Lighting a Fire: How to Deal With a Slacker on Your Team

“A lazy person, whatever the talents with which he set out, will have condemned himself to second-hand thoughts and to second-rate friends.” — Cyril Connolly, English writer and literary critic

Lighting a Fire: How to Deal With a Slacker on Your Team by Laura Stack #productivityBusiness is a collaborative enterprise. Very few jobs consist of one person working in glorious isolation. Even solopreneurs rely on others to get things done, because it’s too much work for a single individual, and we don’t have talents in every area. We humans have accomplished almost every big thing we’ve managed, from digging the Panama Canal to going to the Moon, by working together and building on the achievements of those who’ve gone before us.

Since teamwork rules in the business environment, having someone on a team who doesn’t shoulder their share of the load can clog the productivity gears, bringing it to a halt. Not only does a slacker slow down team efficiency in general, their attitude may infect other people. After all, if Bob’s not working hard, why should anyone else?

As a leader, you’ll inevitably deal with slackers, given the high percentage of completely disengaged and semi-engaged individuals in most organizations (typically higher than 50%). To save your projects and keep your team in line, you have no choice but to rapidly recognize their behavior and get things moving again…one way or another. You can’t tolerate them for any longer than it takes the average person to get themselves in gear or get out.

Springing Into Action

When you ID a slacker, don’t automatically assume they realize what they’re doing. It may not be deliberate. They may be so worried about something outside of work they just can’t do a good job. Perhaps they don’t have the right training. Perhaps it’s not a good fit or they’re bored. Maybe they don’t recognize their own incompetence. So before lowering the boom, start with these simple actions:

1. Be honest with them. Call the person into your office and tell them, in a straightforward way about your concerns, pointing out specific examples. Ask, “Is there something going on I should know about?” This might be all you need to do, because it may snap them out of their stupor or poor attitude or whatever has been holding them back. They may be having trouble at home, may feel overwhelmed, or may simply need training to do the job right.

Once you’ve pinpointed the problem, deal with it in whatever way you deem necessary. If they simply don’t understand the workplace reality (sometimes this happens with new college grads), teach them what they need to know about the organization, the team, and the goals everyone needs to achieve. Provide the training they need. Pair them with a mentor to help them get on track.

Be prepared for the occasional person who knows exactly what they’re doing. Maybe they’ve deliberately pushed the edges of the envelope to see what they can get away with. They might even prove actively hostile for some reason. So move to the next step.

2. Put them on notice. Even if someone’s going through something difficult in another part of their life, you can only go so far in terms of doing their work for them. Offer potential solutions if you can; but unless it’s a matter involving life and death, also insist they find a way to work it out so they can focus enough to do the minimum requirements of their job. If it does involve a matter of life and death, suggest they take some time off to deal with it. You can replace them with a temp until they feel ready to return.

If the employee proves hostile, demanding, misguided, or simply lazy, don’t play the game. Appraise them carefully, document the corrective action, and give them milestones to get back on track.

3. Motivate them. Once you’ve put an underperformer on notice, don’t just disappear until reassessment time. Keep an eye on them and find ways to motivate them toward doing a better job. Make sure they understand exactly what their job entails, and why their work is important within both the team and organizational framework. Try small rewards for successful completion, such as a good Christmas bonus (perk slackers should NOT receive), a positive reassessment so they look better next time raises come around, or even something minor like a certificate of achievement or Starbucks gift card with a handwritten note—whatever’s in your power to give.

If nothing else works, it’s time for:

4. The nuclear option. If the employee just doesn’t want to remain a member of the team or it’s otherwise not working out, invite them to explore their talents elsewhere. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, famously fired the bottom 10% of performers in his company every year. He received a lot of criticism for that, but no one can deny that GE thrived under his guidance. Sometimes, you just have to clear out the deadwood.

Enough’s Enough

Whether they intend it or not, slackers are productivity vampires, slowly draining your team of life. The worst of them blame others for their faults, maintain a toxic attitude, and even deliberately stir up trouble. You can’t have that. Immediately respond to slackers, putting them on notice that they need to improve. Help them along the way, find ways to engage and motivate them where possible. But you can’t let it go on forever, so if things don’t clear up relatively quickly, show them the door for your team’s sake.

Anything to add? I’d love to hear how you’ve dealt with slacking on your team. Please feel free to leave a comment!

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