How do you cope with incompetent team members?
April 3, 2006 7:17 AM   Subscribe

How do you cope with incompetent team members?

I'm currently working on a project with a low-skilled partner. He has a great personality and tries to do his best, but I often cringe when I have to review his work. His English is abominable and his writing style is even worse. He doesn't seem to be able to grasp the big picture and tends to ramble on about insignificant details in nearly incomprehensible prose.

I'm quite the perfectionist and I'm having quite a difficult time dealing with this. I procrastinate on reading his output and discussing ideas with him. I get that funny feeling in my stomach when I think about the effect this will have on our grade.

However, I do recognize that my behaviour may be causing the most problems in this situation, and that I simply have to make the best of it and move on. Can you give me some advice on how to handle this?
posted by koenie to Human Relations (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You tell your boss honestly and confidentially about the problems you are having.

We used to have a guy who we called 'Ed-nice-but-dim' (named after Harry Entwistle's character Tim Nice-but-dim). He was incredibly motivated, pleasant and hard-working but unfortunately almost entirely incompetent.

Eventually it became clear to our boss that Ed wasn't working out. She was very nervous about firing him, however, because he was so well-liked. However, she confessed to me one day that she was going to do it. Ed duly disappeared into her glass walled office. He departed looking shaken, and left the building.

My boss then emerged and I asked her how it went. "Oh", she said, "I think I handled it pretty well. I said, Ed, I've been looking at your work and I think I should tell you that I don't think you have a long-term future with this complany.


"Or in fact, a medium term future."


"Or, in fact a short-term future."
posted by unSane at 7:29 AM on April 3, 2006

I'm working on two assumptions: You can't get rid of him, and this is school related ("I think about the effect this will have on our grade"). With that, two suggestions:

1. Figure out what he is good at, and have him work on that. I have no doubt that he is, "a low-skilled partner. [...] His English is abominable and his writing style is even worse. He doesn't seem to be able to grasp the big picture and tends to ramble on about insignificant details in nearly incomprehensible prose," but everyone has something that they're good at. It might even be the formatting, or digging up research, or something like that, but I have yet to run into someone that doesn't have some fantastic ability, even if it does end up needing some guidance, and they can contribute that. Remember, the key to a good, effective team is that your skills compliment the skills of others, not duplicate them.

2. Go talk to your professor about this, alone. Don't approach it as, "He's horrible, I can't stand him, I'm not working with him." That won't get you shit. But approach it as, "I'm having difficulty working with (name). I'm trying to find key areas that he's great at and have him work on those, but I was wondering if you had any suggestions for this that might help me." And be completely open and honest and willing to get that help and feedback. Your professor is used to hearing people complain about teammates, and it will be refreshing to hear you talk in this way. And, in the end, if the project tanks, you have this foundation to start another conversation with the professor on trying to get a better grade for your portion of the work.

Good luck. I know what it's like, both as a former student, and having taught a class once. This isn't an unusual situation by any means.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:32 AM on April 3, 2006

It sounds like this is for a class, which means you may have difficulty "firing" this team member. You could go to the professor or "boss", show the team members output and try to get him off the team.

If that isnt possible, then try dividing up the work differently. All animals are not equal, and you could give him specific tasks that are less easy to screw up and are actually useful to your document. Suggestions? Gathering data and doing basic analysis (or making time consuming graphics or other schematics in excel or powerpoint that you may have draw for him) to support the document or gathering quotes or doing basic research to incorporate in the document that you write.
posted by zia at 7:35 AM on April 3, 2006

You're going to have to buck it up and do the work for him. I've taken organizational/team classes where they purposely make the work non-descript, the teammates oppositional to each other and other evil things to make the class a living hell. It's surprisngly effective in teaching how to deal with such situations though ... here's what I've synthesized from my experiences: While not fair, you will have to take on an extra work load and essentially do his work for him. I hope he has some metric of how bad he's doing, at least an indepedent test or assignment that came back which you two discussed and he got a reasonably lower score. That will help and very possibly avoid any conflict once you perform your coup d'etat and take over the group. Do not make a big deal about yourself now being in charge, quite the opposite, ask him for input and make him feel even more a part of the process but keep the actual writing and turned in parts to yourself as if you are doing him a favor by being an editor of sorts, let him see the various drafts. Most people are relieved to not have to do the writing part and you might actually find that once he's not bogged down by having to write, his ideas might be quite lucid and useful. Even if they aren't at least your grade won't be affected.

And yeah you'll have to get over that perfectionist thing, just because you perceive work to be less than perfect does not mean a third-party will think so. Keep this in mind and don't look down your nose on this team member.

