On the Clock

What to Do About Slacker Team Members

How to handle a project where collaboration looks more like a one-man show.

4 min read

It’s 11 p.m. on a Thursday and you’re scrambling at your desk, struggling to piece together a group presentation that’s happening tomorrow. Your whole team has gone home; one of them didn’t even bother coming in today. You’re busy rewriting slides that came in to you yesterday when they should have been turned in two weeks ago. This, you think, is why teamwork is a nightmare.

If this scenario resonates with you, you aren’t alone. Research shows that nearly a quarter of workers put in extra time each week to make up for their slacking colleagues. What’s worse, four out of five employees say that their work quality declines when they have to cover for a co-worker.

So, what’s the best way of handling this situation? Career experts say it’s necessary to examine the situation before rushing to resentment. In some cases, the problem isn’t your so-called slacker teammates—it’s you.

“I think it’s an opportunity for self-reflection,” says Lynn Isabella, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “People often want others to work the same way they do, but everyone has different work styles and ways to contribute.” 

"Research shows nearly a quarter of workers put in extra time each week to make up for slacking colleagues."

Start by asking yourself the following: Has your communication been unclear? Have you delegated the work, or have you willingly assigned yourself the brunt of it? Is this person actually producing up to standard, but just not appearing as busy as you are? Have you been a micromanager, to the point where no one feels motivated to do more than what’s absolutely required? While it may be too late to change the outcome of the current project, reflecting on these tough questions now can save you from repeating the problem in the future.

If your self-examination turns up clean, it’s important to have a conversation with the person who’s causing the problem. Approach is everything here, and career coaches say it’s best to approach the person with curiosity more than blame. One way to do this is by using “I” statements, not “you” statements. “I’m nervous that we aren’t going to have this done on time because I don’t have the information to work from” sounds much less accusatory than “You aren’t delivering the information.”

Many times, you’ll find there’s a reason this person hasn’t been able to complete the work to your standards, and you can have a productive conversation about the road ahead. If the bad behavior continues, though, then it’s time to involve your manager.

Of course, the most ideal solution is to prevent a slacker situation from occurring in the first place. Experts say the best way to do that is to start every team project by taking the time to get to know your teammates as people. “Maybe you both have toddlers or play guitar,” Isabella says. “It’s about forming connections with one another.” 

While studies show that having friendly connections at work makes people more productive, there’s another reason for getting to know your team members: It gives everyone a foundation for discussing what it means to be a member of the team. By discussing the way you’re going to work collaboratively and creating so-called rules of engagement up front, you can avoid problems down the line.

“Many times, slackers behave the way they do because they can get away with it,” Isabella says. “Discussing right up front how you work can help.” 

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