Some of my coworkers are incompetent. Help me be less annoyed by them.
February 2, 2016 3:09 PM   Subscribe

I really, really like my job - but the one major downside is that a not-insignificant number of my colleagues are incompetent. How to not let these people get to me?

I work at a major non-profit; we are consistently ranked at the top of our field. I consider it a privilege to work here. My work is enjoyable and I feel like it is important and valuable. My bosses and most of our senior staff are great to work with. But a number of my colleagues, to be frank, suck at their jobs. Now, it's certainly not a large number of people - most employees perform their work well. But it's also not, like, one single person.

I find it really, really, really frustrating to work with people who are too lazy/unmotivated/whatever to get their work done. Now, I don't expect everyone to be highly ambitious and eager to go above and beyond, but I do expect pretty much everyone to, you know, do their work well and on time most of the time (occasional slip-ups are fine and human, of course). But we have employees who spend hours reading the newspaper in our library every day instead of working; who routinely screw up simple scheduling tasks; and who drop the ball in big ways that require others to fix their mistakes.

I used to kind of like these people, in a sick way, because they make me look damn good in comparison and provide me lots of opportunities to go above and beyond. However, I was promoted over the summer and am now much busier than I was before and incompetence makes my job demonstrably harder. These days, incompetence isn't an opportunity for me pull off a big save in front of the bosses; it's an opportunity for me to go home with an anxiety migraine, pop a Xanax, and go to bed at 8pm.

Probably the worst part of this - aside from the fact that I let it stress me out - is that it makes me irritable. I don't want to be a grouch at work! But it is so hard to deal with these people day in and day out, especially when I personally put a lot of care into my own work. I need your tips for not being constantly bugged by the fact that these people do not care about their jobs. Difficulty level: I have already tried to get these people to improve their performance, and I have also escalated to their bosses in the most dire cases. Assume that these people are for the most part here to stay, and that even if they all left tomorrow this problem is a part of our office culture and likely to recur.

Here's what I've tried:
- Having a like-minded work friend to vent with. I do this, and it helps, but I also sometimes feel like it perpetuates the problem. Sometimes I go back to my desk feeling clearer after getting my issue off my chest; other days, I'm more annoyed than ever after also hearing about all the incompetence my work friend is facing.
- Allowed work to not define me. I'm trying to do this - getting a dog and no longer being able to work 11 hour days has really helped! - but the main result is that I want to get home to my pup all day, not that I'm less irritated during the workday.
- Put less care into my work. Tried this; it's just not in my nature. Made my anxiety worse.

Please don't suggest that I:
- Leave my job. Even if I did, there are relatively incompetent people everywhere, so I need to learn these skills for future use, too.
- Go to therapy. Already doing that and working on these and related issues there.
posted by schroedingersgirl to Work & Money (35 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing that you've said suggests that they are actively making YOUR job harder. I'd spare my irritation etc. for when they do (or don't do) stuff that actually actively impacts you. (You say it "makes your job demonstratively harder," but I'm not really seeing that part.) That should cut down on a lot of the noise.
posted by listen, lady at 3:22 PM on February 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You should listen to binaural beat meditations, they are even free on services like Spotify and Google Play. Available as apps, or you can buy old fashioned CD's.

There are short 5 and 10 minute ones, no need to devote your whole day. Listening to these on a regular will SIGNIFICANTLY increase your tolerance for annoying things. Google "brain entrainment" if you want to know more about how it works.

Nothing lengthens my patience like this practice. Nothing works as quickly or effectively. I'm a stabby type person, trust me.
posted by jbenben at 3:22 PM on February 2, 2016 [32 favorites]

I might also try not to think of them as "incompetent," but like, maybe some people aren't good at doing some things. Some specific things. That doesn't make them "incompetent." Reading the newspaper all day doesn't, either: it just makes you lazy! i would try to back away from making wholesale judgments about the people around me in black-and-white ways. How other people feel about their work is not really your thing to hold on to.
posted by listen, lady at 3:24 PM on February 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: You say it "makes your job demonstratively harder," but I'm not really seeing that part.

