We can all relate to being on a team where someone doesn't pull his or her own weight. Maybe the person is having a hard time at home; he or she is less organized than others on the team; he or she is less motivated and inspired by the job or doesn't have a clear sense of the team's priorities. Whatever the reason, it can be hard to deal with a difficult teammate when it directly affects our work and our performance. Whether there are missed deadlines or the person simply isn't participating during meetings, it can be tough to bite your tongue and not get frustrated. Next time you find yourself getting annoyed, take a moment to flip the situation around. Consider if there is an opportunity for you to be a leader and help your teammate rather than get angry. Whether the person is new to your team and hasn't learned all the ropes yet, or if he or she is just not living up to his or her potential, there are several ways you can help, and you may make a big difference in the person's life by doing so.
Try clear and simple communication. Communication is a critical factor to success when working on a team. Not communicating correctly or directly can cause undue stress and frustration, especially if your teammate does not understand your work lingo or if you're not communicating as accurately as you could be. If your teammate needs to have his or her part of the project done by tomorrow at 10 a.m., tell him or her it needs to be done by 10 a.m. Avoid general phrases like "as soon as possible" or "high priority," and be specific about deadlines. "Top priority" to you may mean by the end of the day, but to your teammate, it could mean by the end of the week. If the person is new to the office, be sure to take a few extra minutes explaining not just the goals and purpose of the group, but the norms of the group: who the group members are, how they work together and what the dynamics are. While there are small things the person will figure out on his or her own, make sure he or she understands his or her role, how to communicate effectively with everyone and what the team will need from him or her. Pick up the book "The Four Agreements," which is a great reminder about how to communicate effectively and clearly.
-- Action tip: If you feel it would help your group work together more smoothly, take five minutes at the next meeting to establish guidelines or agreements for your group. At the end of each meeting, you might establish deadlines, but instead of assuming everyone knows theirs, go around the room to review them briefly. If you are going to use catch phrases or acronyms common to your industry, that's OK, but make sure to let everyone know and agree as a team what those phrases mean so everyone is on the same page.
Offer to help. If you notice that your teammate is struggling or slacking off, it may mean he or she is struggling with a new system or a new task. Or perhaps you have noticed that your teammate doesn't handle himself in a very professional manner at meetings or with clients. Here is your opportunity to be a leader. Approach your teammate in a relaxed setting and let him know that your team appreciates what he is already doing, and ask him if he's struggling with anything. If he is, ask if he'd like some help and let him know that you'd be happy to help meet his deadlines or improve his interaction with clients. Ask questions first. Find out what's going on and if he's open to assistance. Don't make assumptions. This will prevent him from getting defensive, and he will be more likely to accept the help. You may even find that he is struggling with a personal issue that is causing him to not be as focused at work. If he's open to it and it's something you can help with on a one-time basis versus something that is touchy or requires long-term training that should be taken to human resources or your boss, set up a time to help him out in the next week.
-- Action tip: With your offer to help, don't be pushy or overwhelm your teammate. Ask questions first, then if your teammate is open to it, pick the biggest issue he or she is struggling with and focus on that. Provide encouragement along the way.
[See: The Best Team-Building Exercises.]
Talk to your boss. If the first two steps are unsuccessful, things aren't improving and your work or your team continues to be affected negatively, take the matter to your boss. But don't just throw your teammate under the bus. Your boss may have already noticed that your teammate is not as productive as he or she could be and is working on it. If your boss isn't aware of it, let your boss know that you have already tried to work with your teammate without seeing results, and ask if your boss has any other suggestions or if it's something someone else should handle. Be direct about the impact this is having, but approach it as a problem to solve with positive ideas about how to handle the situation. The more you approach it this way, the more impressed your boss will be with your leadership.
-- Action tip: This step should be the last resort after you have tried to help your teammate. Your co-worker will most likely appreciate your efforts to make him or her aware of what needs to improve instead of just immediately telling your boss that he or she is underperforming. Plus, you never know what's going on in people's lives and where someone could use assistance. It's best to ask the right questions and offer to provide support before judging or assuming.
Hallie Crawford is a certified career coach, speaker and author from Atlanta whose coaching company, HallieCrawford.com, helps people identify their ideal career path, navigate their career transition and nurture their careers. Her team of coaches works with people of all ages, has clients worldwide and has helped thousands of people achieve their career goals. She is also regularly featured as a career expert in the media, including CNN, Fox Business News, The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger and Forbes.com.
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