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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Stealthily Motivate Your Lazy Co-workers to Pull Their Weight


I remember how excited I was for my first job. I was 16 and a sales associate at American Eagle Outfitters—I couldn’t wait to learn about denim colors and how to use the fancy-looking cash register.

Several weeks in, I found myself more and more frustrated with my team. I grew up being told that, “Even if you have nothing to do, there’s always something you can do.” So, I kept busy helping customers, folding shirts, organizing the back counter, and restocking dwindling piles of jeans. Apparently no one else got the memo, because while I bustled around fixing things here and there, my co-workers leaned against the counter and chatted, openly tried on the new clothes in stock, or went on long coffee breaks.

To put it lightly, it annoyed me. It’s never a good feeling when you’re putting in your all at a job and the people around you are barely showing up. While I spent (too much) time being angry with my colleagues, I’ve learned a lot since. Mainly, that it’s more productive to get your co-workers on the same page than to complain about them.

But, how do you do that when you’re not the boss? Try these tactics to motivate your co-workers to stay active and engaged.

1. Recognize What Motivates Them

In a great talk on motivation, author and New York Times bestseller Gretchen Rubin speaks about four types of people and how they respond to rules.

  • “The Upholder” is someone who follows both outer (imposed on you) and inner (personal goals) rules and is motivated by fulfillment. This person wakes up thinking, “What is on the schedule or to-do list today?”
  • “The Questioner” is someone who will follow the rules if they make sense, and are thus motivated by sound reasoning. This person wakes up thinking, “What needs to get done today?”
  • “The Rebel” is someone who resists all rules, and is instead motivated by present desires. This person wakes up thinking, “What do I want to do today?”
  • “The Obliger” is someone who follows external rules but struggles with his or her own internal rules, and therefore is motivated by external accountability. This person wakes up thinking, “What’s expected of me today?”

Even before you approach your co-worker, be aware of what kind of person he or she is. Is she inspired by “achieving” something, or more concerned about letting someone down? Does he question everything or hate to follow the rules? These qualities really do affect how you can begin to communicate.

So, if your co-worker tends to not respond to an authoritative approach (a “Rebel”), it might be smarter to present a challenge rather than a command: “Jill isn’t sure we can get the presentation done by this afternoon. What do you think?” Or, if she’s a “Questioner,” maybe she needs a reason for why she should contribute: “Hey, any chance you could write that recap email to the sales team? I’m worried it’s coming off too harsh and you’re better at expressing these things than I am.”

Really, it might be as simple as how you phrase a request that makes all the difference in whether or not a person actually listens.

2. Ask for Help—or Ask to Help

If you’re not the boss, then you probably don’t want to blatantly tell a colleague to get to work. It probably won’t be effective, and it probably won’t earn you too many friends in the office. So, instead, you should bring him in rather than call him out.

What does that mean? Just as I could’ve easily asked one of my co-workers to help me restock the shelves at AE, you can ask your colleagues to split a project with you, give you advice on a press release you’re writing, or organize some files alongside you.

On the other hand, when someone doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all, it’s often times productive to offer to help him. There’s always a chance the reason he’s slacking is really because he’s stuck on an idea, or maybe confused about an assignment, or overwhelmed to the point of giving up. Simply saying, “Hey, I noticed you’ve been staring at your computer all day—I’m free for a bit, anything I can help you out with?” could be all he needs to get back on track or to open up. Or, best-case scenario, he might just say back, “No, sorry, just got distracted. Thanks!” and refocus on his own.

3. Be Direct as to How This Affects You

But, when this becomes a common occurrence and starts to take away from your work, you have the right to politely bring it up to her that her lack of effort is affecting your own progress. (Note: Make sure you’re speaking on your own behalf, and not your manager’s or company’s.)

I’m a big fan of “I” statements, such as “I’m really swamped with this assignment Ted gave us this week, do you know when you’ll have time to start on it?” or “I’m worried we won’t get this proposal out in time if we both don’t work on it today.” This underutilized communication strategy always makes your comments feel less confrontational and more “I need you, how can we fix this together?”

Assuming your co-worker isn’t purposefuly being lazy as a way to make you look bad, this direct approach often does the trick. Even if he no longer cares about the work, odds are high he doesn’t want anyone (including you!) to be upset with him.

You’re not the work police, but you’re also not responsible for doing other people’s jobs for them. So, speak up when necessary. Just make sure you’re speaking up in a way that’ll get people to listen.