Team members who don't pull their own weight

Slackers are a reality that, left unmanaged, can threaten your team's morale adn productivity. However, there are ways to manage them fruitfully. Career central look at ways to tackle slackers on your team-managing the slacker and the situation, and finding the silver lining behind this unproductive cloud.

By Joshua Rayan

You get your latest assignment from your boss, and groan – you’re on the team with Johnny, the office slacker. He’s full of talk, but never does any real work. Yet he’s always there to reap the rewards. You try to focus on the assignment, but just thinking about how it’s going to be starts you burning up.

Hang on, though – does the scenario have to play out in this negative way? No! There’s more than one way to deal with an office slacker. But the best way to do it is to face it head-on.

What's his profile?

First, make sure Johnny’s “slacker” reputation doesn’t come from an isolated incident. Everyone has their off-peak periods. Sometimes, people shirk duties not because they have a bad attitude but rather because of a lack of training, poor communication, disagreement with management or team members or a health/family issue. You need to figure out the root cause of the slacking situation – attack the problem not the person. The best way to do this is to play snoop – find out as much as you can about Johnny through the office grapevine.

Does Johnny have a pattern on why/how he avoids work? Does he slack in all assignments, or only on specific types of assignments? Does he project the best of intentions but never delivers? Or does he charm his way through meetings – when he shows up at all? You’ll uncoverprecious info (probably about others too!) especially if there are delicate factors present – is Johnny related to the boss, is he slacking because he’s leaving and so on. Or maybe he feels that he’s not part of the team, and is therefore unwilling to join the discussion.

But remember – gossip should be taken with a pinch of salt. You need to separate rumours from rationale. Once you do, you can confront the problem!

The confrontation

Pick a couple of your teammates to meet with him. Strength in numbers is a good way to show him that you mean business. Be clear but tactful, says academic/ career counselor Zelda Mak. “You want him as a healthy and productive teammate so it’s better to approach him in a pleasant but tactful manner, rather than an accusatory one,” she says.

“We once had a teammate who contributed no input to discussions,” recalls Zelda. “He’d regularly excuse himself early and we’d fi nd out later that he was at the pub!” So Zelda’s team voiced their sentiments. “We told him that it’s a bit imbalanced that he leaves early and just clams up at meetings when the rest of us are actively contributing. How about sticking around with us a bit longer? Then we can all finish earlier and have fun afterwards,” she mentioned to us. It worked. The colleague improved his behavior. “Occasionally we still caught him daydreaming, but he didn’t leave early anymore,” laughs Zelda.

But not all confrontations work out nicely. The slacker can become defensive or hostile. If so, stay calm and focus on your concerns. But don’t insist that he comes round to your view, if it’s clearly not going to happen. When the direct approach fails, take the side door. Continue with your personal work contributions and leave the slacker be…for now. You could be dealing with a professional slacker and this means a whole new approach!

Dealing with a pro

If Johnny is a career slacker, then he’s an expert at the game. He’s playing you and everyone else like pawns on his chess game of laziness. So you need a new strategy – you anticipate and take action.

“If there’s a slacker on our team, we give him specific duties. We know how long they should take and what else is on his plate, so we give a reasonable deadline,” says engineer See Hui Chyr. “We also anticipate excuses and prepare the job so there’s no reason for things not to work, for example, that he can’t open a file in a certain format.”

Basically, make sure he has no excuses not to get the job done. Get confirmation and commitment to projects in writing, communicate clear limits and expectations, have witnesses when he says anything…be savvy and trap him with his own weapon – his words! But if you’re still having trouble, then it’s time to bring in reinforcements…

Time to bring in the boss

Ideally, your boss should be getting regular progress updates. So make sure that your boss is aware of potential problems right from the start. This is for your own protection. It will be a lot harder to convince your boss that things failed because someone did not do his fair share of work, after the project had already flopped.

Hui Chyr had a senior colleague who didn’t want to do the same kind of work as the other engineers – even though their automotive engineering fi rm was in the midst of an important project. Hui Chyr used his boss or the team to phrase his requests. “I’d say, hi, are you almost done with that? The boss wanted it by noon, and it’s almost 3 p.m. or the guys need it now to proceed to the next stage,” mentioned Hui Chyr, phrasing some examples.

Using the boss’s authority is one way of dealing with the slacker. You can also ‘cc’ your boss when sending emails to the slacker; providing progress reports via WIPs (Work In Progress) reports, and if these don’t work, make a direct report to your superior.

More things to say & ways to say them
• Anticipate and pre-empt problems – “Here’s the data. We’ve checked and it’s clean so you should have no problems running the analysis.”

• If you sense a phony excuse, be clear but tactful – “Hmm… that shouldn’t be, the data wasn’t corrupted earlier. Why don’t you try running the analysis again, maybe it’ll be different this time. We’ll check back with you in half an hour.”

• Know your stuff. Set and communicate a specific, realistic deadline, and get his acknowledgement. “Johnny, I need this by lunchtime tomorrow, ok?”

Rise to the occasion!

All right, the boss has been informed and Johnny is now management’s concern. Hopefully, he’ll be dealt with accordingly. In any case the case is out of your hands. What’s in your hands is the work itself. Who’s going to do it? You!

Picking up the slack is a golden opportunity for you to develop leadership skills, gain experience, and boost your professional credibility – maybe even earn a bonus/ promotion sooner than you think. Make sure though that the assignment’s worth it, and that you’re not constantly covering for your colleague. “Working with slackers trains you well,” Hui Chyr agrees. “You become more precise and pro-active in your work.”

Sure, life would be ideal if situations fl owed smoothly and people behaved as they should. But the sweetest victories come from winning against all adversities. So take the initiative to learn how to manage slackers. You’ll end up with a more pleasant work environment and a worthy addition to your list of professional skills!

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