Sorry, I didn't list specific examples since the question was already quite long. Plus, I hoped people would take my word for it so the thread could stay focused on the question. However:

They really do make my job harder than it needs to be, which is what causes my annoyance. I don't walk around all day annoyed by their general presence/attitude. Here are some recent examples:

- Coworker A does not organize her emails. As a result she sent some very high-level contacts unnecessary, pushy emails today. I had to email her asking that she not do this in the future, showing her the previous documentation we had already received from these people, and smoothing things over with the (rightfully annoyed) people she contacted.
- Coworker B does not actually check her bosses' calendars before telling me when they are available. As a result I have had to reschedule several meetings at the last minute, including again with some high-level outside folks. This takes time and makes me look bad.
- Coworker C has, on several occasions, half-way completed a task, told her bosses it was done, and taken an impromptu long weekend. The task was urgent and important to the organization; so I worked late to fix her mistakes. (Had I refused to do this, someone else would have had to do it.)
- Coworker D has refused to learn our travel reimbursement system, so her bosses ask me to submit their reports for them. (I've been told that if this particular issue happens again, I can push back. But similar problems have cropped up in the past.)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 3:33 PM on February 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think if you took a more collaborative approach to your work, and did it while seeing your coworkers in a friendly and positive way (rather than an unkind,exasperated, "I'm so much better than these lazy losers"), you might actually get some genuine and useful practice in being a leader that people want to be led by.

It's not helpful to anyone but your own ego that you label them lazy and incompetent. They may have had different expectations communicated to them.

It helps to be kinder, friendlier, and more patient, rather than not. At the end of the day, you're working with people, and the most important skill in working and life is learning to get along with people who are different than you are, and accepting their different approaches.

Also, you can't change other people, but you can accept responsibility for how you're going to react to them, and your hand in creating your own stress. Dismissing them as lazy or incompetent only serves to increase your own stress and frustration.
posted by discopolo at 3:44 PM on February 2, 2016 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: It helps to be kinder, friendlier, and more patient, rather than not.

Right - that's why I'm asking the question! Do you have specific tips for how to change my thinking?

I really, really want to approach this situation differently. I'm asking for guidance in how to do that. It is very hard right now to see these people in a "friendly and positive way" when I get screwed by them on the regular. I need help with that part which is why I'm here.

So specific tips instead of general scolding would be super helpful here. Thanks!
posted by schroedingersgirl at 3:48 PM on February 2, 2016 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Whew, that does sound super annoying!

I think my strategy here would be to think carefully about what the recurrent problems are, and what strategies you can implement to prevent them from repeatedly sucking up your time and energy. For one-off issues that happen occasionally/randomly, I think there is not as much to do and, as you say in your question, everyone can make mistakes on occasion (including you). But for systematic problems, I think you could try to figure out specific strategies, either with your work friend or with your supervisor (as appropriate to the problem).

Obviously I don't work in your office, but just spitballing here based on what you've put down:
--Coworker B: Knowing this person doesn't check the calendar, when you schedule a meeting through Coworker B, go set it up in person and specifically ask to see the calendar when you do. If it feels awkward, you can say something like "Sorry to be a pain, but I just want to avoid the issue from last week!" in an overly cheerful voice. Then you know it is checked.
--Coworker C: A sudden urgent event has cropped up after work and you simply can't miss it! So sorry. Perhaps someone else will do it; they have the same freedom to say no to working unpaid overtime that you do. Perhaps that someone will be up the food chain from you and will do something about Coworker C. Perhaps the work will not happen and someone up the food chain from you will notice, and do something about Coworker C. But by happily doing unpaid labor, you're not incentivizing anyone to change the situation. (And it sounds like YOU are not powerful enough to change the situation, or you already would have done so.)
--Coworker D: If someone who is not your boss is asking you to do work that is not your work, I think it is 100% fine to say, "I'm so sorry, I have other priorities today that have to get done, and I've got a commitment after work that I can't miss." (Whether you have a commitment or not.) If you feel nervous about this, you could talk to your supervisor and make sure you have their back up (which it sounds like you do). If it's your boss asking you to do this, I would sit down and talk about what they want your job priorities to be -- if this particular task is not going to be on your plate, it should not be on your plate; or if it is, then that should be in exchange for some other task not being on your plate -- there are only so many hours in the day.

Good luck! This sounds super frustrating, but I think that by taking some concrete steps to try and problem solve, you may feel more empowered and less at the mercy of these people (in some cases perhaps incompetent, in other cases assholes as in the case of leaving other people to hold the bag when they run off for a long weekend). And I think it is okay to make these people a "problem" for your bosses rather than absorbing all the trouble yourself -- that's not slacking off or failing to do your job. Unless you're being paid extra for the extra work and extra hours, these people are literally stealing your time by their mismanagement, and maybe making them feel some of the pain will cause them to take the issues more seriously.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:54 PM on February 2, 2016 [11 favorites]

Best answer: If it's impossible to persuade your colleagues to improve their performance, then the only thing you can do is to treat their incompetence as something they can't help - a regrettable fact, like the weather or a dodgy office printer. You don't expect the weather to organise itself for your benefit so (I assume) you don't get angry and frustrated at the sky when it rains. You just carry an umbrella and manage around the problem. I think that might be the shift in attitude you need here.

