end-of-year bonus or a promotion based upon good performance.

Countering defensiveness

Often, people reject or deny their participation in a scenario using defense mechanisms, a psychoanalytic term for thoughts and feelings that shield someone from experiencing anxiety. These can come in healthy forms, such as humor or sublimation, or unhealthy forms, such as displacing their feelings or projecting them onto someone else.

To keep from triggering these defense mechanisms, one strategy is to attempt to take anything that could be confused for a personal attack out of the equation. “Tough on the issue, soft on the person” is an often-used conflict mediation technique with a firm basis in psychology and will work effectively when trying to avoid engaging someone’s defenses.

To best communicate with the procrastinator, one can attempt this technique. In a definitive study from 1995 on procrastination and academic success, “dispositional factors associated with fear of failures, such as depression, anxiety, and low self‐esteem, were all related to higher levels of procrastination”. There’s a high likelihood that the procrastinator is already tough enough on themselves, and to effectively communicate with them, you must stress that it’s you and them against the problem, not you versus them.

Processing cognitive distortions

Another famous psychologist, Albert Ellis, labeled a way of thinking referred to as “cognitive distortions”; these are another term for illogical thoughts and feelings that result in altered behavior. There are different kinds of cognitive distortions, like “all-or-nothing thinking”, “disqualifying positives”, “catastrophizing” or “jumping to conclusions”.

When attempting to combat overthinkers, remember that much like the procrastinator, their anxieties and worries may be leading them to irrational thoughts rather than considering all the options. To help these people, one can first identify the irrational belief, confront it with empathy and logic, and finally, help to work towards a solution.

For example, if a coworker is going on and on about how one small mistake on their end of a project could derail the entire venture, you can follow the above steps. First, identify the distortion: “This seems like catastrophizing.”

Then, confront it: “I understand your concerns about things going wrong. It sounds like you’re feeling a lot of stress. Could you direct me to some data about the likelihood of this possibility?”

Lastly, pose a solution: “If the data indicates that this small mistake would derail the project, let me help you try and find a way to ensure it doesn’t happen. If the data doesn’t indicate that this mistake would be a larger issue, this might be a manifestation of anxiety; I’d be happy to process why you’re feeling that way together.”