In the startup world, it’s part of your job to combat laziness in all its different forms, whether that’s for your team or for yourself. If you’re a founder or a team lead, it’s a matter of motivating every employee to be the best version of themselves as possible. If you’re an employee, it’s a matter of overcoming those lazy streaks to boost your own productivity.
But this can be hard.
All of us get lazy at one point or another, but nobody aspires to be lazy at work — not even poor performers. Behaviors we label as “lazy” usually stem from a complex set of root causes, as opposed to some personality trait or lack thereof. When an employee is sitting paralyzed before an empty spreadsheet, for example, that’s usually a sign of procrastination or nerves — not innate laziness.
The first step for you in motivating yourself and your team, then, is identifying what these root causes of “laziness” are so you can watch out for them.
Cause 1: Anxiety about your work not being good enough
Employees who have a high attention to detail — who are perfectionists — are susceptible to this trap, where they become so nervous about delivering something of poor quality that they can’t work on it at all.
At our gaming studio, my co-founder, Alex, and I have hired a few people who fall into this camp. Most are incredibly talented and committed to their jobs, but they get inside their own heads, convincing themselves there’s a better way to present the information in question, or to articulate their messaging — whatever the case might be.
What these employees need help with is getting out of their heads.
Which is why Alex and I have gotten into the habit of making our employees take short vacations when they begin showing this kind of behavior. It’s a matter of forcing them to detach from the task that’s stressing them out so they can return to it with a clear — and productive — mind.
If at your company you don’t have the luxury of letting certain folks take long weekends at home when necessary, try instead having more regular check-ins with them so you can keep a pulse on their more anxious tendencies and reassure them when they flare.
Cause 2: Confusion about what the first steps of a task are
Most people need an external structure for breaking down tasks. When we launched our gaming studio, we started with a flat structure (as most startups often do). But we quickly recognized how this led to confusion, which itself negatively impacted productivity.
Having a group of four developers each breaking down their own tasks is not as effective as having a PM or a team lead helping them facilitate this process.
While this is not groundbreaking by any means, it’s important to realize that lack of structure, or bad task management, can cause people to freeze.
A formal org structure helps lend accountability to the development process and helps eliminate any laziness that may come from task confusion.
Cause 3: Feeling overwhelmed by the volume of tasks
This is a problem leaders themselves often have. I know I do, personally — mostly because I’m bad at multitasking.
The solution is being able to say “no” to tasks that are low priority when something of higher priority needs to get done — smart prioritization, in other words.
Of course, this can be tough, and employees who struggle with it often see their productivity dip. They end up getting paralyzed thinking about all they have to do, and they end up doing none of it.
The solution, as it happens, is best said in this advice from Reid Hoffman:
“ … there are always far more problems and issues clamoring for your attention than you have the resources to address. You might feel like a firefighter, except instead of trying to extinguish a blaze in one contained spot, you can see separate fires all around you — and you don’t have time to put out all of them. One of the ways entrepreneurs can stay alive is by deciding to let certain fires burn so they can focus on the fires that, if allowed to rage unchecked, really will destroy the company.”
Employees should be encouraged to embrace this mindset. Always be working, but work on whatever’s most important in the moment.
Cause 4: Fear of asking for help
We once had a group of junior developers who didn’t know how to use Git — which in turn impacted how much they got done — but they were too embarrassed to ask for help.
All team leads should make it explicitly clear to their employees that it’s fine asking for help.
But you should also set something of an internal standard in which if an employee is stuck on any kind of project for longer than X hours, the expectation is they ask for help.
What you can’t have are team members sitting at their desk not doing what they should be because they lack critical information.
Cause 5: Disagreement with decision making
Internal strife can, of course, also affect productivity.
I know this from experience, too. Before Alex and I made a more concerted effort to be transparent in our decision-making processes, we once made a decision about a feature redesign which our team didn’t agree with.
In retrospect, it was an easy choice we made — we were under pressure to finish that particular project before the end of the year, and we simply needed to get it done — but it rubbed our team the wrong way. It made them think we didn’t value their input. From there, the team’s anger evolved from disagreement with the decision to something more personal — and our collective effectiveness ground to a halt.
Leaders should never let arguments devolve in such an impactful way.
Instead, combat these challenges preemptively by building systems and processes which guarantee transparency and ensure everyone on your team remains on the same page in your shared effort to drive your company forward.
Cause 6: Employees’ psychological needs aren’t being met
This, ultimately, is the most common cause of laziness within teams. Because of that, I believe it’s critical that all founders and team leads educate themselves around what exactly employees’ psychological needs are. That starts with understanding Self-Determination Theory (SDT).
SDT says that humans have certain inherent positive features — or “growth tendencies” — yet at the same time have psychological needs which must be met in order for them to self-motivate. They are:
- Competence. The feeling like they have control over an outcome and the capacity to get better and better at a specific function.
- Relatedness. The feeling like they’re connected meaningfully with others
- Autonomy. The desire to direct their own lives.
If you’re struggling to combat laziness in your company, read up on SDT and ask yourself: are you ensuring your employees’ psychological needs are being met? Sometimes, after all, the reason for your team’s declining motivation might not be your people, but you.