For whatever reason - laziness, lack of role models, depression, rough life situation, financial troubles, insomnia, illness, selfishness - your colleagues just are where they are right now. If you can't help them to get better, you gain nothing by having expectations for them that they can't or won't meet. Give up on expecting things from the incompetent ones - treat a good performance from one of them as a pleasant surprise - and you won't be angry when incompetence happens because you won't feel like you were owed competence to begin with.
posted by Aravis76 at 3:55 PM on February 2, 2016 [30 favorites]

Best answer: I guess in your position, I'd keep problem-solving. People are always going to less and more motivated than you. And you can't make people care about their jobs. Personally, I only work for a paycheck. I work for a non-profit and, quite frankly, a decade of it has burned the compassion right out of me. I'll do my job but I will never give a thinker's damn about it again.

You said yourself that you think incompetents are everywhere. So always thinking of people as incompetent will never sit well with you. I mean, I get it. I could never feel better about someone I had no respect for. You seem pretty dedicated and I think it would be hard for you to just stop caring about the work that gets done at your agency.

I'm pretty set in my ways, so it would be easier for me to just keep addressing the processes that are causing foul-ups.

Coworker B with the calendar she doesn't check? Go see her in person when you need to make an appointment. Ask her to check the calendar right then. It's probably a hassle but it sounds like less work than trying to do it via email.

Co-worker C? You are voluntarily taking on extra work here and then being upset about it. Stop that. It's not your job to manage your co-workers' workloads. Stop shouldering their burden. Stop enabling Co-worker C. She will never be forced to do her own work if someone always does it for her. If everyone stopped doing her work, people would start to notice her issues. I'm not trying to be harsh. I used to do the same thing. I've been so much happier since I stopped. Do your work and let everyone else be responsible for themselves.

Co-worker D? Push back. Every time in every situation. If you are being assigned too much work, go to your manager and say "There is not enough time to do my X duty when I was also assigned Jane's Y duty. How do you want me to handle this?"

Good luck!
Or you know, what rainbowbrite said.
posted by Beti at 4:02 PM on February 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think one thing you can do is to not go out of your way to cover for these
people when they fail. Their work is not your responsibility, and you don't have to work extra just because they're working less. You don't have a duty to do their work for them—they have a duty to do their own work, and their supervisors have a duty to make sure it gets done, but not you. So maybe something doesn't get done because Coworker C fucked off early; thaths not your problem. Let it blow up if you have to—life will go on—but don't make their poor planning into your emergency.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:04 PM on February 2, 2016 [13 favorites]

Best answer: When I've had similar situations in the past, I worked through my frustrations by pointedly engaging my colleagues. Some of it was to address my personal avoidance issues, but it also helped document problems and give them the chance to rectify the situation.
For example: Coworker A - I think you handled this well, but how to make sure this doesn't happen again? Is this just their communication style? I had a similar coworker once, and it took some time for us to learn our communication styles. If this happens again, maybe address how you can avoid this situation in the future?
Coworker B - Try to double check, but if things have to be rescheduled I would make it clear it's because of Big Mucky Muck's availability/calendar. It shouldn't make you look bad, these things happen, but it might make their admin look bad. That's why you have to be a little more proactive, and document it.
Coworker C - Let the higher ups know it's not done, but do you have to be the person to bail them out? I totally get taking one for the team (I've burnt myself out doing it), but sometimes you need to spread the burden.
Coworker D- push back. Help them with the process and then walk away. They need to learn it themselves.

So I guess a lot of this advice is about boundaries, but I think they will help. Some of the incompetent people I've worked with weren't being malicious or selfish, they were just in a rut and needed to be shaken out of it. It's easier to resent and avoid on some levels, and really their managers should be managing them, but give them the chance to change. Otherwise, lower expectations.
posted by kendrak at 4:05 PM on February 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: They really do make my job harder than it needs to be

No, dealing with incompetence is part of your job - this is especially the case when you are more senior. I think reframing like this would be helpful to you, as from what you describe it's making your job harder because you are actually doing their jobs for them.

Some examples:

Co-worker A - you say don't do that, send the documentation, ask her to follow up with the annoyed emails you're going to forward her and she has to apologise to the stakeholders, not you.

Co-worker B - "I'm sorry these meetings are booked with external clients and moving them will be difficult - please liaise with your execs to ensure they can attend or delegate." In future, you send those invites earlier and follow up with confirmation earlier, before booking external clients; not too much work.

