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Managing Procrastinators — A Challenge for Any HR Professional

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A human resources job is all about managing people and getting the best out of them. In a human resources job, one has to handle all kinds of people who need help and may become outstanding performers once shown the way. Overcoming procrastination in employees is one of the key challenges of human resources professionals.

One cannot get rid of procrastination by simply getting rid of the procrastinator. Procrastination is such a common and widespread malady that people in human resources jobs need to pay special attention to its control, care, and cure, but only the rare few expend the effort it takes to understand it properly. This article will not provide the solution to procrastination, for that must come from within the procrastinator, but it will give you an idea of what helps and what does not when dealing with a procrastinator.

The Difficulties of Understanding a Procrastinator

The difficulties of dealing effectively with a procrastinator arise from within you.

If you yourself are a procrastinator, then chances are empathy will make it difficult for you to understand or help somebody else struggling with the same problem. Human resources professionals, who are often empathetic by their very nature, can fall into the trap of identifying too closely with the subject and end up feeling disgusted and frustrated with both themselves and those they are trying to help. This is one of the greatest difficulties of a human resources job.

If you are an organized non-procrastinator, then the chronic lateness, inaction, and apparent lack of commitment of a procrastinator will be difficult for you to grasp. For human resources professionals who have not mastered the techniques for dealing with a procrastinator, the experience can be mutually frustrating. It is common to feel that you are vainly struggling to help somebody who is determined to make a mess of his or her life and is deaf to all your advice.

Mutual Frustration

When dealing with an experienced procrastinator, it's very easy to get pushed into a cycle of frustration without even being aware of how you are being managed and manipulated. Expert procrastinators usually report vaguely on their tasks and can fool you into making wrong assumptions about the actual state of things. The reasons a procrastinator gives for his or her delay are often only part of the story, but the procrastinator's masterful presentations (bolstered by his or her survival instincts) can lead you to accept them as the whole truth.

You never get a realistic view of what's going on because the procrastinator wants to avoid the truth. Instead of being able to make things easy for both employers and employees as a human resources professional, you get caught in the crossfire from both sides and blamed for making things more difficult for those on each side of the fence. You know that your team's productivity is going down because of certain people who continue to drag their feet. You know that it will cost the company much more to hire and train new people than it will to get those who are already there into shape. You realize that in spite of all your pleas, efforts, and advice, the worst cases are still getting nowhere. You get frustrated with them for being uncooperative, and they get frustrated with you for being too assertive. Either way, things seem doomed.

Why Encouragement Doesn't Work

Human resources professionals have a tendency to fall back upon "encouragement" as one of the best weapons in their repertoire. They also tend to overuse it and consider it the universal weapon of first resort. Encouragement works differently with a procrastinator.

Obviously, once you have identified a procrastinator, your first reaction is to start offering reassurance and encouragement. Your mistake is believing that with feedback based on your own logic, the procrastinator will find his or her own motivations to get going. The procrastinator does not view your encouragement as support but rather as an attempt to assume control and force him or her to act. He or she will probably decide you are pushy and start pushing back without being aware of it.

One of the major reasons for procrastination is that deep down inside them, procrastinators are afraid they may not be up to the task. When you reassure them of their abilities or intelligence, in their minds you become just another person who's been fooled. They are usually deeply convinced that they are undeserving. Encouragement usually fails to have its desired effect on a procrastinator.

What Doesn't Work with Procrastinators
  1. Pushing them to just start working. By telling procrastinators to "just do it," you emphasize their inability to do what is easy for everybody else. The procrastinator finds it harder to take action because he or she feels overwhelmed with self-deprecation.

  2. Nagging and being a watchdog. Continually checking on the procrastinator's progress just makes you somebody to hide from.

  3. Using ridicule, criticism, or threats. You may think that shaming the procrastinator publicly will make him or her take action. Although you may humiliate the person into some quick action, in the long run, he or she will only remember the indignity, not the positive outcome.

  4. Doing the task yourself. This is the worst thing to do. You only perpetuate the procrastinator's problem.

  5. Vindicating yourself if the procrastinator follows your advice and gets results. Saying "I told you so" is one of the worst things you can do to a procrastinator who, for once, has done the right thing. The procrastinator already knows you are right. Patting yourself on the back is like rubbing salt into his or her wound.
What Works with Procrastinators

Relationships between human resources professionals and procrastinators vary from case to case, and there are no universal solutions. However, two things are of the utmost importance. First, never forget your individual perspective; second, be flexible about your strategy. When working with a procrastinator, focus only on "now" and never on the past or future. The following techniques are extremely effective when dealing with most procrastinators.
  1. Establish clear limits, deadlines, and consequences. Involve the procrastinator in setting his or her work schedule, make the limits and consequences clear, and try to put everything into writing endorsed by the procrastinator. Then leave it up to him or her to live up to the agreement. If the procrastinator is unwilling to participate, set conditions unilaterally and communicate them effectively, clarifying that he or she is responsible for following through.

  2. Set small intermediate goals. When creating the procrastinator's work schedule, set small intermediate goals. Procrastinators tend to concentrate on end-points and ignore the steps needed to reach them.

  3. Respond immediately to successes and failures and move on. Recognition or punishment should be immediate, and you should move on to the next step right away. Always imply that you have forgotten the procrastinator's successes or failures in the past and that you are not concerned about what will happen in the future. You are focused on what is happening now and always will be as far as the procrastinator is concerned.

  4. Concretely outline the procrastinator's tasks. Procrastinators are notorious for being vague. They like unrealistic goals and think about what they would like to do rather than what they can do. Do not give the procrastinator leeway to pursue unrealistic goals.

  5. Communicate your anger directly and dispassionately. If you are angry, communicate it directly, but don't overdo it.

  6. Let procrastinators know they are more to you than their performance. If you really want to help a procrastinator, let him or her know that you value his or her other qualities besides productivity. Procrastinators often become depressed when they judge themselves solely on their productivity.
These are the things I have learned about procrastinators, both in my own life and from the words of experts. Procrastinators can be great workers if they are shown the way, but if the human resources professional does not understand them, he or she will find them to be the most obstinate challenges.
On the net:Procrastination

Procrastination: Ten Things to Know

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