He missed a deadline again
January 25, 2010 3:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm conscientious. Some people I work with are not. Help me understand them and keep my cool.

I'm conscientious. When I say I'm going to do something, I usually do it thoroughly and on time, without last-minute scrambles. I get a lot of enjoyment out of gracefully and efficiently creating something useful.

When I have to collaborate with someone who's on the far opposite end of the scale, all my enjoyment goes out the window. Part of my pain is just from the hassle caused by their missed deadlines or partial work. But my enjoyment is also affected by the judgmental thoughts that clutter my brain.

I'd like to understand why some people are less responsible so I can deal with them from a position of compassion instead of resentment.

Often, but not always, the person is a man in his 20s or 30s who is smart and charming. He likes to be the center of attention and seems to want everyone's approval, which makes his procrastination, broken promises, and minimal work even harder for me to understand.

According to this Wikipedia article, about 50% of our conscientiousness is inherited and the rest is environmental.

I took on adult responsibilities as a kid, so there's my environmental excuse for being so danged responsible. What makes some other people end up on the other end of the spectrum? Helicopter parents? No consequences for their behavior?

I'm not looking for tips like "Give them deadlines that are several days early." I want to stop judging them harshly. Please help me view them with compassion instead of grinding my teeth.
posted by PatoPata to Human Relations (53 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Your explanation sounds like pop psychology.

Some people are just more detail-oriented and structured than others.
posted by dfriedman at 3:17 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is understanding them important or is understanding yourself important? In some ways, it doesn't matter why they do what they do -- what matters to you is why you feel what you feel. It seems to me that you are used to getting things done and, probably, relying on yourself to do them. Some of what you feel is probably justifiable anger at having your work made more difficult, but some is possibly due to feelings of lack of control, loss of the freedom of self-direction, and so on. I would recommend that, when you feel these feelings, rather than "seeing the other guy's side," focus on where your feelings are coming from and letting them go at the root. Your anger doesn't really hurt them, and it certainly doesn't help you.

Practically, you can try and avoid working with these people when that's an option, but looking at the sources of your own feelings and the elements there you can address is probably a better solution in the long run.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:23 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I say I'm going to do something, I usually do it thoroughly and on time, without last-minute scrambles. I get a lot of enjoyment out of gracefully and efficiently creating something useful.

Good for you. Have a pat on the back.

Then give up on wanting other people to change their methods to your liking. It's never gonna happen. Not everybody has the same priorities you do.
posted by futureisunwritten at 3:28 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ha, I could've written this question myself, right down to the smart charming 20-something male goof-off. The goof-off in my case seems to be extremely spoiled by his family: lives at home, doesn't pay bills, girlfriend and mom baby and take care of him, and it just comes naturally to him to let others do the work while he entertains them as that's always been the way. Whereas I am the oldest of 4, always had to babysit, do housework, started working at 14, etc. I was always rewarded for being responsible, there was no babying in my family.

So, I feel your frustration. One thing I try to realize is that there are trade-offs for everything. The irresponsible types suffer because they're never really sure of themselves, it seems. I've seen people who work harder at appearing to work than it would be to actually....work. At least you know what you are capable of and you don't live with the stress that procrastination causes.

One thing to think about (and I say this because I recognize it in myself, when I'm honest): Is there some part of you that's jealous of them perhaps? Having to be responsible at a young age means you miss out on the carefree part of youth....maybe they bug you so much because you feel like you were cheated. Just a thought...
posted by cottonswab at 3:30 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

From the Wikipedia article you linked to:
People who are low on conscientiousness are not necessarily lazy or immoral, but they tend to be more laid back, less goal oriented, and less driven by success.

From your question:
I'd like to understand why some people are less responsible so I can deal with them from a position of compassion instead of resentment.
I get a lot of enjoyment out of gracefully and efficiently creating something useful.

What you call grace, someone with "low conscientiousness" might call rigidity, uptightness, or simply being anal, unflexible and uncreative.

There's no one right way to create something.
posted by pintapicasso at 3:34 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

They do what works best for them.

If you're in a position of authority over them, you can (as you mention) do things that make procrastination no longer work best for them. You could, for instance, reward the entire team for being early, so procrastinators would be pressured by everyone, not just you, to get their work in early.

But if you're not in such a position, you'll have to learn to live with other styles of work.
posted by pracowity at 3:37 PM on January 25, 2010

Oh, and I just thought of something else: a lot of times I resent more laid-back people because I feel there's a lot of pressure on me and me only to be perfect, but they "get away with it." One thing that's helped me to get over myself :) is to force myself to relax in some way. Goof off a little, miss a deadline, you will see it's not the end of the world and yes, you also are allowed to make mistakes!
posted by cottonswab at 3:41 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't think you can ever really know what makes some people conscientious and others not so much. You might get ideas about why, but I just don't think it is knowable.

Maybe the question is more of one of motivation; How can you motivate people to deliver what is required on time? You get the nice feeling of accomplishment by completing your tasks in your usual way. But a lot of people are pressure prompted and take a great thrill in running up against a deadline. The trick with managing people like that is to give them a lot of interim deadlines and perhaps to fail to mention that they aren't final deadlines.

