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How to deal with team members who miss deadlines

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

It’s the third time this week that you’ve asked Jim for his report. He’s five days late to submit it and you are getting more and more frantic. You try to calm down and remain civil but your impatience is boiling over.

You worry that if you get angry it will only make matters worse, and at the same time you stress over the consequences of this delay, and acutely feel how unfair it is to you and the rest of the team that Jim is not delivering on time.

How do we deal with team members who regularly fail to meet deadlines? Here are two strategies to start addressing the issue:

Figure out where YOU can improve.

Accountability starts at home. You’re the leader. If you manage to accept that ultimately most of your team failures can be partly traced back to you, you’re in a great place to start improving things. It puts the power back in your hands. If you want to put all the blame on Jim, you end up with very few alternatives other than firing him.

Here’s a quick checklist to get you started:

-Did you clearly communicate the deadline far out in advance? -Did you explain in advance why was this deadline set in the first place? Why was it important and what are the consequences of the deadline not being met?

-Did you ensure that one or several reminders of the deadline were sent out? (You don’t need to do this manually, you can automate it or delegate it)

-Have you in the past, let some deadlines come and go without acknowledging that your team (or a specific team member) missed them?

-Have you set the example by missing deadlines yourself and not acknowledging it?

-Are you the type who avoids uncomfortable conversations? (Say, for example, with a team member that is always missing deadlines?)

Have an uncomfortable conversation.

A great way to both figure out why the person missed the deadline and to enforce accountability is having a meeting with the person. This may be uncomfortable, but it shows to the person that his/her work is important and that you care about them and why this is happening. It also sends the message that it is NOT ok to miss a deadline.

No matter how angry you are at the person, make sure you are reasonably calm when you meet, and that you have done your own analysis to understand what part of the responsibility may be traced back to you.

Step 1. Figure out why. Start simply by stating that the person missed a specific deadline, or several ones. Avoid generalizations like “Jim, lately you are always missing deadlines”. Be precise. Then ask what happened, and listen openly. You might learn  that you had not clearly stated out the deadline, or that other people failed to meet their obligations in time, and Jim is shouldering the responsibility. If the person is not clear on why they missed the deadline, try exploring these possibilities:

-Too much on their plate. Ask about what other projects they have been working on and the hours they’ve been working. They might be demotivated or in burnout. This is something you can fix by reshuffling the tasks among your team, hiring more people or setting clear priorities on what needs to be tackled first.

-Not enough qualifications or knowledge to undertake this task. Ask about how easy or hard the task felt, and dig into their understanding of the task. Do you need to mentor this person more intensely to ensure they are able to deliver? Or match them with a more experienced colleague? Or do you simply need to move him or her to another position?

-Poor planning skills. If Jim set the deadline himself, ask him how he chose that date, and how he organized the different activities in order to meet the deadline. Many professionals have a hard time visualizing how long each task will take them, and others have poor project management skills. You can help by sitting down with them to show them how to plan based on a deadline, or asking them to keep track of their time for a week, so they get a reality check on how long it takes them to finish each task. -Bad communication with team members. If the work required collaborating with others, it might be that Jim is not good at the communication part. Ask about how he interacted with others, if he requested components in time, or reminded people of what he needed in order to move things forward. Is he requesting things from others last minute? Is he creating animosity by his actions or words? You can help by mentoring the person on better communication and how to create goodwill with others. -Not enough support from YOU. This one is the hardest to hear, as you are already angry at the person for missing the deadline, and the last thing you want to hear is that it’s your “fault”. But do try to figure out if Jim needed other resources that it was your responsibility to help deliver (e.g. equipment, budget, discussions with you and decision-making from your side).

Step 2. Explain the importance of the missed deadline, and what are the consequences, for the company, the project, the team or for you. Be specific, for instance, state how much revenue was lost, or that you or a team member had to work on the weekend to make up for the delay. Try to be neutral in your tone and just lay out the facts.

Step 3. Create an action plan. Ask the person how he or she intends to make up for the missed deadline, or to prevent this from happening again. See if they are incorporating items from your previous discussion into their response. Help them come up with a plan to put in place the planning and/or communication tools or skills they need. You can add timely check-ins with you or other team members, and a set of reminders in a calendar or activity tracker. Set clear expectations and rules on “what to do if”: for example, they need to come talk to you if by X date they have not managed to achieve Y, or if a piece of equipment has not arrived, or another team member has not delivered.

It is possible that a very small number of people will truly be uncaring, but in most cases you'll find that the reasons for unmet deadlines are fixable. There are usually several areas where you can improve and help your team member improve in order to ensure deadlines are met.

Let us know in the comments or on Facebook, how have you dealt with your team members missing deadlines? Share your best tips!



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