Understanding Workhorses and Slackers | Psychology Today

Delivering products, providing services, and reaching goals often requires the coordinated efforts of a group. Committees, task forces, project groups, boards, households, and work teams are examples of such groups. But sometimes what should be a group or team effort is not. Instead, one or two “workhorses” do much of the group’s work, compensating for the superficial participation (slacking or social loafing) or other group members.

The Problem

If you’re the workhorse, you may not mind at first. You gain self-esteem from demonstrating competence and getting things done. You feel generous and giving through your service to the group, and want to do your part. You may even happily take on more of the group’s work in exchange for control over when and how things get done and to ensure they’re done to your standards. But let’s face it — being the group’s workhorse is often unsustainable.

Workhorses may suffer from feelings of anger and resentment if their efforts go unacknowledged, unappreciated, and unreciprocated. They may feel it’s unfair that underperforming members reap equal credit. Unable to keep it up, they get burned out and struggle with the workload. If other members fail to step up (even when asked or it’s obvious that the workhorse is struggling), they feel hurt and taken advantage of. Beleaguered workhorses may abruptly quit; passively-aggressively scale back their contributions; complain and whine; tantrum and shame slackers; and appeal to leaders to make slackers do their share. Relationships and productivity suffer.

Four Reasons Why Some Members Slack While Others Work

Reason 1: Slackers (Social Loafers) Feel Dispensable. Some people slack because they feel their efforts do not matter and the job is going to get done with or without their efforts. Ironically, workhorses can enable this perception. By jumping in and doing so much of the group’s work (or redoing others’ work), other members feel unneeded and sometimes, unwanted. Likewise, some workhorses tend to dominate and take over. They do not make enough room for others to contribute. Loafers may even assume that the workhorse likes doing most of the work. They’re surprised when the workhorse suddenly whinnies about others’ lack of participation.

Reason 2: Attributional errors. Attributional errors are mistakes we make when explaining other people’s behavior. They include the fundamental attribution error where we blame others’ undesirable behaviors on negative personality traits, while overlooking situational influences. This happens when workhorses mistakenly think someone is a lazy slacker when the truth is that they’re unaware of all the person is in fact doing, or are unaware of legitimate personal / situational reasons for the person’s reduced contributions.

Reason 3: Goal and Commitment Differences. Workhorses and slackers may have different goals and priorities or differ in how much they value a group goal. Workhorses sometimes care more about the goal and doing it well. They prioritize it. But some members may be more committed to other goals, teams, or groups. Some may just want something to put on a resume or the like.

Reason 4: Individual Differences Like Personality. People are diverse and some have personal qualities that predispose them to do more of the group’s work, or less. For example, workhorses are more likely to be high on the personality factor known as conscientiousness. This trait is associated with being organized, dutiful, goal-oriented, and responsible. They may also be higher on the trait known as agreeableness. They’re more giving, care about getting along with others, and want other team members to think well of them. Conversely, people who do not care what other members think about them and aren’t service-oriented by nature (low in agreeableness), and / or are disorganized and less focused (low in conscientiousness), may contribute less. Agreeable, conscientious workhorses then compensate.

What’s a Workhorse to Do?

Here are six solutions. Think about the situation and the people involved to identify which ones might work for you.

Solution 1: Do something before you get angry and “snap.” If you’re starting to feel resentful or burned out, speak up. Choose your words carefully and make sure you take responsibility for any way in which you contributed to the problem. Present the situation as a mutual problem to be solved (“I was happy to… but now I can not because… What can we do to make sure the job still gets done? Who is willing to do what and when?”).

Solution 2: Make space for others to participate. Remember, workhorses are sometimes the fools that rush in and do not give other people a chance to step up, participate, or complete tasks. Make sure they know you need and value their contributions and discuss specific timelines. Hold back long enough to let others step up.

Solution 3: Adjust your expectations. Sometimes you need to lower your standards or adjust your ideal timeline. People may not do things to your standards or as quickly as you, but it may be good enough, and it means you will not feel overburdened or unhappy.

Solution 4: Find out if situational reasons are behind another’s loafing. You may be OK doing more work than others if you better understand other personal or work demands on their time. Gently investigate.

Solution 5: Quit. If it’s too much and there’s little chance things will change, you may want to leave the situation, if that’s an option.

Solution 6: Practice radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is the idea that sometimes it’s best to accept people and situations the way they are because they are what they are, and aren’t something you can change. You may not have the power or desire to leave, care less, do less, or get others to do more or live up to your standards. You may care about the goal or the quality of the job when others do not and will not. Due to your personality, you might be more willing than others to sacrifice for the group. When these things are true, you’re left with two choices: accept the situation and make the best of it, or stay mired in anger, resentment, and martyrdom.

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