Also, maybe those smart and charming men that you are having trouble with might be better suited to slightly different roles. For example, more client facing or consultative-type roles, rather than analytical-type or, as you say "creating something useful".

Smart and charming is very useful is business. Perhaps you need to see it in a way that allows it to be a strength that complements your own skills.
posted by dobie at 3:42 PM on January 25, 2010

This - 'deal with him from a position of compassion' - sounds like condescension to me. If this guy's irresponsibility makes your work or reputation suffer, then you have a right to be pissed about it. But if it doesn't, then why does it matter how he became that way? I don't see why taking pity on him should restore your sense of enjoyment in your work. Maybe your resentment stems from the fact that he seems totally fine with the way he is, and doesn't acknowledge how you have been inconvenienced by his behaviour?

Maybe you can take some comfort in the idea that the truly lazy/inept workers can and will suffer long term consequences for their poor work habits, even if they can scrape by day to day.
posted by aiglet at 3:44 PM on January 25, 2010

To clarify: I'm not talking about someone not living up to impossible standards of perfection that I impose. I don't set the standards. I'm talking about people who turn in work that the client rejects as substandard and that someone else on the team has to redo, often giving up a weekend or vacation time.

For what it's worth, I've been told that I'm easy to work with, and I've never been called uptight, perfectionist, etc. I work in a creative field with a lot of deadlines. And by compassion, I mean empathy and understanding, not pity.
posted by PatoPata at 3:51 PM on January 25, 2010

They're all those good-for-nothings lower in the birth order.

I kid.

This particular problem could be summed up in the general heading of 'you can't control other people, and you will be miserable if you try'. But I think you recognize that.

Look, some stuff really isn't that important. Blowing off deadlines is sometimes just good sense. Maybe there were other priorities. Maybe it's better for office morale. Maybe the thing wasn't as important as everyone was pretending it was in the first place.

If the deadline were that important, there should be some recognizable repercussion for it having been missed -- lost sales, angry client, whatever. If there isn't, than it's possible the deadline was one of those dumb work things like mandatory Wednesday meetings, and someone just put it there because they felt like they had to. It's also possible it wasn't a reasonable deadline. Or it's possible that what's important to you isn't important to them, and they might be right in deciding that.

In any case, what I just outlined above--those other ways to look at it, a little more philosophically, is what can help you not want to strangle people.

I'm an oldest child and control freak but I've worked to develop some equanimity about that stuff over the years.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:55 PM on January 25, 2010

Oh, I see. Sorry, I should have previewed!
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:56 PM on January 25, 2010

...man in his 20s or 30s who is smart and charming. He likes to be the center of attention and seems to want everyone's approval, which makes his procrastination, broken promises, and minimal work even harder for me to understand.

This defines me pretty well, I'd have to say. And you know what I think of people like you? Snotty, stuck-up, overachiever, brown-nosing, know-it-all workaholics. You say you want to "understand" people like us, but the very way your question is phrased makes you sound like a complete tool to me. FWIW, I am plenty capable of "gracefully and efficiently creating something useful," my methods are just a bit different. I don't know if you have a degree in psychology, but judging by you linking Wiki articles, I'd doubt it. Stop trying to fit people into your nice little boxes and try to realize that they're human. You pride yourself on being responsible and conscientious but this post proves that you're quite the opposite, at least from what I glean here.

You want to know how to stop judging people? Don't make assumptions and go out of your way to find descriptions that "fit" your workmates. People are, if nothing else, different. I think a bunch of the above posters are pointing out important things, but I agree with Sys Rq the most. You need to lay off of your coworkers. They probably hate you to, but you know what? That's life. Work sucks, and even if you find a job that you like I guarantee you you'll despise at least one of your coworkers. We're not all busy little bees that want only to help the hive. Some of us want to enjoy life without you pains-in-the-ass ruining our day.

Sorry if this post seems harsh, or god-forbid irresponsible, but you really need to take a BIG step back and examine yourself before you start judging others. Recognize that you cannot change people and there really isn't any way to completely understand a person's actions. Life isn't a TV show where sitting and having a heart-to-heart is going to reveal an ultimate truth that makes the villain a sympathetic character. No, life is much, much more complicated than that. The sooner that you can recognize that some people are very, very different than you and, perhaps more importantly, the time with them will pass, the sooner you can enjoy life like the rest of us unwashed hippies.

I will say it one more time. We humans do not belong on "scales." We do not belong in categories. There is a reason why the very best psychologists don't often agree on human behavior; we are simply far too complex.

On Preview: If you don't set the standards, then take it up with someone who does. There is a reason they haven't been fired yet, perhaps you don't have the whole story. Also, it seems to me that you thrive on what others think of you (though I am sure you will deny it,) and that should be, mainly because no one is going to tell you the bad things until it's too late. That's why you've always heard you're easy to work with and not a perfectionist.
posted by InsanePenguin at 3:59 PM on January 25, 2010 [9 favorites]

maybe they bug you so much because you feel like you were cheated

Bingo! That was quick. Yes, I had a lot of responsibilities as a kid due to a parent's death, the other parent's alcoholism, etc. So when I see an adult "getting away" with stuff I could never get away with even as a kid, I feel jealous. You'd think I would have grown out of that by now. Time to grow up, I guess.
posted by PatoPata at 4:00 PM on January 25, 2010

InsanePenguin, thanks for your honest answer.
posted by PatoPata at 4:02 PM on January 25, 2010

Time to grow up, I guess.

