How To Work With Incompetent Colleagues
Perhaps the worst experience I’ve ever had in my career is when I was forced to work with a colleague who did not know what she was doing. You may be in the same situation yourself and are struggling to get through it. There are several wrongs about working under such circumstances that ought to be acknowledged at the outset.
The primary injury caused by this situation is its depressive effect on your talent. Working with incompetent colleagues slows you down. You will always find yourself either cleaning up after their mistakes or having to shoulder extra burdens on account of their failure. This latter may seem like an opportunity to shine, but in most instances it reduces the time you have to show your competence in the specialization for which you were hired.
Frustration is another damning consequence. Having to constantly fix problems caused by their imbecility will eventually put you in a constant state of anger and grumpiness. And waking up every morning and knowing that you will have to deal with the person or persons in question can be emotionally draining.
A third harm is the setback it may cause to your career. Word that your team has incompetent people on it can have the effect of marring the reputation of everyone. But the much bigger problem is the possibility that a project may be mishandled. This is what happened to me. And as a consequence, I was forced out of the particular practice and made to seek my fortunes elsewhere.
The experience taught me a great deal, however. Since then, I have come to understand what it takes to be in that situation and survive with both your sanity and career intact.
The first thing you have to do is build alliances with those on the team who know what they are doing. This need not turn into a gossip group. Indeed, you can often signal each other’s intentions and concerns through non-verbal and other indirect means. The point is to ensure that you are not the only one who understands the difficulty. Make common cause with your fellow sufferers in work. It will allow the lot of you to collectively take up the slack, so that the pressure is not all put on one individual.
Also crucial to coping with the presence of mental fog and professional clumsiness is the management of the incompetent himself—on the sly. It tends to be easy to anticipate the moves of such persons because they are devoid of multi-track minds. Know the relative importance of the task they’re assigned to do and find a way of relieving them of it. If they insist on going ahead with the work, make it your business to review the final product before it is submitted to your superior or the client.
A final means of working with incompetent colleagues—and this will prove the most difficult—is to socialize with them: establish as friendly a relation as you can. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but there are good reasons behind this advice. A person can feel when they’re despised by others and shut out. An incompetent who senses this may engage in behavior that is purposefully counterproductive just to spite everyone. Yes—people are that petty. You ought to resist your instinct to shun your poorly performing colleague and embrace him instead. It will head off any desire on his part to deliberately sabotage the team. It will also give you a way of finding out why it’s so hard for him to do his job properly. Getting closer to him may put you in a position of helping improve as a professional.
About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.