September 15, 2013 10:00 pm

Masters in Management: Dear Lucy ...

Lucy Kellaway©Daniel Jones

In work, school and life, we occasionally find ourselves working with “social loafers” who coast on the hard work of their teammates and even take credit for others’ work, while contributing very little themselves. What is the best way of handling this?

There is almost nothing that you can do to make them work harder. Sloth is something deeply embedded in us; those who have a large quantity of it will not easily be galvanised into action. The only time I have seen people stop being loafers and become Stakhanovites was when they started working on something that really mattered to them, and that happens rarely. From your point of view the most important thing is to try to get yourself on to teams with as few slackers as possible. Sometimes the choice is yours: you can choose to reduce your chances of being surrounded by slackers at home by declining to marry one. Other times there is little you can do, you get lumbered with them whether you like it or not. In that case, there are two things you should keep in mind. The first is to use as little emotional energy as possible worrying about it. In the end, loafers don’t tend to make it big. They always get found out at some point. The second thing is to learn to shout louder. When it comes to taking the credit, you have to hold your nose and grab some yourself.

. . .

Should I go for academic honours or are there better things on which to spend my time?

That depends on what you mean by “better”. Do you mean more fun? Most things are more fun than discounted cash flow. Do you mean more worthwhile? Friendships and relationships are more worthwhile than revenue streams, though watching cat videos online is less so. Or do you mean more likely to land you in a job? In that case, high academic honours do not get you very far at all. If you simply don’t know how to spend your time, see below.

. . .

How do I prioritise my time between social activities, academic work and finding a job?

You are over-thinking. In life many things don’t succumb to a business-school analysis of stated priorities. The best – and the only – way is to do it by common sense. I imagine your end goal is to do reasonably well, to acquire both a job and some friends. There is no formula for this. You pursue all three, tweaking them as you go along. It is perfectly simple: if there is a big networking evening with a prospective employer, you go to that rather than go out clubbing. If the sun is out, you go to a barbecue knowing you can prepare your presentation early tomorrow morning. If you can’t manage to allocate your time between these three things, I fear for you when things get really complicated later, when you are splitting your time between various jobs, children, ageing relatives and building a loft extension.

. . .

We have all found ourselves working in companies we thought would be perfect, only to discover that they are not the best fit. As students, we have shortlived projects and the opportunity to test the waters through internships, but this is not always possible in the working world. How do you identify companies that really walk the talk and operate on your values?

Before I begin, you need to wash your mouth out with soapy water. “Walk the talk” is pernicious jargon. Indeed, any company that promises candidates that they walk the talk almost certainly does nothing of the sort. There is only one way to find out what a place would really be like to work in, and that is to talk to people who work there already. Message boards and what people say on social networks are no substitute for this. You could also check the rankings of great places to work, though bear in mind that cool companies such as Google do very well on these, and a job there clearly isn’t for everyone.

. . .

Is it better to leave an organisation and start afresh if your management hierarchy is replaced overnight? If you do stay, how can you best signal that you are no longer aligned to previous management thinking?

The only point in leaving at once is if the old management has offered to take you with them. Otherwise you should stick it out. It would be madness to jump before you know what the new lot is going to be like. Be willing to do things the new way, even if it strikes you as idiotic – and give it time. The first six months will be the worst.

. . .

Why am I made to feel like I am in primary school when I am refused entry into the class because I am late by a few minutes?

It’s great news that you feel like you are at primary school: you really ought to go back there to master the basics. If 80 per cent of success is showing up, that means showing up on time. And that means to the minute. Three minutes late is still late. If you learn nothing else at business school, learn that being late is rude and lessens your chances of success more than an MBA increases them.

. . .

Should I take courses for the subject matter or the professor?

This one is easy: you should take courses for the latter. A brilliant professor can make any subject interesting. A dull one can make every subject excruciatingly dull. Even if the course the brilliant professor is teaching is one you think you hate, try it. You may well be surprised.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT associate editor and management columnist and writes the weekly Dear Lucy advice column

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