Co-worker C - make it her manager's problem to fix/resolve, not yours (unless her manager is your manager, in which case, that sucks, but she'll look bad).

Co-worker D - "Sorry I currently don't have the resource to submit these reports. If someone can manage X, Y Z [really horrible tasks you do that no one ever will want or be capable of taking over], I'd be happy to do them." Also, when I see shit like this, I often throw in some guff about "this isn't in line with our organisational values of taking personal responsibility and ownership" . Again, if the person is senior/exec level and your manager is asking you to do this, tough cookies.

I think you need to reframe what your job is, between an idealised version in your head or in your position description to the messy, ambiguous reality. You may think your job is "project officer, with a, b, c duties". But in reality your job, all our jobs, is "keep your manager happy." This is mostly achieved through meeting your job description, but not always. Managers want someone who solves problems, not creates them. My experience is they don't care so much about how problems are solved, they just want things running smoothly.

Oftentimes this means doing stuff that's not in your job description, to a degree. But it's also about recognising the limits of your job and what your manager will ding you for, and not. Making other people responsible for their own fuck ups generally won't get you dinged, unless you do it in a horribly abrasive, uncollegiate way.

Also, you know, I think it pays to remember that your priorities within and without work, are not others. And that doesn't make them wrong, necessarily. You probably screw stuff up, too, but you don't think it's important so it doesn't "stick", but others might think it's important.

Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 4:07 PM on February 2, 2016 [26 favorites]

Best answer: Accept that you'll have to do damage control, in some cases, try to anticipate it, and try not to let it get to you. Push back with some things/people.

A: will probably not ever get her emails organized; managing this will probably be an ongoing thing. If you can get her off major client communications and on to some strength, that would be ideal. Otherwise, accept her limitations and try to detach. (This is not unlike having a dysfunctional relationship.)

B: every time she gives you a "yes" to a meeting time, reply with "can you please double check X's calendar?" Just assume you have to do this as a matter of course, understand that that's how it is. Try not to get worked up about it, make it an if-then thing.

D: push back. Let her take the heat. This is probably a core job function for her that you just don't need to be doing. Support her by putting the deadline for processing as a reminder in your calendar; send her an email one week and again three days beforehand. Copy people in.

C: should probably be fired. Every time you have to cover her ass, document it. Sometimes, don't cover for her. If you can't let it go, delegate some tasks so it's not just you absorbing the work. Whoever gets roped in will be annoyed enough (and maybe express it enough) that C will either start feeling pressure from peers to do her job to a minimum standard, or will start to get formally written up (which should happen, honestly. Leaving for an impromptu weekend, really??).

Do you have the power to promote someone you can actually trust, who shares your standards, or redefine their role?
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:08 PM on February 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer:
It helps to be kinder, friendlier, and more patient, rather than not.
This can either be great advice or horrible advice. It depends on that specific group of people. Saying this as someone who did try the kind, friendly, supportive, ultra-patient approach only to find that it encouraged people to treat them/their work with little respect and to essentially just rely on them to fix up mistakes repeatedly. Fifteen hour days/doing the work of three people because others are slacking off is no way to live.

My advice is this: sit down with your manager(s) and make sure that there's a very clear understanding of what your responsibilities are and what they are not; if needed be, get this in writing. Are you supposed to be responsible for these people's work, do they answer to you, do you have to ensure that things go smoothly, or are you actually just covering for people who should be covering their own? If you are in charge, then make sure the management relays the message, so your coworkers know that you are in charge, that you're not just making demands because you're a prima donna. If someone needs help doing something, instruct them and let them do the work themselves. Be supportive, but don't be soft. Instead of doing the work for them, point out what's done incorrectly/needs to be changed. Let them figure it out for themselves. If they fail, bring the issue up with management. Maybe a couple of things have to go wrong in order for things to get right on track. Just make sure that you carefully stuck to your responsibilities. Lastly, try to remember that every person is responsible for their own actions. Make people accountable. Don't get exasperated (if you expect the world and its people to conform to you, it'll be nothing but an endless stream of disappointment and aggravation) and don't carry the burden of other people's shortcomings on your own shoulders.
posted by 0cm at 4:10 PM on February 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I totally hear you -- this is super frustrating and something I've struggled with. I think I'm getting better at it so I'll share the one secret that helped the most: whenever you catch yourself thinking they are incompetent, change the inner story you are telling yourself. Three ways of reframing that work for me:

(a) This is great training material for you to become better with people of all sorts! It gives you lots of chances of practicing strategies that will be widely applicable and useful in the rest of your life, like Aravis76 and smoke's great suggestions of working around them. In this sense their being incompetent is a blessing; they're providing a particularly hard workout in the training regimen that is your life. You'll be glad of this someday.

