Leadership Skills: How to Handle the Difficult or Lazy Team Member

Most people I talk to are uncertain about how to behave powerfully in shared responsibility situations. Would you like some help with that?

When I have the chance to talk with a small group of project leaders, I usual invite their questions, but only if they are also willing to take responsibility for their role in the situation.

Here are two of the most frequent questions and responses. I hope considering these makes you a little more powerful.

Q 1: How do you handle the difficult or lazy team member, especially when you aren’t her manager?

A: Notice the assumption. The question assumes that only a manager has the right to address someone’s behavior. This is a common and widespread misperception.

The truth is that if your performance, and thus your assessment and eventual reward is dependent on the actions of others — and isn’t that exactly what a team is — then you have the right to address and solve perceived performance problems. And that includes giving yourself permission to address the behavior of a difficult teammate.

Here are some tips:

1. Own the problem. You are the one concerned about someone’s behavior, so it is your problem. Then own it.

2. Take only responsible action. It can be damaging to complain to other teammates, yet that’s often the first thing we do. While possibly cathartic, such blame-storming seldom enhances team performance. Instead of laying blame, ask yourself, “If I were to take effective action to address and correct this difficult behavior, what might it be?”

3. Talk about your problem to the person closest to solving it — the difficult one. Ask your difficult teammate for permission to talk with her about how the two of you work together. Then use the logic of cause and effect to invite her to see her behavior as you do. Report the behavior that troubles you and the results you see from that behavior. Then ask her for what you would like to see different in the future. This may be difficult for you, so start early and small, before problems get big and daunting.

Q 2: What do you do when a team member isn’t as committed or motivated as you are?

A: This is an excellent question about teamwork and collaboration because team performance is better predicted by commitment and motivation of the members than it is by the skills and resources members bring.

Think about it. You can take a random sampling of teams formed with all the right skills and given all the right resources yet evidence of true teamwork will still be hit or miss.

The truth is that teams perform to the level of their least motivated member.

Why? We all think that it is unfair to do a greater share of the work yet share the reward equally. So when low-motivated people are assigned to our teams, we tend to decrease our own commitment to that effort, do the least we can to get by, and wait until we can get off of that team.

So what can you do?

I find it helpful to presume that I can’t motivate anyone else, but that I can discover what already motivates him and illuminate that for him. I call this “brightness of the future” and I apply it to every relationship.

I always ask that person: “What’s in it for you to do this project with me?” I show a personal interest in learning what will be a “win” for him, and I support him in getting that win out of the joint project. That’s what’s meant by the term “win/win.” I’m willing to take responsibility for the other person winning, too.

Try it and let me know if you are getting positive results.

Leaders and coaches: Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this FREE Special Report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.

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