Procrastination’s sting in the tail

The art of procrastination is something some people develop into an art form and they may confess to a marked reluctance to change their ways. Typically, it's because it works well in the short term however, the down side is that it may cause some mental stress when people worry about what they know they're avoiding – typically, avoidance lists get bigger and bigger, until there is a missed deadline or a deadline that is finally, right in their face. How can procrastination be eliminated? Self awareness: individuals need to know themselves well and identify the reasons why they procrastinate – i.e. boredom, a lack of knowledge, a so called lack of time; individuals need to get to a point where they recognise the habit no longer works for them or they are holding up others' work and creating a bottleneck or they realise they are role modelling a habit that they don't appreciate in others. Time management: individuals need to adopt good time management practices, such as prioritising work, chunking and labelling it into their diaries, making themselves unavailable for periods of time, having bring up systems and most importantly, being self disciplined (time management is, after all, about self management and self discipline). Create lists: documenting all the pieces of work that need to be done, how long they've been on the to-do list and prioritising each item. Get into gear: worrying about what hasn't been done is wasted energy and that energy needs to be converted into positive action by doing what needs to be done.


How did we learn to think?

I've been thinking of this recently, as I came across and signed on for 10 free lessons on thinking. Every day for the last 10 days, an email has arrived with a link to a key question and a forum to post replies. I've worked through three questions to date and haven't yet replied to the fourth, as I'm still contemplating it. Through the lessons and website, there's access to interesting articles on brain wiring and other associated topics…so far, it's interesting and definitely something to think about!

Avoid the bog

I've been reminded this week of how easy it is to get bogged down. Some months ago I was asked to develop and deliver a one hour seminar on a particular topic. The client urgently needed the seminar because there were things happening in his store he wanted to change. I was asked to give some suggested dates, did so and waited weeks for a response. When I was able to get him on the phone, he told me he was so busy he doesn't any time to check emails or respond to things. He asked me to give another range of dates, which I did and here it is again, weeks later, no response and I've called again and heard the same reason – bogged down, all his time spent on operational issues. And the urgent issue he needed the seminar for? Yes, it's still happening,  causing problems and costing him money.

Business owners (and any manager for that matter) need to be able to move between working on strategic, big picture stuff to operational stuff and back again. Time spent working only in one area will cause organisational problems, as one area co-exists with the other – it's not an optional extra, it's a necessity.

Ignore poor performers at your peril

There is one common workplace issue that has the most potential to lower employee morale, lower workplace productivity, waste hundreds of hours of person hours and drive managers and workmates to distraction. The issue is poorly performing staff that fail to meet the required work standards and they may be widely known as being this way, for years.

And while many poorly performing staff can be successfully turned around, there is little hope of success when a staff member's manager (or other managers in the chain) ignores the problem in the hope the staff member may eventually leave the organisation; or, miraculously, the performance issues will spontaneously right themselves, without any attention, support and interventions, whatsoever.

Within many organisations with known historical poor performers, you may find:

  • a long line of managers who have managed them
  • a short list of failed, short-lived interventions
  • a lack of specialist HR and senior management support for the manager(s) dealing with inherited problems
  • a lack of good record keeping, so details on staffs' actual performance and discussions with the staff member concerned are inadequate and unhelpful
  • a stop/start approach taken – stopped when the manager or workplace is busy and started up again when the manager has more time to deal with it
  • a reluctance to name the performance for what it is and an inability or reluctance to discuss the performance, in the clearest terms, with the staff member concerned
  • overly simple performance appraisal forms that are inadequate and meaningless to staff and managers
  • overly complex performance appraisal forms and processes that are inordinately time consuming and off putting for staff and managers, so a quick run through is the most practical approach
  • false information recorded on performance appraisals, so that the impression the staff member has and any other future manager has, is that the performance is good and more than meets the required standards
  • disgruntled colleagues who are tired of carrying poor performing colleagues and seeing and experiencing management doing little about it
  • organisational cultural norms that tolerate low standards and poor performance.

You may also find some known poor performers may:

  • have no idea their performance isn't to standard, because they have never been told that directly, clearly and consistently
  • have a grudge against their manager or the organisation as a whole or have a history of malicious actions against their manager and defy all attempts to be managed or held accountable for their work
  • be bored or unhappy in their job and want to leave but don't have the confidence/skills or abilities to apply for other jobs; are waiting until they can retire; are waiting until the organisation restructures so they can be paid to go; are waiting for their manager to leave, so they can be left in peace.

When you think about it, how can organisations afford to carry staff that aren't pulling their weight, contributing to the development of the business yet are receiving a full salary? How can managers really meet their stipulated performance standards if some of their staff aren't doing their job to the required standard and team/section targets are consistently low or missed altogether?

