Being at peace with picking up the slack
August 5, 2016 11:20 AM   Subscribe

I’m seeing a pattern in my life where I get very frustrated when I have to pick up the slack, or am inconvenienced in terms of time or money by people on a repeated basis. These are non-optional relationships (relatives, colleagues etc). Occasional situations involving people who are generally considerate of time/money/effort do not bother me. What I’m talking about is feeling ground down and at times enraged by repeated instances of mistakes/inconveniences, last minute schedule changes that impact me etc. by a select few people . These select few people in my life are categorized in my brain as, for lack of a better phrase ‘low performers’, due to the high number of times I have covered for them or been inconvenienced by them.

Scenario 1: Bob and I have a standing agreement to share maintenance of a piece of equipment. Bob is widely known for not being organized, and for being a very defensive person. I don’t have a choice to not co-mange this equipment with Bob. Bob doesn’t take it in for maintenance. I take it in about ½ the time, and then over time seeing that Bob isn’t pulling his weight and knowing that Bob isn’t going to pull his weight, I take it in say the vast majority of the time and thus pay the vast majority of the expense. Bob gets very angry if you call him on not doing his share, this anger does not translate into him doing his share. I seethe about Bob every time I take in the equipment and stew over the whole situation for a day or so after. I complain a lot about Bob (this is just one example, there are others) to people who are tired of hearing about him. Bob’s not going to change and the work still needs to get done.

Scenario 2: Jane is my assistant. Jane is a long standing employee who isn’t likely to go anywhere. Jane makes a high number of clerical mistakes which she does not catch. I catch them. It takes extra effort for me to catch them, as my job does not typically involve copy editing. If I don’t put in the extra effort, work will be produced that is sub-par. Jane knows she makes a lot of mistakes, had has been coached and offered training etc. Jane is just not a detail oriented person, and is not a great fit for the role. However, as mentioned, Jane isn’t going anywhere. I pick up the slack of editing, resent it and complain about it to friends/family. There isn’t another appropriate person to do this work.

I have tried to change my mindset to reduce the anger I feel when I have to deal with the fall out of work not getting done and me picking up the slack etc., but have not found a perspective that works. I have tried the ‘they could be worse’ mindset, but don’t find that helpful. I have adapted to predicting when I’ll have to pick up slack (as this sometimes makes it easier to fix things), and I don’t want to spend any more time and energy predicting and planning around these scenarios. As a rule, I try to be considerate of other’s people time/energy/money and generous with mine. I view these ‘‘low performers’’ as taking advantage of my ability/tendency to pick up the slack or rearrange my life to suit their schedule with minimal notice.

With most of these situations, there are real and negative consequences if the work doesn’t get done, or if I’m not flexible enough to react to changes to long held schedules. I’m not sure I’d be able to not pick up the slack, or to make the schedule change. I don’t want to feel like a door mat, but I want to be less angry when I’m cleaning up these messes. I know that I can’t change these people, but am hoping I can be less triggered by their behavior. What perspectives work for you, in your ongoing relationships with people who continually drop the ball and/or are inconsiderate of your time? How do I not feel angry, but also not feel taken advantage of? Where do you draw the line between something you suck up and just do without complaint and a serious enough issue that it’s worth addressing with the person who dropped the ball ?
posted by walkinginsunshine to Human Relations (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
For Bob, you need to change how this is managed. Assume he will never ever bring 50% to the table and that you will always be the one doing the majority of the maintenance. At the very least you shouldn't have to pay extra for this "privilege".

The best way to do that is for each of you to contribute money to a joint maintenance account. Bob needs to pay for (at least) 50% of the maintenance costs, regardless of who is taking it in. Depending on your relationship with Bob, maybe this is a savings account you can both access, maybe this is a jar of cash on the dresser, maybe this is a joint debit account you both contribute to and have cards for, maybe this is one of those prepaid Visas. I don't know. But a really good way to reduce the amount of hate you feel towards Bob about this shared responsibility is to make him contribute funds if he can't get off his butt to do the thing that needs to happen.
posted by phunniemee at 11:49 AM on August 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

Yes, you have a long-standing agreement with Bob, but agreements can be re-negotiated.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:51 AM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Jane needs to be on a performance improvement plan. Then she can remediate the behavior or find another job (internally or externally). "I'm not detail oriented" is not an excuse to not do her job. She is a low performer. Low performers go on PIP.