(b) This would be a great story to regale your SO or someone with later. Here, the more ludicrously they've screwed it up, the better -- and the best stories end up with you managing to deal with it in some spectacular fashion, so it gives you incentive to do so rather than just grumble your way through things. After a point you can only laugh and some of these things really do just deserve wry laughter.

(c) These people may be incompetent at whatever they're incompetent at, but they're probably good at something that you can learn from. This is almost always true; at a minimum, they're good enough with politics or people to be able to keep a job in this economic climate despite being incompetent and lazy. What are their tricks? Learn those tricks from them. This one has been hardest for me but seriously does help a lot in making me resent the person less - once they are someone I can learn from, and not just an impediment to my life, I appreciate them more. I think this comes out in how I deal with them and improves our working relationship too.
posted by forza at 4:41 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One thing that really helps is to praise them when they do something well, or one time make an exception to their usual ditzy behavior. They will be very motivated to continue that good behavior. As opposed to acting annoyed when they don't do something well.

It's one of the most effective strategies out there - and studies prove this. Someone even did that to me - I tend to be late. One day I guy I met up with regularly never mentioned this. But one day I showed up a little early. He was so happy and thanked me profusely. That is when I learned I really need to not be late. So I never was late to his meetings anymore.
posted by pando11 at 5:09 PM on February 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I think a few people already have solutions that are doable and/or better ways to frame this, but I'm just going to throw out one or two things that I've seen a few companies do, which might be applicable to you, too (and I think they can be used to solve broad problems).

So let's say you need someone to also document, or a representative from each department to always do X, such as the reimbursement procedure. Have an approved training procedure for all people who do this for their department. Therefore, if person's 1, 2, 3, and hired to do this, almost immediately they should take the mini-class with the master trainer (not lots of time, 20 minutes max or whatever is appropriate). The trainee signs off on it. Then if the person has a problem (they might, it's life, other work places do it in different ways), they immediately meet with the master trainer to fix the problem. Have a training manual with brief descriptions logged on a server too. Anyway, you shouldn't do all of this ... but appoint people to take this on. The best person who does reimbursement for 10 years designs the mini-course. A person who has lots of spare time and writes well (maybe the people reading the paper) write out the instructions. But honestly, this is an easy places that businesses can fill the gap and make things easier for everyone.

The other part is not just personal checklists, which IMO is obvious, but sometimes have a person assigned to overlook and check the tasks. So someone who is fast with admin work (and good) can double check the times of appointments.

The other small thing you could do is identify people who might have potential and have a one-on-one, but instead of asking how to match their goals with the company's goals, ask what they want out of the job if possible. Training? A chance to lead X? An eventual promotion? Let them come up with what's important. Then feed it and give them chances. IME, these were the best bosses I had and I would kill myself when I had a chance to do project X, and do it well. You can also look for and identify people like yourself who have a skill in X or Y and maybe they want to ...develop training manuals, do admin stuff, give a class to the department, do the type of report that the person flubs up, and give them a chance.

Good luck. I think that underneath, many many work places are like this, so if you can tackle just one aspect...yeah!
posted by Wolfster at 5:19 PM on February 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I absolutely agree with Aravis76. I have some coworkers who are just freaking terrible at something that I am very good at--they've been trained and retrained, but they constantly forget, don't proofread, and I honestly suspect they physically cannot SEE what they're supposed to be looking at (they also find the software they have to read to be really hard to translate into what they have to do). I end up compensating for them all the dang time because it actually makes my workload harder to let them fail at it. My supervisor knows and tries to make them do more work, but it's dragging unthirsty horses to water here. Especially since one of them is retiring in a year and frankly, it's not worth it there.

Honestly, some people just can't help being bad at something--there's probably something you're not terribly good at either. I know the concept of "missing stair" is bad, but I find that working around people like your calendar lady is less frustrating in the long run than trying to force her to do her job right. If you can avoid depending on them for help, do so, and if you can't, then...well, you have to put up with it. Surrender your expectations and realize that you're working with limited people.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:38 PM on February 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If these people don't know how to do a task, I would show them and consider it part of your job. If they are just lazy, I would let it go and let them bear the consequences. If they act like this often enough, their bosses will cotton on, they'll be out of a job and the situation will fix itself. If it doesn't affect you, I would say out of it altogether and you know, not let it affect you. Keep a good paper trail in case any of these blows back and lands on you.
posted by Jubey at 6:42 PM on February 2, 2016

Best answer: How I deal with this is to remember Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. If you keep this in the forefront of your mind, you can save yourself the stress of nasty surprises.

