Skip to main content
lucy kellaway

When I had been at the Financial Times for about a year, a young woman who had just joined the paper invited me out for a drink. I had barely taken a first sip of acidic white wine when she declared herself terminally bored with writing mundane corporate news stories and asked if I was too. No, I replied. I found it very interesting.

"I really envy you," she said, fixing her big, round eyes on me. I settled back into my seat, preparing to be told what a brilliant financial journalist I was. Instead she said: "You seem so happy just bumbling along. I wish I could be like that, but I can't – I've always been a compulsive overachiever."

As an insecure, rabidly ambitious 25-year-old, I wasn't terribly pleased to be put in the bumbler class. Neither was I fooled by the faux-envy. Yet I now discover that she was on to a general truth that almost never gets acknowledged: Bumblers make happier workers and may be worthy objects of envy.

Recently, I was sent a new piece of research showing that the worst-performing employees are often the most engaged ones. This is a radical departure from the standard view that performance and engagement go hand in hand: High performers are meant to be the motivated ones and the all-round cheerleaders, while low performers are supposed to belong to the awkward squad and be disaffected and grumpy.

Instead, according to the consultancy Leadership IQ, the feeblest workers in almost half the companies surveyed fared much better than the high-fliers on three measures of engagement. They were more likely "to give 100 per cent," they were more likely to recommend their company to others, and they were more inclined to think that their bosses treated people fairly.

The consultancy concludes that this is a worrying consequence of bad management. In these companies, the useless are not told that they are useless but are left to trundle along believing themselves to be good. The upshot is that their more able and hardworking colleagues come to resent them and end up cynical, disengaged, critical of the company and prone to quit the minute they get the chance.

There may be some truth in this account of the relatively happy bumbler syndrome. But if I think back to my colleague all those years ago, there are some more elemental reasons for the bovine contentment of the terminally feeble and the gnawing dissatisfaction of the overachiever. For a start, poor performers may feel fortunate to have a job at all, while overachievers feel almost any job is a let-down. (My ex-colleague has risen through quite a few jobs since leaving.) With lower expectations, bumblers feel less inclined to criticize their employers and don't assume they are brighter than their bosses. Neither do they feel enraged that they are not being given more interesting things to do.

It may be even more basic than this: Bumblers are Type B personalities who are simply built to be happier. A recent academic study showed that ambitious, Type A personalities are more successful but bumbling Type Bs are at least as happy and live longer. Other studies have shown how life's "satisficers," who do the minimum to achieve the desired result, are generally better pleased with their work than the "maximizers," who strive to do things as well as possible and are inevitably disappointed with the outcome.

But whatever the reasons for the relative happiness of bumblers, their existence in such large numbers in most businesses I have experienced overturns two tenets of modern management practice.

First it shows that all this stuff about employee engagement is nonsense. The engagement of a high-flier is worth a lot – or rather it is worth a lot if it means they stick around (which often they don't). The engagement of the lowest flier is worth less than nothing, as ideally you would want them to be so disengaged that they would slope off somewhere else. If moderately poor performers feel happy that's nice for them, but surely not a top aim of management if the result does not lead to them working any harder.

The even more troubling implication of this survey is that there is little point in trying to manage people at all. If underachievers are in part happy because management has washed its hands of them, then surely the same trick ought to be applied to everyone. If all staff were left to their own devices, the ambitious could get on with being ambitious and the bumblers could get on with bumbling. An awful lot of managerial effort would be saved, and everyone would be a little happier than they were before.