The Right and Wrong Ways to Deal With Underperformers on Your Project Team

By on July 10, 2013

Training and development firm VitalSmart surveyed 550 employees. In the survey, they found that 93 percent of employees reported working with someone who didn’t do his or her share. Although online project manager software can help to hold team members accountable, it’s a tool that has to be utilized by both managers and team members to be effective. With finesse, you can learn to implement the right strategies — and avoid the wrong ones — to deal with the slackers on your team.

Right Way No. 1: Develop a Unified Vision

When the entire team discusses and develops a vision of what project completion looks like, it’s much easier to achieve the team’s buy-in. Some tasks may require a great deal of polish while others can pass as long as they’re “good enough.” When standards are clear, the slacker can’t help but know that he or she is not delivering according to that shared vision.

Right Way No. 2: Advocate for Clear Objectives and Deadlines

The project manager should clearly communicate the objectives of the project’s current phase. He or she should also set deadlines and follow up to ensure that team members are on track. If you notice that your manager isn’t doing this, then assertively speak up and check to see whether everyone understands both their deadlines and their deliverables. When needed, you can write up responsibilities in an e-mail and send the message out to the group.

Right Way No. 3: Establish a Contingency Cushion

Unfortunately, after you’ve set your objectives and your deadlines, you can probably guess which person on your team is going to show up unprepared. When possible, build enough time into the project schedule to ensure that you can execute a backup plan. Then, develop a backup plan in case the slacker continues to slide. Let the group know that team members with unfinished tasks will receive one reminder before the fallback plan is initiated.

Right Way No. 4: Express Concern

Take your slacker teammate out to lunch or invite him or her to go for coffee. While you’re out, tell the person that you’ve noticed some undone tasks in the project management system. Then, ask your co-worker if he or she is all right. Avoid talking about your co-worker’s past actions; instead, focus on the present and the future. Clarify what your role is and what his or her role is and give the slacker another chance to improve performance.

Right Way No. 5: Enlist a Mediator

If you notice no improvement, then ask your wayward co-worker to sit down with you for a meeting with your manager. In that meeting, ask your manager to clarify the roles and responsibilities associated with the project. You’re putting your teammate on notice that you’re no longer willing to ignore the behavior. In some cases, you may discover that the teammate is going through some personal difficulties, and the manager can intervene appropriately.

The Wrong Ways to Deal With a Slacker

Slackers cause frustration, which can lead to poor decision-making. Avoid these behaviors because they’re ineffective and counter-productive.

  • Doing their work for them. You know the job, you want to finish the project on time and you have run out of patience with your co-worker. However, doing the work for the person only enables them to continue slacking.
  • Bottling up frustration. Although 93 percent of employees in the VitalSmart study said that they worked with an underachiever, only 1 in 10 had ever confronted the person. Suppressing anger and frustration can lead to depression or a temper flare-up. You’ll feel better about yourself if you proactively address the problem (see “Express Concern”).
  • Complaining to your manager before you talk to your co-worker. No one wants to be seen as a troublemaker or a whiner. Unless your co-worker has done something egregious or criminal, address the problem in a one-on-one conversation first. Lacking the courage to confront or setting up an ambush with your manager could create negativity for the team.

Problems like family illness, personal illness, divorce, death or child care complications can significantly affect an employee’s performance. Alternatively, your co-worker could be as lazy as you think. In either case, your willingness to be direct could help a slacker to find his or her footing. When that happens, the entire team benefits.

About the Author: Victor Nordrup is a retired human resources executive who teaches management courses at multiple universities. He specializes in workplace mediation and performance management.

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