"To do or not to do" – how can managers deal with procrastinating team members?

Whilst the global financial crisis has increased the pressure on firms and their employees to be productive, the challenge for managers to get the best out of less motivated team members has always existed. Identifying types of "procrastinators" and the consequences of their inefficiency may help managers tackle the problem head-on and get his or her team working as it should again.

The reasons for which procrastination in the workplace is harmful are all too evident for managers – under-achievement from team members has a negative effect not just on overall productivity as time and resources are wasted but also on the morale and cohesion of the team. Team members are human beings and, just as some may be inherently less enthusiastic about their work, others will instinctively try to take on an extra workload to compensate for the deficiencies of others, at the cost of their own core job. Both employee types are problematic, so managers need to get to the root of the problem by understanding professional procrastination and dealing with it proactively so as to optimise performance and productivity.


Procrastinators – characteristics and consequences


Previous research into this issue has focussed almost entirely on students and academics, so the workplace is not only relatively uncharted territory from a research perspective but one that needs to be addressed from a practical one.
The procrastinator is typically someone whose career advances slowly (potentially punctuated by periods of unemployment), is more susceptible to stress and illness, and will frequently find ways of avoiding the priority tasks at hand, be it via surfing the web, socialising with colleagues or creating lower-priority tasks in order to "put off the inevitable". In addition, they may experience low self-esteem and a poor perception of their job – they expect either little satisfaction from their work or that any benefits will come a long way down the road. Poor time management is one of the potential causes of procrastination, as well as the inability to effectively manage negative emotions, and the notion that many procrastinators have that they work best under the pressure they impose upon themselves by working up to the last minute (or beyond) has been largely de-bunked.
As a result of this kind of behaviour within a team, others may be tempted to "bail out" their less productive colleagues, thereby spending less time on their own work. This can create tension within a team and, above all, a financial burden on the organisation as a whole. This may tempt managers to outsource some of the unfulfilled tasks to lower-cost countries rather than investing larger sums of money on unproductive employees.


Know who you're dealing with


The first step managers need to take is to identify the types of procrastinators within their team and then set up a plan of action accordingly. Our research reveals three main categories of procrastinator:

  1. "The undisciplined procrastinator" – impulsive and therefore averse to unexciting, detailed work, generally calm but then works frenetically, spends a lot of time complaining and creating excuses for delays, unaware of project status in relation to deadlines.
  2. "The insecure procrastinator" – poor self-concept, lacks the ability to regulate emotions, seeks familiar and less threatening tasks, suffers from motivational paralysis, needs reassurance and validation, requests delays, and downplays performance expectations.
  3.  "The well-intentioned over-extender" – highly motivated and committed, accepts more than he or she can handle, fails to meet performance expectations as a result. Poor time-management skills or unable to express concerns about time constraints.

These three distinct types underline that procrastination in the workplace comes in various forms and therefore should not receive a blanket treatment.

Intervene and implement


Once a manager has recognised any of the above traits within employees it is time to address the situation, with individuals but also with the team in order to boost general morale and productivity. Whilst there is no fail-safe technique for boosting unmotivated team members, Time Management Training, Working Environment Intervention and Employee Screening are all approaches that could at least reduce the problem. Some procrastinators (the insecure type in particular) are notorious for needing their hand held, so proactivity from managers is crucial.
Establishing how people spend their time, helping them to re-allocate time, encouraging daily planning and prioritisation, and anticipating the arrival of unexpected tasks are especially helpful for the undisciplined procrastinator and the over-extender profiles. Giving greater autonomy to workers is likely to boost motivation, as is making an individual's contribution to the team more visible and therefore rewarding those who exceed deadlines. Accountability, both in success and failure, is key. Probably the hardest approach to successfully implement is screening employees during the selection process, both via reference checks and using external professionals to perform personality inventories.
One thing is for certain. At a time where teams are becoming increasingly multinational, where the level and type of job within teams are becoming more diverse and where cross-cultural management skills are more important than ever, the leader of a team that is suffering from professional procrastination has more and more on his or her managerial plate.

This article draws inspiration from the paper A Manager's Guide to Workplace Procrastination, written by Agata Mirowska and Mark Skowronski and published in the SAM Advanced Management Journal (summer 2013).


Agata Mirowska is an Assistant Professor at ESC Rennes Business School, where she teaches organisational behaviour and human resource management. Her research interests include employee attraction and retention, self-management, human relationships, and leadership.


Mark Skowronski teaches organizational behaviour, human resource management, and business communication at Ramapo College of New Jersey. His research focuses on work stress, self-management, and counterproductive work behaviour.


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