disorganised co-workers
October 24, 2013 5:31 AM   Subscribe

How best to work with people who are scatty and disorganised?

I work in a public sector organisation. I am a mid-level person - not junior, but not at managerial level. I have to manage various projects.

My job involves working closely with different people on a number of different projects. I am having difficulty right now with 2 of these people. 1 is very senior to me. 1 works at a slightly junior level to me. They're very different, but the thing they have in common is that they are kind of disorganised.

The senior member of staff
- Doesn't do the work that she has promised to do (and that no one else has the expertise to do) because she is really busy
- Gets angry when I remind her that this work is due
- Gets frazzled and ends up making major errors
I need to report to external parties about the work. So whenever she makes a mistake, the onus of fixing the error falls on me.

The junior colleague is disorganised in a different way; he is enormously chatty and genial, and has a really short attention span. This means it's impossible to have a serious conversation with him about work stuff because he gets so easily distracted by non-work tangents, and it's hard to bring him back on track without coming across as unpleasant. I find myself getting really frustrated during meetings when this guy decides to go on a completely irrelevant tangent about something, but I don't feel able to tell him to focus because I am not in a position of authority over him (or anyone). Because we are friendly outside work, and like to hang out, I think that he doesn't consider our meetings to be 'serious work business' - he thinks 'Oh, Ziggy is my pal, she'll love to hear my feelings on Breaking Bad.'

My line manager is aware of my issues and often goes over emails and telephone 'scripts' with me to make sure that they are the right level of polite but urgent.

But I thought the hivemind could give me some suggestions of how better to work with colleagues like this as well.

I am not exactly the Perfect Employee but I AM organised and I like things to feel under control. The problem with my job is that often I feel so dependent on other people doing their work on time that when they don't, I feel really powerless and frustrated.

Other possibly relevant details: Although this job is challenging, I love it and feel productive and appreciated here. For the most part the atmosphere is very happy-clappy 'we're all in this together'; but it remains a very hierarchical place to work where everyone is aware of where they stand on the pecking order.
posted by Ziggy500 to Work & Money (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You will have more success if you approach these two folks differently.

For the senior person, I would ask your line manager to change the process to account for the work you have to scramble and do. See if there is a way to build a step into the process in which you verify the work and send it back if it is wrong. If that is a clear responsibility you have, then it is just a matter of you objectively communicating something and not a criticism or complaint. In my field, the people who verify work are hierarchically the lowest on the totem pole, but technically are tasking the highest paid and most powerful people on the staff, and there is no drama, because it is just their job.

You say these mistakes happen often because your senior coworker is busy and overburdened, so you should bring concrete examples of times where this has happened, but make it clear that just about anybody could make those mistakes when overwhelmed, and show how this process change could help. If it works, you will have less frustration, and you will be (accurately) perceived as a proactive team member and a general good work pal.

For Chatty McJunior, I recommend practicing the art of the gentle push back to the subject. Try the technique of identifying briefly with the topic and then reminding him to come back with you to the topic at hand. "I want to talk about that episode too! But first we really need to get through this agenda!"

No seniority required to gently push on that way. Practice at home or in your mind for ways to do this that are genuine to your communication style and your relationship to your coworker.
posted by pazazygeek at 5:55 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

One other thing to note: bringing this process change up may not fly. You may be told these mistakes are yours to fix, but at least then it will be clear that it is am expectation of you and not your coworker. If that happens, it should again alleviate some frustration (at least you no longer feel you are doing her job), and gives you some leverage to ask for a pay or title bump.
posted by pazazygeek at 5:59 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

See whether you can be more useful to the senior person by taking things you can do off her plate so she has more time to focus on the things that you can't do.
"Barb, I need Report X by Tuesday, and you're the only one who can do it. I remember that you were working on Report Y, which I think I could handle a lot better than Report X."
Clear this with your line manager first, so you're not working on extracurricular things that he or she doesn't know about.
Alternately, just don't let her volunteer for work. Even if she could do it better, just tell yourself that you can get a 90 percent solution on time, which is better than a 100 percent solution that you spend just as much time on (between bugging her and fixing her frazzle-errors) and ends up late.

For the junior person, set aside "Ziggy and Chatty time" and focus him on that:
"Oh, god, I totally want to talk to you about Breaking Bad, but let's do that at three o'clock when I need some coffee and a break from work. Right now, though, I need Report Z."
"But that thing Jesse did--"
"Rain check. Ziggy-Chatty time is at three."
posted by Etrigan at 6:02 AM on October 24, 2013

I'd talk to Chatty about being chatty at a time when there's no urgency. So at happy-hour you can casually bring it up, "Dude, I know that our lines are blurred when it comes to work and play, but sometimes I've just gotta get stuff done at work. I'd MUCH rather talk about Breaking Bad than the Gazingus Pin project, but sometimes, you just gotta knuckle down. I don't want to sound like a hard-ass, but can we agree that if I need to get back on work track that I'll just say so and we can wrap up the meeting quickly?"

As for senior mgr. That one is slightly harder. Build in time for review and correction in your timeline. So if you need to get the report perfect and out the door by three on Wednesdays, then Sr. Mgr. needs to get you her portion of it by Monday at three. Start managing to those dates. If she's missing her deadlines, send an informative email to your manager, or whomever is the consumer of your report, copying Sr. Mgr. with a status update.

"Dear Sue, I am still waiting for the budget figures, once I have them, I can deliver the report to you in 16 working hours." This sets expectations for your manager, reminds Sr. Mgr. that there is downstream work that she's holding up, and takes the onus off of you.

