4 common ways coworkers hurt your productivity, and what you can do about it

Identifying these common pitfalls can help increase your own productivity.

4 common ways coworkers hurt your productivity, and what you can do about it
[Photo: John Schnobrich/Unsplash]

It’s frustrating when a coworker misses a deadline or doesn’t hand off critical information you need to get your work done. It’s also easy to blame them for your own productivity pitfalls. A new study by leadership training provider VitalSmarts found that it only takes one or two team members to make a small fumble that cuts team performance by about 24%.


The study identified the four most common coworker mistakes that can hold up an entire team:

  1. Losing track of things or missing deadlines because they fail to capture commitments and ideas
  2. Spending too much time on the wrong priorities
  3. Being surprised at the last minute by tasks, appointments, or deadlines they’ve forgotten
  4. Appearing busy but failing to get the important jobs done

These behaviors cost the team, with loss of morale, trust, productivity, quality, and customer service, the study found.

These fumbles may be small, but they have a big impact, says Justin Hale, master trainer and training designer for VitalSmarts and cocreator of David Allen’s Getting Things Done training and coaching system. “People have the best intentions but overestimate their ability to manage all the stuff coming at them and their team.”

For team members to thrive together in a task-filled work environment, they need to adopt these key habits.

Work on the right stuff

The fumble that has the quickest impact on productivity is people working on wrong priorities, says Hale. “How that manifests itself is in missed deadlines,” he says. “From an individual perspective, you can leave work feeling exhausted but not like you accomplished anything important. That kills personal satisfaction and engagement. Evidence suggests the number-one source of personal satisfaction is getting work done that you want to get done. It’s a feeling of moving forward.”

Make sure you’re working on the right tasks by clearly defining important work, creating a plan, and making a policy for surprises that will undoubtedly happen.


“Most people don’t keep a clean, clear inventory of all of their commitments—big, small, important, unimportant, strategic, nonstrategic,” says Hale. “When work is undefined, it’s hard to know what to do. When a surprise comes up, though, we end up working on it because a surprise is clear. We know what action to take. People blame the surprise when the problem is the lack of a plan for everything else.”

Stay focused on the right stuff by creating boundaries, says Hale. Respect each other’s time to ensure critical tasks get done.

“Too many people allow new things to come in and stop what they’re doing,” says Hale. “You need to have a systematic way of handling new things without letting them hijack what you’re currently doing.”

Find ways to minimize the risk of something coming that can disrupt you. “Shut your door and put up a sign,” says Hale. “You may not stop the input from coming in, but you can dictate how it comes in.”

Renegotiate the terms

Coworkers need to know that it’s acceptable to say “no” to a request. “When a new big project shows up, most of us know intuitively there is no way we can do it all,” says Hale. “What most people do is they go dark on half of the people they’ve committed to and hope the person doesn’t come asking for it.”

Don’t feel pressure to say “yes” or “no” immediately. Instead, Hale suggests capturing information by asking these two questions: What is the action you need me to take? When is the absolute last-minute date this can be completed?


“We often assume something has to be done right now, and then we blame them for putting you behind,” says Hale. “Ask the questions to get clear on the task.”

When a project comes in that will have to displace something else, have conversations. Hale suggests saying, “I want to contribute. Here are my major projects. Can you help me understand where this project fits in relationship to everything else?”

“When having that renegotiation conversation with your boss or peer, you want to portray yourself as a contributor craving focus, not a complainer craving less work,” says Hale.

We need to stop blaming coworkers for our productivity problems, says Hale. “Be what I call an ‘ad hoc problem solver’ rather than someone who is doing the work for them,” he says. “Ask questions. Take two minutes to brainstorm alternative solutions, instead of letting someone hijack 30 minutes of your time. We all want to be helpful, but you can’t do it all. You can be a team player and protect your own time. It’s not an either/or.”