Co-worker A will send inappropriate emails.
Co-worker B will screw up the meeting schedules.
Co-worker C will do half-assed work and then take a long weekend.
Co-worker D, will botch the travel reimbursement forms.

Avoiding problems is just as good, if not better, than solving problems. Assume your coworkers are going to keep doing all that stuff and much worse. Go from there and see if you can avoid the shit by anticipating it in advance.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 7:09 PM on February 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Everyone else has covered what I'd consider the "right" answers - that this is part of your job in one way or another, to minimize its impact on you, be it by foreseeing the problem, putting responsibility back on them, setting boundaries, etc.

I'll add two coping strategies. One is to look at what kind of "upstream" things increase your patience. For me, this is going to the gym, and not working more than 10 hours on any given day. Another is to find a way to talk about these flaws instead of harboring secret resentment. What's appropriate varies a lot, whether it's having a serious "I didn't appreciate that...", giving someone lighthearted hassles about something, or just talking about something as a known fact ("if we want to leave at 8, Jim, can you arrive here at 7:45? I know your bus often makes you late"). Most recently, I was around a team where there was a fair bit of open "there he goes again!" eye-rolling, but couched in enough mutual liking that somehow it improved rather than corroded team morale, and it was pretty cool to me, especially having been privately frustrated by that exact thing about that guy.
posted by salvia at 7:29 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, I'm relating to your question so hard right now. I could have written it six months ago. A few things that helped me:

1. Something I read in Brene Brown's book "Rising Strong" has legitimately changed my life and was helpful to me when I was dealing with an incompetent co-worker. You should read the book because there's lots of wisdom in there, but the particular thing I have in mind is that it's best to always remember that everyone is doing the best they can. Even if you don't entirely believe that, it's just generally best for you to act as if they're doing the best they can. That doesn't mean that you should let them do shitty or hurtful things or make your job unnecessarily hard. The corollary of everyone doing the best they can is that you have to set boundaries and let them know when they need to adjust their behavior because it's affecting you in a negative way.

When my co-worker would deliver me something abysmally bad, it actually made me feel a lot better to think that this was the best she could do. In her case, it was because she wasn't qualified for her job and didn't have the skills she needed. In your co-workers' cases, it might be that they are burned out or depressed or going through something at home. Whatever it is, interact with them as if they did their best. You don't know otherwise.

2. Remember what your goals are. In that moment when someone hands you a big turd they created that's now your responsibility, it can be so tempting to shit right back on them whether it's in a big way or a small way. But remember that you want to accomplish your goals and your organization's goals as effectively and efficiently as possible and making someone feel bad, even though it will temporarily make you feel good, WILL NOT HELP. In fact, it will make your work harder in the future. So do what you can to refocus your energy on what you're trying to accomplish and the types of interactions that will make that more likely to happen.

3. Lower your expectations. We so often say "I can't believe they did that annoying, frustrating thing AGAIN." If they keep doing it, you should believe it. Just expect that Co-worker B is going to fail to check her boss' calendar. See if you can get access to the Outlook calendar to double-check or just do it yourself. Make sure that you, Co-Worker C, and Co-Worker C's manager are really clear on what completion looks like for her her projects. And build in extra time for them to fuck it up, if you can.

With my co-worker I realized that I kept expecting on every project that she would deliver something of the quality that I would. But she wouldn't. And every time I got something that didn't live up to my expectations, I was disappointed. Cut out the expectations, cut out the disappointment, and go straight to preparing for the outcome.

4. Feedback is your friend. People in the workplace are generally really bad at giving feedback but I think it's especially a problem in the nonprofit sector where there's a premium placed on being "nice" and "collaborative." There are ways to give feedback that are kind and good feedback is necessary for great collaboration. Sometimes people don't know how bad or frustrating the things they're doing are because no one has told them. Yes, your co-worker reading in the library probably knows they shouldn't be doing that, but Co-Worker D might not realize it's her job to do the reimbursements and they keep getting done so she has no idea it's a problem.

I recommend the books "Difficult Conversations" and "Managing to Change the World" for concrete tips on good feedback. The SBI Feedback Model is also good for specific instances that don't rise to the level of "difficult conversation."

