When you can’t fire ’em – 5 Ways to Approach “Dysfunctional” Team Members

We’ve all been there. There’s someone on the team or on the project that’s juuuuust not quite cutting it. And wouldn’t it be great if we could all work under the Zappo’s employement philosophy: Hire slowly, Fire quickly.

But how often do you have complete control over everyone working on your projects? You’ve likely got a mix of people: some may work for you directly, others support your project part time, and others who are “on loan” from another organization/business unit/agency support your project. In my experience, matrixed teams are a way of life and definitely here to stay on projects and programs. (Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a Laurel and Hardy Abbot and Costello “Who’s on First” routine paired with a game of musical chairs. Welcome to my world 🙂

So you’ve got team members who don’t work for you who may not be performing in the way you expect. What options do you have? Here’s a few to consider:

1. Check your Relationship strategy: What do you know about that person? Have you built a working relationships with them? What are they into? Do you know the names of their kids? Are they passionate about something in particular? This may seem like extraneous information, but sometimes, just asking people to talk about something they care about created an informal relationship that supports the work relationship. You don’t need to become best friends, or even Facebook friends – Just show that you care about the individual as an individual. People are more likely to use a bit of idle time doing something for someone they know and cares about them than someone who rarely talks to them other than in the form of assigning tasks. A 15 minute investment of your time can pay off in the long run.

2. Check their workload: Is there something else they’re working on that’s affecting their ability to dedicate the needed time to your project or task? Perhaps they’re getting different instruction from their direct manager that’s influencing their ability to spend time completing your tasks. Perhaps a higher priority project has overtaken their time and the “other” manager hasn’t communicated with you about it. In short, make sure you have an understanding what else the individual is working on.

3. Have the talk: After you’ve done your homework, make sure you talk TO the individual (not ABOUT them to others!) and express specifically what elements of performance aren’t meeting expectations. Showing up late for meetings? Not making sufficient progress on tasks? Not meeting deadlines? Have the uncomfortable talk. It’s important. Keep it to one or two matters. I usually use an approach that goes something like this ” Hey (name) I’d like to talk with you about how I can help you be really successful with these tasks…”

Use their name – because, as they say in sales, nothing is sweeter to a person that the sound of their own name 🙂

4. Listen to what they have to say: The “talk” should be a two way conversation, not a monologue. Ask the individual how they think things are going, and if they think that their activity means productivity. Reality is based on perception, so some folks may think they’re doing exactly what they need to! And most employees, even if they don’t work for you, want to do a good job. Also, be prepared to listen to things that may be outside the workplace that are affecting performance. Maybe there’s something going on that makes performance seem inconsequential, like a major life change, or significant health matters.

5. Ask what you can do to help them be more successful: Have the individual define their “improvement” plan, if you will. Some may need a task manager approach – breaking down their portions into individual tasks to complete. Others will need support and may ask for “feedback” throughout tasks like, “Is this ok?” or “what are your thoughts on this approach?”. Sometimes, they need a coach – a person who will help them develop a skill they didn’t know they had, and will build them up when they fall down despite their best efforts. Transactional leadership involves becoming what that individual or that team needs at a given point in time. Don’t be afraid to change your approach based on feedback your team member has given. Just because their request wouldn’t make you more responsive doesn’t mean they won’t respond positively to the change.

A lesson I learned the hard way is the way I’d approach completing a task on time, on target, on budget, isn’t necessarily the same approach someone else would take to arrive at the same end state. What I thought was an inability to prioritize and complete tasks was really my own inability to see that my approach was being interpreted as overwhelming, micromanaging, and making the individual feel they didn’t know how to do their job. I listened and backed off, and saw improvement in the work product as well as the individual’s engagement with the project. And that trend continued.

Many of you reading this have been in this same predicament too. What else would you include on this list? How have you worked to get “dysfunctional” team members “functional” again? Did it work? Would you do anything differently next time?

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

May I suggest “Tip Zero: Examine yourself”? As a team leader, are you doing a good job? Is their “dysfunction” a reflection/reaction to your dysfunction?

Deb Green

Very true Bill. I think some of that is also caught up in #5, but you’re right – the dysfunction can also come from bad management practices like failing to set priorities, realistic time lines, and creating “emergencies” for people.