You resent Jane not doing her job because she is not doing her job. It is completely legitimate to be frustrated by an employee who is not doing the job which they are paid to do.
posted by 26.2 at 12:00 PM on August 5, 2016 [23 favorites]

Usually for me when I am feeling this way it's because of one of two things

1. Feeling that my manners (I try to be polite when I can and at least civil when I can't) are keeping me from responding to people who are not treating me well. I put up with a lot of crap from parents as a kid and sometimes have trouble with self-advocacy. When I share these stories with others they often offer me suggestions about how to better deal with framing the situation in situations where I feel like something is "not an option" because I don't want to be rude.

2. Fear of people with a temper. Sometimes I address this by dealing with them in a better format (maybe email instead of phone) or just having one confrontation and being done with it.

There are things you can deal with and things you can't, obviously, but for me I lumped a lot more stuff into the "can't" category than was possible. Bob can actually be made to pay for his share of the maintenance and probably nagged into actually taking the thing in, but it will unrewarding time. If it were me, I'd probably get very quiet and very repetitive and just be like "It's your turn, please take it in" every day until he did it. Agree on a schedule once and then you just remind him about it. Or I would work like hell to get out of the arrangement with him even if it meant he'd pay into the situation and I'd take it to get maintained 100% of the time.

With Jane, it's hard to tell from your scenario what are the repercussions for her producing subpar work. Does it reflect badly on just her, or you as well? Are higher ups okay with that? I think I'd consider giving her some other noxious non-detail oriented task in exchange for me having to proofread her stuff. Jane may be unfireable but that doesn't mean she can't be told she needs to do better. Consistently, by someone who is her superior and if that's not you then someone else. And if that person doesn't consider it a priority then you may wind up being in a situation where you have higher standards than the organization you are in (I feel you, this is me a lot of the time) which winds up being your issue not theirs.

And at some level I just don't dwell. The maintenance crap takes up less time if you don't let it colonize your mind, but it's math to show Bob he's not paying his share. Rearrange the situation, figure out how much maintenace costs, make him share the costs and just take it in if it needs it and let it fall apart otherwise if that is an option.
posted by jessamyn at 12:03 PM on August 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback.

Unfortunately, renegotiating roles and responsibilities is not in scope. What I’m dealing with are a couple of people who’s behavior I am unlikely to change. I am looking how to change how I feel and respond to their behavior. I want suggestions on how to be less angry, I want to spend less time dwelling on these situations.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 12:06 PM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

My own belief is that most of us at some point in time need help. I try to frame some of my gifts of time to people as putting time in the bank, to be withdrawn when my child goes into emergency surgery the night before a huge presentation at work (true story). If you see it as a gift it might help.

Also running up and down the stairs at work listening to Loud Music on earbuds. *cough*
posted by warriorqueen at 12:11 PM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Accept reality. Bob will never do anything. Not ok? Well, you said you can't change it, so it must be ok. It is possible to change it - that might involve letting down some orphan children or kittens, or being thrown out of your church, but it is definitely possible. If you were hit by a bus tomorrow you would no longer be in this situation. So you've chosen to stay in your current situation and you just need to focus on accepting it and reminding yourself of what you are gaining by putting up with it.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:15 PM on August 5, 2016 [14 favorites]

This is only directly relevant to money, but I know someone who spoke of having a "peace fund" which was basically some money she keeps in reserve to throw at disputes when money will resolve the issue. The money is already earmarked for that general use and she's already decided it's worth it to spend X amount of money towards feeling more at peace in this way, which might reduce/eliminate the resentment. Obviously this relies on being in the financial position to be able to do this.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:17 PM on August 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

Bob seems like an easyish fix as discussed above. The only hard part will be having that conversation about a common fund, as it's clear you are conflict-avoidant to the maxx.

