How to Deal with a Lazy Coworker and Still Be Seen as a Team Player
When I was a little girl, my mom loved to tell us the story of the Little Red Hen. In this sweet little children’s book, our little, plucky, red heroine stays focused on her MITs (most important things) and gives her barnyard friends plenty of chances to pitch in. When a lazy coworker refuses her requests to help, she just keeps doing what needs to be done. Consistently.
She doesn’t complain, but it all works out in the end.
If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s got a clear message: if you don’t put in the work, you don’t get the rewards.
Whenever I got a little bit lazy, like wanting someone else to help clear the table, I can still hear my mom saying, do you REMEMBER what happened to the little red hen’s friends?
And she’d give me that look and say in her best barnyard voice, “‘Not I’, said the fox. ‘Not I,’ said the duck,” anytime I was tempted to say “no.”
It’s a great story, but real life doesn’t always work out that way.
Sometimes your lazy coworker gets just as much bread as you, at least in the short run. It can be difficult to stay motivated. “Why do I work so hard, when no one seems to notice?”
Start With You: What to Do When Your Coworker is Lazy
Having spent many years in human resources, then leading large teams, and now working with leaders around the world, let me start here.
Chances are, your boss picks up a lot more than you know. And might be dealing with it. Performance management conversations happen behind closed doors.
I wish we could tell you how many performance issues I’ve dealt with, where I longed to tell the high-performing members of the team what I was doing about their lazy coworker.
Of course, I can’t assure you that your manager has this under control. It’s possible they’re lazy too.
But what I DO KNOW for certain is that the most important person to worry about in this situation is you.
So what can do you?
1. Keep rocking your role.
Like the little red hen, stay focused on YOUR most important priorities. Be sure you keep building up your brand with a strong track record of results and collaborative relationships. The worse thing you can do is slack on your performance or reduce your standards. Your reputation will long outlast the influence of this lazy coworker.
2. Stay empathetic and curious
It’s possible that your lazy coworker is not actually lazy as much as feeling overwhelmed or dealing with something you don’t fully understand. Here’s where a few “Navigating Workplace Conflict Power Phrases” can come in.
- “I care about you and the work we’re doing together. I’ve noticed you’ve missed a few deadlines recently. Is everything okay?”
- “I’m worried about our team. Everyone’s under so much stress. Do you have a few minutes so we can talk about how we can best support one another?”
- “I’ll be honest. Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m taking on too much of the load. I’m curious about what this looks like from your perspective.”
- “We all have so much on our plates. Do you have any ideas about how we could support one another a bit more? I have a few thoughts (be ready with specific suggestions) and I would love to hear yours.”
3. Ask your manager how you can be helpful
You can do this without being a blamer or complainer. Resist the temptation to start with words like, “I know how lazy this dude is…” Instead, use this as an opportunity to make the conversation about you and how you can best help (without taking on too much, see #5 below).
If your manager is dealing with a slacker, she can use all the help she can get and will be grateful for your support (and having a grateful boss can never hurt).
- “I’ve noticed we’ve had a few missed deliverables lately (or late work, or poor performance metrics). I care deeply about this team and our performance. My plate is already full, but I also want to ensure our team meets our goals. Is there anything I can do in the short term to pitch in during this challenging time?”
4. DO build a network of support
Seek out folks with similar ambition and work ethic to support and challenge you. Find a mentor. Look for peers on other teams. Take on a leadership role in a professional association. Genuine connections are lighter fluid on the fire of motivation. Find people who get you and you admire and find ways to spend more time together.
5. Gossip or complain to your peers
Whatever you do, don’t let their bad behaviors turn you into a jerk at work. Workplace gossip will tank productivity and then your manager has to deal with the lazy coworker AND the distraction it’s causing.
6. Become a victim or martyr
I know what I said in number 3 about supporting your manager in dealing with the fallout of a lazy coworker. That can be helpful to them, the team, and your career. And, of course, you also need to keep your work in perspective. Resist the urge to do all the things.
It’s not your job to do everyone’s job or to catch all the balls as they drop. Stay focused on your deliverables and nail them. If your co-worker consistently drops the ball, let him experience a few of the consequences.
If you’re concerned about a deadline being missed or sloppy work from your lazy coworker, you can always suggest you go to your manager together to talk about the work, not the person.
- “I’m concerned that we’re going to miss this deliverable to our client. I think we’d better inform our manager so they are not blindsided and to see what suggestions they may have. Do your best to foster a culture of accountability.”
- “I’m concerned about our team’s performance and I’ve noticed that you’re really running behind on the project plan.” I’m curious about what’s going on here for you. Who have you let know about what’s happening? What ideas do you have for getting things back on track?”
Lazy and underperforming coworkers continue to be one of the greatest sources of stress and workplace conflict in organizations. These low performers are particularly aggravating when you’re working on all cylinders to do the right thing.
Summary: How to deal with a lazy coworker
- Keep rocking your role
- Stay empathetic and curious
- Ask your manager how you can be helpful
- Build a network of support
- Don’t gossip or complain about your peers
- Don’t become a victim or a martyr
Your turn. What’s your best advice for dealing with a lazy coworker?
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