Non-Productive Team Members


As we all are aware, the success of a project is dependent on the team members who each have a contribution to the various milestones. Every team member has their own expertise that will help with the execution of a project, and every team member wants a project to succeed. However, there are times where a team member will fall behind in his/her tasks which may undoubtedly cause the project timelines to slip. There are several things that the project manager can do to help in this type of situation.

According to a blog posting by Barry Otterholt, if a project team member is falling behind in his tasks, the project manager needs to step in and help correct the situation before the project slips too far behind schedule and project team morale slips. The project manager should speak with the member in a tone that isn’t accusatory or from a manager to a subordinate, but from a colleague to a colleague and in an open manner. It may be that the employee is simply overloaded with additional work (which is common in these economic times). If this is the case, the issue is relatively easy to resolve, and the project manager can provide coaching or additional resources to help get the employee’s job done. While an additional resource (even a temporary resource) may be expensive, the cost of that employee may be less than the cost of the project not being completed on time.

Other issues, like personal problems or incorrect prioritization could also be the cause of a task to fall behind schedule for a team member. However, if all else fails, he/she needs to escalate appropriately. In another posting by Brad Egeland, if all attempts to “work it out” fails, the supervisor of that team member needs to be notified and he/she needs to be taken off of the project and a new resource needs to be assigned. As stated above, waiting too long can be detrimental to the project chemistry as well as the morale of other project team members.

Finally, Otterholt finishes his posting with a few quick tips about dealing with this type of a situation. First, ensure the team member takes responsibility for the task that is falling behind. Next, the project manager needs to show a willingness to help. Third, the project manager should be resourceful in finding a solution. Finally, if all else fails, the project manager should cut ties with that resource.

My question to everyone is how would/have you dealt with a problematic project team member in any project you participated in? If you were the project manager in a project where a team member is consistently missing deadlines, how would you handle the situation?


14 thoughts on “Non-Productive Team Members

  1. I agree that the most important thing is to get to the root of the problem first. As a project manager, I would first make sure that the team member knows he is valued, and understands how her work contributes to the project. If it is a work-related problem I would help him to prioritize the different projects she is on and perhaps even make a choice to drop one of them if he has taken on too much. If it’s a personal issue, I would discuss it as far as she is comfortable and try to figure out what can be done to help. Sometimes a simple thing such as letting that person work from home part of the time or have flexible work hours can resolve the issue.

    In the end, a project manager may decide that this person who is not pulling his weight and needs to be replaced.

  2. From my experiences within my current role, I have seen this situation time and time again. I am completely astounded at how some members of projects simply do not want to participate in the process at all regardless of the potential that team member would enjoy upon completion. I also would like to mention that this challenge does not always only occur on the individual level but also can occur at the team level as well. A perfect example of this is at my current employer, I have had to work with one particular team which will remain unnamed which perfectly portrays this challenge. They will absolutely not participate in any of the testing required to complete a project and are combative whenever they are included in discussions for planning. A perfect example of this is a project that I led where as the project manager I actually ended up doing all the research for them, completing all testing which was assigned to them, and finally had to sign off a satisfactory result of testing. This is a perfect example of how a problem is not only on the individual level but can encompass an entire team to the point the manager is even part of the problem. At this point, we are essentially unable to follow the OP recommendations of attempting to be civil and discuss the issues within the context of a discussion between coworkers. Hostilities are almost necessary in an attempt to harvest any cooperation.

  3. I believe problems that would otherwise persist in project teams can be alleviated if expectations are set up front. Different people have different work habits which can cause frustrations if not addressed up front. For example, if one team member is more slow and methodical in their processes whereas another team member tries to get tasks accomplished as quickly as possible, there is a potential for conflict. The role of a project manager is to try and prevent these conflicts from occurring, and this can best be accomplished by addressing these factors at the start of the project.

  4. I have had extensive experience in dealing with non-productive team members and the only way to deal with them is for management to handle them directly. If management is afraid or hesitant in addressing the issue then their legitimacy is undermined. Further, if management is too soft or too accommodating these unproductive workers will sense that and exploit it for as long as they can. Management needs to set expectations from day 1 and adhere to them. If they don’t then management is just encouraging this unproductive behavior. In my opinion, unproductive behavior falls mostly on managements shoulders as there is something that is causing the employee to not be productive. Figuring out why they are unproductive is the golden question and once answered, can make things much better for all personnel.

    The best solution to this kind of problem based on my experience is to find a way to connect with these employees and reengage them in the operation. This includes, as mentioned in an earlier post, getting to the root of the problem. Expressing concern and showing you care about your employee goes a long way. This will lead to identifying what the issues at hand are and what changes/adjustments need to be made so as to create an environment where the employee can be more productive.

  5. I have had some experience being a member of some important projects. The one project that came to my mind when I read through your article was a new system implementation project. We had 5 people on our team and we were having issues with this one person. She seemed to be trying really hard, but was not able to understand any of the concepts. The other team members spent more time explaining things to her than working on their own part of the project. This was proving extremely detrimental to the group as a whole and the project manager stepped in and moved her to a different project. This is also in line with your article. She was not overloaded, did not seem to have personal issues and explaining the concepts over and again did not seem to help. So, the only option left was not move her to a new project. If I was the manager for that project, I would have also taken the same approach.

