David Wray

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When Team Members Don’t Pull Their Weight

Credit: Scott Adams

Is it Laziness?

If a person does not pull their weight, does that translate into being lazy? Personally, I don’t believe that not pulling your weight has much correlation with laziness, in most cases. A failure to deliver typically correlates with motivation or capability, meaning it’s down to the individual themselves. This was also the conclusion that Nigel Nicholson (HBR, 2003) reached: “You can’t motivate lazy employees.”

Motivation is something that must come from within an individual, as covered in the BLOG “Happy New Year Resolutions, or Should You Break Free?”. It can be incentivized though, which we will get into a little later.

Let’s look at this issue from the perspective of the team leader (or a peer) to understand what actions can be taken when an individual doesn’t pull their weight. You’ve undoubtedly been part of a team where one or more individuals were free-riding off of the hard work of others. When it happens, we can feel let down which can escalate further if the issue remains unresolved. So, what exactly can we do? Let’s take a look through an example.

James is chairing a non-profit public good project. He has a team of six that are tasked with leading parts of the project, so they all need to work closely together. One of the team, Sharon, is not pulling her weight. She is missing deadlines; the work is below par, and she is regularly late to meetings. Unsurprisingly, she always has an excuse or reason. James wants to turn it around, but he doesn’t know-how and has asked you for help…

A roadmap so everyone can pull their weight

A typical reaction I hear as a coach is “I need to move Dermot off of the project, he is not pulling his weight. His peers are angry that they are picking up the slack!”

This reactionary approach is one that skips over an important first step: get to the heart of what is happening for Dermot. In doing so, we uncover one of two themes:

  1. The individual lacks the skills or capabilities needed to fulfill their tasks 
  2. The individual is distracted with other worries, commitments, or priorities

Once we understand the root cause theme, we can address it by either providing training or a training buddy (where the cause is skill-based) or by discussing the source of the problem and possible ways of alleviating it.

Armed with an understanding of the root cause, you are now likely to address the issue more effectively. There is an eight-step process you can follow.

Your eight-step process to break Free-Riding

Applying it when someone doesn’t pull their weight

If we revisit James and Sharon and apply the eight-step process, James has several tools to help Sharon. He can open the conversation by talking to her and find out what is going on in Sharon’s world. From this factual base, James can adapt his approach to connect with her more quickly. They can work together to develop a specific performance improvement plan to return things back on track. Rewards will be aligned with Sharon’s style and preferences.

A key takeaway is to walk the talk. When team members see you rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty, they tend to jump in with you to get the job done! Before you know it, the days of free-riding team members will be behind you.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Section or comment below to share your views, tips, and tricks on how you cope with team members or peers that free ride off of your efforts.

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