If you end up making corrections, send them back to Sr. Mgr. with a note, "I reviewed the figures and there appeared to be a couple of formula errors, so I updated them. Please confirm that these are correct."

You don't really need her to correct or confirm anything, but at least she gets a clean copy of what went up the chain, and she knows that you're cleaning up her mess.

You'll find yourself in this situation all the time, and basically the trick is to give yourself enough time to do things without stress. I have never been the kid doing homework on the bus on the way to school, and I'm not very tolerant of those who were.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:14 AM on October 24, 2013

Oh, also, this
My line manager is aware of my issues and often goes over emails and telephone 'scripts' with me to make sure that they are the right level of polite but urgent.
is some bullshit. Your manager should be managing, not showing you how to manage. At some point, you will need to just say, "Manager, these scripts aren't working with Senior Person. I need you to either A) give me top cover by elevating this issue to someone who can make her do these things or B) take these things out of my portfolio, because she is not responding to me."
posted by Etrigan at 6:18 AM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I need to report to external parties about the work. So whenever she makes a mistake, the onus of fixing the error falls on me

Bzzzzt... stop there. No. Bit of problem-ownership analysis required here.

The quality of the work she does is not your responsibility. It's her work. You don't need to assume ownership of that problem. If you find errors, send a marked-up copy back to her for re-work. But, you say, she chronically has too much to do? Her problem.

You don't even need to not make her angry by asking her for what she's promised to deliver. Her broken promise? Her problem. Her anger and frustration? Her problem.

Seems to me that your problem is the recurring likelihood of not having the information you're required to report to these external parties. So instead of simply reminding Ms. Overloaded about work that needs to be done by time T because she said she could do that (or, worse, not reminding her because you fear her anger), get in the habit of framing it like "I need to tell persons X, Y and Z about the state of task S by time T. What would you like them to hear?"

This makes it clear that her deadline pressure isn't coming from you, and that you're operating as a member of her team; so when she cracks the sads it will be aimed at X, Y and Z, not you. And it gives you something to say that will get X, Y and Z off your back - which is your problem.

Plus what everybody else has already said about dealing with Chatty McGabbypants.
posted by flabdablet at 6:30 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Re: "I am not exactly the Perfect Employee but I AM organised and I like things to feel under control. The problem with my job is that often I feel so dependent on other people doing their work on time that when they don't, I feel really powerless and frustrated."

The workplace is a giant ecosystem of personality types and skillsets. One team I work with has some of the same challenges you describe. In that case, there is a mid-level person who shares some of your traits, who is very valued for and recognized for organization, quality control and logistics, and who finds working with a (somewhat disorganized) senior team associate to be very stressful. For the senior associate's part, (this is an unrelated example- not saying its your case) I hear their frustration that some members of the team are not 'big picture', not as able to see and act upon interconnections. This person is very respected for their ability to connect those dots, and as a consequence is sought after by many other teams to do just that.

Most members of the team read the step-wise plan as it has been laid out, yet to be effective it must also be able to recalibrate and respond to a dynamic landscape. Few of the team (and none of the newer members) see the embedded nature of some of the problems the team is working on, and when things change, _everyone_ is affected. That said, those who are 'in the loop' or ready for or used to it, roll with it better. The frustration is compounded however when older members of the team don't take time to explain context, or which elements may be more or less likely to shift.

We don't know anything about your co-worker's attributes or why she is so busy, my point is only to say that no one is the Perfect Employee, but it takes a real mix of skills to create progress, especially in larger organizations. In the team I describe, both people really do need each other, and communication started to smooth out a great deal when they started appreciatively and laughingly referring to their 'roles' and characteristics which were very complimentary to each other.

It is entirely possible that your co-workers may share feelings of 'under control' vs 'powerless' 'frustrated' and 'the onus of fixing errors', but may see those challenges laying at a different level or perspective.
posted by iiniisfree at 8:08 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Senior Staffer with Skills, I know how busy you are. I really need the following work product from you. How can I help you out so I can get this work? Make it as easy as possible for Senior Staffer to process your request. Maybe you can prepare some of the initial work. I used to have a specific task that was needed at the busiest possible time. I told people who wanted this task done that I would be able to do it faster if they made sure I had the correct documentation. I'd stay till late completing requests, and if I didn't have the info, I had to send an email asking for it, which meant it didn't get done til the next evening. And some people would just reply with wrong info, even though I sent details, so that would take another day. Be clear about when you need the results. If your report is due 11/15/2013, ask for the info with enough lead time to get it in time to incorporate into your work. A few days before it's due, send email Hi Senior Staffer, this is a reminder that I need X by 11/8/2013. Is that going to work? Then another email the day before, and drop off a muffin, artisanal root beer, great coffee, whatever your research indicates Senior Staffer likes. Whenever you get work from Senior Staffer, drop by with another treat, and always that Senior Staffer, with cc: to her manager. Cultivate friendship, if possible, with the occasional joke, great link, or funny picture that she'd like.

Talk to your boos about the fact that Senior Staffer has a skill that no one else has, and that creates a liability. People get in car accidents, or have serious illnesses. If 1 person is the sole source of that information or skill, it's a problem. Somebody should cross-train.

Junior colleague, you have such amusing stories, now, let's get back to X. Plan shorter and more frequent meetings, so you can get a couple items nailed in each meeting. Always keep an agenda that states what you and Junior Colleague have committed to. At each meeting, review the previous agenda. You're basically training Junior Colleague in accountability. Maybe plan lunch or coffee with Junior Colleague, where you can be chatty, and be able to say Let's talk about Breaking Bad at lunch, right now I really need to wrap up blah.
posted by theora55 at 10:05 AM on October 24, 2013

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