Working around incompetent admins is fun and exciting. You should consider giving some of her work to a new, hardworking, rising star-type admin who is underworked. If Jane doesn't care, great! If she's like everyone else, she will see this as encroachment on her turf and will throw a fit in a way that will get to your supervisor, who will ask you, "What's the deal?" and you casually respond, "Jane's output was riddled with errors even after we sent her to training and coaching, and I was spending an hour a day fixing them, and she didn't seem to like doing that part anyway, so I gave it to Pat, who didn't have anything to do anyway, and gave Jane other duties more suited to her skills."

Or: have you considered just putting her on a PIP? Does HR not let you do that? Why not? HR people are super easy to manage because they are usually just trying to be the cool kids and manage relationships. If you just act super positive about the company and how you want Jane to succeed, they will be all about it, even if "it" is a 30-day-or-seeya PIP.

If nothing else works, make your edits using Track Changes in Word and send them back to her every. single. time. The text is "helping you out for next time!" and the subtext is "you're lazy!"

I love office politics so much; memail me and we can huddle further.

Or, you could just work on accepting that the edits are part of your job. Your pick.
posted by radicalawyer at 12:22 PM on August 5, 2016 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Accept that Bob/Jane are not going to do what you want them to do - the anger, and the resentment, comes from expecting interactions with them to be different than they actually are and how you think they possibly should be. You might be right that they should be doing things differently but.. you can't make it happen.

This ecard thingie (possible language warning) is absolutely 100% accurate and helps me keep perspective on the people in my life who irritate me more frequently than not. And I know that it's easier said than done, but try to find something positive about Bob/Jane ("Bob is always really cheerful in the mornings and it's really refreshing!" and "Jane is fantastic about keeping the plants in the office watered and healthy!") You have to find a way to see them both as something more than an annoyance.

Find ways to minimize their impact on your life. If you know the equipment needs to be taken in for maintenance, and you know that Bob is really unlikely to do it, book the appointment (or whatever) at the end of your day so you can leave early and grab a coffee on the way. Or bring a really good book so you can read while the equipment is being worked on. And then schedule the next several appointments so they're in your schedule and you can work around them.

Similarly, with Jane, figure out which documents are okay to go 'as-is' (if there are any) and don't give them a second thought. For anything else, do something similar to the tactic above. Work it into your schedule so you're not annoyed by having to do it AND facing a time crunch or a problem with timing. It sucks to have to do it, I know, but the only other option is what you're going through right now.

It sounds like the outcome of things - success or failure - will land on you, which means you have to go back to the acceptance part. Accept more/later working hours sometimes. Accept the need to keep a bit of your schedule open for dealing with their issues/mistakes. Do whatever you can to NOT fixate on the situation - even though it's so easy to just roll it around in your mind over and over because it's unfair (and it is unfair, in case you need some validation).

For your complaining to friends/family, stop. Next time you have to work late, or fix someone's mistake, or deal with the equipment (or anything else that would otherwise make you angry) - limit yourself to one sentence. "My day? Well, you know how Jane is with paperwork..." There are some studies showing that talking about anger actually makes you angrier. (Quick google brought this, but there are plenty more!)
posted by VioletU at 12:28 PM on August 5, 2016 [15 favorites]

I'll respond to your follow-up. In my experience, feeling less angry will require changing your internal monologue about the situation. You're probably angry because of beliefs you have -- that Bob and Jane *shouldn't* be acting this way, and the fact that they are must mean that they are malicious, wrong, bad, and out to hurt you. But if you change your framing of it, your anger may lighten.

For example, if you start to believe that Bob and Jane *could* act differently, and you'd prefer that they did, but they aren't... and that doesn't mean they're wrong or bad, they're just imperfect, just like you... perhaps you will be able to let go of some of the anger. It's almost certainly not about you. And if you can't change it, then you have to accept it.