How can individuals be expected to improve their performance if they don't know how they are really performing, the standards they are required to work to and the processes that can be put in place to help them achieve the standards? How can individuals realistically expect to be unchallenged and keep their job if they are choosing to sabotage their workplace by passive resistance or deliberate intent?

We ignore poor performers at our peril. The cycle of systemic management failure (failure by management to identify and address issues in a timely and thorough fashion) can be stopped if something is immediately done when performance issues and problems first appear. We can:

  • set clear, high standards of performance
  • adopt an organisation wide zero tolerance to poor performance and a zero tolerance to ignoring difficult issues
  • develop sound, fair, respectful performance appraisal processes and use them in the manner intended
  • train managers in the correct use of performance appraisal processes (accurate information, truthful comments, active support for staff, endorsement of good performance, identification of areas needing attention, identifying professional development opportunities, encouragement)
  • develop processes to support poor performers lift their game, in a managed, timely, supportive process
  • identify and treat poor performers with respect and courtesy and name the issues for what they are
  • request managers to deal with any poor performers in their team and provide meaningful, ongoing support to them, while they do so
  • provide ongoing HR and specialist support to managers dealing with poor performers
  • be consistent and start and finish the process; and make the hard decisions to remove staff from their role or organisation if they cannot, despite support and guided interventions, do their job.


Sue Dwan

Director, Dwan & Associates ltd

July 2010



Resistance not subtle, management trainer discovers

Some time ago I facilitated a workshop with, as I quickly discovered, a group of very unwilling participants. Their unwillingness made itself clear right at the beginning – they arrived late to the training room and some only got there because a colleague rounded them up; some, once in the room, left again, to have a quick smoke outside; and once the session got underway, most refused to contribute in any meaningful way. Despite all efforts to get some people to engage, they wouldn't and consciously or unconsciously, they worked to sabotage the session. As I discovered later, their resistance had nothing to do with me but everything to do with a number of disgruntled staff who were anti their employer, anti their manager and anti any attempts to manage them. The session was a good illustration that disgruntled or unhappy staff can have a huge, ongoing negative impact on their workmates and on a workplace; that disgruntled or unhappy staff need support and input to resolve their concerns or to help them move on in some way; that people-related issues, left unresolved, will fester for years and become part of the cultural norm of a workplace; that unhappy staff may have little awareness of how they communicate verbally and non-verbally with others and the impact their attitudes or behaviours may have on others; that some staff have little understanding or awareness of what being 'professional' means on a day to day basis, in a workplace.

Organisational structures kill enthusiasm and productivity

It's a bold claim but one I'm prepared to make. Large organisations have layers of management, numerous divisions and teams, countless individuals and policies and practices for Africa. Decision making tends to be slow, making changes even slower, productivity average and all in all, are places where individual creativity and passion is most likely to be eventually stifled because of the weight of the structure and the weight and complexity of its internal processes. They are sick places, as their full potential (and the potential of people within them) can never be realised. They are structures that are ill equipped to deal with our world today and the needs of today – organisations that are fluid and flexible enough to make rapid change, to throw out the notions of how things have always been done to create new ways of viewing and doing things; to only engage people with passion and personal energy and drive and an ability to think outside the square; to have a light touch with structures and infrastructure, so they too are flexible and adaptable to changing needs. The old way, the traditional way, isn't working anymore. RIP.

Symptoms and core problems cause confusion

There is a world of difference between the symptom of a problem and a core problem and sometimes it's a challenge to know which is which. For example, a staff member may be experienced by colleagues as constantly obstructive. They may think the person is deliberately being difficult to annoy their colleagues or stop organisational change occurring. Yet, the obstructiveness may be symptomatic of different problems altogether, such as: the person may not have all the relevant information on some issues in order to make an informed decision; they may have been excluded from some information, so they don't know about changes that may be planned; they may have been given clear instructions from one manager to do something yet that instruction isn't known by other managers. At the heart of most symptoms of organisational confusion and misunderstandings amongst staff, the following core issues are likely to be found: poor communications, erratic use of required processes, unclear roles and boundaries between roles, a high tolerance level to poor performance, staff in roles they may not have all the skill sets for and systematic management failure – that is, known problems have been left to fester, for years.

Fast failures are good

The concept of fast failures is an interesting one. It is where an organisation, section or team has an operating norm that sees mistakes as an inevitable workplace practice. Then, when a mistake occurs, it is analysed by the people concerned, the learnings found from the experience, necessary changes are made where they need to be made, and everyone moves on. I like it. This approach enables the workplace to be a supportive, learning organisation and a place where calculated risks, seizing opportunities and trying new things can easily occur.