September 13, 2012

‘Lazy’ and ‘Sleepy’: a Behavioral Management Analysis

You are sure that the only reason your spouse, teenage son or co-worker isn’t cooperating is that (s)he is just too “lazy” to do what has just been requested. But even if you are right about the immediate behavioral state, you may be very wrong about the personal trait. Accordingly, your behavioral management approach to the “laziness” problem will likewise be wrong.

Getting that wrong, and concluding you are dealing with a lazy person (rather than rare or even one-off lazy behavior), can have all sorts or adverse consequences for “the accused”, for your behavioral management efforts and for the relationships or organizations in which (s)he is embedded.

“Lazy” vs. “Sleepy”: a Tale of Two Dwarfs

Misinterpreting lazy behavior as a trait rather than as a state can easily happen, because there is a very strong tendency to ignore the difference between being lazy in one context and being lazy in general.

In part, this blurring is due to the connotations of the word “lazy” itself: Unlike “sleepy”, “lazy” tends to sound like a “character trait”, i.e., a general psychological characteristic or inclination, rather than a “state”, i.e., temporary or situation-specific behavior.

If I tell you so-and-so is sleepy, you are absolutely unlikely to take that to mean I’m talking about someone like Snow White’s dwarf, “Sleepy”, who always struggles to stay awake.

No, instead, you will take it to mean something much more limited—a fleeting state: sleepy in the present or in a very specific, isolated situation, e.g., because of jet lag or after midnight.

(Note: The seemingly arbitrary names of the other dwarfs—“Grumpy”, “Doc”, “Happy”, Bashful”, “Sneezy”, and “Dopey”—all designate permanent traits, not temporary states (“Doc” implying a permanent skill set).)

Now imagine there is another Snow White dwarf, “Lazy”. If I tell you Lazy is lazy, you will again immediately assume that I’m talking about a cartoon character who is indeed broadly, always and incorrigibly lazy, rather than occasionally at most.

Likewise, in the real world, in characterizing real people, we assume that, unlike “sleepy”, “lazy” designates a permanent, persistently displayed trait, rather than a momentary or rare state.

That’s why we never say “I’m lazy today”. We might say, “I’m having a lazy day” or “I’m feeling a bit lazy”—but not “I’m lazy today”, whereas, “I’m sleepy today” is a perfectly normal thing to say.

The reason is that being lazy, unlike being sleepy, has been conceptualized along lines similar to being found guilty of a crime: Once found guilty, always guilty.

What makes this difference important is that effective behavioral management of someone’s traits is usually very different from what is required to manage their states.

For example, someone who is always or chronically sleepy, i.e., because of a trait, probably should be advised to confer with a nutritionist, physician or work-life balance coach, whereas an employee who is sleepy only occasionally because of a state, for example, because of a neighbor’s barking dog, merely requires sympathy and a good night’s sleep.

On the other hand, it is challenging to try to similarly distinguish trait from state and choose the best management response when told an employee is “lazy”, given that “lazy only today” (unlike the case with “sleepy”) is not what immediately or naturally comes to mind.

Comparing “Lazy” and “Guilty”

Other similarities between being judged lazy and being convicted of a crime are noteworthy. Once an employee, a spouse or a kid is labeled “lazy”, “predicting” laziness can also be very easy, just as easy and maybe even easier than predicting that a convict will eventually re-offend, while, of course, forever remaining “guilty as charged” on the rap sheet.

Somehow, “once lazy, always lazy” sounds right—as or more right than “once a (convicted) criminal, always a (convicted) criminal” does.

Perhaps that is because recidivism is expected from the lazy more than from convicts, since, by definition, convicts are always punished—and, having learned their lesson, are likely to have mended their ways, whereas often those judged lazy are not. Hence, the “always lazy” tag.

Another similarity between being judged lazy and found guilty is that one offense or commission of one kind of offense is enough to make the charge stick.

For example, Dad works hard all day, mows the lawn every weekend, works out in the rec room evenings, but just won’t help with the dishes. Mom’s proffered reason: “Your dad is too lazy to help out.”

Even though the so-called “laziness” is very specific to one kind of situation or behavior, the term “lazy” strongly suggests that the reluctance to make the effort is symptomatic of a pervasive and stubborn resistance to effort, i.e., evidence of the far more general trait of laziness.

Likewise for an employee who happens to resist one specific kind of task, e.g., submitting monthly detailed reports because (s)he is “too lazy” to do so. Resistance to one specific task is being misperceived as something more general and incorrigible.

The Dangers and Benefits of Labeling

Misinterpreting resistance to one specific kind of task or to performing that task on one occasion as character-rooted laziness can result in problems at home or at work: For example, such misinterpretation can replace efforts to find specific reasons and solutions for specific resistance to doing the requested task.

It can also falsely create broad negative expectations regarding an employee or family member and indeed serve as a self-fulfilling diagnosis of the “problem”, as the “accused” begins to first resent and then rationalize and submissively or defiantly accept the label.

The reason for this latter risk was well explained by the renowned Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who said that if you want anyone to do or become what you want, don’t plead with, cajole or bribe them to do it—just tell them (s)he is already the kind of person who would do that.

If a general wants to motivate his soldiers to be brave, exhorting, bribing or threatening them is likely to be less effective than merely telling them that they are brave. Similarly, to (unintentionally) make someone or their (cultural, racial, age or work) group lazy, simply insistently tell them that they are.