Good luck. I feel your frustration. But just know that as long as you continue to do good work, you'll eventually move up the ranks and have more influence as to who makes it onto the team and stays there.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 7:38 PM on February 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have the same issue. And at one point I was getting a reputation for not being nice at work. An exec gave me some advice that I didn't really like at the time, and which I don't think will always work, but it did give me some perspective. I'll share it with you, take what you will from it. Take the slackers out to lunch. Spend time with them, get to know them. This can help you get some sense of what their deal is and may befriend you enough to them that they might do the extra bit for you when they wouldn't otherwise. I have found it difficult to be grumpy and annoyed with someone when I know she is excited to see her grandbaby after work or that another person is really into golden retrievers just like I am. It hasn't helped always, but it was worth a few lunches for me.
posted by sulaine at 7:41 PM on February 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've been going through this recently myself, and most of the coping strategies I've found helpful have been mentioned above, including seeing coworkers' incompetence as "par for the course," so to speak. ("Part of my job, what I get paid for, is cleaning up after my less competent colleagues," I remind myself. Even, "part of LIFE is dealing with buttheads and mistakes and... yadda yadda yo," the personalities, the self-centeredness, the ego of others.)

Mantras work for me surprisingly well! Also, checking my privilege. Now, some of my eff-up colleagues ostensibly come from a more privileged background than me. But, somewhere along the way I learned work ethic, and I chose a job that I give a crap about, and I found a job that suits me, that I can excel at. They're on a different trip, and I think, oh, how sad for them.

Also, positive reinforcement does go a long way. But, yeah, don't get your hopes up.
posted by little_dog_laughing at 8:56 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Addressing what you asked, I find that meditation during the day (with accompanying nature sounds, or whatever relaxes you) for five minute periods can help if you can seriously not think about work for that long.

A brisk walk outside if possible.

Go to the bathroom (the one place in any workplace where you shouldn't be interrupted). Spend five minutes on your phone looking at something you really enjoy, like kittens, or mountain climbing.

A few mantras that helped in the past: "not my circus, not my monkeys" (but this may be too irresponsible for you) or "you do not get to sit rent-free in my head".

Drawing or photographing will often absorb me to the point of forgetting frustration (and with a smartphone, I can always do both). If you aren't inclined that way, maybe an adult colouring book on your lunch break?

And, yes, do anticipate the worst. Be pleasantly surprised and really grateful (if you can) when your pessimism is exceeded.
posted by Nyx at 10:32 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm now leaving for work. It has been snowing a lot during the night and I'm taking the tram. There is a high risk that the trams won't run on time today. If I don't account for that, I may end up angry, frustrated and late. If I plan for that, I leave early and have alternative routes available.

What you have does not have to be managing incompetent people, but managing risks when tasks go through many people. Like in a board game where there are routes, but if you choose to use some routes you have to throw dice and a bad result means that you are stuck. Sometimes there is no other option than taking the risk, but at least me, the emotional aspect loses its edge if I have recognized beforehand that I'm taking a risk here. No point being angry for dice, rules or the layout of the game board.

Layout of the game board in your office is something that you may work to change in long term, but now it is what it is and your challenge is to play that game and not your imagined game where there are no risky routes.
posted by Free word order! at 11:20 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding smoke in that a big part of your reframing needs to be that there are people at every organization who do their work in such a way that it makes more work for others. It happens everywhere. You've gotten great advice about how to deal with those particular issues that have made your work difficult and I think as much as you can, you go to them and tell them what you need for them to do so they're not making your work harder.

Other than that I've found it useful to repeat the mantra, "Everyone is doing their best."

I'm a very driven educator and I work on a team with other teachers, psychologists, social workers and administrators. On the team, we have a Chicken Little who runs around in a panic every time she's asked to do something. She has the potential to make all of us go crazy because of her fluttering, "Oh! How am I supposed to DO THIS?! Nobody ever said I have to do this! This is ridiculous," etc.

I also work with someone who just doesn't DO half of her job requirements. Reports for parent meetings? She just doesn't write them. Setting up meetings? Nope. Sharing information about new students? Doesn't do it. We can't even find her about 1/4 of the time. God knows where she is.

So, I get you. And the ONLY thing that works for me is to keep reminding myself, "They're not trying to purposely do a terrible job. If they actually could do the job well, they would, but for whatever reason, they can only manage THIS much."
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:28 AM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is going to sound a little weird, but: do you have, or know anyone who has, a toddler? Preferably in the verbal stage, but not necessarily. Can you spend some extended amounts of time with that toddler, and observe very carefully the way that you adapt your communicative strategies and your expectations? I was in exactly your situation (two or three spectacularly incompetent coworkers who were lifers and would never be let go), until my daughter turned one year old and I started really paying attention to how I was conducting myself around her. You have to establish completely different baselines for what is and isn't appropriate behavior, and wear a mask of total patience even when they're pounding their fists on the floor and howling in frustration. This gets easier as you do more of it, because they're just little kids, y'know? No impulse control, everything is immediate and big and frightening.

