Why Your Colleagues (or you) Don’t Work Hard — The Main Cause Of Mediocre Performance

This piece is a takeout from my recent series of articles on the cognitive biases and other irrational tendencies. The series consists of four rather long posts, and the main goal was to provide a Layman’s introduction to you think, and hopefully, to help you become better at it. I will repeat this type of ‘takeout’ post with a few other ideas discussed in that series—those I consider to be most helpful, or, most hard to understand.

Mediocrity sounds like a place we humans are not particularly fond of—the principle of Kakonomics explains how this statement may be wrong, and how easily we find ways to work ‘less hard’


A fascinating phenomena that is most evident in the workplace—specifically team environments. Consider the following situation:

You and your work colleague, Jimbo, both report to the same boss; you popped over to chat with Jimbo about something you are unsure about, and it suddenly becomes starkly obvious to you how slow, inefficient and unproductive Jimbo is at his work, and, what’s more, he is unable to help you; you ask another colleague and discover, again, that they, too, are slower than you.

That night you think about today’s events, and how hard you have been working since you started (which was only recently), and come to the conclusion that you are no longer going to work as hard, because, well, it’s not right that everyone but you should be able to slack off, and besides, you are only doing it for the money anyway.

For the next few months you work slower and less productively, and even chat with Jimbo about how ‘”easy” the work is’; and Jimbo does the same with his friends, and them with their friends, and so it goes on… The result? Progressively degrading work quality throughout the team, maybe even throughout the company.

This is Kakonomics.

What would happen if Jimbo started working harder all of a sudden, and the others noticed? Well, Jimbo would then be a threat—because his hard work may ‘show the others up’. One of two things will then happen: either others step up their game, though fear of being exposed or outshone; or they reject Jimbo as an outcast and rationalise their nastiness as a problem on his part, when really, they are punishing him for his hard work—because if he works hard it means they have to work hard, too.

Kakonomics is the result of lack of incentive—i.e. no real reason to work hard—and once it takes hold, can only be eradicated by the introduction of better incentives, or personnel change.

It all relies on the following line of thought:

“As long as they aren’t working hard, I don’t have to work hard”,

“but if they start working hard, I also may have to start working hard”,

“—so I will make it clear to them I’m not working hard, so they, too, do not feel compelled to work hard.”

All it takes is two people with this attitude to create an epidemic. Moreover, this phenomena is unfortunately not limited to the workplace; it exists everywhere where effort is required—and what that matters in the world does not require effort? Need some examples? Look to the health, fitness, business, relationship and financial aspects of life—starting with your very own.

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