When You’re Stuck Working with a Slacker

By Rebecca Knight
June 25, 2021

Having a colleague who makes mistakes, misses deadlines, or just plain slacks off is more than just a workaday frustration; it can also negatively affect your job — and even your career. How can you keep your colleague’s underperformance from dragging you down? Focus on your protecting your professional reputation. If you and this colleague are collectively responsible for producing elements of a project, make sure expectations and roles are clearly defined. A paper trail increases accountability. (It also ensures you get credit for your results.) Bringing your boss into these conversations ought to motivate and incentivize the weak link to do better. In addition, look for ways to reduce your interdependence on this particular person. Ask your manager for individual assignments and challenges to take on. Your goal is to demonstrate your competence and give your boss another way to evaluate you.


Working with someone who doesn’t pull their weight is more than just a routine frustration; it can also negatively affect your work — and even your career. What can you do about a colleague like this? How much support should you give this person? Do you go to your boss? And how can you safeguard your reputation within the organization?


What the Experts Say


Having a colleague who makes mistakes, misses deadlines, or is just plain lazy is hardly unusual, says Judith White, teaching professor of business administration at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It is probably the single most common complaint: ‘I have a colleague who doesn’t do their work and I have to pick up the slack.’” Just because it’s a common problem doesn’t make it easy to deal with, however. “You need to go back to your basic organizational behavior class from business school and pull out every tool in your kit,” she says. Even then, “there’s no quick solution,” says Brian Uzzi, the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. But when your job performance suffers because of your colleague’s behavior, you need to take action. It’s not worth “gritting your teeth and waiting it out,” he says. Here are some thoughts on how to handle the situation.


Diagnose the problem.


For starters, says Uzzi, you need to assess the situation to pinpoint the problem and its root cause. Look at the big picture, says White. Ask yourself: Why is your colleague falling short? Do they lack the bandwidth, ability, or resources to do the job? Do other people see your colleague’s underperformance as a problem? What impact is it having? And is this is a new situation? “If it’s been going on for a long time, it will be harder to deal with. Patterns are fixed,” she says. But if not — maybe this person is junior or new to the organization and getting up to speed — it will be easier. Answering these questions will help you figure out how to address the issue. Remember, though, “you’re not going to be able to change your colleague.” Rather, you need to identify what you can do to change the situation.


Be introspective.


In that spirit, it’s also wise to reflect on your own behavior, says Uzzi. Make sure you’re not falling prey to the fundamental attribution error. “When we do well, we tend to credit all of our positive and unique qualities. When we mess up, it’s because of forces beyond our control,” he says. “But with others, we believe the opposite.”


Think, too, about how you approach your coworker and how they might perceive you. “When you‘re having trouble with a colleague, it’s often because you’re sending a signal that threatens them,” says Uzzi. Even if it’s not your intention, your actions imply “that you are smarter, faster, more energetic, or your skills are more in line with where the organization is heading.” If this might be the case, you must “figure out ways to remove that threat” by “putting time and energy into making the relationship better,” he says. “Make it apparent that your success is their success. Say, ‘I have expertise in this area; you have expertise in that area. Our skills complement each other. We have a lot to learn from each other together.’” Your message to this person is simple and straightforward: “Together, we will do the job more efficiently.”


Talk to your colleague.


If you’re comfortable and relatively friendly with the colleague in question, Uzzi recommends reaching out to them directly about their lackluster execution. “Ask, ‘Is anything going on?’” You might learn that their child is having trouble in school, or their mother is sick, or that they’re going through a painful divorce. In this case, you have every reason to believe that “their performance in the future will be different” and you “need to ride this one out,” he says.


Be compassionate. White suggests offering your help so long as it’s “explicit and time-limited,” she says. Your support “is a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution.” For instance, “I noticed you haven‘t called the client back. Can I do that for you this time?” After all, “there‘s nothing wrong with helping this employee out if they can help you out later on.” Employees should trade favors, she adds, “but there has to be reciprocity.”


Talk to your boss (but be judicious).


You really shouldn’t complain to your supervisor about a colleague, says Uzzi. For one thing, “it makes you look bad. You seem like a whiner — someone who can‘t manage relationships well,” he says. For another, it makes the boss look bad, he adds. Your complaint “reflects badly on the boss’s ability to select the right people for the job.” That said, there are ways to broach the issue with your manager, both directly and indirectly.


