Crucial Conversations

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Stuck with a Slacking Co-worker? Why You’re to Blame

The Dos and Don’ts of Holding Slackers Accountable

We’ve all worked with someone who is less than stellar when it comes to doing their job. They’re slow, inaccurate, uninspired, unwilling to put in the effort—you name it—and the bottom line is you end up having to carry part of their load. Of course, you’re already up to your neck in your own assignments, so every time you pick up the slack, you end up working late or otherwise paying for your co-worker’s bad behavior.

After months of suffering silently, you do what most of us do. You formulate your complaint, rehearse the face-to-face discussion, step up to the plate and explain your concerns—to your spouse or best friend. Your spouse or friend says you’re whining; you say you’re rehearsing. Either way, you’re not talking directly to the person who causes you problems because (1) you’ve let it go for a long time and it seems unfair to bring it up now, (2) it’s not your job since they don’t report to you, or (3) you don’t know exactly what to say or how to say it.

This vicarious form of problem solving has to stop, and it will when you candidly and respectfully speak to the other person about your concerns. The longer you go without saying something to your slacking co-worker, the worse it will get. My co-authors and I recently studied what happens when under-performers infiltrate the office and found that although 93 percent of employees report working with people who don’t pull their weight, only 10 percent speak up and hold underperforming colleagues accountable. As a result, slacking co-workers cause a quarter of their hard-working colleagues to put in four to six more hours of work each week. And what would you guess is the result of covering for their co-workers’ negligence? Four out of five say the quality of their work declines.

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If you speak up honestly, directly and professionally, you can resolve the issue once and for all. But how?

Consider the following dos and don’ts.

Don’t wait until you’re fed up. If you wait until you’re tired and upset to unload on your co-worker, you may do so in a way that turns the attention off of the co-worker’s original offense and onto you—the crazed person flipping out over what might appear to be a simple mistake.  

Don’t ambush your co-worker. Don’t surprise the other person with a last-minute conversation at the water cooler. If ambushed, your co-worker will likely be on his or her guard and less willing to discuss the issue.

Don’t recount a long list of grievances. While sharing the facts of the gap in expectations is helpful, pulling out a long list of your co-worker’s infractions is not. This will only create resentment and is counterproductive to solving the issue.

Don’t use inflammatory or vague terms. Inflammatory, politically charged and hopelessly vague terms such as “irresponsible,” “unreliable” and “dead wood” don’t inform, nor do they lead to a healthy and honest discussion. They do, however, lead to defensiveness—and understandably so.

Suspend judgment. Rather than assume the worst of your co-worker, assume the best. Perhaps your co-worker is unaware that he or she is causing you problems.  Set aside time to talk in private, without judgment, and enter the conversation with the desire to share your concerns, as well as hear your co-worker’s point of view.

Make it safe. Avoid jumping straight to the problem.  Create a tone of safety and acceptance by explaining that you want to solve a problem in a way that works for both of you. You’re not trying to fix your co-worker; you’re trying to resolve a problem. Equally important, you want to come up with a solution that you both accept.

Start with the facts. Broad conclusions such as, “I can no longer trust you,” add heat but little information. So share the latest facts describing the gap between what you expected and what you observed. For example, “Yesterday you agreed to complete the re-design by noon. Noon came and I didn’t receive your work.”

Tentatively share your concerns. Once the facts are on the table, explain why you’re concerned. Use tentative language such as, “I’m beginning to wonder if . . .” Help your co-worker see the consequences of his or her actions.

Invite dialogue. Finally, seek the other person’s point of view. Ask if your co-worker sees it differently or if you have missed part of the picture. As you openly seek others’ views and carefully listen to what they have to say, they’ll be more open to you.

Kerry Patterson is a behavior change expert, four-time New York Times best-selling author, and co-founder of VitalSmarts.

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