November 13, 2007

Are You Lazy...or Just Thinking Things Over?

author_sally By Sally Raskoff 

Have you ever heard the phrase, if you want something done, give it to a busy person?

I’ve often wondered why some people do most of the work and others don’t seem to do much. I’ve noticed this at work, in classes, and even in volunteer activities. If you’ve ever worked on a group project, you know exactly what I mean.

Sociologically speaking, there are a number of dynamics that can help explain this particular phenomenon. 

First, it may be that busy people base their self worth on their work. Many people are gratified when they are in charge or responsible for a variety of tasks. But others’ perceptions of them may not be so positive. Some of those less busy people may think that this busy person is not willing to share responsibilities. This may result in preventing those less busy people from offering to help—or even agreeing to help if asked. 

Second, when work is distributed via social cliques or informal social networks; a person’s power within that clique or network might determine who gets to lead. In organizational studies, this is called “homosocial reproduction”, one of my favorite sociological terms. Homosocial reproduction takes place when those in an organization hire and promote those similar to themselves. It explains the need for policies and programs like Affirmative Action since most people, especially those in power, seek to "reproduce" themselves when hiring or promoting workers. 

The downside of having a clique of people responsible for most of the tasks, whether in class or at work, is that it can prevent others from taking responsibility. Those outside that network will be alienated from that group and may give up on participating.

Third, just the perception of a social clique may be enough to alienate those who are outside that group. If a clique doesn’t really exist but the outsiders assume it does, when the “busy” people ask the others to participate, they will be puzzled and sometimes angered. 

Fourth, some people decide to become “free riders”. Those without responsibility will look at those busy people scurrying around and may think (or say), why bother to help since they are doing the work? You see this happen in class group projects-- someone may jump to spearhead the project and assign tasks to others but some members of the group sit back and don’t participate. The more they don’t participate, the more work the “leader” takes on, thus reinforcing the whole cycle: The ”free riders” do even less while the leader does even more to compensate.

But what if the whole situation—that some do much more work than others—is an inaccurate assessment? 

Many jobs involve a lot of thinking time, so someone who is just sitting and looking out a window may not appear busy but they may actually be working hard on some task. For example, while working on my dissertation, I spent a lot of time at the library, sitting, reading, and thinking about the nature, structure, and writing of my research. I did this at the library for the most part because when my family and friends saw me doing this, they thought I was doing ”nothing” so they felt free to interrupt me. 

When you are reading your textbook or thinking about your homework or papers, does this happen to you? If so, it’s important to clarify that you are actually working.

There are more sociological explanations of why “busy” people are so busy and why others don’t seem to be as busy. I’ll leave it to you to do some research on this. (Please post your findings as a response to this blog!)

When any of these dynamics exist, there may be hurt feelings all around, especially when group members aren’t communicating with each other. Gender and cultural norms may exacerbate the situation; for instance, some men may believe that in a female-dominated group they should take charge.

In my research on volunteering, one of the most consistent findings is that people are more likely to agree to volunteer when they are asked personally. Perhaps knowing this, along with recognizing the need for effective communication skills, can help remedy problems when some people seem to work harder than others.


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