What to do if a Team Member is Always Late (and Dealing With Other Minor Misbehaviours)

We’ve previously talked a lot about how to handle team members who are underperforming. The thing is, most of the scenarios we’ve discussed are not only quite specific, but also pretty obvious examples of problematic behaviour such as subpar deliverables or ineffective communication.

What do you do when the behaviours aren’t quite as serious or when the consequences are relatively small in comparison to other issues? 

I’m thinking of behaviours such as:

  • Bad time management such as arriving a minute or two late for a call or meeting.
  • Talking over someone else during a meeting.
  • Undermining others in a very subtle way.
  • Spelling or grammatical errors.
  • Using devices such as a phone or laptop during a meeting when it’s not needed.

All of us have observed these behaviours from our team members or colleagues at some point and I’d hazard a guess that in the majority of cases, the person made a habit of repeating them. 

This means that their manager either hasn’t addressed the behaviours at all or have done so in a way that wasn’t effective.

Why not?

Well, let’s be honest, it’s tricky for a few reasons. The key one being that most of us don’t relish the idea of confrontation and even the best managers can shy away from dealing with problems sometimes. The idea of confrontation over a relatively minor bad behaviour is even more uncomfortable for many people. Therefore, they let it go.

The consequences of letting people show bad behaviours, even relatively minor ones, are severe though:

  • Standards drop and behaviours are contagious – others will follow because the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.
  • Trust in your ability as a leader will be reduced because your team will think that you also have low standards or are afraid to uphold high standards.
  • Low consequence, but bad behaviours will compound over time and get gradually worse, making it harder for you to deal with.

I’m sure we’d all agree that the obvious answer here is that we shouldn’t get into this situation and should deal with these behaviours directly and quickly. So again, why don’t we?

Because, ironically, giving an appropriate and balanced response to a small bad behaviour is much harder than knowing what an appropriate and balanced response is to a big problem.

So, most managers avoid it altogether.

Clearly, this is a mistake and makes the problem worse over time. It also makes the problem much harder to deal with when you do decide to deal with it. 

For example, let’s say that a team member is consistently late to a meeting, only a minute or two but they do it consistently over a period of three months. At this point, you decide to raise it during a one on one meeting and tell them that this behaviour isn’t acceptable.

They respond by asking why it’s taken three months for you to raise this problem, implying that this means that the behaviour isn’t actually that much of a problem, otherwise you’d have raised it sooner. They may not even say this out loud, but they may think it in the moment or after the meeting.

And they’d have a point which is hard to argue against. You’ve lost some of the impact that your feedback needs in order to be effective. Of course, you’re still right to deliver the feedback and tell them, but by delaying for so long, you’ve put yourself in a harder position to address it.

Other managers will do the opposite and not just respond quickly, but they will respond in a way that isn’t proportionate to the behaviour that they are addressing – they overreact. This can be just as damaging and make team members question your ability to handle difficult situations. Importantly, they can be left thinking “it’s not that big a deal, why are they reacting like that?” which is the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.

Actionable ways to prevent and fix bad behaviours

Here are a few ways that you can decrease the chances of this ever becoming a problem and when it does, how to make it as easy as possible to address and fix.

Decide what you really care about and set expectations first

The most effective way to avoid difficult conversations or to make those conversations less difficult is to set clear expectations from the beginning of your relationship with your team.

For example, when it comes to relatively small behaviours, you could say things like:

  • You arrive at all meetings at least two minutes early.
  • If you’re going to be late to a meeting, send a message in advance.
  • No phones or laptops in meetings unless you’re taking notes.
  • No checking Slack/Teams or email during calls and meetings.

You get the idea. These may seem like being back at school because of the nature of these types of rules. This is why you should share these expectations with the context of why they’re important. The context for the expectations above may be along the lines of:

  • As a team, we respect each other’s time.
  • As a team, we are present during meetings and calls mentally as well as physically.

This helps team members understand that the expectations aren’t meaningless rules, they are there for good reasons which are bigger than the rules themselves.

Be the example you want to set

You can’t really enforce and give feedback on these standards or expectations if you don’t follow them yourself. When deciding what’s important to you and your team, keep in mind that you’ll need to exhibit the right behaviours that sit within these expectations as well. 

Of course, no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Plus, sometimes, life just happens and we’re late for something or misspeak during a meeting. The key here is to own the fact that you’ve made a mistake in front of your team and admit that you’ve missed your own expectations and standards – but will do better next time because those standards won’t be lowered for anyone.

Address issues immediately and directly – privately

When someone doesn’t meet expectations or lowers their standards, you need to address it straight away, no matter how big or small their behaviour is. Timely feedback makes it far more effective and likely to work.

For smaller issues that aren’t a huge deal in isolation, I’d recommend an approach whereby you don’t overthink things and simply describe how someone hasn’t met your expectations or standards. Say that it’s not the biggest problem on it’s own or as a one-off, but if it continues, then it sets the standard for others and leads to wider problems. 

This means that you’re stating what the problem is, acknowledging that it’s not the biggest problem but also saying that it needs to be fixed before it turns into a bigger problem.

And when you do this, do it in private. For example, if someone is late to a meeting, you should avoid calling them out in front of their colleagues. Instead, start the meeting on time and afterwards, ask to speak to them privately and deliver the feedback one on one.

Repeated problems should be escalated

If you follow the steps above, but someone is still repeating the same bad behaviours over and over again, then you do need to escalate. This means that the way in which you deal with them and deliver feedback should become more serious and more proportionate with the problem becoming bigger. 

One way to do this is to bring the problem into their regular one on one meetings such as personal development meetings or quarterly / annual review meetings which are naturally a bit more formal.

If you need to do this, then refer back to the previous times that you’ve delivered feedback and tell them that despite this, you’re still seeing the same behaviours and therefore, the matter is becoming more serious and more of a problem that you need them to fix. Again, you can say that in isolation and as a one off, these behaviours may not seem like a big deal or problem. But reiterate that they are repeating the same behaviours over and over, so it’s no longer a small problem.

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