October 1

Employee anxiety disguised as laziness—and how to fix it By Richard Tyson

Competency, Engagement, Human Resource Management


John and Mary were frustrated with Bobby, their 12-year-old son. Throughout his elementary school years, he had shown great promise. He was an A student, was athletic, and was well-liked. However, since the start of seventh grade, he seemed unable to focus on anything.

One evening, after having discovered that his room was “an absolute disaster,” John laid down the law. “Bobby,” he said, “you are not allowed out of this bedroom until you have picked up everything!” He slammed the door, leaving Bobby to his task.

Two hours later, John and Mary entered Bobby’s room. They found their son sitting on his unmade bed, with his head in his hands. It was clear that he had done nothing since the time his dad had left him alone.

Shocked and angry, John shouted, “What is your problem? You have not done one thing I have asked!” Fortunately, Mary was more circumspect. Sitting down next to her son, she asked, “Bobby, what’s wrong?”

Her son looked up at her, tears in his eyes, and responded, “Mom, I want to do what you want, but I just don’t know where to start.”

It wasn’t long after this that Bobby’s doctor diagnosed him with attention deficit disorder (ADD). His struggles with school—and even in apparently simple tasks like cleaning his room—were a function of having too many choices. When faced with even choosing between as few as two things, he would freeze, overwhelmed by anxiety.

As a business coach, I have observed that Bobby’s challenge is one faced by many employees who have been mislabeled as lazy or unmotivated. It may not be attention deficit disorder that afflicts them (although approximately 4.4 percent, or 10.5 million, adults are estimated to have ADD). But often when we really understand the problem, we realize they are pleading like Bobby, “I want to do what you want, but I just don’t know where to start.”

This is one of the root causes of the major issue facing corporate America today: lack of employee engagement. While it is useful to understand that ADD may contribute to this problem, it is important that leaders recognize their responsibility for facilitating the competency and engagement of their people. They must be sure that each employee understands clearly why their job is essential, what it entails, and where to start.

  1. WHY their job is essential—

It’s critical to set forth the cause of action before giving the course of action. Win their hearts before winning their minds.

  1. WHAT it entails—

Assure that job competencies are defined, i.e., desired outcomes and the essential actions required to achieve those outcomes.

Too often, we train by osmosis; that is, we bring someone into a new job and expect them to get up to speed just by hanging around. As leaders, we need to be clear on what it takes to be successful in the key positions within our organizations. And we need to be sure that employees in those positions understand what each job entails.

A caution here: at the conclusion of most competency training, a question is asked of the trainee: “Do you get it?” or “Do you understand?”

Almost always the answer is “yes.” And almost always, that is inaccurate. You see, most of us don’t want to admit that we don’t really get it. We don’t want to appear inept at learning. So we make the greater error by failing to acknowledge that there are things we don’t understand.

As leaders, we need to recognize this tendency and make sure that we test for competency or, at a minimum, expect the trainee to explain in their own words what they have learned.

  1. WHERE to start—

Coming full-circle to Bobby, he may have understood why he needed to clean his room, and even what needed to be done. His hang-up was where to begin.

Leaders must make sure that their people know where to start. Often, employees understand the basic elements of their jobs, but then are loaded up with additional assignments that create confusion about where to put their attention. Instead of being energized, they freeze.

Our job is to recognize this for what it is—and what it isn’t. It isn’t laziness or incompetence. It is overload, and we must be prepared to help them know where to start.

Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner

and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.

About the author 

Rich Tyson

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