C-Suite Advisory

How to handle those pesky COVID-19 characters: the Complainer, the Slacker, the Leech

Zoe Routh

The pandemic has given us plenty of reasons to complain. Restrictions, isolation, panic buying, general distress with all the uncertainty. With quick decisions being made about work arrangements, grumbles have rumbled. The shift to work from home directives or restricted work environments has opened the door to those who would take advantage of the changed conditions, causing even more headaches for over-stretched CEOs.

Remote management of work performance is one the major concerns cited by leaders. In a survey (Parker et al, July 2020) of 1200 people in 24 different countries,  about 40% of the 215 supervisors and managers surveyed expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. 38% of managers agreed that remote workers usually perform worse than those who work in an office and 41% agreed with the statement “I am skeptical as to whether remote workers can stay motivated in the long term”. Furthermore there is a lack of trust in employee competence. This has led in turn to over checking and micro management. This is not a great recipe for employee engagement.

In a recent study conducted by Gallup, employee engagement figures are back to where they were pre-pandemic: not that great. They report “51% of workers are “not engaged” – they are psychologically unattached to their work and company.” They are on the hunt for a new role, and will happily leave their current employer for a better offer.

Employee engagement is critical at any time, and even more so now.  Gallup’s research shows that strong employee engagement is the one metric that is a solid predictor of performance through tough economic recessions. We need our engagement in tip top shape to handle the pinch of recession on top of the pandemic.

Having to contend with difficult employee behaviours on top of pandemic stress spells impending disaster for many a CEO. If the managers and executive are overloaded and worn out from the pandemic turn of events and its repercussions in the workplace, handling pesky behaviour like complaints, underperformance and responsibility aversion may become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Here are three insights that will assist in dealing with troublesome negative behaviours such as those of the Complainer, the Slacker, and the Leech.

Complainers: Ask them for suggestions

Complainers can definitely feel like naysayers. They challenge decisions and resist change. It may not be all bad news: they may be the canaries in the coal mine. Some issues need to be raised, and it’s better to have concerns out in the open than to have them go underground to fester and foster dissent. Your complainer may in fact be playing devil’s advocate. Perspective is always a valuable thing, so be curious about where they are coming from – there may be some hidden gem in their concerns you hadn’t seen yet.

When people complain, they want first and foremost to be heard. So listen. Then offer responsibility and autonomy to address aspects of the issue. By asking them for solutions, we shift the sense of control back to them. Being asked for a meaningful contribution is validating and inclusive. This can neutralise negative complaints quickly.

Slackers: Stretch their skills

Slackers are not always lazy. Slackers may lack clarity: of role, direction, or accountability. Sometimes they may lack the skill to do the job and are too unsure or embarrassed to talk about it. They end up avoiding work and hiding out, hoping not to be found out.

Do a skills assessment for possible training. Create agreed goals and targets, together. Highlight where they are connected to the organisation’s team or purpose. Having the right balance of skill and challenge, as a well as a clear sense of purpose, is integral to engagement.

Leeches: Establish clear boundaries.

Leeches are not necessarily selfish; they are more likely to be opportunistic. If you give an inch, they will take a mile. If someone is offering to take work off their plate, this is a happy boon. They might capitalise on someone else’s good nature or eagerness to please.

Leeches need guidelines. When we develop a clear outline of what is – and is not – acceptable in team performance and interactions, then it’s clear where they stand. It’s a way of ensuring everyone contributes without taking advantage of others.

Some behaviours are indeed vexing, especially when we are under duress in such usual and extreme circumstances. The fundamentals of leadership apply more than ever: pay attention, listen, and show people how they can get back on track.


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Zoe Routh
Zoe Routh is Australia’s leadership expert specialising in the people stuff. She shows leaders and teams struggling with silos and office politics how to work better together. She is the author of People Stuff: Beyond Personality Problems - An Advanced Handbook for Leadership. Zoe Routh is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.