Managing Slacker Work Teammates

Last spring, I was getting ready to embark on my first whitewater rafting trip down the Pacuare River in Costa Rica, and I was scared. I was scared partly for the rapids, which went all the way up to Level 3 and 4 (out of five), but I also was nervous about the needed teamwork required. I hadn’t realized that whitewater rafting requires that a group of people who may not know each other well work together to avoid overturning the raft or having it run into a rock or other obstruction. I had just met the handful of people I would be rafting with, but they seemed earnest enough. My primary concern was myself. I wondered whether I would be skilled, strong, and energetic enough not to let my raft-mates down. Sure enough, within minutes of the raft ride, our guide was admonishing me to row harder: “I need more from you, Margery!” he shouted as kindly as possible at me. I started putting more oomph into it. I got the hang of it, but I don’t know if I would have been voted the most valuable rower on the team.

It was a role reversal for me because on work projects, I’m usually the diligent, hard-working one. If I don’t get my assignment done, it’s usually because forces beyond my control—namely, a slacker colleague I was forced to rely on—didn’t come through. A post I saw recently on Entrepreneur by Sherrie Campbell, “When Workplace ‘Slackers’ Derail the Cohesion of a Team,’” reminded me of this angst: “Slackers can fuel tension, lead to distractions that impede team success, and even damage the reputation of a business,” Campbell writes. “Managers often don’t want to admit that they have a person messing up their team. But over time, if there are no improvements in the behavior of this person, managers may be forced to let him or her go.”

The recent challenge that comes to mind when thinking about how slackers can derail a project, unfortunately, is my current boss. I have to wonder first, though, how a slacker is defined. Is a slacker a person who doesn’t get work done because he or she is simply lazy, or is a slacker a person who doesn’t get his or her work done because he or she is inefficient or incompetent? In the case of my boss, I’m not sure whether it’s incompetency or laziness, so I’m going to say it’s a combination of those two problems. My first challenge for trainers monitoring the productivity of work groups is what to do when the problem person in the team is the boss? Is that a common problem? A work group often needs to wait for approval from its boss before moving forward, or sometimes it needs to wait for the boss to make a decision about a product, design, etc, before additional work can be done. Then, if it’s a small work group (like mine, which consists of only my boss and me), it may be a problem if the boss is willing to critique, but not to contribute. When projects assigned to work groups fail, how does a trainer or Human Resources executive bring to light the person or people most responsible for the failure? Is it important to assign blame? Many would say reflexively that blame isn’t important, but if you don’t know why the project was not completed, including the person or people who didn’t come through, how will you prevent the same kind of failure from happening again?

The second important issue is the kind of system at the company that needs to be in place for an employee to let the boss’s manager or Human Resources know that the boss was the problem. What kind of system should be in place, so employees are protected and taken seriously when they make such a complaint?

When the problem person in the group is a colleague, rather than the boss, what is the best approach for an employee to be instructed to take? Colleagues are likely to be friends, or at least friendly acquaintances, so an employee who finds his or her group project failing because of a particular person may be hesitant to strain that relationship by reporting the slacker.

A possible solution is for Human Resources or Learning and Development to create a group work project template on the company’s intranet or learning management system. The template would require input from all members of the team, and would require each person to report what they’ve done on the project at designated intervals, and also would require the group participants to attach to their report whatever it was that they said they did. If a person on the team has no deliverables to report and show off, then you might wonder whether that person needs to be in the group at all. When work group members are required to show at each stage of the project their contribution, accountability is unavoidable. If the boss hasn’t made the decision he or she needed to make by a certain time, or hasn’t provided the information he or she needed to provide to his or her group by a set time, then that failure will be on record. The best part about having a template like this for work group projects is that it makes performance appraisals easier. With today’s online systems, I’m sure it’s possible to also have the group project reports filed by each individual automatically integrated into each person’s performance file.

Do you make accountability easy for work teams, or do you suspect slackers (maybe even the boss!) are going undetected?


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