Back in the day when I was at university I detested group assignments. A group of us had to work on a single assignment, where we all got the same grade in the end. But there was always the person whose bus was late, whose alarm clock did not go off in time … So if the rest of us wanted a good grade we had to do this person’s job as well, even though propping them up was the last thing we wanted to do!
Similarly in work environments. Many teams have at least one free-rider. The person who is not really interested in their job, or in the team’s role, and prefers to do the bare minimum.
It must be annoying for other employees who, in order for their team to achieve its goals, have to cover for the disengaged employee. In time, this state of affairs starts killing their own engagement and motivation: Why should I work hard when I can be like Paul, do very little and get paid anyway? I must be stupid!
It is therefore important that team goals are broken down into individual responsibilities and input opportunities. This creates a sense of ownership and pride in each employee, as they have their individual opportunity/challenge to demonstrate themselves. It also means that free-riders are quickly shown up for what they are, and this issue can be nipped in the bud – before this hampers the team achieving their targets, and destroys other employees’ engagement levels.
The flipside of good leadership is a passive lack of leadership. The effective leader addresses free rider issues early on. Actually, the effective leader spots them early on, and then chooses to address them. The passive leader who is not really in touch with their team, and who has not established an effective two-way communication strategy, will possibly not identify free riders until team performance becomes problematic. This is already too late, as negativity already destroying engagement levels within the team.
So what do you need to do as a manager? Discuss projects with the team, reaching an agreement as to who does what. Have regular meetings to evaluate how things are going. Have individual conversations to discuss how each employee is progressing on the project, using this as an opportunity to identify issues early on. And in all these meetings and conversations, ask few questions, and listen a lot!
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