If someone on your staff is regularly blowing deadlines, it’s crucial that you address it quickly – otherwise, the habit can get ingrained and even spread to other team members, who may figure that deadlines aren’t taken seriously.
Here’s what to do.
1. Sit down with the staff member and ask what’s going on, and listen with an open mind. Start out by simply naming the problem and asking for the staff person’s perspective: “You’ve been missing deadlines lately. What’s been happening?” Then, give her some room to talk. You might learn that deadlines haven’t been as clear as you thought, or that someone else is causing a roadblock in her work, or that her systems haven’t been sufficient for the number of projects on her plate. If you have trouble getting an understanding of what’s causing the problem, try digging in a bit by asking questions like, “So that I understand, what’s involved in making X happen?” and “What sorts of things are getting in the way?”
2. Talk about the impact of the missed deadlines. The idea here is to demonstrate that these aren’t simply arbitrary deadlines; they have real-world consequences. For example, you might say, “When you turned in your billings so late, Jose ended up having to work over the weekend to get invoices out on time.” Or, “We agreed that I’d be able to look at the brochure three days before it was due to the printer, but I received it too close to the print deadline to be able to give meaningful feedback.”
3. Ask what tools your employee is using to track projects and deadlines. Does she have a system or is she relying on memory? Or is she using tools that aren’t up to the job, like a spreadsheet when a more robust project management software is needed? Also, is she blocking out time to work on projects well in advance of deadlines, or is she only turning to them close to the due date? With complicated projects, is she scheduling out each moving piece and allowing buffers for things to go wrong? It may be that she needs better systems or that some coaching on project management work habits would help.
4. Clearly state your expectations for what needs to change going forward. Often this won’t just mean “meet all deadlines”; in some environments, especially ones with heavy workloads and competing priorities, it might mean “come talk to me well in advance if something is getting in the way of you meeting a deadline.” In that context, what you want is both a heads-up and an opportunity to help move other priorities around.
5. Talk about next steps. If the conversation hasn’t already produced clear ideas that the employee will try, ask directly, “What would it make sense to do differently going forward?” You want the employee to have a clear sense of what specific steps she’ll take to solve the problem – something more than just “try harder.” Ideally she’ll come up with these on her own, but if she’s struggling, it’s okay for you to be fairly directive about what you’d like her to try (for example, “start entering interim deadlines in our shared project management tracker” or “front-load your week so you’re getting time-sensitive work out of the way before tackling other projects”).