Managers assign work unevenly

When we do studies in various work environments, we often find large imbalances in output between individuals doing similar work. The fact that some people do more than others is perhaps a fairly obvious or predictable finding. People’s skills and capabilities vary quite significantly so it’s reasonable to assume output would be variable as well. What we find however, is that the variability often has less to do with people’s abilities, and more to do with how the actual work is assigned.

When work is distributed unevenly, people tend to work at different paces. Some people are, for lack of a better term, “natural” workers who have an innate predisposition to work hard at whatever they do. They are the people managers like to load up with work because they are good at getting things done quickly and efficiently. However, over time relying too much on the more ambitious workers tends to cause some dissatisfaction at both ends of the worker spectrum. Slower workers feel overshadowed and the more capable workers can become resentful. This dynamic almost always results in the better workers eventually slowing their pace. This gradual deterioration can be difficult to physically observe but shows up in a measurable decline in productivity over time.

Uneven work assignment is a management problem, not a worker problem. Management’s job is to try to elevate the overall group productivity. While every organization wants to find and retain star performers, one of the better ways to do it is to coach and train less skilled workers so that work can be more evenly, and fairly, distributed.