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How to Keep Your Lazy Co-Worker From Ruining Your Career

If you listen to NPR's Morning Edition on your way to work, you probably heard their recent segment, Before You Judge Lazy Workers, Consider They Might Serve a Purpose, which used agricultural studies involving ants and surprising advice from productivity experts to make the case that lazy individuals aren't always bad for the group. If you are not a lazy individual, but a member of the team that has to deal with them, however, you might have started your day with a white-knuckled rage grip on the steering wheel, screaming at your windshield as other commuters tried to pretend they were absorbed by the flow of traffic. Laziness, good? Tell that to the folks who have to pick up the slack. Why should Ferris get to ditch when everybody else has to go?

If you listen to NPR’s Morning Edition on your way to work, you probably heard their recent segment, Before You Judge Lazy Workers, Consider They Might Serve a Purpose, which used agricultural studies involving ants and surprising advice from productivity experts to make the case that lazy individuals aren’t always bad for the group. If you are not a lazy individual, but a member of the team that has to deal with them, however, you might have started your day with a white-knuckled rage grip on the steering wheel, screaming at your windshield as other commuters tried to pretend they were absorbed by the flow of traffic. Laziness, good? Tell that to the folks who have to pick up the slack. Why should Ferris get to ditch when everybody else has to go?

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(Photo Credit: SergioDelgado/Flickr)

First, let’s talk about the possibility that this perspective is right. Can laziness be a good thing? The answer, as with all academic questions, is that it depends. NPR’s Yuki Noguchi spoke with David Allen, author of productivity bible Getting Things Done, and found that even famous productivity experts can be lazy – in very specific ways.

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“The reason I discovered this is that I’m probably the laziest guy you’ve ever met,” he tells her, saying that most people “confuse frantic energy with effectiveness.” He also notes that it’s possible to mistake deep thinking for laziness. We just can’t see what’s going on inside someone’s head.

But does that really apply to your situation, which could be anything from a co-worker who never shows up or blows every project deadline, to a teammate who’s so good at backing up, he or she seemingly never has to deal with deadlines in the first place?

Again, sorry – it depends. But, here’s a survival strategy, no matter what’s going on.

1. Think like a project manager.

Group projects are the worst, whether you’re in middle-school science class or out in the work world. And, you probably can’t dodge them – not forever.

Instead, leave as little to chance as possible. Don’t let people back up until they back out of all responsibility. Insist on assigning clear deliverables, with dates and precise expectations, and be as transparent as possible. Anyone can have an off week, or a family crisis, or make a mistake. But, if it happens too often, it’ll immediately be clear who the problem is.

2. Talk to someone who can make a difference (and no one else).

“I know, it’s tough not to vent when you’ve got a colleague who isn’t quite as motivated as you,” writes Jennifer Winter at The Muse. “But bitching to your other colleagues won’t do you—or the perpetrator—any good. Chances are, your lackluster co-worker will get wind of it, and now you not only have a team member who isn’t super-committed, but also one who resents you.”

Instead, Winter says, make a time to talk to a manager, and focus on the effect your co-worker’s behavior is having on the team as a whole. Again, the goal is not to complain, but to make a clear case that the behavior is a problem.

Just keep in mind that when you bring a manager a problem, they’re probably going to fix it, and you might not always like the solution. Once you bring in someone from above, the situation is out of your hands, to a certain extent.

3. Don’t enable the behavior.

Some shirkers are really good at getting their colleagues to pick up the ball they just dropped. Don’t be one of the suckers. 

“If you’re a conscientious worker, you might find it hard to resist doing this,” writes Alison Green of Ask a Manager at U.S. News. “However, if you take up your co-worker’s slack, you’ll make it easier for the problem to fly under the radar. Instead, politely decline to help, using phrases like: ‘I’m sorry, but I’m slammed with deadlines’ or: ‘I wish I could help, but I’ve got my hands full.’ By declining to step in and save your co-worker, you’ll make it easier for your manager to spot what’s going on.”

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How do you deal with lazy co-workers? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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