Ways to manage a slacker

People are strange, as Jim Morrison would’ve said. During your career you’ve probably experienced this on your own, but there is a type of strange that is particularly difficult to manage — the slackers. They are arguably one of the most frustrating employees to deal with, since they don’t feel motivated and can often be seen doing off-target tasks. Often they can be very smart and creative when they want to, but unfortunately, they don’t seem to utilize their potential.

When it comes to productivity of groups, it is known that a team is as productive as its least productive member. In management theory it’s called „bottleneck“. The inefficiencies brought about by the bottleneck often create a queue and a longer overall cycle time. Applied to a whole organization — it means that your business is as fast as your slowest employee is.

Mary Hladio, founder and president of Ember Carriers Leadership Group and an organizational performance consultant, said, “Regardless of the symptom or reason, in all cases these type of occurrences have to be handled immediately and professionally. Avoiding or delaying dealing with problems may encourage other employees in the company to follow suit or a decrease in morale”.

If you find yourself in an unpleasant situation of dealing with an underperforming employee, these are several ways to solve it more effectively:

  • Realize the reasons behind their behavior.

Not every underperforming employee is a slacker. Perhaps a person is just lacking motivation or is faced with a task that’s just too complicated at the moment. In this case, breaking tasks down to more achievable goals could bring improvement. Make sure to provide a clear structure and define explicit expectations for your worker, so you can measure the performance over time.

  • Set up a reward system and make the individual input visible.

Many times we procrastinate simply because we don’t like the activity; yet, throughout the history this has been compensated with adequate rewards. The important thing when you have a slacker is not to reward the whole team, but the individuals whose performance you announce publicly. Being marked as an underperformer publicly for a smart person usually is a wakeup call.

  • Make clear that it’s not about being busy, but about the results.

Many slackers always seem to be busy, when in fact they are not contributing to the results nearly as much as the others. Therefore, your conversation with them should not start with “Tell me what you’re doing at the moment”, but with “Tell me what you have completed last month”. Show the troubled employee how others performed compared to them, and make a point about how underperforming harms not only the organization as whole, but also their colleagues and themselves.

  • Shrink the group, or assign unique responsibilities.

When working in a large team, it’s easy to question whether individual efforts really matter. In a famous experiment, psychologists invited people to make as much noise as possible in groups, in pairs, or alone. In groups of six, each individual averaged only 40% capacity. As fewer members were involved, people made less noise in total, but each member’s average contribution increased. Individual contributions increased to 51% capacity when the group was reduced from six members to four, and spiked to 71% capacity when people worked with just one colleague. The smaller the group, the more responsible each member feels for contributing. However, in some situations it’s difficult to shrink the group since the task requires many members. In those contexts, the easiest way to boost effort is to make sure each group member has a distinctive role to play. Karau and Williams found that free riding was common when people saw their contributions as redundant with other group members’ efforts. If each member is delivering something different, it can’t be taken for granted that someone else will cover you.

A manager needs to learn core coaching skills to get to the root cause of the issue and address it accordingly, said Elene Cafasso of Enerpace Inc. “Hopefully, the slacker will improve, or has skill sets that can be better utilized in another area of the business. If not? Then it’s only fair to manage them out of the business so as not to demoralize those folks who do care and are doing a good job.”

So, if one conversation doesn’t do the trick, try again. It may be that you weren’t direct or specific enough the first time. You want to be able to come back to the person and say: “We talked about this, here’s what you said you would do, and here’s what hasn’t happened”. There might be a couple rounds of that. Monitor the progress and provide encouragement. If things don’t improve within the time period established, if the behavior persists and continues to negatively affect your work, then you probably aren’t on the same track and you should consider letting them go.

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