How to Work with Incompetent Co-workers

How to Work with Incompetent Co-workers

Here’s a recent question I got from a reader. Its one I get a lot so I thought I should share my answer in a blog.

Q: I’ve got good news and bad news … The good news is, I just got assigned a big project that has the potential to give me all kinds of visibility in the company. The bad news is, I’ve been paired with the least competent person in my department – he is a total disaster. Now I’m terrified that my greatest opportunity is actually going to be my great undoing … that is, if I don’t kill him first 🙂 I need your best tips for working with incompetent people. What do I do?

A: Ouch … as much as I love this question, I know, only too well, how frustrating this situation can be. We’ve all been through it and it’s one of the most challenging aspects of working on a team. Being forced to work with incompetent people or people who just don’t care, can be enough to make you want to go away and hide and write books and blogs for a living 🙂 The situation isn’t reserved for corporate life either – college and university are even worse in some ways – your entire grade can depend on you working effectively with a bunch of people you didn’t choose to be on your team in the first place. It’s extremely frustrating when you feel like you’re doing great work but the ultimate outcome or grade is being weighed down by another person’s incompetence.

It’s one thing when an incompetent person reports to you – in that case you have some legitimate power to affect their behavior – but what are you supposed to do when you’re peers?

  • Do all the work yourself to make sure it’s good and then share the credit?
  • Argue every issue and create an extremely tense working relationship?
  • Give up and ask your boss to assign you a new partner?
  • Do nothing and risk having a terrible outcome?

Those all seem like terrible options. And to be honest with you, I haven’t found one silver bullet method for completely overcoming this challenge either. What I have learned over the years, are some secret tricks to make the most out of the projects I have to work on with incompetent people. They won’t guarantee you a home run, but they will minimize the damage and give you a decent chance to come out on top.

Here are my 4 secret tactics for working well with incompetent co-workers:

1. Volunteer to build the project framework, template or structure

Whenever I have to build a group presentation or plan or document with people I feel are not quite up to the task, I make sure to own the initial creation of the template or framework. In the very first project meeting I will volunteer to build out the structure or skeleton for the final deliverable. That can take many forms: the agenda, presentation template, table of contents, plan structure, wire frame etc. If your project doesn’t seem to fit with any of these, use your imagination. Every project needs some type of fundamental structure that defines how content or tasks will flow. One quick point of clarity – I’m not necessarily suggesting you volunteer to be the project manager – that is a different role. I’m saying, be the one who builds out the framework for the end deliverable. The reason you want to do this is it gives you the ability, at the very beginning of the project, to eliminate the worst case scenario. We’ve all had experiences were you assign out a bunch of work to the various members of the project team and then a bunch of total crap comes back and you have to figure out how to piece it together in a cohesive way. That approach is backwards.

When I’m involved in a team project, I will go so far as to rough-out every slide or section of a document first, with placeholder text describing what should go in each spot. Then I distribute that template for team members to fill out in the exact spots I’ve highlighted. It results in much higher quality work that is also easier to manage. It might seem like extra work for you but in the end it really isn’t since the countless hours normally spent trying to patch a bunch of disconnected work together will now be avoided. Also by owning the structure of the deliverable, you’re in control of the basic flow of the work which, in my opinion, is like 80% of the battle in the first place.

2. Decide whether to isolate or own

At some point when you’re working with incompetent people you will have to decide whether to isolate their incompetence i.e. minimize the damage, or take ownership for everything i.e. do all the work. I have done both over the years. My preference is to find ways to isolate or compartmentalize the impact of the less competent person rather than just take everything over. Doing all the work – something I know many of you have probably opted for in the past – doesn’t scale well and it also burns bridges. You might be able to get away with it once in a while, but in the long term people will hate working with you and think you’re a controlling jerk. That’s not a recipe for success in a company. Also, it goes without saying, the ‘do everything” option requires you to actually do all the work … and nobody wants that.

My recommendation is to identify specific parts of the project that have lower exposure or are more isolated from the core pieces, and encourage your less competent team members to work on them. Even in the worst case scenario, where they screw it all up, their low quality work will be quarantined and won’t spread into the most important areas of the project.

3. Grow the project team

This is a tactic I don’t see many people using even though it can be very effective in certain situations. Often you will find yourself on a project team with one or two other people where at least one of them is incompetent. This is pretty standard. Sometimes when I’m in that situation, but I don’t feel like I can legitimately take control over the project framework or isolate the less competent people, I will actually try to increase the size of the team itself. The reason I do this is the same reason why you add more mix to your stiff drink … it dilutes the impact of the offending party (i.e. cheap vodka and/or incompetent team member). It’s a way of adding more level heads or sharp minds to the team to reduce the negative impact the incompetent person can have. Most of the time, you won’t get push back when you ask to add someone else to the team – it will seem like more hands to help – but really it will be about bringing another rational voice to the table. If you play your cards right, it can lead to more productive meetings, stronger decisions and ultimately a much better result for your project.

4. Focus on helping people, not holding them accountable

I talk about this tactic in detail in my book so I won’t go through a comprehensive review of it now, but it definitely applies well to this situation. Most of the time, when I see people working on projects with less competent team members, they gravitate towards holding them accountable. They criticize their work, hound them when they’re late, and talk badly about them to others. I don’t do that. Holding people accountable is one of those business truisms that nobody ever questions even though they should. I actually look for the opportunities when most people hold their peers accountable or criticize them. And, instead of holding them accountable, I offer my help and support. This takes a lot of emotional control because more often than not, their incompetence is hurting your ability to get the project executed or task completed. But you need to keep the bigger picture in mind. The reason people get ahead, is that they are viewed as leaders. Your manager needs to be able to imagine you at the next level, managing and coaching people. One of the best ways to do that is to be seen mentoring and helping your peers in the organization. So rather than complaining and getting mad and holding incompetent people accountable like everyone else does, I try to find opportunities to help them, to mentor them, to make life easier for them. And I do it in a way that is visible so my manager and other executives can see what I’m doing. This is a great way to take a bad situation and use it to raise your profile in the company. Next time you’re about to lose your marbles on someone for doing crappy work on your project, consider helping them instead.

I hope these tips are helpful to you. Let me know about your own experiences working with incompetent people.

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