Bingo. That was quick


I am sorry to hear that you had a lot of responsibility shoved on you. You're correct in assessing that I did not, but couldn't someone who was shoved responsibility early in life cracked and ended up like me? This is why it's not healthy to make the assumption that *bam* this happened and that is why I am how I am. Give yourself more credit than that!
posted by InsanePenguin at 4:03 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're correct in assessing that I did not

I've said nothing about you personally. I don't know you.
posted by PatoPata at 4:07 PM on January 25, 2010

I've said nothing about you personally. I don't know you.

I know, I was just interpolating that from your question. You said that you had this responsibility and that's why you are how you are today. One would assume that you meant the opposite for the people that bug you, which is what I meant. No offense intended. I know you're not judging me personally.
posted by InsanePenguin at 4:09 PM on January 25, 2010

ADHD is present in 4.4% of the population.

Everyone calling conscientious people unpleasant are off-base. Conscientiousness is a real, measurable facet of personality. People can be both conscientious and agreeable.

Conscientiousness rises with age.
posted by kathrineg at 4:19 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some people are just like that. Either they aren't experiencing consequences for their actions, or they are and they have decided that they are willing to live with the consequences (lower chance of getting a raise or promotion, risk of being fired) in exchange for the benefits (doing less work). They probably don't realize that their actions are making you do more work, and if they do, they may think that your standards around work quality and/or deadlines are unreasonably high and that it's your own perfectionism that's making you do more work, not their own failings. For example, their idea of an appropriate response to a client's rejecting work might be to do it over but miss the deadline, instead of working overtime to redo the work within the deadline period; they may feel that the risk of alienating or losing the client isn't high enough or dire enough to work extra.
posted by phoenixy at 4:27 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

My rage-o-meter goes off the charts when I see someone get away with failure to meet the terms of his or her employment. A mid-level person complains to me about an employee like, "I wish Joe would get that project done. I told him to have it finished yesterday"--and then Joe suffers zero consequences as a result of his lateness. The manager who complains to me never turns around and tells Joe "Finish your work on time, or you're done here." Drives me up the wall.

My solution, for my own sanity, is to consider my role in the situation (i.e., how much power or influence do I have?) and to consider the expectations and consequences that have been made explicit to the slacker. I can understand missing a deadline if there are no consequences for doing so: one of my strengths is a terrific work ethic (no matter how boring a job, I meet my responsibilities), but not everyone has that strength (and there are plenty of strengths I lack, that a "slacker" might have). Some people need consequences before they'll change bad habits (and everyone has bad habits).

Of course, some people just deserve to be fired.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:33 PM on January 25, 2010

Conscientiousness is a real, measurable facet of personality. People can be both conscientious and agreeable.

Thanks, kathrineg. And for people who assume conscientious types are all overworking perfectionists: I work at most 30 billable hours a week. The rest of the time I build my own business, hang out with friends (yes, I have friends!), read, and watch birds at the feeder.

I know I carry a lot of resentment from having to work a lot in my earlier life and it was blind of me not to see how it could be affecting my reaction to some coworkers.
posted by PatoPata at 4:40 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know I carry a lot of resentment from having to work a lot in my earlier life and it was blind human of me not to see how it could be affecting my reaction to some coworkers.

posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:49 PM on January 25, 2010

I think it's now considered archaic but you might find the management perspective on Theory X and Theory Y workers enlightening. Theory X -- all workers are shiftless and no-account, don't respond to the carrot, only the stick; and Theory Y, like PatoPata -- comes in early, stays late, and turns in projects ahead of schedule. Another good read is Neanderthals at Work by Albert Bernstein -- he catagorizes all workers into either Believers (Theory Y types who're eventually frustrated and disillusioned because they don't get promoted; Competitors, or Game Players, who easily determine the unwritten rules of their work-place, and behave accordingly; and Rebels, who know some key trick about their workplace nobody else knows.

Wally in Dilbert is my favorite Rebel -- he knows something about the accounting/payroll system and only he can fix it, which is why he's never laid off.
posted by Rash at 4:49 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hm. While I understand and respect your effort to understand the deeper reasons behind someone's behavior, I don't think discovering the myriad of reasons people are irresponsible/miss deadlines/just don't give a shit will help you here. In fact it just might serve to further infuriate you.

You seem to be hoping there's some pure, compassion-inspiring reason or cause behind 'X' behavior that you can relate to, and that will make you feel less angry/judgemental toward such people. And there might be some underlying reason or cause that would strike you as valid. There might not be. Unless you are Mr. Charming-20-Something's psychotherapist, you probably will never know. In short, you're barking up the wrong tree.

