Situation 42: Unpopular tasks

A special project team, under supervision of Boss, is working on a business critical project. One of the project members is not pulling his weight and Betsy is gradually picking up more of his tasks. Boss praises Betsy for her flexibility and dedication to the project. Boss decides to take the project member concerned out of the project team. He discusses with Betsy how to best approach this sensitive situation since, according to him, she has very well developed interpersonal skills. Before Betsy knows she is the one who has to break the bad news to the project team member.

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A great leader:

  • Provides support and guidance to build other’s capabilities without taking away responsibility;
  • Is assertive and expresses her needs in a calm, clear and professional manager;
  • Is courageous and willing to challenge authority to ‘do the right thing’.

How to best handle the situation:

Often leaders shy away from tacking mediocre and poor performance, choosing instead to give critical tasks to their star performers whom they trust to deliver. Over time this can lead to dissatisfaction since the hard working team members wonder why their less committed and/or able colleagues are able to ‘get away with’ doing less.

In the situation described it is the leader’s responsibility to tackle the underperformance of the project team member. Of course, it can feel flattering that the leader discusses a sensitive people issue with you. Be candid in your discussion and share your perspective of how you would handle the situation if asked, however do not assume responsibility for resolving the issue. The best approach to the conversation with the leader is to use coaching techniques to ask how he/she wants to approach the situation and help him/her rehearse the conversation with the under-performer.

If you find yourself in the situation where you have agreed to handle the dismissal from the project you should go back to the project leader and tell him/her that on second thoughts you think it is better for him/her to handle this directly. Whilst it may be difficult to tell the project leader that you believe this is in everyone’s best interests, if you remain calm and site the reasons why you believe this, it should make the conversation easier to have. Some reasons you can cite include:

  • The underperformer will certainly wonder why he/she is hearing about his/her underperformance and dismissal from the project team second-hand i.e. from a co-worker rather than the project leader. It is part of the project leader’s job to tackle underperformance.
  • You may not have all the answers to his/her questions about the reasons why or what he/she should do instead of working on the project etc.
  • The person may refuse to accept your authority in conveying this decision.
  • If your co-worker resents you giving him/her the bad news it could damage your relationship with him/her.

Learning suggestions:

  • If you need to have a difficult conversation with one of your superiors, rehearse what you want to say beforehand. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to anticipate how he/she might react so that you are prepared to respond appropriately and sensitively.
  • When a co-worker is not pulling his/her weight on a project, you could have a ‘friendly’ word with him/her. Make sure that you do this in private and ask them how he/she feels about working on the project. This question may allow your colleague to open up about issues he/she is facing, for example, not liking the work, feeling incompetent, having competing priorities etc. You could offer to help him/her address the issues that he/she has raised.


  • Foster collaboration and team commitment amongst project team members by actively encouraging them to share their knowledge, ideas and solutions to further the work of the team, valuing their contributions and balancing the focus on work with tending to them as people (for example, trying to make the work fun).

 Femcommunity tips:

We welcome your thoughts, experiences and comments on how you would deal with such a situation.

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