One exercise you can use is called the ABCs. Good luck!
posted by acridrabbit at 12:32 PM on August 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have a Jane and Bob at work and yes, it's frustrating. I am taking the steps that I can to manage it, but the reframing strategy that has helped most is to think about how the incompetence of others is part of what makes me look so good in comparison, and contributes to my professional success.

Obviously this is not the most generous-hearted viewpont, but it actually does help me be more patient and forgiving in the day-to-day.

Also loving the suggestion to focus on their good qualities and will try this too!
posted by Threeve at 12:58 PM on August 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Re scenario 1 - is the actual scenario akin to scheduled maintenance of a machine - objective and obvious - or is it something a little less clear-cut, and have you unilaterally decided it ought to come about in a particular way? Do you and Bob agree on the nature of the task, what needs to be done, and how it should be done? Is there a way for Bob to contribute that works with his strengths or on his schedule (or lack thereof)? Is there room for that in the task itself, or room for you to be more flexible in your expectations (wrt task, delivery, timing)?

If the whole thing is in fact not like routine maintenance of a machine, give Bob some room for real input and scope for taking ownership of his obligations. No one likes feeling micromanaged.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:02 PM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Whenever either of you gets the equipment worked on, you and Bob split the bill --- if you take it in, he pays you 50%; if he takes it in, you pay him 50%.

Tell Jane she'll get three more chances to straighten up and do her job correctly, or she's fired. As it is, right now there's no reason for her to change, because there's never been a penalty for her screwups --- sure, you say she 'isn't detail oriented', but that's her damn job to BE detail oriented!
posted by easily confused at 2:03 PM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Keep a "fuck-you" fund. Every time these people slack off, mutter "fuck you" under your breath and put a dollar in the fund. When you have enough dollars, buy yourself something nice.
posted by phoenix_rising at 2:14 PM on August 5, 2016 [12 favorites]

I find it helpful to acknowledge that I am choosing to accept behavior that feels unacceptable to me. That if I'm not willing or able to re-negotiate the situation that's making me unhappy, then I don't get to complain about it. Also, standing up for myself makes a huge difference in my quality of life. I used to believe there was no point in saying anything to anyone because any given annoying situation was never going to change. Thanks to therapy I have learned that in my case, at least, saying something directly to the individual involved makes a huge difference. Sometimes I find out there was a misunderstanding between me and the other person and things get better. Sometimes nothing changes outwardly but improves anyway because I stop feeling like a victim. For me, it's really helpful to say, "Hey Bob, I'm confused. We have an agreement that we'll split the work and cost of maintaining this machine. But I've taken it in X times and you've taken it in only Y times. Can you help me understand what's going on? Because it feels unfair to me to pay more than my share and do more than the work we agreed to." this requires a willingness to be uncomfortable and make the other person uncomfortable. But when I've done this in a spirit of open curiosity (rather than furious resentment), the person sometimes is able to hear what I'm saying and not be defensive. Other times, the person just goes into defense mode immediately. Either way, I feel better because I'm not asking anyone to read my mind. Whenever I'm clear about my perception of a situation, I don't feel complicit in victimizing myself. And that's a big deal for me. YMMV.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:53 PM on August 5, 2016 [10 favorites]

An angry response often is a signal that something about the situation is leading you to feel badly about yourself. What is that?
posted by Sublimity at 5:54 PM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, I've worked with Janes, and I spend a lot of my workday cleaning up after Janes. There's one thing we end up having to proofread four times a year--it's pages and pages and pages, takes 2 days to check, and it's always filled with errors. This year my boss told the Jane could you PLEASE PROOFREAD THIS TIME, we are so short staffed we can't afford to spend all our time checking your work any more. Oh, sure, we already did! Jane said. We found 25 errors. One of them was so egregiously typo'd I'm horrified they let this slide by saying they "proofread." This is why we are going to have to spend 8 days out of the year proofreading dimwits for eternity.

You can't fix Janes. Janes who can't, don't, or won't proofread, Janes who can't see, Janes who don't notice... there's really no hope. Some people are just fucking terrible at it.