So we're back to you and your response to him. Or to your relationship with your own perceived judgementalism. That's the only thing you can change.
posted by involution at 4:54 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's pretty funny to me how many commenters, exemplified by InsanePenguin are so offended at your post. It's not stuck-up or anal retentive to be annoyed when other people fuck up. Missing clients' deadlines or turning in work that is rejected by the client doesn't reflect a subjective judgment by the OP, it's facts. People who repeatedly fail to meet the standards of their job shouldn't remain employed, but many of them do because they're charismatic kissasses.
Them's the breaks, though, so what I would suggest for dealing with it better is this: I would flat out tell them, "When you don't do the work properly/miss a deadline, and the rest of us are stuck picking up the slack, it's really disappointing to the team." Who is in charge? Is there a manager or someone in a supervisory role you could talk to? If it's damaging the company's reputation, costing the company money, or leading to an unfair distribution of labor (especially if the harder workers aren't getting paid extra), you should complain. People are going to call that passive-aggressive, but I suspect those are the same people that think getting shit done on time when you're supposed to is only for do-gooder snobs.
posted by ishotjr at 4:58 PM on January 25, 2010 [8 favorites]

I know you asked for a way to see them with empathy, but that's not your job. That would be doing even more work than you already are in covering their asses.
posted by ishotjr at 4:59 PM on January 25, 2010

Who is in charge? Is there a manager or someone in a supervisory role you could talk to?

I'm an independent consultant who works with multiple clients. I get added to existing teams for specific projects. The mix of teams changes. Usually I work remotely. Due to all of this, I usually just tell my client bland things like, "I haven't gotten X's part yet so can't include it here, but here's what everyone else has done so far." I let them draw their own conclusions. And since they work with the person more than I do, I suspect they already know.
posted by PatoPata at 5:09 PM on January 25, 2010

PatoPata: “Often, but not always, the person is a man in his 20s or 30s who is smart and charming. He likes to be the center of attention and seems to want everyone's approval, which makes his procrastination, broken promises, and minimal work even harder for me to understand.”

There are a lot of good things in this thread, and I'm sort of coming to it late, but I just wanted to say:

You've described me perfectly here. I am exactly this person; I like to think I'm intelligent and gregarious, and I'm even a bit of a social butterfly, but my failure to be conscientious hangs over my life like a vast all-darkening shadow. I found your description of the source of your conscientiousness quite poignant, and I sympathize with your feeling. And I know, because people have been telling me all my life, that it can seem burdensome dealing with us, the non-conscientious, every day – our procrastination, our apparently complete aloofness to deadlines, our lack of urgency about important tasks, and our complete disregard for the effect that procedures will have on the future and on people's happiness.

Just know that we're not oblivious or immune to the pain it causes. It usually hurts us most, whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not. It was one of the biggest factors in my divorce, for example. We tried to be cheerful about it, but even our attempt to be gregarious and well-regarded is often just a way we have of masking the very real pain all of this causes.

I'm not trying to be too morbid – life isn't simply a wretched hell for me or for any non-conscientious person. But everyone feels the effects of his or her actions, whether they seem to or not; and we aren't irresponsible without suffering the consequences. Those of us non-conscientious people who achieve any lasting happiness only do so by alleviating some of our irresponsibility and setting up a system by which we can keep our promises and maintain our relationships in a clear-eyed way; usually that involves friends and family reminding us of things, having helpful and regular habits, making lists, et cetera. But if we just went on like this, life would be unbearable for us, too.
posted by koeselitz at 5:14 PM on January 25, 2010 [10 favorites]

You get angry because you believe that your coworker *should* be more conscientious.

Examine that *should*. It's a fundamental cognitive distortion. It's an irrational (but perfectly normal and understandable) belief that reality should conform to your wishes.

If you're looking for compassion and empathy, you can start with the fact that his lack of conscientiousness probably makes things much harder for him than they do for you. For you, you have a coworker who's not shouldering his load. For him, his whole life's probably a challenge. He probably has trouble keeping on top of the paperwork and all the little things we have to do every day just to keep up -- registering cars, doing the laundry, washing the dishes -- and not only that, but he probably beats himself up for it.
posted by callmejay at 5:18 PM on January 25, 2010 [7 favorites]

I'm inclined to agree with Involution on this one... I don't think any deeper understanding of the slackers is going to improve your situation.. in fact, I'd bet money it will only make you more frustrated. From reading your description, I'd say that I'm a lot like you. I consider myself conscientious (probably to the point of being OCD).. and I take a lot of personal pride in doing a job right, and making sure whatever work I complete also helps others around me (and those who come after me, even if I never know who they might be).

Having said all that.. there are some people who just don't work that way. For whatever reason (I'd guess because quality of work just isnt that important to them).. they'll never live up to your standards. The frustration you feel about that. .is something you have to deal with internal to yourself. You have to find a way to come to terms with it... OR... find ways to insulate your work from theirs (so their slacking doesnt effect your results).

