When Subordinates Procrastinate – Are You to Blame?

Have you run the numbers on the cost of replacing an employee? The price of recruitment, employment, and training of new personnel is now estimated to be between 40% and 150% of the former employee’s salary. It’s an expensive proposition to replace an employee who leaves, retires, or is terminated for poor performance. While you cannot control retirements, you may want to look carefully at reasons for turnover, especially in the case of performance terminations. Poor performance usually means that the employee fails to complete task assignments correctly and/or on time. Often, this is a case of procrastination, but there are many reasons for this behavior. Managers need to be certain that they have not been at least somewhat responsible for it.

When Subordinates Procrastinate – Are You to Blame?

Questions to Ask Yourself First

1. Do you give orders with no room for sharing ideas or for any “back and forth”?

While this may be seen as the most efficient way to get things done, it can also kill an employee’s motivation and cause procrastination. If employees are provided the means to share ideas and to discuss how tasks may best be accomplished, they will be more invested and have more enthusiasm for their work.

Discuss ideas, features and plans with the project team

2. Do you fail to communicate information and news about the company to your employees?

There is always a strong rumor mill among employees. If that rumor mill spreads “bad news” – company profits down; possible layoffs; a buyout or a merger – employees will slow down and tasks will not be accomplished on time. Being open and honest with subordinates gives them “ownership” in the company’s successes and its troubles, and they will want to keep productivity high.

3. Are you holding subordinates accountable for their task responsibilities?

When tasks are assigned to team members, each team member needs to verbally commit to completing them and to completing them on time. Team members should also be made aware that there are consequences and rewards. An environment of accountability must be established and maintained.

4. How do you reward team members for a job well done?

Even if it’s just public recognition, people need to feel appreciated and valued. Many companies build in incentives if productivity exceeds deadlines. And they make the effort to track employee productivity and happiness through the use of digital tools designed just for that. Niko-Niko and Culture Amp are just two of these feedback apps that have hit the market.

5. Do you tell yourself that every person on your team is replaceable?

Even in a difficult job market with a surplus of job seekers, remember how expensive it is to replace an employee. And every “hole” that is created in the team means that others have to pick up the slack until a replacement is hired and trained. Bad for morale and bad for productivity.

If you’re certain that the above conditions are not an issue, it’s time to dig a bit deeper. Here are two more questions to ask yourself that may reveal causes of procrastination and malaise among your team members.

6. How are you developing, assigning, and monitoring tasks?

You have team members with different strengths, challenges, levels of maturity, and talents. Good managers know their team members well. And as tasks are developed and assigned, each team member’s individualities must be considered. To assign without careful consideration is to set a project and team members up for failure. Procrastination is often the result of misassignment of task responsibilities. Some may believe that their tasks are without real merit and can be put off until the 11th hour, setting everyone back. Others may feel that their responsibilities are too cumbersome and too challenging. Even getting started on these tasks can be a scary notion.

Assigning Tasks

7. How are you presenting long-term complex projects to your team?

To provide comprehensive and long-term task assignments for the entire project at once can be overwhelming. As a result, only the most confident, mature, and highly motivated members of your team will be able to deal with them.
Many of your otherwise talented and capable team members may not be able to take a large complex task and break it down into smaller chunks, set their own timelines and benchmarks for completion—especially not without support or encouragement. Being overwhelmed in this way can turn many employees into procrastinators.

So What Can You Do?

If your team is facing a large long-term project there are a number of simple but powerful steps you can take to keep spirits and productivity in your team high:

1. Break It Down

Avoid creating a single gigantic project board with innumerable tasks. Instead, consider sharing a mind map with the team where you provide an overview of the entire project including its goals and milestones. If you’re using Kanban software such as MeisterTask, you can then create multiple ‘smaller’ project boards, corresponding with individual stages or areas of the project.

Breaking down complex projects
See also: How to connect your mind maps with your project boards

2. Work in Sprints

Set monthly, bi-weekly or even weekly deadlines to accurately track progress and detect delays in the project schedule right away. A process that has proved very effective in this context is Scrum, where work is split into small, concrete deliverables which are completed within short fixed-length iterations.

Software Sprint Project

3. Walk Around

Provide an environment in which team members feel comfortable requesting assistance and support as needed. LBWA (leadership by walking around) is one way to establish a “helping” relationship with subordinates. Having informal individual conversations, making offers to help, encouraging and praising, and refraining from criticism or pressure during this activity, adds to the comfort level. When subordinates feel comfortable, they are much more willing to present issues and problems they are having.

4. Meet One-on-One

Schedule regular meetings not just with the whole team but with individual team members. Individual meetings with your procrastinators are not for brow-beating and criticism. They are to provide the support and incentives for the employee to keep moving. And if you meet individually with every team member, the procrastinator(s) will not feel “singled out” for their shortcomings.

Can You Save Them All?

Even following all of the steps above will not guarantee you 100% engagement and productivity from all team members. Don’t make the mistake of pigeonholing those procrastinators! There are four common types of procrastinators*, and only one of them really deserves a boot.

The Perfectionist:

These are usually talented and capable people and you don’t want to lose them. The key to up a perfectionist’s productivity is often just a little more oversight: Simply keep a closer eye on their work. Once you determine that it meets your expectations, direct them on to the next task, even if they are not 100% happy with the result themselves.

The 11th Hour Sprinter:

It’s nerve-wracking to know that you have a team member who constantly pulls all-nighters at the last minute to meet their deadlines; however, if the deadlines are consistently met, you may simply need to find a way to deal with your jitters (and ensure that there is always an ample supply of coffee on hand).

The Overwhelmed and Perhaps Scared:

This is the team member who will need the most encouragement and support from you. By breaking long-term assignments into smaller chunks, you are serving this procrastinator well. And when tasks are completed well and on time, this individual needs that public praise. This is the procrastinator who will evolve as s/he gains confidence.

The Lazy One:

Some employees are simply lazy and will not be truly motivated by incentives, consequences or rewards. Unfortunately, there is very little you can do to alter this behavior, and what’s worse is that such employees can cause conflict and anger among other team members, thus negatively impacting on the productivity of the whole team. This is the procrastinator you will most likely need to terminate and replace.

*Inspired by Steve Marr’s list in “Managing the Procrastinator”


This is a guest post by John Unger. John is a UK native writer, idea guy and difference maker. He’s interested in business, innovations, and success, so he mostly covers these topics in his articles. You can get in touch with him via Twitter or Google+.

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