Steve Cottle

What a great checklist of considerations and actions to take before jumping to conclusions about someone’s ability to perform with or for you. While some of the specific actions pertain to managing someone, I think the 5 general principles (and Bill’s addition) can also help us examine “dysfunctional” relationships with peers and those we don’t manage.

Deb Green

Thanks Steve and James – Hey, if we tried to get rid of everyone that ever rubbed us the wrong way, we’d be alone – and that doesn’t help anyone accomplish the task at hand. Thanks for writing!

James E. Evans, MISM, CSM


The biggest challenge is to manage the dates that are impacted by this sidebar dysfunctional teammate. Yes it’s an issue. But, the domino affect (e.g., lost time, shifting priorities, critical path shifts) makes this team member inabilities an issue that can rob you of much needed (and deserved) sleep.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Right on, Deb. All spot on, but I really like #1. So often we feel as if there needs to be a divide between personal and professional, but the truth is that we’re integrated folks and sometimes failing to perform on the job is a result of stress or emotional fatigue coming from the homefront. Sometimes the first question needs to be, “Is everything okay with you?” vs. “What’s wrong with you?”

R. Anne Hull

re:#3 Have the talk…this can be a tricky conversation and being clear on your own intent is an important step. Make it safe for the person to have this conversation with you by stating your intent up front. That intent needs to be the success of the whole team as well as individual members. Delete the cliche “for your own good.” You’ll come across as patronizing. Be specific with your examples of what isn’t working for the person and specific with any requests.

Elaine Thompson

Sometimes, even after doing all of that, you have an employee who is just not motivated to do better. Being in a union environment adds to the challenge. There comes a time when you simply give the person their rightful share of tasks and allow them “fail” or, if they are smart, pull themselves up of their own accord.

Allison Primack

Deb, I posted your question onto GovLoop’s LinkedIn group… Raul Espinosa said the following: “Give them up to two warnings highlighting the issues for their non-productivity. Make suggestions as to how they can improve. If they continue to be non productive, let them go.You might want to give them the option of quitting on their own or get fired for cause. If they choose to quit, consider offering a reference letter”

Carol Davison

The Employee Relations director of one of my previous organizations said half of the problem was the insubordinates. The other half was the stupidvisors.

Danielle Wilsey

Thanks so much – this is also great information for ongoing group/paper projects assigned in graduate school. I’ve only got one semester left, so the suggestions will be put to good use!

Bob Ragsdale

Deb, I really agree with #5, “Ask what you can do to help them be more successful” (as well as # 1-4)

I don’t think that anyone comes to work wanting to have a bad day or to do a bad job. I try to work under the assumption that my team members want to do well and want to be recognized for what they bring to the table. Therefore I place an emphasis on understanding what it is that they want to achieve, what they believe their skills are, and how we can jointly work to align those goals and skills with the organizational goals. It certainly takes a little more work up front to make that happen but the outcomes in terms of improved well being and productivity are well worth it.

I would strongly suggest that anyone interested in improving their work environment and motivating their team read Dan Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and watch this RSAnimate video, adapted from Dan Pink’s talk at the RSA, which illustrates the hidden truths behind what really motivates us at home and in the workplace. It is to me one of the most enlightening and inspirational videos I have watched in the past year. It helped spur me to positively change how I engage with my team.

Lloyd R. James

After you’ve done your homework, make sure you talk TO the individual (not ABOUT them to others!) and express specifically what elements of performance aren’t meeting expectations.

Most mangers I have met TALK ABOUT THE INDIVIDUAL and sometime the person they are talking to is 10 times more dysfunctional than the person being talked about.

Very good Deb Green! Thanks

Andrew Krzmarzick

Allison – I’d disagree with Raul re: Give them up to two warnings…If they continue to be non productive, let them go.” That “stick” style is a demotivator. I like what Bob said: ‘place an emphasis on understanding what it is that they want to achieve, what they believe their skills are, and how we can jointly work to align those goals and skills with the organizational goals.”

Also, Bob highlighted a video from Dan Pink / Drive that is stirring discussion on GovLoop right now:


Jorge Aponte

Very good post. I have had the incident last week, shared the complaint openly, before a one-to-one talk. The person back-off on a feeling of bitterness, but it was not the intention. I recognized the faulty approach and offered a new and frank bridge; the person accepted it and got into the teamwork. At the end, that person recognized his responsibility to the other members and did a excellent apportion.