I do a little bit of both.. and whatever falls outside, I let go of and do what I'm doing tonight (came home, showered, drinking a cold beer and cranking some MUSE really really loud. )
posted by jmnugent at 5:19 PM on January 25, 2010

Oh, and by the way: that Wikipedia statistic is very vague, and not very informative about how all of this works, I think. As far as the Big Five go, I'm one of those who thinks that it's sort of limiting in that it excludes a lot of important stuff from consideration. Anyway, it would be a mistake even in that context to read the 50% figure as saying that every single one of us takes 50% of her or his conscientiousness from inheritance and 50% from environment. I know that in my case and in the cases of many, many others, my inheritance – the way the chemicals in my brain work – tends constantly to overwhelm my environmental conditioning. This is not to mention the fact that, though I know I'm biased when I say this, I think it's fair to state that the environment of the modern developed world is more taxing on one's conscientiousness than almost any in human history; at the very least, a modern human has to remember more stuff and keep more tiny promises than every before. That's possible for most people, but for some of us it can be hard; that's just the way the world is, I think.
posted by koeselitz at 5:23 PM on January 25, 2010

On-topic response:
Ask your friends what their backgrounds are (those whose you don't know) and ask them to tell you about their friends and how they think they turned out to be because of their childhood. YMMV

You'll notice everyone to be fairly different unless your friends talk generalized. That'll help give you a better idea as to how people are different and hopefully generate compassion.

Off-topic response:

If you do want to change people's behavior, there's only one way to do it.

Let the change come from them.

Encourage it when you see the slightest hint of it and by hint I mean something demonstrable NOT something that's what you think it is.

To boot, you can't go and tell them "oh, i thought you were doing this so I was going to give you this (reward)". That'll make them feel worse.

It's akin to the joke of how many psychologist's does it take to change a light bulb? However many but the light bulb has to *want* to change.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 5:23 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm with you all the way. I think you're a gem and deserve a raise (but YMMV). Sounds to me like the culture at work is pretty permissive. It might be worth considering a change of employers, to find one with more conscientious employees, ones you'd find it easier to work with. Or a position in which you do the work and meet the deadline, without collaboration. Job satisfaction can be important, and it sounds like you could use a better environment.
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:31 PM on January 25, 2010

I’m going to give a completely different perspective on this. Similar to what you do, I have been give projects with deadlines, but get the material a day, a few days, or a week later (and sometimes a person says, “ I can get this tomorrow morning, right?” The last month or so I had a chance to work closely with a few teams and this is what I observed.

It may not be personality (conscientiousness) at all. Here are some other interpretations – you may only be dealing with the person who hands you part of the project and not see this.
• The people you are collaborating with are extremely overworked. One of the teams I worked with had a very smart 40-year old in charge of the project. He gave me material the night before or after several days. However, I know for a fact he worked late nights and far over 40 hours a week. We had conference calls over the holidays (including the day before Xmas). This guy did very hard, but because of lack of time and involvement in 100000 other projects, he couldn’t give me my materials.
• One or more of the people are part of a dysfunctional team. The day before the project started I was on a conference call with 2 members of the “team”. The rolled their eyes every time we talked with the person described above. He would ask the team to send material to him or me – and they rarely to never did. They would then immediately write critiques about how X, Y, and Z were wrong with the final project.
• Infinite # of other possibilities here

From another perspective, if someone cuts you off in traffic, is it because they are rude and tried to cut you off? Or could it be --- they were distracted by their kids? Worried about work? Or just didn’t notice. Try to give people the benefit of the doubt…until you see their team and workplace.

Now even though I just said all that I have worked with people who....consistently give me material late, ask me to speed up the deadline, etc. Drop those goofballs as a client!

I'm also considering adding a clause in my contact, "If X materials are not delivered by agreed upon date, timeline will be modified" followed by later documentation.

posted by Wolfster at 5:45 PM on January 25, 2010

At the end of the day, there's really only one thing you need to know, and that's how to work with the people you have to work with.

Some people procrastinate, and need deadlines to stay motivated. Some people always deliver, but demand loyalty and respect, or can't work well with others. Some people coast by on the minimum. There's easily hundreds of other types, mostly combinations of a few dozen typical tendencies.

You need to know your partner's weaknesses, and you already do; now, you need to find their strengths, too, and then ask them to take on tasks that are best served by those strengths and least jeopardized by their weaknesses. If you concentrate on this -- the fact of them -- rather than trying to grok/change the underlying cause, you'll have a much better time.

For instance: I personally can't work without a deadline. If someone says to me "get it done whenever", it will never get done. Self-imposed deadlines can help, but without someone else cracking the whip on it, I won't recognize it as real. It's just the way I am. So who has the most success with me? People who give me deadlines, real or not, and stick to them. For them, I move the tides, because it keeps me motivated and interested in the task at hand.

Similarly, I once had a new co-worker start flirting with me, as they asked me to do something. I stopped her mid-flirt and said "Look, I know batting your eyes at people usually makes them get things done, but that doesn't work with me. Just tell me when you need it, and you'll get it. But you know what makes me want to do things for you? Food. Feed me, and you'll get my best." The next morning there was homemade soup on my desk, and whenever food was waiting for me I knew she had something important for me to get done.

So: worry not for the why, just be sensitive to the what, and make changes accordingly. Similarly, be sure to let your cohorts know what you need; if it's better communication when they're going to miss a deadline, or just plain "don't miss deadlines", let them know and ask how you can help them hold up their end.
posted by davejay at 6:05 PM on January 25, 2010 [8 favorites]

I'm the person you describe in some ways, though not in others. I procrastinate a lot, but I still make most--not all--deadlines for my projects. But even when I do meet my deadlines, it's a rushed, although at least competent job. I receive positive, but not oustanding, performance reviews. Clients are satisfied with the work I do. I know I could do outstanding work, rather than merely competent, if I didn't procrastinate, but I don't. When I do miss a deadline, it's almost always due to my procrastination, not because I didn't have enough time in the first place or because higher-priority things came up or anything like that. The one criticism I consistently receive on my performance review is that I'm not proactive--I do what's asked of me, but I don't go out of my way to develop my own projects or that sort of thing.

