How to Be Smart in a Project with a Slack Team Member

Leadership, Personal Development

Have you ever had problem team members? These individuals hide missed deadlines, possess bad attitudes, and criticize other team members. They seldom volunteer to help other team members or jump in to pick up the slack.

How to deal with a slack team member
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock (edited in Canva)

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Project managers are more than managers – they are leaders. Team members watch project managers to see how they respond to problems. A project manager’s failure to confront and resolve poor attitudes, behavior, and actions can be costly on many levels.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” -Babe Ruth

I once managed a project team to build a customer service center facility. One of the team members was Susan, an intelligent lady, but clearly indifferent to the project.

I worked with the team to define the project and complete a work breakdown structure. We defined the project tasks and made assignments.

When I assigned Susan her tasks, she leaned back and away. I asked if she would commit to the tasks. She said “yes” but she shrugged half-heartedly. I was concerned as I saw her sluggish exit from the meeting.

In the weeks to follow, I conducted meetings with the team to discuss the status and to see if the team members had sufficient resources. Most of the members were excited and ahead. Susan was non-responsive.

When I asked Susan for specific details of her tasks, I received vague responses. She smiled disingenuously. I knew I had a problem.

How should project managers address such team members? Coach and support the individual one-on-one. Seek to understand. Be clear about how the issues are adversely impacting the team and the project.

Ask how you can help. Ask the team member for their ideas, and set expectations for moving forward. If the team member is unwilling to get on board, remove the bad apple. As you do so, follow organizational processes for disciplinary actions and removal.

How soon should you do this? If the individual has a reputation for being slack, start quickly; the first time you see bad behavior, begin the conversation. For others, give them more time, but don’t allow small things to grow into large issues.

Removing a team member is a delicate manner. Project managers should recognize the potential adverse effects. The removed individual may respond in a highly charged manner. Although most of the other team members will likely cheer the removal, friends of the problem child may not understand your actions.

Another related issue is how the removal may cause remaining team members to be anxious about their future. The project manager should be calm.

How to Remove a Slack Team Member

Before removing the team member, be sure of the following:

  • Do you have the authority to remove the team member?
  • Have you discussed the matter with your sponsor, the functional manager of the individual, and other appropriate stakeholders?
  • Are you following company human resource procedures?
  • Do you have a replacement in mind?

In some situations, you may not be able to remove the individual. The person may have political connections. Then what?

First, the project manager should focus on their relationship with the individual. Look for ways to enhance the relationship and increase trust.

Second, leverage the peer pressure of your project team. Periodically ask for updates from each of the team members in meetings. No one likes to report – in front of their peers – that they have not completed their tasks.

Third, turn problems into opportunities to brainstorm solutions or develop contingency plans with your team. Be positive and supportive.

Quick Improvements

A project manager should ask if he can have input in staffing the team. Determine the skills and knowledge required by your team members. Do your homework, and talk with stakeholders to discover high-performing candidates.

If you receive pre-assigned resources and recognize that you may have team issues, focus on developing your team. Use your interpersonal skills to influence the team. Conduct team-building activities aimed at improving teamwork, motivating team members, and improving project performance.

Bonus: This article is Chapter 4 in my new book — The Purpose Driven Project Manager — aimed at ten common project problems and how to apply your soft skills to achieve your goals and advance your career. I have developed a FREE online companion course that you can take, with or without the book.

About the author 

Harry Hall

My name is Harry Hall and I'm the guy behind the and the author of The Purpose Driven Project Manager. Risks can derail projects, resulting in challenged and sometimes failed projects. I make project risk management easy to understand and practical to apply, putting project managers in drivers seat.

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