As a manager, it’s easy to put your direct reports into boxes. There’s the creative one, the empathetic one, the one who likes autonomy and the one who like clear boundaries and set routines. There’s also another special breed of worker in the world, and that’s the person who has borderline manic levels of productivity yet spends a lot of the time kicking back and doing...well nothing. Someone who is lazy and a hard worker, all at the same time.

How do you manage someone when you’re never quite sure where they’re at? Here are some tips.

Gain Understanding: Who is This Person?

To manage someone who is perpetually vacillating between two contradictory states, you first have to identify who they are. This is relatively straightforward. An overdriven-but-lazy employee generally will be:

Incredibly indecisive. They’re always caught between working harder and making the solution as perfect as it can be, and taking the easy way out. If an employee can’t make a decision for toffee, you may have an overdrive-but-lazy type on your hands.

Either doing everything, or they’re doing nothing at all. There is no in-between. If someone is working 18 hour days while fulfilling her job duties, helping coworkers out, organizing the next office social and baking muffins for the team, followed by several days of noticeable absence (the body is there but the mind isn’t in it), then you definitely have an employee who struggles with the middle ground.  

Constantly kicking back against the rules. Rules and routine are abhorrent to these freewheeling types because they don’t get any value from control, tradition, or consistency. Rather, they balance the energy of obsessive highs and the apathy of disengaged lows to get things done.

Often (but not always) an Intuitive Perceiver. From a personality perspective, NPs are more likely to overdriven-but-lazy than any other type. These personalities are your “big ideas” people who possess extraordinary levels of introspection, but at the same time grow bored of projects quickly and struggle with following through on something that no longer holds any interest for them. They often have a ton of new ideas to start which they’ll get round to ..eventually. But right now, they need to recharge from the last big flurry of activity.

Other types to watch out for are ESTPs – in the moment, give it all you got (which may be nothing) kind of people – and Intuitive Judgers who are so determined to perfect their vision, they may give up completely and call the whole thing an abject failure when something goes wrong.  

Check Yourself: Is This Work Style Even a Problem?

It’s easy to lose patience with a lazy employee – you want this shirker to finally get to work! But before you start cracking the whip, ask yourself, is this style of working actually a problem? It’s easy to focus on the periods of inactivity and ignore the periods of overproduction. But if these two states of being balance each other out, then you fundamentally do not have anything to worry about.

This is one area where managing long-term instead of short-term performance pays of. Managers tend to have an obsession with productivity because it’s their job to hit quarterly targets and performance goals. Some will look for weekly or even daily accountability to ensure the team stays on track. This approach views productivity not as a muscle that needs to flex and then recover, but as a computer that runs at a constant speed all the time.

Any time frame less than a week or two is too short to measure the output of hardworking-yet-lazy personalities. Measuring their achievements at the micro level (weekly, daily, hourly) is only going to highlight the troughs in their performance – or make you worry about their health. When you measure performance over several weeks or months, factually assessing whether they’re hitting the same goals as everyone else, then you’ll be able to judge more clearly whether this work style is a problem or not.   

No Drama: Doing Nothing Does Not Mean "Doing Nothing"

The usual advice for managing lazy or poorly focused employees is to give them short-term assignments with specific deadlines, for example, complete this report by Tuesday lunchtime. This keeps the employee accountable and allows you to see regular progress on work tasks.

However, this approach does not work with overdriven-but-lazy types. Why? Because for these types, lazy doesn’t mean what you think it means, and doing nothing does not mean “doing nothing.” In fact, “nothing” may be the worst word to describe what overdriven-yet-lazy types are doing when they are at rest.

The part of the brain that’s activated during low-activity periods is plays a crucial role in creativity for these types – it helps them to generate new ideas and solve problems in a way that constant busyness does not. Fundamentally, these types need regular downtime to optimize their creative capacity. If they keep fanning the flames at pace, then eventually, the fire’s going to burn itself out.

The no drama response to managing low-activity periods is back off and stay claim. Don’t allow yourself to nag and micromanage the employee, however tempting that might be. If you need regular check ins for your own sanity (and let’s not forget the role that your personality plays in this relationship), then break a project into chunks and ask your overdriven-but-lazy employee to consult on each chunk at periodic intervals. Provide them with defined goals, but give flexibility in how they achieve those goals. That way, you both stay aligned with what’s going on, but in a way that’s loose enough to accommodate this unique style of working.  

When to Hit the Panic Button

In the right environment, overdriven-but-lazy employees tend to be very high performers who bring tons of energy and fresh ideas to the team. In the wrong environment, they can become disruptive and high maintenance. Examples include:

Everything is urgent! When the “lazy” hours outnumber the “driven” hours, or when the line between “resting” time and “doing” time is blurred, things can get messy fast. That’s when deadlines start slipping. The rest of the team might have to drop everything to help this employee out because the project is falling behind schedule.

More drama than a soap opera. Overdriven-yet-lazy employees do not intentionally create drama, but their work style can inadvertently stir the pot. Co-workers may notice when their colleague is slacking off and get all whipped up about it. They’re much less likely to notice the times when their super-talented colleague is burning the midnight oil, working far harder than is necessary, and making things happen. If you don’t manage perceptions properly, then you could be in for a world of conflict.

Stress and burnout. It’s easy to focus on the troughs in performance but don’t forget, overdriven people are prone to stress and burnout if they’re not balancing high-intensity periods with periods of rest. You’ll need to watch closely and mandate these employees to take the some regular down time, because otherwise they might overload themselves and burn out.

The bottom line here is that many super talented folks can exhibit behaviors that seem undesirable. It’s how you respond that matters. Figure out whether an “all or nothing” workstyle is actually a problem before taking reasonable and appropriate steps to manage it.  

Jayne Thompson
Jayne is a B2B tech copywriter and the editorial director here at Truity. When she’s not writing to a deadline, she’s geeking out about personality psychology and conspiracy theories. Jayne is a true ambivert, barely an INTJ, and an Enneagram One. She lives with her husband and daughters in the UK. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.