I'm towards the upper end of your age range, late 30s. Smart, yes; charming, no; I don't seek to be the center of attention nor particularly care if I have everyone's approval.

(FWIW, I don't think you're a "snotty, stuck-up, overachiever, brown-nosing, know-it-all workaholic." I don't have any problem with people like you, and part of me envies you.)

I've been doing some soul-searching lately trying to figure out if I can improve in this area, without much success, although I have come to a better understanding of why I do this. Like others here, I'm not sure understanding this behavior would actually help you, but if it would, you might look at some procrastination self-help books. Not the Getting Things Done type which merely suggest techniques for overcoming procrastination, but those which go deeper into reasons why people procrastinate. (And there are many different reasons why different people procrastinate; don't be satisfied with anything that suggests there's one single reason which applies to everyone.)

For me, I certainly can't blame it on Helicopter Parents. While I certainly didn't have as much responsibility as you growing up, I had what I think was an appropriate amount. But the lack of negative consequences is a BIG one for me. When I have been late on deadlines, I've never suffered anything worse than, "Hey, where's that thing you said you'd have to me two days ago?" "Oh, sorry, that's taking longer than I expected, but I'll have it done soon." (Which is also why, as you probably already know, artificially early deadlines won't work, as people will see through that in very short order and figure out what the "real" deadline is anyway.) The lack of negative consequences is also a bit demoralizing for me--if you don't seem to mind that much that I'm two days late, it can't have been that important to get it by the "deadline" in the first place.

Another factor, which I think was there subconsciously for a long time, but my soul-searching has led me to be consciously aware of, is that I don't really have any reason to do better. I'm paid well enough, I can buy what I want, I don't have any desire to live extravagantly, and I'm even saving decently for retirement, so the possibility of more money or promotion doesn't motivate me--why would I want more responsibility and more stress? And believe me, whatever is in your personality that makes you want to do better for the sake of doing better is as alien and incomprehensible to me as that lack of motivation in me is to you. If anything, becoming consciously aware of this factor has made my procrastination worse: I ask myself, why would I do any better, and I can't think of a single reason. (If you have a answer to that question, I would welcome it.) More vacation time, I think, would potentially motivate me, but I work in a large corp. and vacation time is standardized company-wide, so my boss doesn't have the authority to offer me more (or penalize me by reducing it).

For me, a gentle reminder a day or two before the deadline will at least assure that I get the work done on time. But I have a pretty thick skin, and though I initially resent the implication that I need the reminder (when I miss deadlines, the issue is not that I've forgotten when they are; I'm fully aware of them), that passes within a few minutes and I can move on, and the reminder lets me know that the client actually considers the deadline important, so I don't let it slip at that point. But I can't guarantee that such a reminder wouldn't have the opposite effect on other people.

To get away from me personally, and discuss the issue more generally, one thing I've found is that different people are motivated by very different things. There's no one solution that will motivate every low-performing worker; you have to learn what motivates each one individually. Just as one example, some people love Employee-of-the-Month type awards, some don't care one way or the other, and some people are made distinctly uncomfortable by public recognition like that.
posted by Gregor Samsa at 6:33 PM on January 25, 2010 [13 favorites]

Gregor Samsa, thanks for your thoughtful response.

And believe me, whatever is in your personality that makes you want to do better for the sake of doing better is as alien and incomprehensible to me as that lack of motivation in me is to you.

That aspect is incomprehensible to me, too. It feels like a 100% physical drive--it never seems to vary, except when I had mono. It made me miserable as an employee and is one of the main reasons I went into business for myself.

Your point reminds me that when I'm on client teams, I'm often dealing with employees, not other roving consultant types. They could easily have drives more like yours, not mine.

You've also helped me see how a lack of consequences for missed deadlines would be demoralizing, and I'm sorry that you're in that position. Everyone should know that their input is important. This encourages me to think of ways to make sure everyone on "my" team knows that their input is valuable. Even if I'm not technically in charge I can still communicate that.
posted by PatoPata at 7:02 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing I'd like to suggest to you is that you kindly not rescue the unconscientious people whenever possible. Conscientiousness is a choice. People who don't do what they are supposed to do when they are supposed to do it should suffer natural consequences. That's not being judgemental, that's being practical.

I also as a personal choice tend to try to NOT give these sorts of people opportunities to mess me over. I'd rather do something myself than give it to someone I cannot trust to do it correctly. If that means they goof off, I don't care-as I'd rather have that then fix up someone else's mess.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:13 PM on January 25, 2010

People who repeatedly fail to meet the standards of their job shouldn't remain employed, but many of them do because they're charismatic kissasses.