I'd recommend not going to the teacher and just letting your team member go and get it done yourself -- unless it's absolutely impossible to complete the project without assistance.
posted by geoff. at 7:36 AM on April 3, 2006

two different comments:

- it sounds more like a communication issue than a smartness issue. i thought i was in a similar situation recently and it turned out that the details were actually hugely relevant and i ended up learning a lot. so be careful.

- after straining relations with my (very tolerant) employers almost to breaking point i now have, printed in large letters above my terminal "to change what i can, accept what i cannot, and know the difference". the point being - are you sure this is your problem?
posted by andrew cooke at 7:48 AM on April 3, 2006

Some institutions which I've attended have had a fairly formal approach to the learning team concept and methodology, including formal, written team charters signed by all team members and filed with faculty, written team meeting minutes (including assignments by member, attendance, etc.), and project outlines with deliverables schedules. In such situations, the team charter has included written methods for conflict resolution, and it was expected that the team would abide by, and internally enforce such methods whenever a team, as judged by it's members, or as seen by faculty from missed or poor quality deliverables, wasn't working. If you have this level of structure, it's up to you as a member of the team, perhaps in conjunction with your instructor, to troubleshoot the problems, and re-structure the project to make effective use of all the member's capabilities, consistent with making a reasonable learning opportunity for all. If you have such a formal team structure, stick with it, but if your structure is informal, you'll have to rely more heavily on faculty advice and guidance, than might be needed with more autonomous, formally chartered teams.

But regardless of your organizational orientations, the fact is that the individuals that comprise any team may have tremendously different backgrounds and personalities, and not everyone works easily together. Part of what you are learning from your student team experiences is to be a productive member of professional teams, few of which are likely to be highly homogenous. Your ability to function effectively with people of different capabilities and backgrounds is being challenged. You need to develop strategies and techniques for dealing with people you find difficult, that focus on achieving mutually agreed results, and that de-emphasize personal reactions to individual quirks. You should recognize that instructors have seen this situation before, and that they are rarely "fooled" into thinking that individuals who are poor performers on individual assignments and class contributions, are somehow equal contributors to their team projects.

Be honest about your expectations, be creative, firm, but fair in communicating these to your team member, and be flexible about finding a project organization that best utilizes every member's capabilities. Don't attempt to do the work of others, and involve your instructor early if you feel that your internal team corrective actions aren't working, or need additional input. You may need to adjust your project's scope or methodology if it is clear early that your original project/assignment plan can't be met with the input you are getting from your team's members, but re-scoping is preferable to trying to do "heroic" amounts of work that try to substitute for what you don't feel you are getting from the other member, or having the whole project/assignment fail. You don't want to get down to the wire on your deliverables, without enough time or team capabilities to complete the assignment, before making it clear that your team is in trouble. But do as much as you possibly can to make your team a success. You will get something from this, personally, once you get over being irritated with the way your other team "member" is "failing," and begin to see that it is vital to your long term success as a student and as a professional to be an effective contributor in teams of broad composition and backgrounds. You may not get your "perfectionist" vision of what the project/assignment "should" have been, but surprisingly, by actually including the work of others that you think may be inferior, your project may instead cover other areas, with different emphasis, that may be more original and excitiing than what you personally have in mind.
posted by paulsc at 8:00 AM on April 3, 2006

Ah, teamwork. I used to teach technical writing at Georgia Tech to engineering students working in teams. The teams would vary widely in terms of competency and language skills (both within and between teams).

My teaching bible -- simple prose, clear arguments, and easily cherrypicked by chapter -- turned out to be The Craft of Research. The book is not large, but each chapter takes you through a process of discovering what makes your research/work/decisions *work*.

Here's an excerpt from an Amazon review: Parts Three and Four cover the essentials of argument--how to make a claim and support it--and ways to outline, draft, revise, rewrite, and polish the final report. Part Three is a short course in the logic, structure, uses, and common pitfalls of argumentation. The writing chapters in Part Four show how to present verbal and visual information effectively and how to shape sentences and paragraphs that communicate with power and precision.

Your teammate may benefit especially from these sections, since a surfeit of detail can mask problems in argument. It's also important for you to realize that difficulties in speaking English aren't the same as logic issues. Try to point him toward developing a view of structural logic in your project, both overall and in each part. Start high-level and move carefully into detail.

The book helped many of my students (bless them) by helping them view their experiments not merely as sequential, time-oriented stories but as stories that could be told in various ways, *depending on what they were trying to prove*... It also helped them sort through the details and see which details were important, which could be grouped and referenced more generally, and which could be footnoted or left out entirely.

