Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

Managing Relationships with Colleagues Who, Frankly, Just Aren’t That Good At Their Jobs


A frequent conversation I seem to have with, basically, anyone who works, is that at least one – maybe more – of their colleagues is just not that good at their job, and there follows a discussion of all the hassle and frustrations this creates.

When I was working in a big organisation, I used to think that someone who was both an engaging and agreeable personality AND good at their job was gold dust.

There were a few people who were very good at their job but pretty dreadful to work with (‘difficult’), and a few more who were nice human beings, but caused far too many problems when you actually needed to get things done.

A conversation yesterday with a friend about yet another new colleague they have who is just, well, a bit rubbish prompted me to think about the best ways to deal with this situation.

Here, then, are my suggestions for dealing with a situation where you have to work with someone who’s just not that good at their job…

1. Get perspective. How bad are they really?

Human beings have a tendency to moan about stuff. You might feel a bit uncomfortable as I hold this mirror up, but most of us enjoy a bit of a gossip and a gripe session with colleagues. (In fact, there are even those who think office gossip can be good for you). But generally, I’d suggest that bad mouthing other employees doesn’t help you or them.

Is this individual really performing poorly in terms of the tasks in their job description? Or are they just annoying?

Dealing with a difficult person (i.e. someone who generates conflict, is rude, a bully or obnoxious) is a different challenge from dealing with someone who’s not that good at their job (and deserves a post all on its own from me, so I won’t cover it here).

If they are performing poorly, are they really bad, or just not matching up to your standards in the area? Are your standards realistic? Can you benchmark them against other employees?

2. How does their ‘not-goodness’ manifest?

Once you’ve decided that the issue genuinely is a lack of performance in their job, and that it’s really a problem, not just a one-off happening that’s been feeding the gossip mill, consider the specifics:

  • Where or how are they bad at their job?
  • Are they not actually capable of doing the work?
  • Or are they lazy?

As in any situation, being specific will help you to work out the best way to handle it.

You also need to be aware of certain natural biases we have, such as the halo/horns bias. This means that our overall impression of a person influences our feelings and thoughts about other parts of their character.

For example, it might be that the individual is only poor at timekeeping, but that one issue is influencing your feelings about all of their work.

It’s rare – though not impossible – for someone to be bad at every aspect of their job.

One of the most common situations that I’ve come across in organisations is the employee who was a great individual performer – for example, a really good sales person, or an amazing coder – and was then promoted to management because of this technical excellence.

But of course, managing people is an entirely different skill set to being great at your own job, and the individual quickly gets a reputation for being a poor performer, despite the issue really being quite a specific (albeit important!) one.

3. What’s their impact on your own job/area/team?

If your biggest beef with the individual is that they get paid for doing nothing, but they don’t actually have any impact on your area, then, to be honest, you need to tough it out and ignore the situation.

It might feel unfair, or annoying, but the best thing in this situation is to let it go. If it’s not directly affecting you, you probably have enough other things to worry about to waste energy on this person.

If the issue does affect your job or team, then again, get specific. How many of your own objectives does it influence? Are they mission-critical or nice-to-haves? Are you directing energy here to avoid other, bigger issues in your own job?

4. Give them feedback

If you’ve already got the answer to numbers 2 and 3, and can honestly say their poor performance is relevant to your own job, and you’re also aware of what, specifically, the poor performance relates to, it’s time to be assertive and give them some feedback.

Maybe no-one’s ever given them feedback about this area before. I’ve certainly known individuals who’ve ‘maxed out’ in organisations, that is, reached a point beyond which they’ll never be promoted, because none of their managers or peers ever gave them feedback about a single critical area.

Although it might feel challenging, give them some constructive feedback about the issue and an opportunity to improve. You could even give them suggestions or advice on what they could be doing instead. Make them an ally rather than an enemy.

When they show improvement, make sure you positively reinforce these new behaviours with praise (don’t just think to yourself ‘well, they should have been doing that anyway’!).

5. Damage limitation

At the same time, you might want to put in place some damage limitation. Keep notes on the interactions you have with the individual, any feedback you’ve given, and what happens next.

This is in part because you may not be the only person who’s noticed the issues. In the worst cases, the individual may find themselves being performance managed or given a formal warning.

I’ve been asked in several cases to provide evidence for situations like these, and it’s not a fun thing to get involved with, but the more factual your notes are, the easier it is.

In addition, be clear about where your colleague’s behaviour is likely to negatively affect you or your team, and put contingency plans in place. If they’re always late with everything, give them a slightly earlier deadline than you actually require.

If you know spelling and grammar is their weakness, make sure someone’s proof reading their work (and/or remind them of the importance of submitting a high quality report in advance).

If they don’t seem to follow instructions for projects well, get them to go through your and their expectations for a project in advance. Don’t leave anything to chance.

6. Talk to your boss

For most of us, this feels like the nuclear option. If you’re feeling really open and assertive, you’ve given the individual feedback and a chance to act on it and still seen no change, then the best thing to do is to tell them you’re going to mention the issue to your manager. When I’ve had to do this, I’ve sometimes couched this in terms of ‘getting the person more support’ in a particular area.

For example, if they never meet deadlines, the feedback might be something like you can see their workload is pretty unmanageable at the moment, so you’re going to mention it to your boss to see if you can get them some support. Often, this on its own will be enough to get the person to step up.

If not, when you go to your manager about the situation, be as factual as possible, mentioning the points outlined above, and ideally, come with some solutions. Whilst it might be nice to just fire the person and get a new person, I can promise you that this will just bring a new set of issues, so if you can, it’s best to work with what you have, however frustrating.

Can any work be reassigned? Has the person got too much on? Are they having issues at home? Did they not get enough training? Could they be mentored?

7. You can’t change other people…

One of the hardest things to learn in life is that you can’t change other people (certainly without their involvement!), you can only change yourself.

If you let the frustration get to you (especially without doing anything about it, like giving the individual feedback), the only person who’s losing in the situation is you.

A note of caution and a hard truth.

If you believe everybody you work with is bad at their jobs, you might want to reflect on what the common denominator is between them.

Yes, it’s probably you.

Whilst it’s not impossible that they’re all a bit pants, it’s…less likely.

I had a friend for whom every boss she ever had had major flaws, and eventually, she realised that she just didn’t enjoy someone being in authority over her. She went freelance, and everyone was happier.

So, in this case, you either need to lower your standards, move organisations, or change your job.

How do you handle working with colleagues who don’t perform well?

Share your tips about this difficult area in the comments below. 

2 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Mike Huiwitz November 15, 2014, 11:12 am

    Yes. Give them feedback and be honest about it. But at the same time, lay it down not too brutal.
    Mike Huiwitz recently posted…The Revelation EffectMy Profile

  • Aras Androck November 24, 2014, 8:25 am

    I guess I’m lucky to have such great colleagues. No relationship problems whatsoever.
    Aras Androck recently posted…Abonnement 1turf Sans RisqueMy Profile

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