I gave a keynote session last week to a group of Health and Safety experts. Following the speech, they were asking questions about the impact of dysfunctional teams on workplace mental health. Someone asked for assistance in dealing with a co-worker who doesn’t pull her weight.

Here’s what I recommended.

As you always hear me say: take a moment to get in the right mindset before giving any feedback. It’s highly unlikely that the person gets up in the morning thinking “what new and interesting ways do I have to let my team down today!” Be open to the fact that the person is struggling and those struggles might be completely legitimate. Once you’re calm and in a constructive mindset, move to step 1.

Clear and direct feedback

The next step is to be clear and direct about the impact the person’s work (or lack of work) is having on you. Here’s an example: “Monica, we agreed last week that you would complete the project plan and get it to me by Tuesday. It’s Friday and I’m just getting it now. For me to be able to live up to my commitments to get the communication plan out on Monday, I’m going to need to work on the weekend. I’m really disappointed because I have company coming this weekend and don’t want to be working. What was the delay?”

That’s the basic unit of feedback. State the behavior objectively; share the subjective impact; then open up the communication to hear her perspective.

Now, you won’t be surprised to hear that the person who asked me the question had already tried that. And that’s where you might be stuck. You’ve given feedback and the person denies or deflects it. If they deflect the feedback, move to step 2.

Feedback about the feedback

If the person takes the feedback poorly, you can address their response with more feedback. “Once I gave you the feedback about how your delay was impacting me, you named three other people who played a role in the delay but you haven’t talked about your role. I’m not feeling confident that this isn’t going to happen again. What are you going to do differently to make sure you hit the deadlines in the future?”

In some cases, once the person realizes that they will feel the heat each time they fail to deliver, they will start living up to their commitments. In other cases, they won’t want to step up or won’t be able to. In that case, you have done everything within your role as their teammate and the focus needs to shift to the team leader: on to step 3.

Engage your leader

It’s really important to address the issue directly with your teammate before running to your team leader. Once you have tried and failed to make progress by addressing the issues directly, it’s completely appropriate to engage your boss in the situation. Ideally, your first round with the boss is to bring him in the loop and to make sure he’s aware of what’s going on. Try something like this.

“I wanted to share with you a challenge I’ve been having lately. In the three most recent projects, Monica has committed to get me the project plan 5 days before I need to turn around the communication plan. In each case, it has been late and I have had to work weekends to fulfill my commitments. I gave her feedback after the second and third times, but it didn’t help. What advice would you give me about how to handle this?”

In this way, you are highlighting the issue, but showing your manager that you are still taking ownership.

In the worst-case scenario, the boss won’t help you and will continue to tolerate the poor performance of your teammate. Then, it’s time for step 4.

Feedback to the team leader

Now it’s not just the teammate that’s not pulling her weight; now the team leader is failing to do his job too. Back to the feedback formula.

“In four of the last six projects we have worked on together, Monica has delivered the project plan at least 3 days later than she committed. I raised this concern with you a month ago and I haven’t seen any improvement. I don’t feel like I can solve this without you. How can you help us work through this?”

Then you wait and see if it works or not. There’s a decent chance it will. If you’re calm and constructive and genuinely open to building a solution, most people will choose to change rather than constantly hear feedback that they aren’t delivering.

There’s also a chance that it won’t work. Then you have to decide how much it matters: how much it matters that the distribution of work is unfair; how much it matters that your manager turns a blind eye. At least exhaust all the constructive options you have before reaching those tough decisions.

Further Reading

Tough One: When the Slacker on the Team is Friends with the Boss

Do you Expect Too Little of your Team?

How to work for a Lazy Leader