Tips on Handling a Problem Team Member on your Project

Oh, there is a problem all right. And it starts with the fact that you have a boss, peer, or project team member who is in complete denial about the chaos all around them. If they do see any issues, well, those issues start with you. This is not meant to be spiteful. This is the behavior of someone who is completely oblivious to the fact that they cause problems. If they do have any inkling that there is an issue, then they have a perfect excuse. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “I didn’t call you back because you never left me a message.”
  • “I didn’t forget our meeting; my admin did not put it on my calendar.”
  • “My office may look messy, but leave it alone. I have a system and I know where everything’s located.”

What kinds of chaos surround this person? Their chaos can be lack of organization, time related or memory related. The chaos created by this person looks like chaos created by creative types or even by someone who deceives others into thinking they’re organized. The key here is that they absolutely can’t seem to own their issue. They really don’t see a problem with how they’re performing.

So what’s a project manager to do? First, let’s look at what not to do: Don’t blame them. Don’t put them on the defensive. Don’t harp on them about the problem. Don’t argue with them about their excuses. You just have to move on. Find a way to work around the problem because you’re not going to be able to change them.

Now step back and look at the big picture. What do you want from this working relationship? Where do they have problems and how can you help? Even if you don’t feel like you want to help, remember you’re helping yourself too! With that in mind, here are four tactics to try.

  • Be proactive. If you know their issue will cause a problem for others on the project team, step in. This may mean you politely remind them of customer appointments or work package due dates. It may mean you hand deliver important memos to them and watch them read those memos. What you’re doing (without them knowing it) is nipping a potential problem in the bud.
  • Create a simple process for organizing shared information. Stay away from their personal space, but be willing to be responsible for other areas. Enlist the help of others on the project, too. Your problem child may respond to the organization and join in because they want to be part of the group.
  • If they work for you as a full-time project resource, be the boss and give them direction. Advise them that missing meetings, deadlines, and not returning phone calls isn’t acceptable. Mentor them away from the damaging behavior and toward a positive outcome.
  • Acknowledge that they have other skills. There are other areas where they’re strong contributors, which is why they got selected to work on the project in the first place.

You may think that’s a lot of trouble to go to, but it will actually save you time and make your job less aggravating. Hand delivering memos might seem a bit extreme but you’ll know that they’ve been read. Another method that works is to deliver the memo and have them initial that they’ve read it. This also serves to create a paper trail that no one can argue with.

If you do have to call them on the carpet about their behavior, ask them how you can help them get control of their disorganization. Knowing that you’re willing to help them will make them much more willing to work on the behavior that is causing so much chaos for the project.

As for their other skills, take advantage of them. You may want to find what they’re best at and exploit that. If your problem person excels at something that another project team member isn’t so good at, perhaps he or she could take the burden off their co-worker in exchange for that person handling their calendar.

And remember, their behavior is about them, it is not about you. Don’t take it personally.

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Written by Margaret Meloni
Margaret Meloni, MBA, PMP, is an executive coaching consultant for IT professionals. She helps project managers and teams work together better by improving their soft skills. Learn how to successfully combine technical and soft skills in her sessions from The PDU Podcast and from her website. As a teacher, speaker and coach, Margaret Meloni loves championing project managers. Her passion is creating project managers who successfully navigate the human side of the workplace.
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