Coworker Teammate Lacking!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about disclosing a coworker’s lack of ability and commitment: Should I have kept my mouth shut? How should I handle this situation in a diplomatic manner?

My coworker and I work on the same team. She is extremely nice, friendly, but sensitive when under stress. She is new to our industry. Hence, her insight is limited. We have been working together for a year. I’ve trained her patiently and thoroughly in all the basics. Since my schedule is loaded with meetings and work, it is hard for me to cover everything. If I were in her position, during my downtime I would be reviewing materials, reading books on work-related topics, practicing, and offering my services to other team members to further advance myself. However, during her downtime, she is surfing online, gossiping, and talking on the phone. Besides the lack of initiative, she lacks attention to details and is always late to meetings.

My supervisor and I had a private discussion about my career goals, etc. During this meeting, my supervisor asked directly how my relationship is with this coworker. After awhile of avoiding this topic, I finally answered that she lacks initiative to learn on her own, she is not attentive to details, and she is sensitive (which makes it difficult for me to be open with her). Now I wish I never discussed this with my supervisor, because I do not want to talk about people behind their backs. Should I have kept my mouth shut? How should I handle this situation in a diplomatic manner?

Signed, Team Co-worker

Dear Team Co-worker:

You pose two questions: First, Should I have kept my mouth shut? You pose an after-the-fact question. What you said can’t be unsaid. Will that hurt your working relationship with your co-worker should she learn that you gave a bad assessment of her? Probably. Might the supervisor confront her about the things you reported and she wonder if that negative assessment came from you? Possibly. What is said about someone else in confidence does not always stay in confidence.

Apparently you already are uneasy about having said something uncomplimentary; however, true it was. So will you wonder if she has gotten wind of what you said when she acts in a way that seems negative toward you? Probably. Should you have responded candidly to your superior’s question? To respond that she was doing well would have created the false impression that your team member was carrying her load. To avoid answering, which you say you tried to do for a while, would have created the same false impression.You feel guilty. That guilt cannot be easily assuaged.

Time might lessen your guilt, but it will still be there. So you have some choices before you. Guilt also should come from not being up front in a constructive way with your co-worker about your working relationship. The way I read your description about your self and co-worker, I have the impression that you have not at previous appropriate times told her, “We need to talk.” Even now, you might, either informally or formally, ask her, “How do you like your job now that you have been here a year?” That could evolve into a conversation about what might make both of you a more effective team members. Ideally, you will now talk over what kind of communication with each other is needed as teammates. Establishing rules for what is ok and expected in communication is needed to make working as a team effective. Lacking such an understanding inevitably causes team member to avoid talking about problems.

Teamwork requires being able to ask each other defining questions: Are we working together as a team? What has been going well and what might I do and you do to be more effective? Such questions should be asked in a systematic way at least once a week in a team meeting and at other appropriate times.I gather that a conversation about communication as teammates has not been a part of your past working relationship. To remedy that in a more explicit way, some of what you might say, in your own words of course, is: “Alexia, I like you. You are a friendly and have learned most what I have tried to share with you. I know you are a sensitive, and therefore, I have hesitated to speak up at times that I’ve observed you are not working as effectively as you might be for our team and for your self. That is partly my fault. What I failed to do is to develop good communication with you; one in which you tell me what you are thinking about that might make our team the best possible and what I see that needs to be done. We should brainstorm together about ways to make our jobs easier and more effective. We aren’t doing that. We should outline together what needs to be accomplished for the week and for each day. For example, I probably have failed to share with you why I have to be at certain meetings and we have not talked about what needs to be done when I have to be gone. I don’t see myself as your boss, so I haven’t talked with you about what needs to be done and what you might do to make yourself more informed about this business should there be slack times. Am I wrong in thinking that you are not making the time when I’m gone count? What I would like to do from now on is to meet each morning to specifically put down what we need to accomplish as a team and then to help each other do that. We should have a collaborative working relationship; working as a team. What do you think we might do to have that kind of understanding? I want us to succeed, and you to find working here more than a paycheck. Can we try that for the next several weeks?”

Or this kind of conversation might begin in the way your supervisor and you answer your second question. Your second question: How should I handle this situation in a diplomatic manner? can be handled in several ways:

1. Never mention it.

2. Lie if your co-worker says she heard you had diced her or if she asks if the supervisor asked about her.

3. Now tell your co-worker that the supervisor asked about her and to report precisely what you said. Acknowledging that you were pressed to report on her and that you revealed her shortcomings. Apologize for not speaking to her first about her lack of initiative, playing rather than improving her capabilities, and not attending to detail, etc.

4. Immediately confer with your supervisor, thank him/her for making you face up to the fact that you and your teammate are not working together as you might. Say that is partly your fault for not communicating openly with her. Acknowledge that that you are uneasy about giving a negative evaluation of your co-worker without first honestly engaging her about what you see as shortcomings. Then request that your supervisor meet with you both and speak to you both about what constructive team communication entails. Such a meeting should evolve to a collaborative assessment of what you two are doing that deserves applause and what is lacking. More importantly it should result in mapping out what each of you should be doing so that working together is maximally productive for your team and for each of your careers.It should end by scheduling a follow up meeting of all three of you, perhaps in a month from now, to review how things are going in light of the new understanding you have about team communication.

I hope these thoughts prompt you to see this experience as one of continuous learning. You are an individual who should feel good that you have a conscience. Now use this not to wish you had done it differently but rather as one that spurs you to learn from it. Working together does not always come naturally. Usually it has ups and downs. The downs can be fewer if and when we keep the communications lines open and when we talk explicitly about how we might communication more effectively tomorrow. This can be a learning experience for you, your co-worker and possibly also for your supervisor.Think WEGO.

Follow Up: Thank you, for your insightful input! I will take your advice and map a plan of action with my coworker to better improve our communication with each other. My plan deviates slightly away from your suggestion. Here’s my plan of action: Go speak with my supervisor. Thank him for taking time out to speak with me privately but express my uneasy regarding our conversation. I will ask him not to speak/share/intervene based on my negative comment. Rather, I want to fix my past shortcoming of not being able to communicate better. I want to work with her in rebuild that communication gap.

My coworker will probably appreciate that it comes from her peer and not her boss. I will update my supervisor in regard to our team building process privately. I will take your suggestion, which I agreed with and secretly thought as well, and follow through. Thinking about varies situations mentally versus reading your response to that of my private thoughts has unquestionably brought light on the importance of open communication. Moving forward, I will be honest and upfront with her. I will establish an open forum between her and me, which promotes healthy communication.Thank you for taking your Saturday morning to reply my email. I greatly value your email and will start incorporating your feedback into my work style.

William Gorden