Business—like most of life—is a team sport. Companies succeed, because people work together to create outcomes that no individual could accomplish alone. Learning how to create good team behavior is complicated by the fact that education (in general) is an individual sport. Throughout our years of school, we are given assignments to be done alone and are evaluated on our personal knowledge of the material.
There are good reasons to make sure that everyone in a class has learned the material, but it means that most of us don’t get practice at taking on group projects and particularly at developing strategies to ensure that everyone takes care of their responsibilities.
That is a particular problem when one of your colleagues is not carrying their share of the load. So what should you do when someone is slacking off?
Lead with empathy
An old finding in social psychology is called the “fundamental attribution error.” The idea is that when you explain the behavior of other people, you tend to assume that it has to do with some aspect of who they are rather than the situation they are in. Part of the reason that this is seen as an error is that when you describe the reasons for your own behavior, you tend to focus more on the impact of the situation rather than on your own traits.
When a colleague isn’t getting their work done, it is natural to think that they are being lazy or that they don’t care about the work as much as you do. While that is possible, there might also be something going on in their life that is making it hard to complete the task.
When you notice that a team member has not gotten work done, start by asking how they’re doing. Particularly during the pandemic, there are a lot of factors that might make it hard for people to complete the work they have been assigned. Many people are dealing with childcare and family care issues. Other people are dealing with illness in the family. And still others are having to cope with anxiety and depression associated with the pandemic.
The more you understand about a colleagues’ situation, the more that you’ll be able to figure out how you might be able to support them in the work that needs to get done.
Look for bridgeable gaps
There are two key aspects to motivation that drive people to get things done. First, people are energized when they experience a gap between where they are right now and where they want to be. Second, that energy has to be channeled into a specific set of actions that will allow the person to close that gap. A lack of motivation often reflects a problem with the gap, the bridge, or both.
When a colleague does not seem to care about a project, then they won’t have motivational energy to work on it. Sharing the reasons why you think the project is important can help a colleague to create their own gap. For example, there are times when a piece of a project you have been given may seem silly or irrelevant. But, the work you do may provide an important input to another aspect of the project that you are not aware of. If you are given more information about how your efforts play a crucial role in someone else’s work, then that can energize you to get the work done.
At times, though, a colleague may understand why the work is important, but may not really have all the knowledge or skills they need to make progress. Unfortunately, not everyone is good at admitting what they don’t know, and so they may procrastinate on a project, hoping someone else will take it over rather than getting the help they need in order to succeed.
If they are working in an area you know well, talk about what steps they are taking to move a project forward. If they seem to be unsure of what to do, offer a few suggestions for how to move their task forward. You might also suggest someone in the organization that would be a good mentor.
Ask for help
If those two steps don’t work, then it is time to work with a mentor of your own. Rather than just complaining to a supervisor that a colleague isn’t getting their work done, sit down with someone you see as an effective leader. Describe what you have done so far and ask for advice about how to proceed.
The main idea here is that you don’t practice leadership for the first time when you are given a role that requires you to lead. You have to develop those skills as early as possible in the work you do. Asking for help when dealing with difficult situations with colleagues demonstrates to other people in the organization that you are focused on solving problems rather than asking someone else to solve them for you. It also sends the message that you are willing to learn from other people. Those traits make you more attractive as a candidate for new responsibilities in the future.