People who don’t care about work: a defence mechanism?

Have your high performers stopped caring about work?

The best performers I’ve ever worked with have always cared about work. They don’t necessarily spend all their time there, but they do care about the quality of what they produce and how they go about it.

I have also come across many talented people who seemingly don’t care about work. Sure, they’ll do their job but they don’t tend to worry too much about quality or putting in additional discretionary effort to produce something really great. Sometimes these people make me suspicious, because they clearly have talent, they just aren’t really applying it all that much.

For me, work has always been a pretty big deal. I care about what I do and I care about the quality to which it gets done. If reasonable people aren’t happy with my performance, that gets to me. If I’m in an environment where I am unhappy with my own performance, then that’s even worse because I know I can do better.

People who don’t care about work are using this as a defence mechanism

When I see somebody who is talented, but they seem as if they don’t care about work, I get suspicious. Why wouldn’t this person be invested in their work and stand behind it? They clearly have the skills to do so. When this happens, something is not working well. Just because people have commitments outside of work, this doesn’t mean they don’t care about work at all.

What I suspect is that these people used to care about work and then they stopped. When you don’t care about work, several things happen.

When you don’t care about work, you take the pressure off yourself

When you stop caring about work, issues that you encounter are likely to bother you less, because you stop worrying about things you can’t control.

Not worrying greatly about issues that you can’t control is mostly a good thing. But when you don’t care about work for a long period, you even start to lose focus on the things that you can control.

I’ve found that when talented people don’t care about work, they are in an environment that has too many variables that they feel are out of their control. Then they stop trying so hard.

If you try hard and fail, you’re a loser. If you don’t try and fail, well, that’s to be expected. And because you didn’t try, you don’t judge yourself harshly because you were never committed to achieve anything anyway.

When you don’t care about work, you put in “just enough” effort

When you don’t care about work, instead of putting in extra effort to do a great job, you become satisfied with doing “just enough” work to get the job done and out the door. Why would someone put in more effort than is required, when they don’t care about work anyway?

They don’t value the outcome from doing good work any more, so putting in additional discretionary effort is pointless. “Just enough” effort may get the work done, but you can be sure that the quality of the work won’t be extremely high. The quality of the work will be “just good enough” to say that the job has been completed.

Why talented people don’t care about work

When talented people don’t care about their work, you can be sure that something is amiss. They have found a reason to stop caring, either to protect themselves from a bad outcome or to reduce the stress of trying to control things that they are unable to.

When talented people don’t care about work, they have nothing to strive for

Consider a work environment without any good consequences (rewards). What is the point of doing a great job, when there is no reward? You might as well do just enough to get the job done without busting your guts doing so.

When there is no “carrot” for doing great work, people will stop striving to produce it. There are those that will hang on longest, when they are driven by internal motivators that keep them going even when there are no rewards for success. But these people are uncommon and they won’t continue this way forever.

If your talented people are showing a lack of caring in their work, consider whether they have any reason to care. Just getting paid isn’t really enough any more, because you could “just get paid” at a lot of places and many of them are probably less stressful than your current environment. You need to give people reasons to want to stay at your company, in your team. This happens by offering people something of value.

When talented people don’t care about work, there are too many factors they can’t control

Consider a situation where Freya decides that she wants to do a really great job. She keeps trying and trying, but finds that even when she puts in a lot of effort, things go wrong in her team and this stops her from achieving her goals.

Freya quickly realises that in this environment, if she continues to strive so hard, she is likely to be disappointed with the outcome. This hurts, because she is used to doing good work. So Freya distances herself from the outcome by just focusing on her own small portion of the work and worrying less about what the outcome of the team is. She starts to be less of a team player and just makes sure her own work is done.

When this happens, Freya passes her work on to the next person in the team and divorces herself from the outcome after this point. Is this likely to produce a good outcome? No, because it is no longer a team effort — it is now a series of individuals working separately, rather than a team working together.

You can address this by introducing process and accountability. People need to know that as a team, there are consequences for poor outcomes. And as a team, there are positive consequences for great outcomes, too. People need to feel invested in the work of the team and to hold each other accountable. Process helps to stop things from unexpectedly going wrong and reduce variation in the end product.

Otherwise you will find yourself with individuals who do “just enough” to do their piece of work before handing it off to others in the team. Chain together a few “just enough” efforts and you’ll be sure to have a fairly mediocre end product.

When talented people don’t care about work, there is a problem. They have learned that when they try hard in their current environment, they don’t achieve any more than if they put in minimal effort.

When they don’t care about work, they are less invested in the outcome, which protects them from feeling bad about the result. They will never feel really happy, either, but feeling average often feels better than feeling bad.

Do people in your team seem like they don’t care about work? What could you do to help them feel more invested in the team and the outcome?

Originally published at on June 13, 2016.