Still Life

A Series of Mental Snapshots

What to do with a useless teammate?

Posted by Steve on May 20, 2008

I ran into a dilemma recently, and that dilemma is how to deal with a practically useless team member. This post is not to complain or vent about the fact that our project suffered because of said teammate but more to analyze the experience, and see if better actions could have been taken.

The project was for a design course, a real full course that would reflect the amount of work a normal engineering course would have. We did however get to pick our teammates; there was three of us at the beginning, and we needed a fourth; a member of our class that I had never worked with asked to be in our group, I was a little hesitant, but out of a slight feeling of social obligations, I did agreed to him joining the group but I was uneasy about it from the beginning.

Here is a short description of the project process
– Come up with project idea, the requirement is that it must be something patentable (2 weeks)
– Write a Requirements and Specifications report ~20pgs, (1 week, 20% of course grade)
– Design a prototype, and make a presentation and poster for it (9 weeks, 40% of course grade)
– Write a final report ~30pgs, (1 week, 40% of course grade)

Here are some of the issues that came up with him over the term:

– When coming up with ideas for the project, he did not contribute anything useful and would not do the research into topics that he said he would.
– He would say he would do something, or get something done, and then it wouldnt not get done (this happened various times)
– Quality of work was very poor
– Poor focus at group meetings, often would be surfing web sites during the meeting
– Not a self starter, therefore if he was given an area to try to work on, practically nothing would get done (this led to him doing practically nothing for the prototype)

So as you can see there were quite a few issues, and it essentially made a four person project into a three person project. The question here is, what do you do in this situation?

In a work situation, I would trust that if someone isnt pulling their weight, it will be noticed, and they will suffer the consequences. It may result in you having to do more work temporarily, but that should also get noticed, and you will have the benefits of being a hard worker. So in the work place, a non productive team member seems to be something that is easier to manage, at least to a certain degree. Feel free to correct me if you feel differently.

With this school project, we were stuck, with this group member, there was no getting around that. Also everyone receives the same grade on the project, therefore there is no specific benefit to individual team members (over the rest of the team, grades wise) to doing more work, but the work has to get done nonetheless.

Our solution for the reports was to try to assign him very straightforward and simple work, to try and lighten the load on the three of us. This only sort of worked. The simple work that we assigned him would get done, but not nearly to the desired quality, so we would end up having to re-write a large portion of it, eventually leading to an all nighter in the attempt to get the work done. In the end the quality was still not as desired, but that was mainly because of the difficulty of doing 4 peoples worth of work with only 3 people.

The work on the prototype was also a major issue; the main problem, we would give him a broad area to investigate, but he would not get anything substantial done. This was where I felt we could have really done something differently. It was identified at an early stage that this team member would be less productive then the rest, and most likely needed more guidance, but this guidance was never really given. Since we were all ‘equal’ team members, it was difficult for someone to step up to be in the leader role, especially since we ALL had a lot of work to do, and stepping up to the leader role would just be MORE work; so no one did take on the role, no one coached him, and thus the three of us ended up doing all of the work.

It was an interesting experience, and taught me some good lessons on how to handle this kind of situation when it happens again, because I am guessing that it, unfortunately, is a situation that will come up again in the future.



3 Responses to “What to do with a useless teammate?”

  1. Adam White said


    You said you learned lots from your experience. What would you do differently next time?


  2. Steve said


    There are two answers that I would give to this question, first is the sort of cop out answer that I would do my best to try to avoid getting into the situation to begin with. But because prevention won’t always work, here are a few things that I would try to do differently:

    – Identify the issue at an early stage of the project
    – Start trying to improve the situation as soon as it is identified.
    – It is case dependent, but in looking specifically at what happened this time I would firstly try to assign the individual very detailed and direct tasks, nothing big picture. I would then go over explicitly what the expectations were for his work and along these lines set some firm and frequent deadlines for his tasks. I would also check in on them on a consistent (probably weekly) basis to ensure that everything was on track, and if it was not I would attempt to figure out why not.
    – I would also try to understand the individuals motivation (or lack of) to see if I could use that to spur them to do more/better work.

    To sum up, I basically would actually actively address the situation rather then just sitting back and hoping it got better.


  3. ahy said

    Interesting topic, and a tricky situation.

    Your suggested approach sounds like a pretty reasonable way to handle it – breaking tasks down can help if the “invisible teammate” is not pulling their weight because they’re just overwhelmed (either by the work, or by outside problems). And the regular check ins and chats will give you early enough warning to redistribute if the guy’s just looking to coast through without doing any work (assuming you can’t persuade him otherwise).

    The way you’ve described him, he sounds like he could be either be a “coaster”, or he was out of his depth and gave up and switched off rather than asking for help – both can look identical when you don’t know someone. In my experience, the latter was usually pretty glad to have some manageable tasks that he could actually feel he’s making a contribution with. (Nobody likes being the dunce of the team.)

    Could it also have been a contributing factor that the rest of you all knew each other – hard to break in to an already functioning team?

    Maybe pairing off on some tasks might have been one way to deal? I know this was a common tactic on my degree, where we had a lot of team work. It’s easier to get started if you’ve got someone else to bounce ideas off, and also can be easier to admit problems to one other person instead of the whole team. If you switched around the pairs for different areas then it keeps the “equal team members” and takes the load off one person.

    Or you could have a team lead who effectively steps back a little bit from the actual project work so that they can manage the project as a whole. It might seem a bit of overkill to do this on a four person project, but it takes a surprising amount of time and effort to track who’s doing what, when, and how it all needs to fit together. And if you have a five or six person team, then I think at that point some kind of “coordinator” role becomes essential.

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