Project Practitioners > What to do when a team member doesn't do what they're supposed to do. A "Choose Your Own" Adventure

What to do when a team member doesn't do what they're supposed to do. A "Choose Your Own" Adventure

By Sinikka Waugh

Picture this scenario with me:  Project Manager Brent has just thrown his hands in the air in disgust and is ready to throw in the towel.  Team Member Stacy didn't come through.  Again.  She's just not doing what she's supposed to do, and Brent has had enough, and he's mad enough to just get Stacy off the project.  Brent heads over to Pat's office for insight and direction...

What will Pat say, and how will it impact the team?  You choose...

  • For "you're right"...choose option 1 below.
  • For "that's easy"...choose option 2 below.
  • For "hold on"...choose option 3 below.

Option 1 - Pat says, "Brent, you're right, let's boot Stacy off the project." 

Immediate Ouctome:  HR is called, Stacy's stuff is packed in a box, and Stacy is unceremoniously transferred to a different project, department, or employer. 

Long Term Outcome: 
Brent is now left short-staffed on his project.  Unfortunately, no one else has the expertise Stacy had, and Brent's project is now at risk.  The project falls several months behind, and Brent becomes known for his knee-jerk reactions...emphasis on the "jerk." 

You have chosen poorly.  Please select another option. 

  • For "that's easy"...choose option 2 below.
  • For "hold on"...choose option 3 below.
  • Option 2 - Pat says, "Brent, that's easy.  I noticed the roles & responsibilities doc hasn't been published in a while.  Let's call a team meeting and yell at everyone on the team because someone is not doing what they're supposed to do.  We'll make sure everyone has the document, and tell them if there are any more slip-ups, then we'll give the offending person the boot."

    Immediate Outcome:  The 12 individuals all working on the team are called into a meeting none of them have time for.  Three of them barely engage in the meeting and hold side-bar discussions that are distracting; four of them get irritated at the waste of time since they already know their roles and responsibilities anyway, and decide to use this as an excuse to grumble about Brent later; two take immediate offense, thinking the conversation was directed at them, and decide to drop everything they're doing to gather the evidence showing they've been doing what they're supposed to do all along; one starts pointing fingers at what everyone else is doing wrong; and two, including Stacy, don't even bother coming to the meeting.  

    Long Term Outcome: 
    The project team loses three weeks of productivity while team members churn about the stupid meeting they had to attend.  Stacy's behavior doesn't change.  Brent finds himself falling deeper and deeper into insanity.

    You have chosen poorly. Please select another option.

  • For "you're right"...choose option 1 above.
  • For "hold on"...choose option 3 below.
  • Option 3 - Pat says, "Hold on a minute, Brent, let's think this through and figure out the right next steps."

    Immediate outcome:  Pat and Brent spend a couple of hours together, where Pat coaches Brent in leadership.  Brent begins applying what Pat taught him.

    Long term outcome:  Brent gets to know his team better.  The root cause of the recent problems with Stacy turns out to be a personal issue that's been distracting her, combined with a lack of clarity about the critical nature of her role.  Based on Brent's concerns, Stacy takes her project role to heart more, and asks for help with some of the things that have fallen behind.  A couple of members of the project team pitch in to help get Stacy through this tough spot, and she makes a commitment to return the favor next time around.  Inspired by success at work, Stacy is able to work through the personal issue with greater confidence.  Others notice a change in Stacy, ask her about it, and she glows about the way Brent reached out to her, and how great her project team is.  The project gets back on track, and the project team continues to demonstrate a team spirit that helps them deliver successfully, even in the roughest of moments.  Brent is eventually promoted, and has opportunities to share what he learned from Pat.

    You have chosen wisely. 

    Each situation will have its own unique nuances, and the quick answer is rarely the right one when it comes to the complexity of dealing with people.

    Epilogue...Here are some of the questions Pat asked Brent that day...including why Pat asked them, and what Brent was asked to do about them...

    A...How well do you know Stacy?

    First and foremost, make sure you know the people on the team.  Get to know them, and get a good understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and pet peeves.  Find out what motivates them, and find out their level of awareness about their own skill set as well as the project roles you may need them to play.

    B...How does Stacy's role align with her skills?

    If there's a mismatch between the individual and the role they're expected to play, look for solution options such as coaching, team work where the individual can be partnered with someone who is a better fit, or adjusting the role or the expectations to create a better match.

    C...How well does Stacy understand and embrace her role?

    Based on each individual's communication style and mood, make sure you use a variety of tools to communicate expectations (written, verbal, seek response and validation from team members, etc.).  Be candid and consistent and fair.  Allow opportunities for feedback, and be willing to adapt and improve along the way.

    D...How well do other team members understand and embrace Stacy's role (How "best practice" is Stacy's role)?

    Is it a standard, easily-definable role?  Then make sure the definition is documented and clearly communicated to everyone who needs to know. If it's a highly irregular role, make sure that a clear case has been made for the unique nature of the role, and why this project demands it.  Note it on the project risk list somewhere, and have a response plan if the irregular nature of the role starts to become a problem.

    E...Have you told Stacy about your concerns?

    Make time to communicate with the individual (in a way that best meets their communication preferences), and express your concern in a nonthreating way.  Use specific examples (avoiding generalizations like "always" or "never," and being very careful not to exaggerate), and ask for their input on what's going on.  Use the information they provide you to help create specific action items and expectations to correct the current issue.

     Want to learn more about choosing good adventures?  Check out

    Related Links
    While you're getting to know the Stacys on your team, make sure that the Bretts, Pauls, and Sinikkas aren't ciphers either. A User's Guide to Working with Me helps team members communicate their most effective modes of work, including hot buttons, trust-builders, the best ways to raise and resolve conflicts, and more. Our Sweet Team Building Suggestion explains the value (both perceived and in real dollars) of Management By Walking Around (MBWA) to discover issues before they get out of hand. A Responsibilities Allocation Matrix takes RACI to a whole new level by including commitments and cross-functional dependencies in your team roles and responsibilities planning. And use our guideline on Fast, Effective Ramp Up of New Team Members to ensure Stacy and her teammates all have the air, food, and water they need to get and stay productive on your project.

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