Leadership Tips for Turning Around a Slacker’s Performance

Slacker with Feet on DeskDo you have a Slacker on your team who isn’t pulling their weight?  Your leadership challenge with them is unlocking their motivation.  They have the talent.  You have to get them to apply it!

The following is an excerpt from Lead Inside the Box: How Smart Leaders Guide Their Teams to Exceptional Results (you can get your copy here). This post focuses on how you can turn around the performance of a Slacker on your team.

Dave has a great résumé with the right education and expertise from brand name schools and employers. When he accepted your job offer, you felt like you made one of the best hires of your career.

Since Dave got the job, however, his talents haven’t translated into the results you expected. He’s a smart guy with great communications skills – at least his verbal communication skills. He’s outspoken in team meetings and has many ideas, most of which seem to have potential. Interestingly enough, however, those ideas relate to other peoples’ responsibilities. Dave’s willingness to comment on how others are doing or not doing their jobs is drawing complaints from your team. He has much less to say about his own area.

When it comes to written communications, Dave doesn’t have much to say. Getting him to produce reports is frustrating. He’s never met a deadline he didn’t renegotiate.

Dave is content knowing how to do the job instead of actually doing it. He seems to think he’s paid for being smart instead of for being productive. His failure to deliver is frustrating everyone. You hate the thought of losing someone as talented as Dave, but his lack of results is alarming. His teammates have picked up his slack. You’ve dedicated more of your leadership capital than you’d like harping on him to get his work done. There’s no doubt that Dave is a “Slacker.”

Approaches for Leading a Slacker

Leading Slackers requires you to “Unlock Motivation” within them. Slackers have the capability to do their jobs well. If they applied themselves, Slackers could be Exemplars on your team. Turning a Slacker around reduces the team conflict they create when they talk about everyone else’s work instead of doing their own. Such a turnaround reflects well on your ability to develop people. If Slackers don’t learn to deliver results, their careers will come to a grinding halt. Potential can only carry them so far. When they get their acts together, they can end up on a fast track to bigger roles. Building a reputation as someone who can get people out of slumps and advance their careers should attract positive attention – both from people who want to join your team and leaders who want you to join theirs.

To turn a Slacker around, first let them know their behavior isn’t acceptable. If they’ve avoided deadlines in the past, give them a real deadline to hit or face the consequences. Connect with your HR representative to start the performance improvement plan process. Document the expectations for the Slacker’s role, their performance against those objectives, and the specific goals they need to accomplish.

Set deadlines for completing their performance improvement plan and keeping their job. Make it clear that delivery of results is a condition of their employment. You’re not looking to threaten them – you’re merely explaining the cold, hard facts of their situation. Coach them that being smart isn’t enough. Reassure them you believe they have the ability to do the job – if they set their mind to it. Provide them a picture of what success could look like for them.

The painful first conversation with a Slacker might be enough to turn them around. Other times they say they’ll improve but they never do. That behavior requires you to escalate the situation and put them on a formal performance improvement plan. Contact your HR team for assistance with doing this. You’ll need to follow your organization’s process for documenting the Slacker’s performance shortfalls and provide them the completed plan.

After putting your Slacker on a formal performance improvement plan, have a frank discussion with them about how they want to rectify the situation. Don’t limit the discussion to their role on your team – discuss their career aspirations too. Let them know if they plan to keep slacking by relying on their smarts and reputation to get them through, they’re going to have a performance crisis that will be hard to recover from. If they don’t change their behavior, it will kill their career at some point.

If the combination of being put on a performance improvement plan and getting your frank assessment can’t motivate them to behave differently, ask them what it will take to get them to change. If they’re not interested in helping themselves, you can’t do it for them. These are potentially high risk, high return leadership investments.

Slackers have a decision to make that will determine your approach to leading them. If putting them on a performance improvement plan gets through to them, find the root cause of their problem. All that’s holding them back is their motivation. They could be bored with their work. Maybe they lack the skills required to plan their work and manage their time. They might lack an important skill they convinced you they had but they actually don’t. Perhaps someone else on the team is stealing credit for their work. Your discussion about root causes could provide you insights on how committed they are to change.

If they’re defensive or in debating mode, they may be unwilling to do the hard work required. If they do commit to improving, take them at their word, but don’t ease the expectations they’ve committed to meeting. If you sense a sincere desire to perform, make investments in their success. Get them a coach, send them to training, or find them a mentor. After all, they have the potential to become an Exemplar. Investing your leadership capital and giving them the tools they need could deliver great returns.

If they’re not going to work hard in their current role, help them find their next one. Work with them, in consultation with your HR team, to see what kind of referral you can give them. For external referrals, you can point to the Slacker’s strengths. Leave it up to them to explain why they’re leaving their role. For referrals for roles within your organization, give your candid assessment that this individual has the talent to be an Exemplar but they need to turn around their performance to get there.

What has your experience been with focusing on solutions rather than problems? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.  If you want insights into your team members’ behavior and how to lead them more effectively, take our Lead Inside the Box Assessment! It’s free and it’ll give you great insights into how to improve your team’s performance!

Lead Inside the Box– If you’re serious about getting better results out of your team while leading them more efficiently at the same time, grab yourself a copy of Lead Inside the Box: How Smart Leaders Guide Their Teams to Exceptional Results. There are plenty of suggestions in there for how you can drive better performance with less effort. CLICK HERE to get your copy.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

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Photo: slack++; by Tim Patterson

2 Responses to “Leadership Tips for Turning Around a Slacker’s Performance”

  1. Excellent post on a critical topic. The key element here is time.
    How much time are you willing to invest in improving the performance of the Slacker? Some of my colleagues believe that collecting a paycheck and not carrying out your responsibilities is a form of theft.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      I’ve never set a time limit. For me it’s always been about progress. If I’m seeing them improve and do so at a reasonable pace, I’ll continue investing in them. But if they stop putting in the effort and start backsliding, it’s time for them to move on.

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