Discuss challenges. “The last thing your boss wants to do is mediate a relationship between you and your coworker,” says White. And yet, your boss has a vested interest in your ability to do your job, particularly if something or someone is getting in the way. Frame the conversation with that in mind, says White. She recommends saying something along the lines of, “I’m not able to do my best work because during the day I find myself checking up on things outside [my purview] that distract me from my assignments.” White cautions against mentioning your colleague by name. “Make it about you and your work.”


Request joint feedback. If you and this problem individual are involved in projects that are tightly integrated and being evaluated on your joint output, “you should ask your boss if the two of you could receive performance feedback at the same time,” says Uzzi. During the feedback session, “your boss will ask probing questions about the project, and it will become obvious who dropped the ball,” he says. Then, assuming your colleague cares about their job, you’ll have some leverage to suggest changes. “You can say, ‘The boss is right; we can do better. I have ideas of how we can improve next time,’” Uzzi says. He predicts your colleague will be grateful. “The other person will be looking for solutions that take the pressure off.”


Seek out different ways to shine. You also need to look for ways to “reduce your interdependence” on this questionable colleague, says White. She suggests asking your boss for additional individual assignments. For instance, “you might say, ‘I love being on the team, but I‘m looking for new challenges, and I want to do more. Are there any solo tasks I could take on?’” Your goal is to demonstrate your competence and “give your boss another way to evaluate you and your performance.”


Define expectations.


One way to safeguard your reputation is to ensure that “expectations and roles are clearly defined,” says White. Let’s say you and this colleague are collectively responsible for producing particular elements of projects. White recommends proposing that each project “has a clear and designated leader.” Project leadership would rotate to “increase accountability.” This way, “at least you know you’re going to get credit” for success when you’re the leader, she says.


Bringing your boss into these conversations is key, says Uzzi. When your manager has weighed in on how “Janet will do this and Deepak will do that,” then there’s a trail for the boss to know who’s responsible for each deliverable. “This should provide motivation for the weak link to produce more high-quality work,” he says.


Invite others in.


Another way to change the dynamic of your relationship with this colleague is to incorporate another person into the work, says Uzzi. “Paired relationships often fall out of balance,” he says. “There may be something about the two of you that dampens [your colleague’s] creativity or hurts their motivation.” Inviting a third party into your project “changes your chemistry” and builds trust. So, think about who might make a strong addition to your relationship and how they might contribute. “Perhaps this person provides new skills that neither of you have; maybe they inject some creativity; or maybe they’re a sounding board and can offer feedback.” If this third colleague doesn’t have capacity to officially join your project, “even just going out to lunch with them” might improve your interactions with the underperforming colleague. “The third party helps create social and professional incentives” to do better.


Cultivate other relationships.


Fostering relationships with people outside your department is always a smart career move, says White. And when you’re working closely with an underperformer, these connections can be your lifeline. “Cultivating relationships with colleagues from other parts of the organization not only makes your job more pleasant, it also helps you have a reputation outside of your direct team,” she says. This is especially important “if your team is not in [good standing].” So, work on seeking out a new network at work. Make time for lunch or coffee with people in different divisions. Strike up conversations with other colleagues. Ask, “What are you working on at the moment? Can you tell me about your latest project?” This strategy is a much better option than complaining or jumping ship, notes White. “You’re trying to solve your problem.”


Stop covering for them.


One final word: Don’t enable an underperformer. Of course, it’s good to help other people, but covering for someone else’s mistakes or lack of ability “is not sustainable,” says White. Research shows that women, in particular, fall prey to this. “Women are expected to help out,” she says. Be on your guard. “It will become toxic for you, and then it becomes toxic for the rest of your team.” In the long run, “you’re going to be angry at yourself.” If this person is always bringing you down, you can’t afford to let it continue, says Uzzi. When all else fails, it might be time to find a new job or look for a transfer.


Principles to Remember


Do

  • Think about what you can do to change the situation. After all, you’re not going to be able to change your colleague.
  • Consider changing the dynamic of your relationship with this colleague by incorporating another person into the work.
  • Foster relationships with people outside your department. It makes your job more pleasant, and it helps protect your professional reputation.


Don’t

  • Neglect to consider your role in the situation. Ask yourself, is my behavior having an impact? How might this colleague perceive me?
  • Complain to your boss about this colleague. Rather, be thoughtful and judicious about how you approach your manager.
  • Constantly covering for an underperformer is toxic for your career. If the situation doesn’t improve after you’ve tried numerous strategies, move on. 