Sure. Except that is the boss's fault. Not the employee. The employee is a dick, but what, do you think he's going to ask to be fired?
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:14 PM on January 25, 2010

Wolfster, thanks for the reminder that I don't always know what other projects the person might be on. That also reminded me that I usually get added to a team because the team is having trouble doing the work themselves. So it's not surprising that I sometimes find challenges or weird team dynamics.
posted by PatoPata at 7:27 PM on January 25, 2010

Like you, I'm very conscientious ... and I was the utterly spoiled baby of the family, to the extreme that I used to gobble up my whole candy bar and then ask my sister for half of hers -- and she would fork it over, because she's generous and loving like that.

She's one of your procrastinators, who never met a deadline she couldn't ignore.

I know where my conscientiousness comes from, and it's the avoidance of shame; I have deep, deep shame feelings when I fail to meet someone's expectations. But in a way, that's a kind of cowardice. I care altogether too much what people think of me in general, and that sometimes gets in the way of virtues like forthrightness.

So anyway, I guess the most effective method of developing compassion would be to have your beloved, super-awesome sister be someone like that; and barring that, to remind yourself that there are a lot of virtues in the world, and conscientiousness is only one of them.
posted by palliser at 7:37 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dan Arielly writes about this in his book 'Predictably Irrational'. He has a fairly scientific comparison of how students behave based on a few different deadline types (self-chosen, imposed, end of semester). According to his analysis, most people behave according to the system they are within. This suggests to me, that people have some sort of normal distribution of behavior and the external structure influences what goes on (which I think you fairly neatly described with your environmentally component, but I mention this as a another reference which suggests it might be more significant than 50%).

Personally, your description of non-conscientiousness makes me uncomfortable as I recognize traits of my own behavior in it. And I wish I could change those traits, but it's very hard. It's all relative though - if I have five small deadlines and have to rush towards the end for each of them it's usually fine when compared to one monster deadline that I rush towards. I would find working with someone like you to be a great example, though and that would definitely inspire me to improve.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 8:46 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Over time, conscientious people get better jobs and more promotions, get into graduate school, get ahead. Instead of judging, pay attention to the slackers' strengths. Does the slacker have charm? Try to learn some, it goes a long way. Both you and the slackers will experience consequences of your behaviors; your consequences will be more enjoyable. Work at extinguishing smugness or resentment; they make you feel rotten.
posted by theora55 at 9:04 PM on January 25, 2010

Over time, conscientious people get better jobs and more promotions,

This isn't always true. It's just different personality types. There are people with charisma and power personalities and lots of ideas who become leaders. They hire conscientious people to get work done.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:18 PM on January 25, 2010

I think David Allen (or the whoever's working on the next Getting Things Done-alike) could use this thread to scare the bejesus out of a lot instantly willing customers. I think it's time to make some (irony!) late new years resolutions.
posted by onshi at 9:47 PM on January 25, 2010

He might just have a hard time saying no, over-commits himself to too many projects, and then starts to panic and procrastinate because it's easier than facing the impossible amount of work he's committed to do.

Sort of like why I'm still in my office at 1am, but wasting time on MetaFilter instead of finishing my project that was due last week.... :)
posted by Jacqueline at 12:57 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am kind of like this. I was expected to be hyper-responsible when I was a kid (also an issue of difficult parents and one being alcoholic) and.. I was berated so much about every little thing I had to do, that now I'm a hopeless procrastinator. I felt like everything I did had to be perfect, and the older I got & more challenging things I had to do (especially writing tasks where there's no measure) this became impossible, so I was miserable no matter what, and became afraid to even start. It causes a lot of stress because I picture starting on any project or task as a hundred times more painful than it is, and working on a big project is going to require dozens of those moments.. the misery of sitting there trying to force myself to get started. Intellectually I know what's happening and yet I can't seem to help it. So that's one perspective. I recall reading somewhere that children of alcoholics tend to be either super responsible, or super irresponsible.

I do better at finishing things on deadline when the work is for people who are straightforward and professional and clear about the deadline. (Ambiguous due dates are the worst thing for me.) I'm also quite good at getting things done on deadline if the people around me are doing the same and care about their work, whereas if it's a dysfunctional workplace where only about a third of the staff give a sh!t and others slack all the time, it's hard. Or when you know something's being done the wrong way or is redundant or pointless but nobody listens to you.. definite temptation to slack. If the workplace is one where, repeatedly, you put in your best effort and get nothing in return, or projects you're trying to do good work on are constantly screwed up by others' incompetence, slacking off is kind of a learned behavior - what is the point of working hard if your boss and your boss's boss and half your team could care less? So if you're dealing with different workplaces, these might be responses by some to the culture there. Or maybe they've somehow evolved into the office slacker, and don't know how to get out of that role, because everyone surrounding them has expectations permanently set on "slacker." In such case, you would be doing them a big favor by treating them just like everyone else, clear expectations, clear deadlines, and working into the requirements that a draft or chunk of work or something is due first, instead of the whole thing all at once.

I don't think there's anything snotty or stuck-up about the question.
posted by citron at 1:41 AM on January 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm not looking for tips like "Give them deadlines that are several days early." I want to stop judging them harshly.