    I believe the majority of people get up in the morning and want to do a good job. (I know, there are exceptions, but I’ll put that aside right now) As a project manager, a person needs to remember that they manage the task and lead the people. Before any project begins, have the right people been identified? Are we putting people in a position to succeed? Have these people had input into the scheduling and what is being done? These very important pieces shouldn’t be overlooked. We also need to remember that we are working with humans and not robots. People have emotions and have things going on. A project manager needs to keep his/her finger on the pulse of the team to ensure situations and issues are addressed as early as possible when something can be done about it. If it gets to the point as discussed in the article, it’s too late. Lastly, a project manager has to continually think about plan B, C, D, etc. Some things just don’t work out and you need to make a move. Keep the energy up and celebrate successes. The project manager should bring hope, stability, compassion & trust to the team. If these things exist, good people will want to be a part of your project.

  7. This is a problem that I see on my projects quite regularly. I know that the text book answer is to communicate and to discuss it as soon as it starts but at times this is difficult. It is often hard to know when a team member is slipping and missing a deadline before it happens and after it happens at times it is hard to right the ship. I found there is a fine line between being involved and micromanaging and this line is different for every individual. With the employees that I have managed a long time I know where this line is however with new employees it is very difficult where the line is. I have found that I tend to micromanage until I have found the line but this could create a crutch that the employee starts to rely on and not take initiative for themselves. I have become to believe the project team process starts in the interviewing and hiring process. During a hiring process candidates not only need to looked at for intellectual qualities but also work ethic.

  8. In regards to what I would do when I’m in a situation with a colleague not pulling their weight in the project is to take a step back. How were the roles assigned for what needed to be done? Were there specific deadlines? Were there clear expectations? If these things didn’t happen, it’s not surprising that a team member could fall behind. Clear and concise expectations need to be laid out before a project starts to avoid this, especially since this person may think they aren’t doing anything wrong. If you have someone who consistently misses deadlines, then you need to have a conversation and lay it out to them that they aren’t meeting your expectations. And if they’re going to continue to work on the project, this is what needs to be done.

  9. I agree with all of you. Taking a step back and looking at the issue from the performer’s (team member’s) perspective is critical in understanding the reason for poor performance. If someone is constantly missing deadlines, maybe they have personal issues, or are not motived enough. Very often we tend to blame the other person for not pulling their weight in the project, but fail to look at what we, as project managers, are doing or not doing to help those individuals. Sometimes an honest conversation that demonstrates compassion results in a performance improvement because it builds trust. I also agree that a clear communication of expectation is the key to a good relationship, which in turn will most likely end with successful performance.

  10. I’ve had consultants who constantly miss deadlines, and my approach was to set smaller deadlines for them. For example, by the end of today, please have the Invoice Resolution Testing complete so that we can go over it together. I’ve found this approach to be successful in most situations.

  11. Having team members who miss deadlines or seem to careless of the project to be completed can be quite stressful especially if you are the project manager or team leader. In the beginning I made sure that my expectations of the importance of staying focused and being committed to the task were laid out but of course things don’t always go as planned. So when two members started slacking off I made sure that things were communicated and offered help and setting goals with them. So I think its important to get the individuals involved in coming up with ways to make sure they are staying committed to the project or job. It helps us both stay communicated and makes them understand their importance of their role in the team.

  12. I think everyone’s approach is different depending on the culture, team member, and impact to the overall project. There are times when issues and unproductive team members should be addressed however there are also times when it may be inconsequential to the project.

    Generally speaking I handle situations in a direct but professional manner. I think open communication on project teams is necessary to get to the final result. You can’t ignore it or it will most likely escalate and impact the morale of the other team members. The project manager is the lead but he or she isn’t a parent. I think other team members have right to address the situation with their team member as well.

  13. I agree with most of the post’s comments. Communication is the most important tool in this case. Project manager should understand the reason of the low performance. Then he/she should analyze the case and find a suitable solution. Project manager should communicate the team member face to face; he should be very friendly to find out the reason. Project manager should help, motivate or maybe provide a suggestion to improve the weak area.

    I would like to highlight that motivation need depends on the nature and personality of the team member, I believe that project manager should figure out what are the things that may motivate the unproductive member. I think it is very important to appreciate and highlight the importance of the member presence in the team. Finally, if there is no result as an outcome of these steps, I think unproductive team member should be replaced with another member to avoid any delay in the project.

  14. I found this topic very interesting because the failure of the team members leads to the failure of the project. I believe team members micro monitoring is a good idea to point out the non-productive members in the early stages of the project and discuss the issue one-to-one. For more effective team members , project manager should assign the tasks based upon expertise and interest for higher involvement by the team members. Moreover, project manager should ensure that all the members take the responsibility of any non completed work.

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