Here's my coping strategies:
(a) It ONLY matters if the work is done and done correctly. It doesn't matter who does it. That is the priority. That counts over everything else. "That's not fair, Jane's supposed to pull her weight" doesn't matter, only getting the work done right matters.
(b) If at all possible, don't give Jane that kind of work to do if it's only making more work for you to have to clean up after her. (I wish I could have done that with my now-retired Jane.) Have Jane stick to getting the coffee and making the travel arrangements or whatever other assistant things she doesn't suck at that don't involve proofreading. You know you're going to end up doing it all anyway, so just plan that way.
(c) I know you don't want to spend more time planning around broken stair people, but you gotta. Sorry. It is what it is.
(d) I don't think they are "taking advantage of you" (well, Bob pretty much is, but I have no experience with Bob-types so I'm not going there). Jane just stinks at that aspect of the job. I'd say she's taking advantage if she was oh, faking that she sucked at it so she didn't have to do it, but I'm guessing that's not the case. Taking advantage is a deliberate action, sucking at your job is just sucking. I think of taking advantage of someone as the sort of person who invites you to dinner and then whines that they forgot their wallet, and pulls that trick more than once. (A friend of mine falls for this a lot and then grumbles about it. I keep pointing out that she doesn't have to hang out with these people and especially doesn't have to do dinner with them. But she still does it, so she's complicit, I think. )
(e) You will also be stressed out if you don't pick up their slack and let the dominoes fall. Heck, they may fall on YOU and cause you more trouble if you just let Janes fail.
(f) To some degree I just get numb to Janes after awhile. They are what they are and nothing is going to change. Eventually I just burn out on getting angry, because anger makes you feel like you can do something about it and you can't.
(g) It sounds like you have tried to address things with Jane (extra training) and Bob (who just yelled). So you know that doesn't work. If you can't get rid of Bob and Jane and they won't change, what else is there to do? What's the point in hashing it out again? Nothing new's going to happen there.

Honestly, I just find it easier to write some people off and work around them.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:54 PM on August 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you know that Bob isn't going to bring in the equipment, and you know that Jane is going to be bad at proofreading, but you're somehow expecting that they'll magically change, and then you're disappointed and angry when they don't. There's no reason to set yourself up for disappointment every time you need something from them. If you're not going to talk to them or try to change the situation, then you need to plan in advance to do the work yourself rather than treating it like a last-minute crisis every time they do the same thing they always do.
posted by lazuli at 9:02 PM on August 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

I currently work with a Jane, on this exact issue. I sympathize, as it's very frustrating and nearly impossible to set boundaries while also making sure that a non-embarrassing message goes out into the world (without creating extra work for yourself).

The solution that I've found that works slightly better so far is to timebox this issue by spending 30-60 minutes per week to sit down with Jane and go over copy docs. We review things together while she takes notes and highlights changes … then it is her responsibility to implement them. Over time, Jane is implicitly incentivized to make these meetings shorter by proofreading her work before the sitdown. And you get to dump all of your concerns into one 30-60 minute time/space, instead of it metering out throughout the week. The face-to-face discussions can also be really productive and effective for addressing regular patterns and clearing up miscommunications that don't translate well in text-based discourse.

This is of course difficult when there are deadlines to be met between any two regular meeting times, but with a few rounds of this (with necessary deadline-dependent exceptions) you will likely see general improvement.

Good luck with this, I feel your pain acutely.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:20 AM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

If Jane is so terrible at her job, why is she still employed? I don't understand. People can be fired for not fulfilling their role and your unwillingness to remedy the situation makes me think you don't want to actually improve the situation.
posted by shesbenevolent at 8:41 AM on August 6, 2016

I've also worked with many Janes and usually they're the administrative assistants for my special education department. When they make mistakes, kids don't get their legally-mandated educational services and we can be out of compliance with the state department of education. Their mistakes can cost school districts in wasted labor as well as having to go to arbitration and sometimes paying for students' private schooling because of the Janes' errors.

