Digging For Worms

POSTED MAY 4, 2016 - by Dina Silver

Remember when you were in middle school and your teacher put you in a group of three or four to complete a report or presentation?  Unless things have changed markedly since my days at those scrawny desks, there was usually a natural leader, a couple of good soldiers and a slacker. The slackers were absolutely infuriating since they contributed little or nothing, put more pressure on the rest of the team who had to pick up their work, and walked at project’s end with the same good grade earned by their harder-working cohorts.

I clearly remember my own kids coming home and ranting furiously about the injustice of these situations, and I don’t think I had much good advice to offer.  What were their options, really?  Cooperate and do your best. Recognize that not everyone has the same confidence, capacity or diligence to excel.  Rise to the challenge and put your best work forward even though others are not.

The problem of being an achieving twelve-year-old on a cruddy team is not all that different from being a motivated thirty-something surrounded by a mix of excellent and not so excellent teammates. Your work depends on others and not all others are created equal. So what are your options?

1. Talk to the person/people and articulate the impact of their behavior on the team and on the team’s results.  Sometimes this has a surprisingly good outcome.  Often though this tactic yields a short-term bump and a then a slide back to where you were at the start.  To effectively talk to a peer about something as sensitive as this you must be able to speak clearly, honestly and humanely.  Emotional baggage that you bring to the conversation backfires and the loser is… you!

2. Talk to your manager.  Risky choice since you may look like a grown-up tattler who is pointing fingers instead of solving problems.  If the problem person is really a disaster for the team, it can be more effective to gather the team together to talk to the manager en masse. 

3. Work around the problem by doing other people’s work for them.  This is what usually happens and it is an unappetizing choice indeed since you are now doing your work and someone else’s and you’ve successfully trained a poor performer to keep on doing poor work. 

4. If you are the manager, then you must provide clear and unapologetic feedback to poor performers. Find out their perspective about what is occurring and:

a. Match them to work better suited to their abilities

b. Provide training if that is what is at the core of the problem

c. Move them to a different team

d. Move them out of your organization

Managers who let high performing teams suffer with untalented and/or unmotivated members do so at great peril. Your high performers may get so fed up they start to look elsewhere; the team may become so frustrated that the overall level of performance declines; morale absolutely suffers and the work-around to compensate for slackers creates burnout and disappointment.

So take action-- cut the Gordian Knot and liberate your high performers to do what they are yearning to do—their work, really well.