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Office Life

5 ways to work around unhelpful colleagues

You and your team are working on a major project, and the deadline is quickly sneaking up. For the most part, things are trucking along just fine—with the exception of that one co-worker.

You know the one I’m talking about, right? He puts in the bare minimum (if you’re lucky!), doesn’t pull his own weight, and just generally makes this group project all the more groan-worthy. It’s even worse if he’s a straight-up obstructionist who won’t let anything go past him unless he can take credit for it. 

Put simply, you’re sick of the fact that he’s skating by without sharing the load equally with you and your other team members. But, every time you think about what steps you could take to resolve the situation, you aren’t sure what to do.

Screaming at him would be satisfying, but probably would only make things worse. And, immediately running to your boss? You’d run the risk of looking like a major tattletale.

So, what do you do? How can you handle that co-worker that isn’t doing his job? Here’s the lowdown from some experts.

1. Assume pure intentions

“One big mistake people tend to make in this situation is to assume that the slacker co-worker is aware of his or her behaviors,” warns Leila Bulling Towne, Executive Coach with The Bulling Towne Group. “You have to first assume that he or she is not aware—that he or she isn’t purposely trying to avoid work.”

By assuming the best—instead of going in there with guns blazing—you’ll be able to approach the situation in a more positive light and ultimately get to the root of the problem.

“You never know, there may be a backstory to what is occurring,” adds Melissa Davies, Executive Coach and author of How Not to Act Like a BLEEP at Work. “Making assumptions about why someone isn’t contributing effectively can get people in trouble!”

2. Have a one-on-one conversation

You might be tempted to fire off an angry email. However, as with any other personal or serious workplace conversations, chatting in person or over the phone is always better.

Additionally, it’s important that you make this a one-on-one conversation (rather than a discussion in a team meeting!), so that co-worker doesn’t feel as if he or she is being attacked by your entire team. When speaking, make sure to stay calm and use as little emotion as possible. “Remember, you are gathering information,” says Bulling Towne. “It is too soon to make a judgement.”

3. Use “I” language

“When having a conversation with a colleague about any sensitive subject, it’s important to take responsibility for the conversation,” explains HR technology and people management expert, John Crowley. “In other words, don’t use phrases like, ‘other people have noticed’ or ‘somebody thinks you’re XYZ.’”

Instead, you should tactfully explain what you’ve noticed firsthand—in this case, a lack of contribution. When doing so, it’s also important that you start the majority of your sentences using “I”, rather than pointing fingers.

Bulling Towne recommends using an approach like this one:

“I am going over the details for this project, and I want to ensure that we can accomplish it on time. I think it would be useful for us to list the tasks each of us are responsible for. How does that sound?”

4. Ask questions

You’ll notice that the above statement ends with a question—a tactic that’s recommended to make it clear that you aren’t just doling out demands.

Davies suggests asking something like, “How do you see the quality of our ability to work together? How are things going for you?”

When you hear what your colleague has to say, then you can respond yourself using the “I” language mentioned previously.

Ending your own suggestions and thoughts with a question like, “How does that sound?” (take note, that’s quite different than a closed-ended question like, “sound good?”!) will drive the point home that you’re looking to have a collaborative discussion—rather than strictly reprimand him or her.

5. Follow up

One direct conversation with your co-worker doesn’t immediately guarantee that the behavior will change. That can take some time. If you continue to feel like you’re left holding the bulk of the work, you need to have another discussion.

This time—instead of leaving all emotion out of it—Bulling Towne recommends incorporating some of your feelings for extra impact. This could be done with a statement like:

“When we last discussed this project, we agreed upon deadlines. Now those deadlines have passed, and I am waiting for your work. I am worried we won’t deliver on time.”

Extra credit: When should you approach your boss?

If you’ve had three conversations with that problem colleague and things still remain unchanged, it’s probably time to loop in a superior. “Bring a manager or supervisor onboard if the employee obviously knows that they aren’t putting in their fair share of work, but remains unwilling to make an effort to change,” shares Crowley.

When you do approach your boss about the situation, share high-level overview of what you’ve already tried and how—there’s no need to overwhelm him or her with details and documentation.

“You are using ‘we’ language in this situation,” explains Bulling Towne. Your goal is to emphasize how this is impacting your entire team and the quality of your work—and not just you personally. For example, you’d express a concern to your boss like, “I’m concerned that we won’t deliver on time.”

If you are asking your boss for help and guidance in handling the situation, make sure you make that explicitly clear. “I frequently hear complaints from people that their supervisors don’t help them,” Bulling Towne shares, “When we dig into the conversation, I learn that people are not asking for help. They are assuming that when they vent or complain, a boss reads that as a call for help.”

Remember, before running to your boss at all, you need to give that co-worker adequate time or opportunity to make a change. “If you haven’t gone to your colleague to have a discussion, then you should not be going over their head to your boss,” warns Davies.

Will a lazy co-worker ever change?

With all of that time and effort invested into that lazy colleague of yours, it’s understandable that this question would plague you. But, rest assured, people truly can change—as long as the circumstances are right.

“If they are not contributing because they don’t understand something—or even if they don’t realize that they aren’t pulling their weight—then absolutely!” says Crowley, “All you need to do is show them what to do, or gently point out what needs to change. They may even thank you for it!”

But, if your colleague is completely disengaged with his or her work or has deeper issues with your employer? Encouraging change is going to be much more difficult.

In those situations, it’s important to remember Bulling Towne’s advice: “Realize that you can influence others, yet you cannot control their behavior and actions.”

So, do your best to change things. However, when it starts to seem completely fruitless? Take a deep breath and focus on your own work. You’ll be much better off.

Kat Boogaard is a freelance writer specializing in career advice. Her work has been published by numerous outlets, including Forbes, Fast Company, Business Insider, TIME, Inc., Mashable, and more. When she manages to venture out from behind her computer screen, you can find her hiking, baking, pretending she’s a runner, and attempting to figure out how she can put her rescued terrier mutt in a BabyBjorn.