At times, projects that require teamwork can lead us to imagine we are back in middle
school doing a group project where a couple of the group members tend to get things done at a deadline, while the others tend to do things ahead of schedule. Those who complete their part of the project early become anxious and then critical that others have not done their part, even though there is still time before the project is due. They may even be inclined to complete the project themselves because they do not trust the others to do it or to pull it off. They may complain that they have done all of the work or want the procrastinating group members to withdraw. In such cases, the relationships among group members may erode. Unfortunately, far reaching negative implications and assumptions are not uncommon in such situations. Moreover, once the procrastinators pull everything together as the deadline is looming, non-procrastinators may become resentful that procrastinating team members always “get away with it,” especially if the procrastinators are perceived as equally-valued in the organization or receive accolades from management for their contributions.
Most human behavior can be understood by recognizing the emotions that motivate it. The different ways in which people are motivated to complete tasks is based on when their emotions are activated and what activates them. Procrastinators who consistently complete tasks on time—even if it’s at the last moment—are motivated by emotions that are activated by a looming deadline. They are deadline driven. I refer to them as deadline driven in order to remove the stigma and recognize procrastination as a valid motivational style. In contrast, people who are compelled to take action right away are motivated by emotions that are triggered by tasks themselves. I refer to them as task-driven.
In the workplace, people may tend either to be acquiescent about motivational style differences or to become frustrated about the way someone else gets things done. We generally interpret the behavior of others according to our own standards, values, and way of doing things. If you are task driven, the incubation period for the procrastinator is time wasted. If you are a procrastinator, the constant urgency of a task-driven person is time wasted as well. Where procrastinators tend to produce a finished product at a deadline, task-driven people are likely to create a draft of their work, modify it themselves, or assume a coworker on the project will make modifications later. If completing a task is their primary goal, task-driven people may believe it is done, when, in fact, it can be improved by further work. Revisiting or reviewing what they have written will often lead task-driven people to submit revised documents. These revisions will likely annoy deadline-driven coworkers because those who procrastinate tend to complete work in one draft.
Optimizing the productivity of a team requires gaining an understanding of motivational style differences, as well as learning ways to discuss conflicts with coworkers and how to navigate through them. In employment settings, recognizing stylistic differences in task completion could allow group members to strategize, organize, and find creative solutions to handling project completion. Identifying the motivational styles of various team members (or whether or not they have a typical style) can prove to be an asset in terms of how work is structured. Task driven people who tend to get things done ahead of time can be responsible for first drafts, for example, and deadline-driven procrastinators can be assigned the inclusion of details, compiling data, and the responsibility for modifications at the end. Managers who involve their employees in weekly goal assessment and performance check-ins, rather than only reviewing their work performance once or twice a year, are taking both task‑completion styles into consideration. High quality work that is on time is a consistent goal.
There is no superior way of getting something done when managers evaluate employee and teamwork performance based on the neutral standard that deadlines are never missed and work quality reflects one’s best efforts. With this in mind, it is irrelevant whether something is completed on the early side or at the deadline. Emotions provide us with information and motivation to take action. However, in interpersonal situations within the workplace where emotions speak to you, their vague message can be misinterpreted and responded to in ways that disrupt bonds we have with co-workers. Navigating through differences in task completion, or anything else, may seem rather difficult at times. Nevertheless, in the process of doing so it’s possible to learn a lot about oneself and better understand others who approach things differently.
Dr. Mary Lamia is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and professor in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of five books, and she blogs for Psychology Today and Therapy Today websites. Her current book is What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success .