Handling the Resident Slacker

Avoidance isn’t an option, but what you say and how you say it truly matters.

Handling the Resident Slacker

Stacey Engle

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It’s a rare workplace team or department that doesn’t have a resident slacker — that certain employee who always seems to shirk his or her fair share of work on projects, yet still gets credit for their success.

Spotting these laggards is easy. But dealing with them is not. If you tell your manager about this underperformer, you run the risk of being branded as a tattletale. But letting it slide carries downsides, too, like the stress of working longer hours to cover for the slacker’s deficiencies. Or higher turnover and decreased productivity as team relationships slowly erode.

So what’s a beleaguered employee to do?

Step one: First talk to the slacker, not your manager, advises Allan Cohen, a professor emeritus in global leadership at Babson College in San Francisco and co-author with David Bradford of the book Influence Without Authority.

Tread lightly, however. Slacking off could be a response to marital trouble or personal health issues. Or perhaps the colleague lacks the skills to do his or her job effectively and needs training, or is resentful about not getting a promotion, Cohen says.

Context is everything

Moreover, don’t make it a personal attack. For example, asking slackers why they’re so lazy will result in a very short conversation. Instead, frame the conversation as concern for their well-being, Cohen advises.

“Perhaps you could say something along the lines of, ‘It seems like you’re having trouble delivering on assignments — what’s up?’ Or, ‘Things don’t seem to be going well for you, is something wrong?’”

But at some point, you need to specifically point out how the slacker’s behavior is adversely affecting colleagues’ ability to work.

“You can tell them that you’re not out to get them in trouble, just interested in solving the problem,” Cohen says. “Always leave open the possibility that there’s a positive solution — that it can be converted into a collaboration, not just a slash-and-burn approach.

“These problems rarely occur because someone is a bad person. Sometimes all it takes is some education or training or moving them to a job that’s better suited to their skills.”

Fine balance

If the situation doesn’t improve, things inevitably reach a tipping point where the only recourse is to involve a manager. It’s helpful if the colleague is willing to join you. If not, then it’s fine to proceed alone, Cohen says.

But again, use a well-reasoned, low-key approach to avoid political and career repercussions, he recommends.

“Make it in the spirt of an inquiry. Tell the manager you need help addressing a problem, instead of just saying that ‘X’ is a lousy person who’s always messing things up.”

Providing specific, factual examples of how work has been adversely affected (project deadlines missed, quotas not filled, etc.) will help bolster your position. It also will reinforce to your manager that you’re bringing up the matter for sound, objective business reasons, not political gain, he says.

“There’s a very fine balance involved in building a case. If not done correctly, you often can sound very one-sided and make it look like you’re trying to harm somebody, which doesn’t make you look good.”

Furthermore, be sure to tell your manager what you’ve already tried to do, he adds.

Don’t let it fester

Whatever you do, don’t ignore the situation. Being nice is great, but putting on an autopilot smile and pretending everything is cool isn’t a good idea.

In short, a culture of niceness for the wrong reasons can actually derail organizational success, says Stacey Engle, the co-founder and CEO of Authority Circle and the former president of Fierce Inc., a training company that teaches people how to have effective conversations.

“Most people aren’t encouraged to effectively address issues head-on,” she explains. “We tend to avoid difficult conversations or conversations that we frame in our own minds as difficult. But as more and more organizations emphasize transparency and accountability, it forces people to face issues directly; so they need to be skilled at this.”

Moreover, putting on a happy face and ignoring an issue only makes you a victim of the situation instead of proactively trying to change it, Engle says.

It’s helpful to develop a 60-second opening statement that clearly outlines the issue at hand. It should include a brief example or two and explains the negative effects. Brevity and simplicity are critical.

Practice your approach

Like anything else, practice makes perfect. Also consider that reading the statement to yourself can be drastically different than actually saying it. So it may help to read it aloud to a trusted friend or colleague, Engle says.

If the situation is with a manager, not a colleague, Engle says the concept and strategy remains the same, although the stakes are certainly higher when confronting a supervisor.

In either case, it helps to schedule a specific time for such conversations; it’s not fair to catch someone completely off-guard with a spur-of-the-moment conversation about a complex topic, she says.

Not doing anything is often more appealing than confronting issues; after all, candor can have consequences. But any real change — both personally and professionally — requires healthy conversations. And you enhance your chances of affecting change if you do it the right way at the right time, Engle notes.

“People make assumptions that things can’t ever change. But unless someone tries, people miss out on eliminating potentially damaging issues. In addition, lots of people leave jobs simply because they think something never will change.

“If you don’t do anything, it’s likely that everything stays the same,” Engle says. “And if what’s happening right now isn’t what you need to get where you want to go, you need to move the needle yourself.”

The irony is that, when asked, most employees want colleagues to share any issues or concerns and work toward solutions.

“Almost always, the answer is yes,” Engle says. “Yet we still avoid confrontations. We all need to keep in mind that we connect more deeply with people who level with us. And when that happens, it’s even easier to talk about real issues and challenges.”

Like turning that resident slacker into a productive workplace citizen. One conversation at a time. 


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