So, do that: stop judging him. If the person in question isn't your underling, why do you assume you should have authority over this person? I get that you don't like working with people who's approach to working is different (less efficient, etc.) than yours. I think that's true for everyone. But that's neither here nor there. Of course, like anyone, you'll have your private opinions about who is and who is not of real value to the enterprise in which you work, but that, too, is neither here nor there, unless the person is such a slacker that you feel compelled to discuss it with his supervisor. But this doesn't seem to be the case. It seems that you really just wish worker X were more like you. That's probably not going to happen.

I'd like to understand why some people are less responsible so I can deal with them from a position of compassion instead of resentment.

He could be a slacker. He could be ADHD (and, thus, isn't truly motivated until push comes to shove). He could be the sort of person who overcommits himself (at home or work) and, thus, gets swamped. He could just be lame. Maybe this is just a paycheck for him, and he doesn't care to put as much mental energy into it as you do. But here's the thing: compassion isn't a quality in him. It's a quality in you. It's going to be pretty hard to exhibit compassion for a person if you're too busy judging that person.
posted by wheat at 4:38 AM on January 26, 2010

At work, I am probably low to middling on the conscientiousness scale. I have a coworker with the same job title who seems, to me, to be way more internally organized/motivated/generally-with-it than I am.

Good for her, and good for her clients. However, it generally makes me feel horrible. Like, even if I throw myself completely into my work, I don't measure up, and I feel like I'll never measure up, so what's the point? I'm just going to fuck up, so might as well fuck up half-assedly. And I have this tiny worry percolating in the back of my mind that she hates me, and that everyone at work sees me as totally inferior. I'm reluctant to bring this up to my boss, because I don't want to admit that my confidence in my work is so low.

Competition and high exacting standards don't motivate me; they make me shrink. They make me do worse.

I'm a perfectionist, but in the wrong way. Instead of trying to make my work perfect, I see all the ways my work isn't perfect, and it freaks me out.

This is not just me vs. my coworker, it's something that happens to me in many work environments. This is something that, in part, has prevented me from figuring out my long-term career goals, because I'm just so afraid I'm too mediocre. This is something I am currently talking about with my therapist, and who knows if or when it will be resolved fully.

So in short: I'm aware, and I'm sorry, and I'm working on it; resenting me will only knock me back.

Not everyone who doesn't hit deadlines is like me. Most people probably aren't. I have no idea, I can only speak for my situation.

And the thing is, I have been on your side too. There have been quite a few situations in which I've had to deal with someone frustratingly flaky. Probably everyone who's had trouble with deadlines in one context has had to put up with an irresponsible roommate or something in another. Sometimes we're Homer Simpson, sometimes we're Frank Grimes.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:49 AM on January 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

I don't know if you'd be interested in reading about personality types at all, but you sound like an Enneagram type One (or at least you identify with their core issue, which is conscientiousness along with anger and judgementalism towards those who are not.) The Enneagram in Love and Work specifically talks about dealing with various types on the job, and how different type-pairings work together in partnerships.

It sounds like your charming coworker could be a type Three. Healthy Threes are high achievers, but less healthy Threes are often only interested in the appearance of success and won't put in any more effort than they absolutely have to.

Type Seven is another possibility... Sevens are gregarious and social but find it hard to settle down to focus on things that are not fun.

This website gives a good overview of all the types and might make an interesting read even if you don't want to delve into the subject too deeply.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:16 AM on January 26, 2010

Thanks to everyone for the additional comments. In case anyone is still reading this, I'd like to make clear that I didn't mean to make this about different work styles but about clear failure from a few people who are otherwise charming. A typical example of what I mean:

We've promised to deliver the product to the client on Monday morning (bad already!). The deadline for X's part of the product is Thursday. Nothing appears on Thursday and X is AWOL--no IM, no response to phone calls or emails. Finally X's deliverable shows up on Friday at 5 PM, which means that I and the other team members have to work on the weekend to finish the thing to meet our promise to the client. There's no apology or explanation from X. And, as far as I know, there are no repercussions from his boss. And while X might blow off phone calls with his team members, he's always at the meeting with the client to smile and accept the client's thanks for a job well done.

I did drop one client because of this. I've also told a client not to put me on any more teams with their X. But because this situation appears to happen a lot in my industry, I was looking for ways to deal with my resentment, which I recognized as being out of proportion.

I once asked an X who was a friend why he would promise to do things and then not do them. He said that he knew if he didn't do it, someone else would, and "What does it matter who does it as long as it gets done?" I tried to explain the effects on me and others, but he was focused on the fact that the end goal was met regardless, so what's the problem?
posted by PatoPata at 8:21 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

if you and others working over the weekend to finish the project results in overtime or extra costs for the client or your employer, i would think that bringing it up would the be the way to handle it.

just say whatever it is that he does "the widget layout wasn't delivered to us until end of day friday so we can't get the project done until Tuesday." when it comes down to the dollar signs, the powers that be take notice. (this is of course provided the offender is being given deadlines already and just blows them off or agrees to them and STILL blows them off.)

you're not being unreasonable for not wanting to work weekends because someone else slacked off.

if it's the same guy over and over, why shouldn't you go to his boss? he's affecting your ability to do your job. that's not judging someone harshly, that's wanting to do your job. there's nothing perfectionist or uptight about that.
posted by sio42 at 8:41 AM on January 27, 2010

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