Mike was the head of the Engineering department. He supervised a team of about 7 engineers through client projects. The engineers usually worked in teams of 3 or 4 from design to completion, with most of them juggling 2-3 projects at a time. From the outside looking in, it seemed confusing because of competing deadlines and the contradicting duties from one team to the next within the department. But it worked for them!

Except for Jeff.

Jeff didn’t like working in teams. He requested to be assigned projects that he could work on from start to finish only.

Mike didn’t know what to do about Jeff. He said he’d never encountered someone like that before, someone who was so open with his dislike for teams and strong preference for individual assignments. So he came to my office to ask for some guidance on what to do with and about Jeff.

I was kind of shocked, too. It took audacity for Jeff to make the request — but I’ve always been of the opinion that audacity isn’t always a bad thing. And that kind of audacity at work usually stems from frustration, boredom — or both!

When we took a closer look at Jeff’s performance, we found that he was consistently ahead of deadlines and spent a lot of time waiting on others to finish their part of the project so that he could move forward. To keep himself busy, Jeff tried to help out other teams — only to be criticized by others for interfering. So he stopped helping the other teams and started leaving early or goofing off, which made it appear like he was a slacker.

Poor Jeff. No wonder he wanted to work alone!

Mike didn’t remove Jeff from the teams altogether. He felt like he couldn’t justify reorganizing the entire way the department completed their work just to accommodate one person. Besides, working in teams is an important skill and critical for Jeff,  no matter where he worked. However, he did organize the work better to play to Jeff’s strengths. When work was divided, he made sure Jeff was the person leading off the assignments so Jeff was rarely left waiting for someone else. This kept work flowing ahead of deadlines and gave the plans for the projects more cushion. Mike helped Jeff make better use of his downtime by assigning Jeff special projects and cross-training in other areas in the plant. Then Mike allowed Jeff to share with the other engineers about what he’d learned, so the rest of the group started to see Jeff as an asset and not a slacker.

When we followed up with Jeff about six months later, he was a much, much happier guy. It seemed everyone was a winner!

Now I don’t advocate this approach for everyone. Jeff had been with the company for almost 7 years, his work product was excellent and the team format had some definite kinks. It made good sense to work with him. However, if he hadn’t had so much tenure or if his work product hadn’t been so great or if the work environment didn’t have challenges, it would not have been good sense to put in the effort for such a unique and personalized plan. If Jeff hadn’t been in good standing, the plan would’ve had a much different focus altogether.

Tardiness, early departure, absenteeism, loafing, horseplay and other negative patterns can often be attributed to employees feeling unchallenged in their work. When that happens — especially if the employee makes a specific request — we must make time to evaluate the employee and the environment. Don’t just leave employees to fend for themselves in frustration. Address the problems and create a plan to get things back on track — then hold everyone accountable for the outcomes.