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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

What to Do When That One Lazy Co-worker is Holding You Up

You’ve had that project highlighted on your to-do list for weeks—or months—but something keeps getting in the way of you checking it off your list. There’s a bottleneck in the process, and it’s one of your colleagues.

No matter where you work or what you do, eventually you’ll have to depend on someone else to get your work done. When that person is responsive and committed to doing a great job, it’s probably a great experience. But when it feels like pulling teeth to get someone to even respond to an email, it can suck the fun right out of any achievement.

So what’s an ambitious person to do? Is there any way to light a fire under a colleague without overstepping any boundaries? I’ve been in this situation—and been the cause of it—on many occasions, and here’s what worked well for me.

1. Be a Human Being

I love technology, and I’m sure you do, too. But when it comes to resolving issues in the office, there’s no better mediator than good ol’ face-to-face. I’ve found that whenever something isn’t going the way I’d like, approaching a colleague in person not only got me results but enabled me to control my message. Telling someone in person that my deadline is approaching—with a smile—is far better received than an email with the same ask, leaving it open to interpretation by its recipient.

On the flipside, I’ve been the source of a nearly missed deadline or two (I’m not proud of it, but it happens to the best of us) and I can tell you, nothing motivates like a sincere personal request from a colleague. By approaching me in person, my colleagues were able to express their urgency, and I could share what was causing the holdup on my end. By having a real-time conversation, we were able to address all our issues and get back on track.

Can it be awkward? Sure. Is it more effective than email? Absolutely.

2. Have a Timeline

Planning is your best defense against slackers in the office. For the first time in my career, I now work with a project manager, and it’s made a world of difference in my productivity. As soon as you know you have a deadline to meet, get a few milestones in place, and hold your team accountable for meeting them. The milestones don’t even need to be material to the project, but by virtue of having deadlines before the “big one,” you give yourself an excuse to check in with everyone and get a status update. If you start to see things falling behind, you’ll know before it becomes an issue and can allow your colleague the chance to get it together.

If your project is just getting off the ground, get a calendar in place and make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them, then check in when you say you will to stay on top of the schedule. If you’re already off and running, it’s not too late. Gather your team and suggest new milestones to help assure everyone’s on point.

3. Offer Assistance

We all get busy, and we all can get in over our heads from time to time. If you have someone on your team that just isn’t getting it done, consider the possibility that they just need a little extra help.

The conversation will likely go one of two ways: If your colleague really does need some guidance, he’ll be grateful for the offer, and if your project partner is just phoning it in, she’ll realize you’re on to her and step it up to avoid taking you up on your offer. I can speak from experience on this one. I was swamped with multiple deadlines and had fallen behind on one that had just dropped off my radar. When my (more junior) colleague approached me and asked if I needed her help getting my work done, I was horrified. I immediately re-prioritized my work and got her what she needed.

Either way, humility can be a great motivator.

Unless you’re super unlucky, I’m guessing a lazy colleague isn’t the reason for your missed deadlines and deliverables. Rather, it’s someone just like you who has a lot on her plate. Keep this in mind no matter what approach you take, and I’m willing to bet you’ll light a fire under your slow-moving co-worker.

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