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Mike Figliuolo

Management

How to Identify and Motivate Slackers on Your Team

From torpor to torpedo

Published: Thursday, February 16, 2023 - 12:03

You put a lot of time and energy into leading slackers, but you don’t get anything back in terms of results. Your job as a leader is to figure out what will motivate them to perform.

Slackers are in the lower left corner of the leadership matrix. They have the talent to get work done, but they just don’t care. They’re not motivated to do it. Leaders spend a disproportionate amount of time managing slackers. They require constant supervision and motivation. What’s so frustrating about them is they have the capability to do the work; they just choose not to.

Identifying slackers

There are some easy ways to spot a slacker. They tend to be smart with a strong resume. They can tend toward self-promotion. They might be a frequent job changer. They’re difficult to get work out of because they constantly debate the merits of your request rather than doing the work. They might renegotiate their deadlines frequently. They’re more interested in other people’s work than their own. They can be outspoken. They annoy other team members because they always wander into a team member’s lane instead of focusing on their own responsibilities. Other team members frequently push back on covering for the slacker because they know the slacker has the capability to do the work.

I know one slacker very well: me. I had a role where I’d been excited about the work I was doing, but my boss changed my responsibilities. I wasn’t thrilled with those new responsibilities, so I started mailing it in. I just didn’t care. I became frustrating to lead. I absolutely had the ability to do that work; I just wasn’t excited by it. My form of silent protest was to just not do the work and focus on everything else that was going on in the division. I drove my boss nuts. He was at my desk all the time pushing me, asking where the results were. I never had results to offer.

If you spot a slacker on your team, get ready for what might be a long, drawn-out engagement trying to motivate the person and understand what’s going to get them to deliver the results you expect.

Motivating slackers

The issue with slackers is they’re unwilling to do their job. They drag the team down with their poor attitude. Slackers require motivation.

The leader’s job is to figure out what will motivate a slacker to perform. This can be in the form of incentives—or punishments if need be. Slackers need to have expectations and consequences clearly laid out. The leader must figure out what motivates the slacker. Whether it’s new responsibilities, compensation, or visibility, once a slacker’s motivated, their performance tends to improve quickly because they're fully capable of doing what’s asked. The leader’s goal with a slacker is to unlock their motivation. Sometimes that includes moving them to a new role or even out of the organization to a job where they’re going to be happier. This requires the leader to invest more leadership capital in the near term figuring out how to motivate this individual.

For example, let’s say you have a slacker on your team. They have a big presentation that’s two weeks late. You sit down with them and you understand that they have the capability to do the presentation. They just don’t seem to be doing it. When you ask them what would excite them about working on that presentation, they tell you, “Well, you always present the presentation. I never get any visibility here for all the work I put in. That’s not a lot of fun.”

Now you have the key. You can unlock that slacker’s motivation. In this situation you might say, “Well, I’ll tell you what. If you finish the presentation, I don’t need to be the one who presents it. You can present it in front of the leadership team.” You might see their performance change dramatically to the positive in that moment. You’ve unlocked their motivation. You understand they want visibility. As soon as you connect the visibility with the work you’re asking them to do, you might see their entire attitude change.

The benefit of leading a slacker more effectively is that they could quickly become a higher performer. They’ve got the skills, just not the motivation. You’re also demonstrating to your team that you’re focused on results, and that you will hold people accountable. If you do decide to move that slacker out of the organization because you can’t find proper motivation, make sure their attrition is as positive as possible. Help them transition to that new organization.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, I highly encourage you to take about 30 seconds to subscribe to my thoughtLEADERS blog. It’s free, fun, practical, and only a few emails a week.

First published Jan. 25, 2023, on the thoughtLEADERS blog.

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About The Author

Mike Figliuolo’s picture

Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch (Weiser, 2016) and One Piece of Paper (Jossey-Bass, 2011), and co-author of Lead Inside the Box (Weiser, 2015). He’s also the managing director of thoughtLEADERS LLC, a leadership development training firm. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.