Ask Sophaya: My Coworker Is An Underperformer

Ask Sophaya How do I deal with an underperforming coworker

Dear Sophaya,

I’m a remote worker and the people on my team all hold different positions that compliment each other, but we all have our own roles and jobs to complete. Here’s my problem: some of my coworkers are, shall we say, underperformers, and I am a perfectionist. I don’t even mind that a few people goof off here and there, because I know my dedication and hard-work is rare, and to be honest, partly because I can be obsessive and anxious. But one of my coworkers in specific is ALWAYS behind in his work. He’s always underdelivering, and I feel like the way our positions are set up, I’m taking on much of what he doesn’t even bother to do. I don’t know who I should talk to about this — him or our boss? From the way he speaks, he thinks quite highly of himself, so I’m not sure he’d admit to slacking. Plus, working remotely makes these kinds of conversations more difficult. What should I do?


No “I” in Team

Dear Team, 

No doubt, this is a tough situation to be in. Handling your own responsibilities at work, particularly when you’re a perfectionist, takes a lot of energy. Couple that with the weight of others’ work that you’re carrying, and it makes sense that you’d be feeling a bit exasperated. 

I do think there is a series of steps you can follow to help rectify this situation. But before we get into that, it behooves us to set the stage a little. 

You mentioned that you don’t mind if a coworker goofs off from time to time. To me, that says that you understand one fundamental truth: Almost all employees will have periods of time in the course of a given year where they’re more productive, and some periods where they’re less productive. It’s the cost of doing business with humans. We have personal lives, we get sick, we have friends and families on our minds, and it can be hard to be 100% on every second of every day. When you’re working remotely, it can be hard to have a clear sense of what’s on your remote coworkers’ plates at home. Not to mention the fact that many employees are holding a variety of priorities at once. Your coworkers might have multiple projects coinciding, and management may be asking them to handle tasks that you’re not aware of. Of course, it’s best practice for them to communicate that to you–but we’ll get to that in a second.

On the other hand, if you’re noticing that your coworker is consistently underperforming–and it sounds like that may be the case here–something has to be done. 

I think you’re right to assume that your coworker might not admit to slacking. And quite honestly, with you carrying so many of his responsibilities, it’s possible that he doesn’t even realize he’s underperforming. To that end, I think the first step in the process of working this out is to review your communication strategy with him. 

Here’s what I mean: Right now, when you need your coworker to complete a task or uphold his end of a project, how do you assign or divvy up that work? Are you assigning concrete deadlines to him for the tasks that you need completed to get your work done on time? If not, that could be a great first step. Start articulating deadlines to him directly–and explicitly ask the question: “Does that timing work for you?” You could even articulate the consequences of him being unable to deliver on that deadline: “I need that data by Tuesday so that I can put together my presentation and get leadership approval by Thursday. Does that work for you? If not, please let me know right away so we can find another solution.” Explicitly encourage your coworker to let you know outright if competing priorities may get in the way. It’s not your job to chase him around or parent him, but knowing that there is an obstacle up front could help you get ahead of situations where you’re doing twice the work you should.

If your coworker continues to drop the ball, try hopping on a call (or video conference) to get to the root of what happened. You might consider following the DEAR MAN technique–a tried-and-true method devised by Dr. Martha Linehan: 

D: Describe the situation with concrete facts only

I am delivering a presentation to the CEO on Friday morning on the performance of our new website. You had agreed to share pageview data with me on Tuesday, but did not. 

E: Express how that affected you on a professional (or personal) level

I ended up having to reach out to our tech team to give me a username and password, then teach me how to use our dashboards so that I could pull that data myself; as a result, I was up until 3:00 a.m. preparing this presentation for leadership approval, and I fear I may not have pulled all the right data. 

A: Assert your need clearly and concretely

Going forward, if you are unable to meet a deadline we agree on, I would like you to communicate with me when you’re unable to handle a request on time.

R: Reinforce the value of this for both you and your coworker

Having an open dialogue about our shared projects will ensure that we deliver better work as a team, and, more importantly, it will help me be more supportive to you by helping you troubleshoot and delegate work if need be.

M: Be mindful of both the specific project you’re discussing, and your coworker’s feelings. Avoid “kitchen sinking” (in other words, don’t list case after case of examples where your coworker let you down [“everything but the kitchen sink”]). Keep your request and communication succinct and respectful.

A: Act confident. Don’t second-guess yourself in conversation. Preparing your thoughts in advance will go a long way here.

N: Negotiate, if necessary. 

If you try these approach for a period of time (let’s give it a few weeks) and it doesn’t work out–or if you’ve been doing that right along–it may be time to escalate to your boss. If it comes to that, you’ll want to keep two things in mind: 1) That ultimately, you don’t know what conversations your underperforming remote coworker has had with your boss already, and 2) that it’s important to speak in concrete and factual terms. Explain to your supervisor that your needs as an employee aren’t being met, and you need some support. You’ve noticed that your coworker isn’t upholding his responsibilities and you end up having to do both of your tasks–and you need some help figuring out a better way to work together. You can even describe the steps you’ve taken to work the issue out together, and ask for some intervention and support. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but if it does, your supervisor should hear your concerns, recognize your work ethic and team spirit, and take steps to make things better.

I’m sorry you’re dealing with these issues at work, and I hope these tips prove useful in the days and weeks ahead. Remember: In every workplace, you will encounter folks who might not be performing at their best. The key to making things better for yourself will always be explicit, respectful communication. 

Wishing you a productive future!


Featured image by Bethany Legg