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Recently, I and 4 other coworkers were working together on an internal initiative. Due to the nature of the project (internal rather than client-facing, etc), it was a rather "informal" project that wasn't assigned from my boss (but we had his approval to work on it whenever we all had available time). This also meant there was no project manager.

As one of the original creators for this initiative, I led a "divide & conquer" meeting with my 4 coworkers, where we created a to-do list and everyone picked which areas they wanted to work on. Once every task was assigned, we scheduled a follow up meeting for a week later, to touch base on progress. I made it clear that we all should communicate to each other in case of blockers, as it was likely we'd be able to help "unblock" each others' issues.

At our follow up meeting, everyone had some updates, except for 1 person who said he didn't have time to work on it. It was surprising since I knew his schedule wasn't full, but I let it slide, assuming it was a one-time thing.

However, this happened again & again - he consistently had very little or no progress, and wasn't communicating that to everyone else. I know that this coworker does, in fact, believe in the goal for what we're trying to accomplish. It seems he really just doesn't manage his time well, and possibly needs a more "firm" approach to hold him accountable, rather than the loose "lets check in every so often" method which I had been using.

Thinking over this in retrospect, I'm wondering what I could've done differently. What are some practical ways that I could have held this coworker more accountable to his assigned tasks, without being overbearing or micromanaging?

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    Did your coworker volunteer for the project or was he assigned? There is a difference between believing in something and wanting to work on it yourself. – Chris Apr 19 at 7:54
  • @Chris the OP says none were assigned by the boss. – Solar Mike Apr 19 at 8:06
  • @SolarMike The project was not assigned, but maybe the coworker was told to help out during his free time. – Chris Apr 19 at 8:16
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    I think you're not realizing what "divide & conquer" means. You're using it in the sense of "shared labor", but it actually means intentionally fostering bad blood between otherwise united parties (divide) so they are distracted by those disagreements and you can defeat them (conquer). E.g. when playing a team sport, sparking a fight between your opposing team's members so that their team ceases to operate at peak performance and you can win the game you're playing against them. – Flater Apr 22 at 23:25
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    @Flater not necessarily in CS (what OP describes sounds like d&c - a large initiative is broken down into tractable pieces) – muru Apr 23 at 9:02
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Before you go all Gong-Ho on your peer's tooshie, I may suggest a couple of reasons why he's not pulling his own weight:

  • He came in all hopeful, but then when faced with actually having to contribute, his skill set failed him. He wants to, but isn't able to, and admitting it is too much a blow to his ego, so he's more content at making (stupid) excuses than shooting straight.
  • His resolve is gone. He's not really into the project anymore, for whatever reason and feels saying so is letting everybody down so, again, comes the stupid excuses.

Either way or the reason is entirely different, grab him for a light chat.
You're anyway not his boss, if I understand you correctly, so you can't discipline him, nor should you.
Just a quick "What's up with you? You're struggling to contribute in a meaningful way to a project I know your heart is in for".

Take it from there according to what he answers.

And, if his response doesn't please you and the both of you can't see a way to boost his contributions... cutting him from the project is also an option.
Yes, it's more work for the remaining folks, work that you shoulder in the end anyway, but it'll stop the other team members resenting the other member (they don't, of course not, why would I think that?!), ease the tension between you and him, and let him get away from something he clearly isn't suitable for in a gracious way.

Generally speaking, even if you were his superior, leadership by empathy will almost always get you better results than by fear.

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What are some practical ways that I could have held this coworker more accountable to his assigned tasks, without being overbearing or micromanaging?

You're already aware that being overbearing or micromanaging them isn't a great approach, which is good. But I'd like to point out that "holding someone accountable" sounds similarly accusing than you probably intended it, and it's important that you don't come across as such.

If you want to improve this person's function in the team, don't take the route of condemning them or publically holding them accountable. There are many possible reasons for the delay. Some are malevolent (laziness, work avoidance), others are innocent (bad time management, lack of confidence, fear of asking for help), and others are their control (technical issues, other urgent tasks). Assume innocence until proven guilty.

Simply approach them and work through issues without assigning blame. If you play the blame game, they are going to go on the defensive (or worse, the counter offensive), and it's not going to do your team any favors. And "accountability" is a good thing, but the word can come across as a euphemism for "blame", especially if you're dealing with an employee who is already worried about their lack of results.

Instead, talk to them about issues they may have faced. They said they didn't have time to look into X, so ask them specifically what caused this delay and if there's anything that could be done differently to avoid it. Assume that there is a valid reason, and engage them to solve their problem, not to lay blame or accuse them.

he consistently had very little or no progress, and wasn't communicating that to everyone else

If you see a problem, fix it. Explain to them that delays are understandable but that you would prefer being given a heads up sooner rather than later, so you can respond quicker and help resolve the issue instead of realising that there was an issue way down the line.

It seems he really just doesn't manage his time well, and possibly needs a more "firm" approach to hold him accountable, rather than the loose "lets check in every so often" method which I had been using.

I'd hold off on the firm approach, as it's likely going to set bad blood. Instead simply finetune the loose approach. Start checking in with them on a shorter term, e.g. daily. It doesn't have to be official, just ask them about their progress. This can be an informal chat during a coffee or smoke break.

You don't have to announce that this is something you will be doing, as this again will put them on the defensive. Take on the role of a helpful colleague, not a vigilant watchdog.

While there is value to doing these daily checkups with the team in its entirety, I suggest also approaching this employee by themselves. It's possible that they feel less confident speaking in a group, or being the one who asks questions. Instead, approach them privately and ask the questions for them, so they will be prompted to speak up (more so than when they have to initiate the talking in a group)

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At your next project meeting, if he reports no progress, ask if he would like his part to be reassigned. If he agrees, then the first one in the group who has time can take it over. If not, you have another chance to see some progress. Not every team member will contribute an equal amount of effort to any project. The real trick is to move the work around, when necessary, to keep the project moving.

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  • Without disputing your comment here, Charles, I would emphasize my above point: "now is the proper time to engage Upper Management." (Sir/Ma'am, I need to let you know that this special-situation has come up. Here are all the details as I see them. Let me know as soon as possible how you would have me proceed.") Call it "common courtesy." Hand it to their level-of-concern ... lest they "be surprised" by it ... and wait for further instructions. If they tell you to handle it, then handle it (as they direct). – Mike Robinson Apr 24 at 22:28
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I categorically believe that if this person is a co- worker, you should elevate your concern to the next level of management. There is someone in your company that both of you "work for," and issues such as these are the proper concern of that role.

Even if this person has delegated responsibilities to you, I believe that you should [privately ...] alert this person to the complete details of the situation. (Been there: No one wants to be blindsided.) Await further instructions.

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