Once they had these large issues sorted out, they could work down into detail. I found that the language and grammar improved greatly once the logical structures had been strengthened.

I'm now an information architect who does a lot of freelance writing on the side -- consumer-oriented stuff -- and I still use this book to help me clarify my own work.

best of luck --
posted by mdiskin at 8:34 AM on April 3, 2006

Katty Snax Treat for Incompetent Coworkers:

1 big bag of M&Ms, preferably peanut
dried fruit chips
meow mix

Leave it out on a counter in the copy room and let nature take it's course.
posted by cior at 8:57 AM on April 3, 2006

This brings back memories of the semester-long project I had to do in engineering school. I was grouped with four football players, all on scholarship, and none of whom had the ability or desire to contribute meaningfully to the project. I managed to pull out a B, doing the whole damn thing myself.

Can you give me some advice on how to handle this?

Well, one way to do it, for the sake of your grade, is to bypass his participation when possible and / or to revise heavily anything he touches.

Yes, it sucks that the world works this way, with the incompetent getting to sail forth on the efforts of the competent. I don't know what to tell you about the general principle - I have great trouble dealing with it myself.

Best of luck with your project.
posted by beth at 9:25 AM on April 3, 2006

This doesn't apply to student projects which have a defined endpoint, but I have learned that when people aren't working out you can only do so much to make them useful. It's not worth it to constantly try to get them up to speed.

It's hard because I'm a nice guy hippie who believes everyone has certain gifts but the fact is that some people just make it into positions that aren't right for them. You have to fire them before they've settled too far in. If you are not the one doing the hiring and firing, believe me, your boss understands this situation all too well and will agree with you.

And frankly, the worker will ultimately be happier in a position where he isn't so incompetent.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:33 AM on April 3, 2006

If it's a partnership, I wish you luck. It sounds like he's well-intentioned and you can review his work before incorporating it into the group work so you're already coming out ahead in a bad situation.

Like everyone else has said, talk to the professor/teaching assistant if possible. Bring samples of the partner's work, and say that he's making a great effort but whatever gets put in the final work will be a group effort - with you as editor. I would imagine they've seen the situation before, many times. However, the professor may not be accessible or understanding, and in that case...

Learn to work around your partner. Make him feel like part of the team, but be firm. If he requests, do a point-by-point breakdown of one section and why it doesn't work. Beyond that, cut like crazy. If his material sucks, try to eliminate it.

I was once in a group with two other students for a science fiction literature class. I had one good team member who was a procrastinator but we knew we'd pull things together. What we didn't count on was the third guy, who ended up writing horribly and completely misunderstanding the story. As soon as we saw his section of the writing we knew we'd have to rewrite -- but we had no time. Luckily we also had an in-class presentation during which two of us sounded reasonable and the third like a complete crazy person. He misnamed characters we'd just mentioned, he summarized the story completely incorrectly. Everyone in the class knew what was going on, as did the professor. Unless you've had problems with the teaching before, I'd hope for the best.
posted by mikeh at 11:06 AM on April 3, 2006

What have you done, already?

Are you just noticing this? Has it been getting worse?

What are the consequences of doing nothing?

How much do you desire to preserve an on-going relationship with this person?

All of these questions would influence how I would deal with him. Everyone has a story like this, and everyone has either done a good, bad, or indifferent job dealing with it. In most cases, it passes and the experience can be added to your personal encyclopedia of coping techniques.

If you want to deal with it effectively, you must first decide what constitutes 'effective'. Is it 'getting through' or 'mutually growing' in some manner? It seems to me, if you are in a learning environment, than this is one of the things you are supposed to learn. You'll have to embrace the normal curve of human interpersonal skills now or later.

I recommend Dale Carnegie's 'How to win friends and influence people', an easy Saturday read. It has some great ideas about how to deal with conflict situtations and is a good tutorial on what people want and how we can help them achieve it. Carnegie himself read it every year, and he wrote it. Very wise little book, from the 1950's, I think.

Bottom line, you have to make solving this problem as important as the project you are working on, because the way you solve this will begin the habit that you use the next time, and the next time is right around the corner.

Good luck!
posted by FauxScot at 11:54 AM on April 3, 2006

If this is for a school project, sorry, there is not much you can do. That person needs a team. He/She happens to be in yours. If I were you, I would take more work, hopefully there are other members willing to help as well. You'll shine in a team with bigger contribution and higher quality of work.
posted by dy at 2:48 PM on April 3, 2006

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