Simple Strategies for Dealing With a Lazy Coworker

Identifying the problem and implementing solutions.

Posted Jun 16, 2019

At some point we will all experience this: dealing with a slacker. Unless, of course, you are the slacker. Often, the common response is to become angry, resentful, or even speak poorly of this cheating co-worker. That is understandable because it is unfair. Even though we often hear that life isn't fair, the reality is that we, along with rats, capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees, and a slew of other animals react badly to unfairness (see my post about fairness). Unfortunately, getting angry won't get you very far and it definitely won't solve your problem. Other animals have to solve the problem of lazy co-workers or work cheaters who refuse to pull their fair share of the weight. Maybe we can learn something by seeing how they handle the situation.

If you were Dinoponera quadriceps, a queenless ant from Brazil, you could just smear your colleague with a chemical that alerts everyone that they're slacking. This is essentially tattling. The end result? Chemical immobilization as punishment. I think we can all agree that this is not a Human Resources (or human) approved approach. The human form of speaking out against your co-worker might get you the reputation of being a complainer and not move you closer to a solution. On the other hand, if their inactivity is truly impacting your work, staying silent is not an option. What are some options?

Kathy & Sam, Flickr CC BY2.0
Source: Kathy & Sam, Flickr CC BY2.0

Let's say it is a team scenario. Leaf cutter ants are team workers so they are a perfect example. Leaf cutter ants have extremely well-defined roles with little to no overlap. The ones carrying leaves back to the nest are the foragers. What you don’t see are the gardeners, the large workers, and the soldiers. This means that your first line of defense is getting a clearly defined role from either the team leader or the supervisor in charge of the team. I would even go so far as say you also clear deliverables. These foragers know exactly what they need to do and the other ants can’t be penalized because there is a clear division of labor. Another thing to keep in mind is that foragers do not pick up the slack for gardeners, soldiers, or large workers. Thus if you have a clearly defined aspect of a project, stay in your lane and do not do work assigned for others! This, of course, assumes you have a good leader. Managers take note:

The better you clearly define the roles of you team members, the happier they will be and the better they will perform.

What if you aren’t working on a team project but you're stuck doing all the work because it’s just supposed to get done and someone else in the office isn’t doing their part? Ok, this is definitely a cheater worker. One approach is to infuse your style with a little vampire bat.

Acatenazzi CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: Acatenazzi CC BY-SA 3.0

Vampire bats are champion cooperators because they have a system in place to combat the tendency to cheat a little (or a lot). Vampire bats feed on blood. Unfortunately, this is not so easy to come by and a high number of bats are at risk for starvation every single night. How do they cope? They have a buddy system and they share. On any given night one vampire bat might find food and another one might not. They both come back to the roost and the one without food asks the successful bat to share, which s/he does willingly. The expectation is that, if the situation is reversed (which it very likely will be), the receiver becomes the giver the next time around. If s/he does not reciprocate, the original bat does not share again. No one wants a moocher as a partner. In this sense, vampire bats have mastered the art of staying away from a cheater. How does this translate to the office? One way is to approach your manager/boss and say you would like to feel more challenged and take on different tasks. Perhaps getting the opportunity to collaborate with certain co-workers. This will distance you from the slacker and align you with other strong workers. However, be sure to choose carefully because you want someone who has a good reputation for cooperation

If bringing out your inner vampire bat is not possible, another option is to communicate your accomplishments to your boss. This doesn't mean bragging, boasting, or posturing. Instead it is about keeping your boss informed about what you are doing. Capuchin monkeys do this all the time. Subordinates call out to the leader when they have found a food source. This alerts their "boss" and the finder is rewarded with better access once the leader arrives on the scene. To implement this strategy, you can schedule regular (e.g., monthly) meetings with your supervisor to relay information about your accomplishments, the status of your projects, short term goals, and long-term objectives. Then, follow up with an email summarizing your meeting. There is a pretty good chance that the lazy co-worker won't be doing any of this. 

To recap: 

  • Ask for clearly defined roles from either your team leader or supervisor. 
  • Stay on task and do not complete work assigned to others. 
  • Align you with other strong co-workers.
  • Communicate your accomplishments through regular meetings with your supervisor. 

While it may not be as satisfying as getting angry, gossiping, or complaining, these strategies will get you further in the long run.