Dealing with ‘Deadwoods’ in the Workplace

Louis shows up to work every day, but puts in minimal effort; he gets work in but not always on time, and his interactions with coworkers is subpar, at best. Mistakes? common for Louis. So why is Louis still employed?

Louis has become what is known as a ‘deadwood,’ which refers to those who are performing at a substandard level (Greenhaus, Callanan & Godshalk, 2010). They are those workers who skirt by; they may cover their own mistakes, by being friendly or, due to being ‘such a nice person’ others cover for them. Deadwoods disrupt the flow of the workplace, often feeling making it feel like walking on ice, waiting to see what they won’t do and if it will be dealt with (today).


Why does someone become a deadwood? Several reasons can be responsible:

  • nearing retirement
  • job apathy
  • unsure of work roles/tasks
  • lack of career pathing and/or promotional opportunities
  • too valuable for the role but no interest in it
  • lack of effective leadership
  • dealing with personal issues
  • overwork and stress
  • burnout

I’m sure there are more but these are common ones I’ve heard from clients. I don’t think these workers choose to be in this category but, once they find themselves there they are unsure for how to reverse and become a high performer again. This often leads them to stay ‘under the radar’ – if not seen, then they are okay. Unfortunately, others know. The boss knows but seems unsure how to handle this, while coworkers grow increasingly frustrated all around.

So what do you do with a deadwood? Is it possible to turn them around or is the door the only way out of the situation? My personal belief is that it’s two-fold; employers are responsible to provide ways to reactivate and involve these workers, while employees have the responsibility to change their mindset and attitude to turn this around.

Employer actions to prevent deadwoods include:

  • having regular feedback sessions to discuss their work performance
  • documenting instances of poor work, apathy so employee has ‘proof’ of their conduct
  • develop a clear performance improvement plan as to end-goal and daily actions taken
  • look at rewards and incentives to stimulate motivation
  • apply job redesign or rotation as this will alleviate boredom and allow the worker’s skills to be used
  • if not progress, then do both of you a favor and let them go so you can hire someone who truly wants to contribute
  • bring in a career or executive coach who will get to the source of discontent, help the client to develop an improvement plan, and hold them accountable to complete identified actions

Employee actions to increase performance:

  • self-assessment is your friend in these circumstances; what is leading to dissatisfaction with the job: is it the work, the environment, policies & procedures, relationship with boss/coworkers, outside influences (i.e. family issues, finances, etc.)? Identifying the source of unhappiness will be the key to turning these around
  • identify ways you can be a contributor – what skills can you use that would make a difference in your work; who can you help with their work, etc. Deadwoods don’t often think their work makes a difference so find ways to make it happen
  • change your mindset – rethink your role and the way you feel about your work, whatever the circumstance that is leading to your apathy. Look at solution-resolution for what you can ‘fix;’ change your self-talk to stop complaining and being more resolute in positive thought and actions
  • ask for help – have a frank discussion with your boss to see how you can turn this around and how they can guide you; you may need to talk to an outside source, such as from the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or hiring a career coach, who has the resources and expertise to help you become a high performer again

As for Louis, he is now in a different role within his organization. His boss finally took action and have a talk with him, which determined that he no longer felt needed or liked the work he did; but Louis did inform his boss of the type of work he did want to do, to which his boss found ways for that to happen. Louis’ replacement is performing well, and Louis even found that he could train them to which both have excelled since. The boss is happy, coworkers are happy, and the department is cohesive and producing good results.

Taking the time to recognize deadwoods is so necessary but, also, so is taking action and not allowing them to continue to be substandard workers. A deadwood is a tree branch that has not gotten nurturing or is diseased and dies off; don’t allow an employee to fall to the same fate.

Committed to Your Success Coaching & Consulting focuses on workplace happiness and organizational success. If you need help gaining clarity on your business or career goals, why not get some help – stop the struggle and call today to get started! or


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