Like your situation, my Janes were in those jobs for life and the only thing that ever worked for me was to tell myself, repeatedly:

1. The Janes were doing their best. If they could do better work, they would. But they can't.
2. I went out of my way to find at least ONE thing the Janes did well and made a point of appreciating that work. For some reason, I felt much more positive when I was genuinely thanking them.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 11:37 AM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

One thing that helps me gain perspective in these situations is to focus on why it is that I am choosing to continue interacting with this person. You say the people can't be changed and you can't get out of your relationship with them, but obviously that's not 100% true in an extreme sense. (Supposing you get in a car crash tomorrow, you may be dead but you will no longer be in a relationship with these people and they will manage on their own!) So, short of a serious accident, what are the other alternatives here:

1. You could buy Bob out of his half of the equipment, or even just give him your half and do without or rent or go in with a more reliable person, or let the equipment fall into disrepair and not use it anymore. Presumably there are reasons you don't want to do this, like you really enjoy use of your half of the equipment, or you'll make your mom really sad, or whatever. Try making a list of all the reasons you "can't" stop sharing this equipment with Bob, a list of ways you could get out of those things (however crazy!), and then think about why you're choosing to still share. Maybe those reasons are practical (I do really get more value out of this equipment than what I put in, even with the uneven contributions) or maybe they're emotional (my mother is elderly and it really makes her happy that I have this annoying shared ownership with my brother), and then think about those reasons whenever you have to do the annoying thing. So, instead of "Why is Bob so incompetent and lazy and cheap?!?!?!" it could become "I'm taking this lawn mower in for service again because it will make my mother, who I love, very happy."
2. Similarly, maybe you can't fire Jane, but at the extreme you could find a new job. If she's really that aggravating, maybe you should (and tell management their policy of providing people with un-fire-able but horrible assistants is the reason why)! But if you don't want to, what are the good reasons why you want to keep your job? When Jane is terrible, try and focus not on "Why is Jane terrible, yet again?" and rather on "This is a sucky part of this job, just like the terrible coffee they stick us with in the break room, but ultimately this job gives me awesome things like getting to work on an issue I love, providing the salary I need so I'm not homeless, letting me spend time doing work I really kick ass at and love, etc." All jobs have sucky parts, whether it's filling out expense reports or dealing with Janes. Focus on why you're staying here and not moving on to a better workplace (or move on if the pros don't outweigh the cons).

Basically this strategy is about taking back control. I feel like I often get most annoyed at others and angry when I feel out of control and like I have no agency in a sucky situation. Sometimes that actually is the case (you can't logic your way out of having cancer or something), but with interpersonal relationships I find there often ARE more options than immediately occur to me. By focusing on the positive reasons why I'm choosing to stay in a situation that does have some negative aspects, it can help me reframe the interactions.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:23 PM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

You have the lowest guilt threshold. There is this person in every office, and they frequently feel exactly like you do. As a manager, I watch out for this and do what I can to reward them for it and to fix the low performers. As much as it would be convenient to let the low performers just do whatever to avoid conflict, it WILL DRIVE AWAY MY GOOD PEOPLE.

You need to start making your managers understand that this is a thing. Not by being a constant complainer, but when they ask how you're doing, you should be honest. "Eh, it's frustrating. Did you know I've taken in the equipment for maintenance the last seven times in a row because Bob can't be bothered? Just saying."

You might try being more explicit with Bob. I'm taking in the equipment for service today. You should do it about [date 1] and I'm going to leave it to you to do that. I'm scheduling the next time I'll do it for [date 2]. If after several cycles of this, it's only been getting done at half the required frequency when you do it, that's something to show your mutual boss.
posted by ctmf at 8:22 PM on August 6, 2016

And make sure, even if you can't get rid of Jane, that at least her performance evaluations are accurate. Have regular performance reviews with her more frequently than required (if you are her supervisor, otherwise make sure her actual supervisor knows the score, frequently) and be honest. Do not bend on that one - nobody can make you sign off that she's great at her job when she's not.

There's a chance she will spin that as you being impossible to work for, and maybe they'll switch her with someone else. (and you won't be bagging the next person she works for, because you gave her accurate evaluations)
posted by ctmf at 8:27 PM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

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