Got Slackers?

Are poor performers dragging down the rest of your team? Here's what to do.

There's at least one in every workplace. The guy who always seems to be chatting in the break room. Who comes in late and leaves early. Who always seems to think that somebody ELSE needs to work a little harder. Who always has a reason that he hasn't met his goals for the month.

Whether you call them slackers, sluggards or low performers, their presence is pernicious. Not only do they fail to pull their own weight; their bad attitude can be infectious. If their higher performing colleagues perceive that the slackers are getting away with lying down on the job, they too may suffer a loss of motivation. Worse yet, they might start looking elsewhere.

...a June 2013 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of American workers were disengaged from their jobs, and that 20 percent were "actively disengaged."

According to one study, 87 percent of employees reported that working beside low-performing colleagues made them want to change jobs. A whopping 93 percent said their own productivity decreased when working with poor performers.

The problem is grand in scale: a June 2013 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of American workers were disengaged from their jobs, and that 20 percent were "actively disengaged." Those 20 percent, Gallup estimated, were costing American business about $550 billion.

So what to do? Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch had a way to deal with sluggards: fire them. In fact, he fired the bottom tenth of his workforce--every year.

But today's managers are not so prone to give the axe. In a 2009 Leadership IQ survey, only 17 percent of middle managers said they were comfortable firing low performers.

It's hard to be the bad guy. And besides, finding a replacement can be costly, too.

What do many managers do instead? Often, they just ignore the problem, hoping it will resolve itself or that the person will eventually just move on.

Wrong move.

Failing to challenge and deal with poor performers, slackers or workers with a bad attitude can change the whole culture of a workplace. Doing almost anything is better than doing nothing. But if you want to deal with the problem properly, here are three strategies you might try.

1) Coach those slackers into better performance.
Remember, criticism is a poor motivator. It is always better to find something to praise. After all, why would your employees want to perform well if they don't think you will notice?

"I like how you handled that complaint, John" Or "8 of your last 10 reports were right on time! Looking good!" (This one does double are giving praise AND signalling that you are paying attention.) A little praise goes a long way, especially if it is direct, specific, and immediate. Don't wait until the end of the week...or the quarter.

Better yet, make expectations clear at the outset. Call a meeting in which you express some urgency and set specific goals and a timeline. Check back at the appropriate time to see if the goals have been met, and offer praise after each success. Sometimes poor performance reflects poor understanding of what is expected.

Along the way, find out what motivates your people. Perhaps you are offering the wrong rewards. The distant promise of a raise might be far less effective than, say, a workspace with sunlight, or even a gift card for a local restaurant. Find out what your employees really want to motivate them the most effectively.

Because your best weapon to combat lack of motivation is the highly motivated guy who's sitting just a cubicle away.

2) Communicate your goals and vision.
Does everybody on deck understand what they are working toward? Every employee needs to know how his work fits into the larger picture. A greater understanding of the company's goals, and of each individual's role in meeting those goals, will give many of your employees an increased sense of purpose. If you share your vision, many will join you, adopting a "hero's mindset" and stepping up their game in pursuit of excellence.

This is helpful because increased motivation across the board will decrease tolerance for slackers. Your team will find a way to deal with the problem themselves, whether it is through straight talk or social pressure.

Or you might find that your "slacker" didn't have a bad attitude at all, but rather lacked motivation and purpose. Sharing your vision may help to light the fire that will transform a sluggard into a productive member of your team.

3) Create a culture of connectedness, communication and creativity.
Don't be an absentee boss; mingle, check in with people regularly, share your plans and seek ideas.

As a leader, your goal is to create an environment:

  • where people feel like they are part of the mission;
  • where they will bring their concerns to you, or better yet, police themselves;
  • and where everyone feels that his contributions count...and are counted.

Because your best weapon to combat lack of motivation is the highly motivated guy who's sitting just a cubicle away.

Coaching, communication and culture. Simple changes in these three areas (like the ones listed in this article) can jump-start idle employees and turn their performance around.

Reprinted with permission courtesy of