Once you've reached the point where you can do that around small children, it's actually not that tough to flip the same switch in your head when you're talking to someone who doesn't know what they're doing. Just tell yourself "yeah, I'm going to have to explain this three times, and follow up half a dozen more, but if I do a good job being patient and explaining things, maybe they will learn from it."
posted by Mayor West at 5:29 AM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: (Had I refused to do this, someone else would have had to do it.)

So what? At some point others need to feel the pain of their choices. If a manager had to do it instead of you, how quickly do you think the issue would be addressed?

When you work in Non-Profit, you're already armed with the feeling of mission. You accept lower pay and skimpy benefits because you're helping the mission. So naturally you're the kind of person that goes above and beyond.

There are folks who just accept a position for work. They don't really care. They aren't really organized. They don't seem to get fussed by anything. And you're right, they're everywhere.

So in some cases, let the chips fall where they may. If you know your meetings will get screwed up, don't trust the admin who screws them up. Go to the person themselves, send lots of reminders and be at peace with it. It's not going to change, so you have to work with it.

Guy reading newspaper in the library, not your circus, not your monkey. It sucks, but there it is.

Travel Expenses aren't your duties. The correct response is, "I wish I had the bandwidth. Oh well, you can have your admin resubmit next week." Of course they'll sputter and fume that they have to wait for their money. Again, that's THEIR pain to feel. Stand your ground. "I'm really slammed with my own work, perhaps there's someone else who can do it, or perhaps you can do it."

A good portion of your frustration is that you're picking up the slack. Don't do that. Let it go. Let it fail. You will realize that the world keeps turning and you'll be MUCH happier knowing you don't have to be the one spinning it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:31 AM on February 3, 2016 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, this has been great, thank you! Almost every answer here has been genuinely helpful so I've "best answered" a lot of you. :)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:37 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: . I have been in a similar situation and I completely emphathize. It is maddening beyond belief. In most situations involving social conflict, I've found it helpful to have a better understanding of why people act the way that they do. You can't tackle a problem if you don't know why it's happening. So, it's very easy to label your co-workers as "lazy" or "incompetent", but it doesn't help you solve the problem. Why do they behave that way? It sounds like they're not invested in the outcomes or have no idea of the consequences of their actions. It's apparent that they have no idea how much it's affecting you.

Take the slackers out to lunch. Spend time with them, get to know them.

I completely echo sulaine's advice. Get to know them, and, most importantly, give them the opportunity to get to know you. They may be more likely to do their tasks if they understand that their failure to do so directly impacts a real, live human being with emotions and life obligations.
posted by chara at 7:22 AM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I completely echo sulaine's advice. Get to know them, and, most importantly, give them the opportunity to get to know you. They may be more likely to do their tasks if they understand that their failure to do so directly impacts a real, live human being with emotions and life obligations.

And if they think you like them! If they can tell you're frustrated or annoyed or whatever, that . . . feels really bad! If they feel bad around you, they won't work well for you. I know you don't want to hear that your attitude toward them may be part of the problem, but it's worth considering. People can tell when you don't like them, you know? (I'm sorry. :/) SHOULD they be able to do their work well anyway? Yeah. Are people always able to do that? No.
posted by listen, lady at 7:30 AM on February 3, 2016

Response by poster: I know you don't want to hear that your attitude toward them may be part of the problem, but it's worth considering.

Actually, no, I'm not opposed to hearing this...

Look, I get that I'm kind of a lousy person for feeling this annoyance in the first place - some of the earliest comments in the thread made that clear. But I'm trying really hard to work on this issue, which is why I asked the question in the first place.

I probably won't check this thread again, but I wanted to say thank you again to everyone who offered useful suggestions.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:56 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really agree with sulaine's suggestion. Do the lunch thing, I did and still do and it helps me. On occasion it feels fake. But I still do it because the alternative is worse.
I don't want to say more Because Internet and the world is small and who knows who form my work might stumble across this. But to my mind you are not a lousy person.
In fact, when I read your post I briefly wondered if we work at the same place: the problems you describe are all too familiar. But what does help me keep my sanity is to actually get to know them, see them as people rather than a lump. And in some cases, what actually happens is that certain colleagues now do things for me they would never bother to do for anyone else (despite the tasks being their job).
posted by 15L06 at 8:09 AM on February 3, 2016


A somewhat unorthodox approach if you like "Broad City": I'd watch this and remind myself that life would probably be more fun if I channeled a bit more Ilana and less Nicole.
posted by mirileh at 5:04 AM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

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