Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Dealing With an Unproductive Colleague

Among the most common complaints that employees of large organizations and co-founders of businesses express, involve a colleague or associate who doesn’t seem to pull h/er own weight.

This situation can become especially awkward if the aggrieved party and the espied slacker share equal authority within an organization. The reason for this is straightforward: bosses have the authority to keep under-performers in line, and to dismiss them if the problem persists. But staff members and associates who occupy the same position in the organizational hierarchy as an alleged slacker don’t have this luxury, and face a multifaceted dilemma.

Is it better to confront the offending party, or try to ignore the issue? Face to face, or by reporting the problem to superiors or other colleagues? What about the risk of being labeled a tattle-tale, the potential strain on interpersonal relationships, or even the prospect of retaliation? What if it becomes one person’s word against another’s?

How does the perceived slacker’s underperformance affect you?

The answer to this question will determine whether it’s worth your time and energy to actively address the problem.

If the behaviour of the alleged slacker affects your work and professional relationships very little, or not at all, then you’re better off minding your own business. On the other hand, if your ability to complete job tasks and/or your rapport with colleagues and superiors suffers due to an unproductive colleague, then you have a legitimate concern and should take action.

Once you resolve to act, your first step (barring extraordinary circumstances) should be to address the matter directly with the perceived slacker.

Start by favouring diplomacy over confrontation.

Even if you suspect your colleague’s lack of productivity owes to laziness, don’t assume that. Your colleague may be experiencing a legitimate mental health issue, may be distracted by difficult conditions in h/er personal life that are beyond h/er control, or may have an easily resoluble gap in h/er skill set that is slowing h/er down.
Instead of adopting a confrontational tone, try approaching the issue tactfully at first—e.g. “Is everything OK? I’ve noticed that you seem less engaged with this task than you normally are.” Then ask if there’s anything you can do to help. The “slacker” may call your attention to a factor you hadn’t considered that changes your perception of the problem. Be prepared to afford h/er the benefit of the doubt.

This exchange also gives you an opportunity to clarify exactly what you expect from your underperforming colleague, and ensure that you’re both on the same page.

Use impersonal, non-accusatory language, and cite specific examples.

Outward hostility on your part can cause your interlocutor to shut down or become defensive; you’ll effectively sabotage the conversation right at the outset. Pay close attention to the language and tone you use.

Instead of leading with “When you do (or fail to do) X, it makes me Y,” go with something like “Last week, this (specific event) happened, and consequently I had to remain at work late in order to complete some unfinished tasks. That experience was frustrating and unpleasant for me.”

Don’t make the conversation any more personal than it needs to be. Ultimately, the issue is not your colleague’s personality or character; it is h/er behaviour, which consists of identifiable actions and omissions. Keep a documentary record of these, and of your own efforts to improve the situation, so you can be accountable and transparent.

Don’t involve your boss or higher authorities unless you have to.

The capacity to deal with relatively minor, day-to-day differences of opinion in a constructive manner is a valuable skill. If you are an employee or middle-manager, don’t involve higher-ups in a “slacker” case unless you believe the problem is too serious for you to solve on your own.

Addressing a colleague’s underperformance directly with that person has two big advantages over reporting to higher authorities right away: 1) it is friendlier and more conducive to an amicable working relationship moving forward; 2) it shows that you are prepared to take initiative and demonstrate leadership in dealing with interpersonal conflict at work.

If you and the “slacker” are joint founders of a business, it is even more essential for you to confront the issue head-on rather than let it fester.