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How to deal with a flaky coworker

Few things are as frustrating as dealing with a colleague who isn’t doing their fair share of a group project.

How to deal with a flaky coworker
[Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock; Julia Tretel/Unsplash]

In most workplaces, you rely on other people to help you get your work done. Some of your projects may require teamwork by their nature. At other times, there are people outside of your specific team who provide assistance in order to get something completed. When the people you need to rely on are less than reliable, what can you do?

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You might be tempted to take on more responsibility for projects yourself to ensure that they get done. This strategy works in the short-term, but backfires in the long-term. For one thing, colleagues may take advantage of your generosity. For another, you don’t have the time (or often the expertise) to do the jobs of several people, and so your productivity will ultimately suffer.

In order to deal with unreliable colleagues, it helps to understand what makes them flake out. Here are three possibilities:

Colleagues who aren’t conscientious

Some people we see as unreliable are generally low on the Big Five personality characteristic of conscientiousness. They tend to be disorganized and sloppy in their workplace and may have habits that get in the way of completing projects. They can be really creative in the way they get things done, though, so it isn’t like we should purge all people low in conscientiousness from organizations.

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Because your colleagues low in conscientiousness are not the most organized people you’ll encounter, though, having a good structure for working with them is important. That is where some kind of project management tool can come in. There are lots of commercially available tools you can use online as well as others that work well for in-person situations.

What is most important, though, is that your tool outline the key responsibilities of every member of the team. The tool also needs to have lists of specific tasks linked to who is responsible for completing them and clear deadlines that link to people’s calendars. It is useful if those tools can also remind people of tasks that need to be completed.

Colleagues who are too agreeable

Some colleagues who are unreliable say “yes” too often. Because they agree to a lot of tasks, they have too much to do—and they end up not finishing key tasks on time (or not doing them well, in an effort to get them done).

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There are two reasons why people may say “yes” a lot. One is that there are a lot of agreeable people out there. The Big Five personality characteristic of agreeableness reflects how much a person wants to be liked by others. One great way of being liked is agreeing to help someone. But, if you don’t say “no” to a certain number of requests, you end up overloaded.

With your agreeable colleagues, you need to help them to refuse some requests. An easy way to do that is to give them a script. When they want to say “no” have them practice a phrase like, “I would really like to help, but I have a lot on my plate right now, and so unfortunately, I can’t.” If you’re supervising an agreeable colleague, you may also want to let them know you have their back when they turn down a request for help.

The other reason why people agree to take on tasks is that everything sounds like fun to do. These folks are curious and eager to work, but like the person whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs at a restaurant, they bite off more than they can chew.

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These colleagues need some help prioritizing. They should keep a list of the critical tasks they have to accomplish available at all times. Rather than agreeing to a new request, have them ask for a day to think it over before agreeing to help with something new. In that day, they can look over their list of tasks and decide whether they really have room on the schedule to engage.

Colleagues who are perfectionists

The last of the colleagues who flake out are people with low self-confidence in their work. These individuals work hard on tasks, but are concerned that their work will not be good enough to pass along to others. As a result, they don’t pass their efforts on to the rest of the team.

Gently suggest to these colleagues that the best project is a completed project. Set the expectation that no piece of work will ever be perfect. There is always room for improvement. Instead, it’s important to pass work on to other team members so that it can be integrated into a larger project and so that other people can bring their expertise to bear.

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For younger colleagues, it’s also important to remind them that the only way to learn how to improve their work is to turn over projects—warts and all—and get corrections and feedback from more experienced team members. Those corrections are learning opportunities, not punishments.

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