How to deal with incompetent colleagues

Because we've all got one...

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bored businessman overwhelmed...

Do you work with someone who arrives late, does the bare minimum or makes repeated mistakes? You're not alone. Research has shown that as many as ten percent of British workers are incompetent at their jobs.

Co-workers deal with the problem in different ways. Some grin and bear it, taking over their colleague's workload or correcting their mistakes; some sulk or complain to one another; and some simply start to become slacker themselves.



In a survey carried out by US training firm VitalSmarts, one in three employees said they put up with their co-workers' bad behaviour for more than five years.

Part of the problem, says Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Acountability, is a tendency for aggrieved co-workers to assume that their colleague is being deliberately selfish - something that makes it harder to put things right.

"We found that those who assume their co-workers are maliciously misbehaving instead of potentially lacking ability are more likely to either bite their tongue or lash out," he says. "Ultimately, this kind of response is the least likely to solve the problem."

Instead, experts advise starting with a little chat with the offender, focusing on practical issues.

"Take a step back and look not just at your point of view but their point of view: what they're struggling with, and whether a bit of help from you would nmake a difference," suggests life and business coach Rasheed Ogunlaru.


"Find out what motivates them, because at the end of the day you've got to work with them. Avoid conflict, avoid gossip and drama and try to connect; charm works more effectively than confrontation."

Many people lack competence because they simply haven't had the right induction in the first place. Sometimes, staff are promoted beyond their area of familiarity, without necessarily being given appropriate training. Sometimes, personal problems get in the way of work.

And bear in mind that there's a fair chance the person doesn't even know they're doing a poor job: Cornell University research has shown, rather wonderfully, that incompetent people are generally incompetent enough to be incapable of realising their own inadequacy. In tests covering everything from grammar to chess, the least capable 10 percent thought, on average, that they were in the top 40 percent.

Criticism, then, should be couched in terms of a lack of training and support, rather than a lack of ability. It's a message that is much less threatening to the recipient, and one that's likely to be received far more positively.

The same applies if it comes to complaining to management.

"Flag up to another member of staff or the boss that the person might need a bit of support. But do it mindfully, and do it tactfully," says Ogunlaru. "Come up with solutions, don't just spot the problems; and go through the appropriate channels."

This, of course, is a lot easier in a large organisation with formal HR processes. But as many as 90 percent of UK businesses are small firms, making it harder to keep things impersonal.

"Talk it through with the business owner and suggest this member of staff needs support," says Ogunlaru. "Try and make it about the role rather than the person - say 'there seem to be some challenges' and depersonalise it."

This approach can really work to your advantage, demonstrating that you're putting the organisation first and thinking of solutions to the problem, rather than simply moaning.

But what if the incompetent person is the boss?

In a 2011 survey for jobs site Monster, a staggering 41 percent of British employees described their boss as "totally incompetent". Only 18 percent said they believed their boss was more capable than they were. While these beliefs may or may not be true, they point to a huge number of staff seething with resentment.

The Peter Principle suggests that, eventually, everybody gets promoted to a position in which they're incompetent. Common problems include an inability to make decisions, a tendency to make poor choices and a reliance on subordinates to actually get anything done.

Nevertheless, says Monster's Isabelle Ratinaud, staff would do well to think carefully about whether their boss really is incompetent before making complaints.

"In reality, it is unlikely that there are so many poor and incompetent bosses in the UK. It is more likely that employees either harbour some resentment because they want the larger salaries and better perks, or because there is insufficient communication between leaders and their teams," she says.

"Junior employees should also remember that it's often the most senior members of staff that carry the burden of failure and have to be the bearer of bad news."

But if your boss really is incompetent, Ogunlaru advises tactful offers of help. If all goes well, he says, such an approach can often mean that you become more valued and trusted by your boss.

"Huge numbers of people have problems and challenges with their boss. What's very important is to try and develop a good rapport," he says. "Many people step up to management without having had training in management skills. Try and look at things from their perspective - what are they good at, and what are they struggling with?"