Advice in Practice


Case Study #1: Request joint feedback and make sure your boss is aware of your contributions.


Lauren Crain, a digital marketer, knows all too well what it’s like to work with colleagues who aren’t up to scratch. “In the past, I used to do the work for them, take over when talking about projects since they would know so little about them, and do things to save face for the company,” she says.


“But I wasn’t helping the company; in fact, I was helping these underperformers, and in turn, actually hurting the company by protecting bad employees.”


A few years ago, she worked closely on a project with a colleague whom we’ll call Brian. Brian was incompetent and lacking in motivation.


As a woman of color, Lauren felt a special urgency to address the situation. “Working closely with an underproducing white male was eye-opening for me,” she says. “He was viewed as more knowledgeable and credible simply because of his skin color and sex.”


She quickly realized that covering for Brian would only perpetuate the idea that he was as good as she was, when “he was not even close,” she says. Lauren knew she couldn’t change Brian; she could only change how she handled the situation. She decided against going to her boss. “I felt like if I complained about Brian, it would make me look petty or spiteful.”


But she did a number of other things. At the beginning of the project, she delineated her responsibilities from Brian’s — and made sure the boss knew who was responsible for certain deliverables. “I clearly indicated who had been assigned to work on what, and I made continuous written updates of my progress,” she says. “I documented my contributions and ensured that my parts were completed.”


Her goal was to distance herself from Brian’s performance and make sure her manager knew that she was getting results even if he wasn’t.


The project came in late. “It was presentable, but it wasn’t as great as it could have been,” says Lauren.


When it was over, Lauren requested that her manager provide feedback to her and Brian at the same time. Her boss knew that something was awry. “In the meeting, I was confident about my performance, so I let Brian try to explain himself,” she says. Her boss knew what she accomplished; Brian’s poor performance was also apparent.


Lauren continued to work at the organization, and she got used to dealing with Brian. “He became known as the underperformer in our department, and nobody wanted to work with him,” she says. “Eventually, he left the company.”


Her advice to others in this situation: “Don’t let an underperformer drag you down, because they will if you let them. Stand tall; let your work speak for itself.”

 


Case Study #2: Define roles and responsibilities to increase accountability. 


Rafael Salazar, an occupational therapist and consultant, has firsthand experience working with an underperforming colleague.


Earlier in his career, Rafael was involved in a project to roll out a new initiative at a veterans’ hospital. “My team was tasked with doing some PR and developing training materials and messaging strategies to increase employee adoption,” he says. “There were a couple of members of the team who were minimally engaged throughout the duration of the project.”


One person — we’ll call him Sam — was particularly challenging. Sam didn’t respond to email, let deadlines slip, and often failed to show up for meetings. Rafael was frustrated. “There were times when I and other team members ended up covering for Sam,” he says. “We just pitched in and got the work done.”


Rafael didn’t want Sam to drag down the project. He also knew he needed to protect his professional reputation. He employed multiple strategies. For instance, he left a “substantial paper trail” in all his communication with Sam. “I cc’d the rest of the team and other pertinent stakeholders when appropriate,” he says.


The paper trail made it clear that Rafael was working hard and getting results; it also showed when Sam was dropping the ball.


In addition, Rafael made a point to clearly define individual roles and expectations for each part of the project. “I made sure there was documentation showing each team member’s responsibilities, with deadlines and points of contact,” he says. “That way, if there ever was any question about who was responsible, people could simply check the last update email.”


The situation improved and the project came off well. “Increased communication led to clarity around roles and responsibilities,” he says. “And it also increased accountability and social pressure that incentivized everyone involved to pull their weight.”


Today, Rafael is the president of Rehab U Practice Solutions, the Augusta, Georgia-based healthcare education and consulting company. He says he learned a lot from the experience. “You need to look at situations like these as opportunities to develop interpersonal leadership skills,” he says. “Sometimes underperforming team members need extra guidance, clarity, or motivation to achieve the goals of the project. You don‘t have to be the team lead or project manager to assist or provide that leadership and direction.”

 


Rebecca Knight is currently a senior correspondent at Insider covering careers and the workplace. Previously she was a freelance journalist and a lecturer at Wesleyan University. Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.


Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate. 

 

 

 

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