Strengthen the Weakest Link on Your Team

Unless it’s done correctly, dealing with the weakest link on your team is fraught with career peril

Strengthen the Weakest Link on Your Team

Anyone who’s in the workplace long enough eventually runs into a slacker. You know the type — that one colleague who is the anchor weighing down your team’s boat, the governor on your team’s engine, the gale-force headwind in your team’s face, the … well, you get the picture.

Recognizing the resident laggard is easy. But handling the situation constructively can pose a bit of a challenge.

How so? Well, if done incorrectly, bringing a matter like this to your manager’s attention might earn you a reputation as a get-ahead-at-all-costs tattler and career-wrecker. But ignoring the situation also carries risks, such as logging burnout-inducing hours to cover for the slacker’s deficiencies.

So how should you go about handling such a sensitive and untenable situation? First try talking to the colleague, but tread lightly, advises Allan Cohen, a distinguished professor in global leadership at Babson College in San Francisco. He also wrote a book with co-author David Bradford called Influence Without Authority.

“The first thing to do is ask the person if something is wrong,” Cohen says. “But proceed with caution. There are always political risks involved when talking to someone or about someone else.”

If the slacker behavior is a fairly recent development, there may be something specific that triggered it, such as marital trouble, personal-health issues, a job-role change or a new supervisor, for example. 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, he suggests.

Don’t make it personal

Obviously, having this conversation is a lot easier if you already have established a decent working relationship. But either way, it’s important to frame the conversation not as a personal attack, but as concern for the person’s well-being, using open-ended questions. In short, asking why the person is a nonstarter.

“It has to be a friendly inquiry,” Cohen says. “It’s always easier to get a conversation going with a general inquiry as opposed to going into accusatory mode. Perhaps you could say something along the lines of, ‘Things don’t seem to be going well for you — is something wrong?’”

Of course, if you don’t have a good relationship with the person, it’s a more difficult conversation. If that’s the case, consider asking for help from a colleague who knows the person reasonably well, Cohen says.

Many experts recommend holding several of these conversations, especially if things don’t improve right away. Keep in mind that it takes time to turn around an aircraft carrier, metaphorically speaking. 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 a solution to 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.”

Just the facts

If the situation doesn’t improve, things inevitably reach a tipping point where the only recourse is to escalate things and bring it to a manager’s attention. If possible, it’s helpful if the colleague is willing to join you in the meeting with your manager. If not, then it’s fine to proceed alone, Cohen says. 

But again, using a well-reasoned, low-key approach is critical to avoiding the aforementioned political and career repercussions.

“If you decide to take the matter upstairs, make it in the spirit of an inquiry,” Cohen says. “Tell the manager you need help with addressing a problem, instead of just saying that ‘X’ is a lousy person who’s always messing things up. Put it on the table not as if you’re a workplace spy, but as someone who needs help resolving an issue so everyone can get their work done.”

Providing your manager with specific, factual examples of how work has been adversely affected will help bolster your position. It will also reinforce to your manager that you’re bringing up the matter for sound, objective business reasons, not political gain, Cohen says.

“There’s a very fine balance involved in building a case,” he says. “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. I think it’s better to go in and express concern for the situation and ask for advice about how to solve it in a constructive way.”

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

Call to action

Whatever you do, however, don’t ignore the situation and hope it will eventually get better. Inaction hurts both the slacker and you and your team. How? Think about it this way: As a general rule, many people don’t feel comfortable talking about how personal issues are affecting them at work — or asking for help, for that matter.

“So if someone is experiencing problems and no one asks what’s wrong, the person feels like nobody gives a damn and the situation only gets worse,” Cohen says.

On the other end of the spectrum, when hardworking colleagues see someone slacking off without any consequences, they feel resentful. As a result, reduced morale and productivity may ensue, along with increased turnover.

“It’s too demoralizing — a rotten-apple-in-the-barrel situation,” Cohen says.

In the end, however, employees should never forget that they have the ability to influence others, even if they’re not managers. The key is the power of reciprocity, which Cohen says is the basis of all influence. If you give someone what they want, which Cohen calls a “currency,” they’re more likely to give you what you want.

“You can influence colleagues or bosses by finding a currency they want and figuring out a way to give it to them,” he says.

In the case of slackers, perhaps all they want is better information, better training or a better job that’s more suited to their skill sets. And if they get it, your reciprocal reward might well be a harder-working colleague who helps your team shine. No more difficult conversations required.



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