I bet you will recognize this person. Let’s call them Cary. You know, the one who lurks at the corner of every project. Cary claims the team’s work as their own, without any real effort put forth. They have plenty to say too. But when you ask for deeper detail or the thinking behind the work, they get flustered. It is not so easy to go off script. Why?
The reason Cary cannot explain the work is because they did not do the work in the first place.
Where do you find Cary? Usually at big, slow-moving organizations. With so many people working on every project, it is easy to fade into the background without having to get too involved. Freeloaders are able to present work as their own. It is convenient to play the part of active contributor — despite having contributed very little.
But this is not unique to big companies. You see it happen in organizations of all sizes, especially when goals and responsibilities are not clear. Sometimes it can be hard to recognize the signs. But you know it to be true when you ask detailed questions about work that was just completed and someone just repeats a few high-level descriptions. Over and over again.
The truth is that it is impossible to make a meaningful impact without being fully engaged and doing actual work.
There are many reasons that a Cary may emerge at your office. It could be that there is something going on in their personal life that is making it difficult to fully commit and be present with teammates. No matter what the underlying reasons are, the problem is that disengaged teammates who point to others’ contributions as their own hurt everyone. No one really feels any joy when this is going on.
Do you see a bit of yourself in Cary? This can be tough to admit. Here are a few of the signs that I have seen when working with folks like this in the past:
Now, maybe the team leaders have failed to set and share a clear strategy and identify who is accountable for what — but Cary is not stopping to consider the “why” behind the work either. This person tends to be unfocused. There is a tendency to jump at every opportunity and pull every thread without following through.
What did we learn from our last project? How should we evaluate success moving forward? These are all questions Cary should ask — but does not. Since this person is not engaged in the work, there is no curiosity about how to make it better. This is often the result of being indifferent. But no matter the cause, without curiosity, there is no individual or team growth.
Yes, Cary gets flustered when others doubt vigorous claims of super-human contributions. It is natural to want to avoid embarrassment. So they get defensive and small accomplishments are presented as company-changing.
Before you worry, know that we all probably see elements of ourselves in Cary.
No one wants to be like Cary. The first step is to be honest with yourself if you are disengaged. Try to identify the behaviors and situations that are holding you back from being fully present, and then think through how you can start addressing why you are not bringing your best.
It is not possible to be deeply involved in every project. But the difference is we should be fully engaged in what we are responsible for. In the process, you will know the details of your work, understand your real impact, and help the team grow too.
How do you ensure that you are really engaged in your work?
Maybe it is time for a change — Aha! is hiring.