That’s how cultural, racial  and other stereotypes can become self-confirming, for better or worse, viz., by getting those so labeled to believe or, in defiance, to flaunt it themselves, as they replace any struggle to fight the label with the decision to live up to it.

This is also why, as a personal or group attribution of an invisible disposition or trait, the label “lazy” tends to stick, and, like a criminal record, become permanent, even if no additional damning evidence or test situations appear.

Like a “guilty verdict”, the judgment that one or one’s group is lazy, once rendered, is not easy to reverse or appeal, despite any subsequent “good behavior” and absence of any further instances of the “bad”.

Eventually, in such instances, both the judge and the judged come to agree that the label fits and fits permanently.

The prediction that an individual or a group once identified as lazy will continue to be lazy is safe and irrefutable if it means nothing more than that they have a (congenital/cultural) disposition to laziness, rather than visibly display a predictable pattern of it.

Although, in hiring, such a wholesale self-validating group-trait attribution is unlikely because of discrimination laws, it can, regrettably, survive in the private, unexpressed sentiments of otherwise publicly PC and prudent individuals.

Wherever it is entrenched, smug, irrefutable prediction of group or individual laziness is a distraction from the real management issue: controlling genuine reluctance to do specific jobs.

What such distraction obscures is that controlling laziness is probably the most important of the five responses to it—labeling, explaining, justifying the label and predicting laziness being the other four.

Why Predicting Trumps Labeling

Of the remaining four, and pragmatically, predicting actual instances of laziness is more important than accurately labeling them.

After all, which is more useful: precisely labeling something or precisely predicting it?

Better to get the label wrong than the prediction. If you can predict an employee’s behavior, you can worry about precisely explaining or labeling it later—much as predicting the impact of a space rock may make possible both an intercept and the chance to speculate later about whether it was an iron meteorite or something else.

(However, the prediction has to be more testable than the vacuous prediction that someone will always have an invisible disposition to laziness, e.g., it should be a prediction that (s)he will respond with resistance in specified circumstances or at specified times.

As a comparable example of vacuous explanation, there is Moliere’s satiric and circular explanation in The Imaginary Invalid of the sleep-inducing effects of opium in terms of its “dormitive virtue”.)

To see how accurate and precise prediction is more important than accurate and precise labeling, consider an earthquake: Would you prefer to be able to precisely label its magnitude, or precisely predict its exact date and time of occurrence?

“The big one will be exactly a 7.8, but we don’t know when it’s coming” vs. “Earthquake tomorrow at 3:15 AM, but we’re not sure how big.” I’ll choose the specific time and situation, every time.

The same applies to “laziness”: It’s better and easier to be able to predict when and in what situations somebody will actually be lazy than to be able to precisely label it in terms of its intensity and detailed manifestations.

Now why should that be? Why should knowing or predicting the circumstances in which someone will be “lazy” be more important and easier than knowing or predicting to what degree?

Learning a Lesson from Lion Tamers

When it comes to human behavior, as well as in connection with earthquakes, there are good reasons why needing to know when something unwelcome will happen is more important than knowing to what degree.

In both instances, there are greater risks in being completely surprised. Moreover, as for ease of prediction and control, the degree or intensity of human behavior is harder to predict and control than its timing and contexts.

The reason for this difference is that in shaping behavior it is easier to manipulate the time, form and place of behavior than to controlling its intensity, e.g., getting a lion in a circus to roar or drool on cue and only when on a stool, or getting an employee to display assertiveness precisely when it is needed and otherwise to blend into the background (of a meeting with superiors, for example).

Manipulating the strength of the response—its intensity—seems to be more difficult, e.g., getting the lion to roar louder (just as getting your kids to do their homework is easier than to get them to do it well and enthusiastically. On the other hand, usually you can get children to be louder merely by ignoring them, if that is ever something you’d want to do.)

Just try to get your dog to beg and drool more intensely once you’ve gotten him to sit up and beg.  It is also more important to get the lion to sit up and roar, rather than attack or roar more loudly. Ditto for your dog and employee.

Bottom line: In practice—especially everyday situations, it is easier and often more important to trigger or inhibit behavior than to control its intensity (if triggered at all).

Every couple that likes to fight knows that.

HR Management Task: To Control and Predict Employee Behavior, or Its Degree?

Considerations of which is easier aside, will or should an HR manager be more preoccupied with determining to what degree the laziness of an employee will be unpredictably manifested whenever it eventually is, or, instead, will he want to know in precisely which kinds of situations and when that employee will be “lazy”?

In general, it seems at least easier and maybe smarter to try to control the timing and contexts of “laziness” than to attempt to modify its intensity—unless you are an experimental psychologist or an especially gifted animal trainer, in the same way in which it is easier to elicit commitment and diligence than to fine-tune its degree.

(Compare a marriage proposal: It’s easier to get someone to say “yes” than to precisely control the degree of enthusiasm underlying the acceptance.)

Feeling Sluggish?

Now, if, despite its insights, this comprehensive analysis has made you sleepy (or feeling too lazy to think about it),  I will assume that this is a temporary state, rather than a Snow White dwarf-like permanent trait…

…or the effect of the “dormitive virtue” of my musings.

Read more in Management Styles

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).