Peter Sperry

If you cannot fire a team member, even after two warnings, the assumption is they are on loan or detail from somewhere else. First think of just living with them and asking the rest of the team to pick up the slack. The alternative is to them know you will be asking their supevisor to take them back and provide a replacement. Be prepared to explain this request far up the food chain. It could alter your career as much as theirs. Frankly, I would tend to just live with them unless their membership on the team is so counterproductive it could lead to mission failure.

The best way to avoid this is to develop a network that allows you to request team members by name so you know you are not getting someone whose supervisor just wants to get them out of the office. Beware of anyone who serves on too many interoffice teams. There is a reason their supervisor makes them available for so many additional duties and it often has to do with how they handle their primary tasks.

Deb Green

Great point Peter – but sometimes, you get the cards your dealt. You can’t always fold and have to play with what you’ve got. My approach is to try and get the individual to be productive or more productive in a way that meets expectations. You can’t always send them packing.

Janina Rey Echols Harrison

I love this post. I never had a team member that I couldn’t work with and get them ‘on the team’ and functional with a little time and effort. A little training, discussion of processes, just listening. Encouragement goes a long way to creating a positive, motivated environment that supports everyone.

The only situation I had was a friend of mine was put on my team. She started coming in late. I had to have a sit down and discuss that I didn’t want our friendship to suffer because she was working for me. She apologized and was on time from then on. It was a hard conversation for me to engage in. It was early in the project and I knew I would quickly lose the respect of the group and control of the project if I didn’t address it. I had a team of 12 people, only 3 were reporting directly to me. Everyone else worked for other people and some were in other states.

My other big success on this project was a temp hire. The other staff set her up and got her started but came to me later saying she was inept. I went to the work area to review work with her and she said she just didn’t get it. We spent some training time, she improved. I spent a half hour a day for one week and she was flying through the work and developed new skills, on her own, every day. I continue to use this method to bring staff into a more positive interaction with the projects.

I really liked Bill’s comment in the beginning about examining yourself and Anne Hull’s comments about the intent of the conversation.

Brady Brookes

Great post! I think most of us know the steps to take to motivate or re-motivate a team member, but this post was the perfect reminder to get us all thinking and working on those issues. That conversation — real conversation, can bring about change and a better understanding of both our roles. Thanks again!

Deb Green

@Janina – I totally can understand how working with a friend can make for an uncomfortable situation. But you addressed it, and overcame it before it became an issue. Nice!

Back in the day (way, way, way back in the day!) in college, I was the ROTC cadet commander. My ‘staff’ were my classmates. I had a friend who was a “subordinate.” She started slipping deadlines, not doing her work, etc. I sat her down, and talked to her about what I was seeing, and that I wanted her to know that I’d taken notice, as well as other members of the “staff”. She broke down in tears, not because I was having a hard conversation, but because she was beating herself up for disappointing me. She’d taken on way more than she could handle in school and had personal matter she was dealing with, and was looking at graduating later as a result of piling on more than she could handle. She ended up graduating a semester later than she anticipated because of a lot that was going on in her life. That incident happened over 10 years ago, and I still remember it as if it was yesterday. Lesson learned – Approach others gently. You never know what they’re wrestling with outside of your to do list.

Deb Green

@Colleen – You’re totally right – Abbot and Costello. DUH. Thinking about the picture and then used the completely wrong names. 🙂

Corey McCarren

Deb, that anecdote about the girl from ROTC is a great example of how being human can help. When a persons plate is full it helps to know that your superiors can relate to you. For some people, not feeling like your boss is a machine helps in itself and can be a motivator.

Janina Rey Echols Harrison

Deb, Absolutely approach all staff with kindness and understanding. I certainly didn’t approach her in a non-understanding way. I was already aware that she was a single mother, so she had a lot on her plate. She also felt that because I had a husband, my life was easier. I got to remind her that married life wasn’t always easier and that was why she was single. It turned into a discussion that strengthened our friendship.

Beverly Barham

It is important to find out why an employee is disengaged. Does he/she feel overlooked and unheard (even though they may have insights and ideas that could make a process or the organization better? Is there something stressful going on in his/her life right now? Do they feel stagnant in their skill sets and would like to have development opportunities that only get offered to higher ups? There can be so many reasons why employees disengage and become unproductive. The company hired him/her, so there must have been something the employer saw at the hiring point that they liked. We all have to work, but work is not fun or challenging if you feel invisible.