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Dealing with Under-Achievers within a Project

Personalities can have adverse affects on projects, and one of the worst is the Under-Achiever Type. Recognizing this in people may not always be that easy. Being able to cope with this personality can improve overall performance of them and your project.

Recognition: When Is Someone an Under-achiever?

Showing up late for work or meetings, being unprepared for meetings, never ahead of schedule, constantly slowing others down in related processes, doing the bare minimum to get through a day — all signs of the under-achiever. Other signs can include lethargy and rebuff of requests.

When I was in charge of 16 general laborers in five crews, I found that certain characteristics started to appear in their work habits. They were quick to lose sight of the timelines, rarely performed the task with any desire to get done early or even on time, showed up late and wanted to leave work first, never offered help or suggestions, never tried to do more, and generally tried to avoid conflict — and especially to avoid me.

Not only were they under-achieving, they were slowing everyone else down as well. I eventually had to fire the worst offender. I wanted to set a standard and make it clear to everyone that under-achieving was not acceptable.

I also had to find a way to make a rather dull and boring job better; and that was through motivating incentives. If they could finish a job early and keep the quality level as high as needed, they were free to go home early. If jobs were on time and budget, they were invited on adventurous events that I either paid for entirely or greatly subsidized from corporate bonuses. Overall, my crews became over-achievers because I added the extra incentives to keep their motivations high.

What Creates This Phenomenon? A Lack of Motivation, Usually

When I was a table busser, the work was smelly, unpleasant, poorly paid and rarely congratulatory in nature. You just had to do your job, and it never seemed to end. There was an eventual hope to be a waiter, but that was just a pipedream; there was no way I would last that long. There was very little to motivate me other than my absolute need for money.

If you’re not motivated, you put unpleasant tasks at the end of the priority list. Almost everyone does this at some point in time. If you are having family or after-work issues, you tend to carry it over into your workplace.

When I worked in the oilfield years ago, I was well-paid, and it was real exciting… for the first few months. Then the monotony started to get to me, followed by the long hours getting longer, the lack of a social life, the lack of time off, the continuous grind of pressure from the company to keep going — it burned me out quickly. I became the lethargic person I swore I would never be. I started slowing down my own work habits, being late did not bother me anymore. I tended to chat longer with friends and associates before going back to work. I had lost my motivation.

Repetitive tasks tend to foster under-achievement. If you know your people, and you know what motivates them, you may be able to mitigate the “slow down” effect with various incentives. But plan on multiple types of incentives.

I had decided to quit the oilfield job and look for something more home-oriented and stable, until a competitor offered to double my salary and bonus rate, plus fly me to exotic countries to live and work. Suddenly, my motivation was back!

New tasks where skillsets don’t match the requirements also tend to foster under achievement in certain people. What is their motivation for updating their skill sets for one task? Can they see a need for this skill in the future? Can you provide them with some hope that there is a really important need for this skill in the future?

When I got to the new location, I found they had not been all that truthful about certain aspects of the new job. The equipment was nowhere near as “state-of-the-art” (archaic, really), time off was a thing of the past, working conditions were even more unsafe, and health and hygiene factors made me nervous. I quickly lost my recently re-discovered motivation after just a few weeks.

Recognition: When Is Someone an Under-achiever?

Look for people who are no longer challenged and don’t want to be. After working in the same job for many years, there is a tendency towards complacency.

After I had worked in a foreign land only six months (with just two days off — weekends were just another part of the work week), the company decided to transfer me to another country to try to get my motivation back. It lasted about a month, and then I was worn out. The promises that there would be more time off were, as usual, incorrect. At one point, I was sent out to an offshore rig supposedly for a week. I was relieved after six weeks. And the drilling rig was about 100 feet long, maybe 30 feet wide, and two decks. Not a lot to do except fish, eat, and try not to go stark raving nuts!

Many long-term positions offer very few chances for advancement. This also tends to drive the ambitious away from these types of jobs. The work tends to be typically lower-paying, labor-intensive, and very general in skill level. Usually few supervisory positions are needed, and those who were already there will probably be there for as long as they can hang on. There is very little chance for upward mobility or promotion in situations like this.

