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Want to be happier at work? Try goofing off

March 28, 2013 at 11:46 AM ET

They may go to great lengths to avoid work, but your slacker co-workers actually love their jobs. A new study comparing job performance and satisfaction found that the least-productive workers are also the most engaged in nearly half of workplaces.

At 42 percent of more than 200 companies studied, leadership training and research firm Leadership IQ found that the people who spend the day perusing Pinterest or updating their fantasy football rosters are more engaged than middle-of-the-road and even star workers.

“We’re putting numbers to things we all kind of intuitively know,” said Leadership IQ CEO Mark Murphy. 

Leadership IQ, which drew on its research database to survey 207 companies, also carried out a more detailed study of one representative example, a 1,000-person tech service provider on which the consulting firm had detailed data about employee engagement and performance. As the Wall Street Journal noted, these findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom that those who contribute more to their employer's success are the most engaged with their jobs.

In this study, low performers were more likely to say they give 100 percent at work, that their company is a great place to work and that everyone there does an equally good job. So, in addition to not being very good at the work itself, these workers also think they’re much better at their jobs than they actually are.

"You can think you’re giving 100 percent effort, but if you don’t know exactly what 100 percent looks like and how that translates into performance... that’s where this asymmetry comes from," Murphy said.

A major reason your slacker co-workers like their jobs so much is because you’re doing their work for them. The study found that high performers were least likely to say their company held people accountable for their work, while the lowest performers were the most likely to say they received praise for the work they do.

Managers who dole out “attaboys” and merit raises across the board bear a lot of the blame for this, Murphy said. "It’s sort of the everybody-gets-a-trophy phenomenon," he said. "What they don’t realize is that by not differentiating the high performers, you really are irritating the high performers... who are keeping you in business.”

As if giving sub-par performers a pat on the back wasn’t bad enough, the people who do pull their weight often get stuck cleaning up after their less-diligent colleagues. In another study, Leadership IQ found that 93 percent of employees said working with a poor performer had a negative impact on their own productivity.

Murphy said managers may be afraid of confronting people who turn in shoddy work, especially if they know their harder-working colleagues will pick up the slack.

“When there isn’t sufficient accountability... and standards of performance, it’s actually not that bad a job to be a low performer," he said. "We see a lot of organizations where managers will even promote a low performer just to get them out of their department."

It's discouraging, but before you throw in the towel and spend the rest of the day looking at pictures of cats online, there are a couple of things good employees can do if they're stuck in a workplace where no poor deed goes unrewarded.

For one thing, talk to your boss, Murphy said. The idea isn’t to call out the co-worker who spends all day hanging around the coffee machine, but to ask the company to implement better ways to measure performance — which will separate the go-getters from the also-rans.

If that fails, dust off your resume. Companies where hard work is rewarded realize, “There are a lot of frustrated high performers out there and they’re really looking for organizations who recognize what they bring,” Murphy said.

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