After 14 months with this new organization, I had been moved three times, and the situation had not changed enough for me to want to continue. Then they offered me a management job, if I would stay on another year or so — I was being “groomed.” I also had to improve my language skills. They already had a manager in every office, and the head office already had a full slate of people. I was curious how I would fit into this tight structure, but I was told they would make it happen.

It was just not enough at the time to motivate me to continue. I was totally unhappy, dreaded work and had no desire to get out of bed any day, even though I was being paid over $150,000 in today’s dollars with a company-paid house, car, and servants. It just wasn’t enough. I had lost all motivation.

Someone who is ambitious will show a tendency to excel at a position and/or to do more than asked. The opposite can be said of the under-achiever. Under-achievers have no desire to do more or take on any new tasks that challenge their skills. There is always a need for staff who are willing and able to take on these types of positions, but there is still a need to keep them working at an optimal pace.

A chronic under-achiever will tend to show up late more often and rarely get everything done they are assigned, and this will cascade over to everyone and everything they are associated with.

Assessment: Setting Standards to Measure Status and Progress

Every job has to have a standard requirement that must be met by any employee or contractor. Under-achievers need to be monitored and constantly encouraged to keep going. You have to decide whether the effort expended trying to keep them motivated is worth keeping them in the position. The myriad low-paying jobs in service industries typify this category.

If you want to set a standard, discuss it with everyone involved and commit to it yourself. Measurements can then be self-created and progress reports can be from individuals instead of always through a review (though reviews are still necessary at regular intervals).

Motivation: Working with the Person to Find Out What and How to Motivate

Motivation is an ever illusive target. It depends on the individual, age, family life, home environment and lots more. If you live in an expensive city working for minimum wages, live in cramped quarters and have to commute, your motivation options are very different from someone living and working in a smaller, less urban area.

“The Apprentice” showed a special type of motivation, the chance to work with a special person or group. Everyone is given a chance to manage a task with some limited factor or factors: money, time, location, expectations. Every one of the candidates shows energy but the winner is usually the one who has consistently done more, helped others to do more and stayed motivated no matter the outcome.

In my oilfield job, my main motivation was the opportunity to work in a foreign land, all expenses paid, and to enjoy the rather generous income.

As time went by, my motivation changed to just wanting more of a social life and more time off. We were always understaffed and racing between jobs. Down times were few and far between. All I wanted was a few days off regularly so I could be a tourist. I was in South America, and I had yet to have the freedom to be a tourist in any touristy areas.

So I quit and spent three months traveling home through various countries before even looking for a job. No motivation to work!

Reward: Making It All Worthwhile to the Person.

The best way is to ask what people want, assuming it is realistic, and see if you can provide it. Then ask again later to see if it is still an option or if there are other options.

Ten years ago, the points for airline flights were large; currently they are much smaller. After 36 trips, half of which were across the continent, I barely had enough points earned this year to get one return ticket to anywhere in North America. It hardly seemed worth it. And I have to throw away most of my upgrade tickets because the corporate system buys the cheapest ticket, which can’t be upgraded. That kills my motivation to fly with that airline. What keeps me returning to this particular airline is the fact that they do recognize me as a special flyer and provide me free access to their airport lounges.

Rewards are all relevant, and you should assume they can and should change with time. Even airline frequent flyer points can now be traded in for merchandise, as well as flights. Airlines have had to compete with credit cards offering flights and merchandise. You should be thinking along the same lines when trying to motivate your people. Provide as much diversity of choice as possible, assuming the budget allows for it.

Under-achievement can happen to anyone if that person has lost his or her motivation. You must learn to recognize the symptoms and include incentives in the work place that bolster the motivation in your personnel. It is never too late to start checking your people’s motivational levels.
This article was originally published in Global Knowledge’s Management in Motion e-newsletter. Global Knowledge delivers comprehensive hands-on project management, business process, and professional skills training. Visit our Knowledge Center at for free white papers, webinars, and more.

Copyright © Global Knowledge Training LLC. All rights reserved

Written by David Egan

David Egan, PMP, is a Global Knowledge instructor who has spent 20 years in the IT industry. A management consultant to many Fortune 500 companies his background spans all areas of industry and government. He holds an MBA from McGill University as well as MCSE, MCT, and RHCX certification.

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