Part of the job includes working with others and tolerating different personalities. But one of the biggest challenges is learning how to deal with incompetent coworkers.
Everyone finds themselves at some point navigating the difficulties of an unprofessional, annoying or incompetent coworker. They cannot be avoided. They probably can hide this long enough to land the job, but sooner or later their incompetence comes out.
With more than 11 million job openings across the country, you may think you are stuck with the worker. While you should not seek to immediately get rid of an incompetent colleague, you should be prepared as a supervisor to replace them if necessary.
You don’t have to allow their incompetence to define your work experience. But there are a few things you can do to make things more tolerable for yourself in an office setting. Whether you are a leader or another work colleague, consider these tips on how to deal with incompetent coworkers.
1. Keep your thoughts to yourself
Because most work settings are constantly changing, be careful what you say about your incompetent coworker. The colleague you tell today about the incompetent worker may become that worker’s friend tomorrow.
Remember to keep a professional demeanor and do not participate in or start office gossip. It is important to exercise good common sense in this setting. As Socrates said, “Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”
When you speak negatively about a coworker, this can serve to make you feel better in the moment. But it is not a good idea to participate in this type of open criticism, even if it does feel good to let off a little steam. The truth is, this type of behavior will only serve to reflect poorly on you.
The reason for this is because, eventually, others will learn that you offered this opinion. Your supervisors may learn about this and believe you are creating a bad work environment. The incompetent colleague also may hear about it and this can be perceived as bullying a colleague.
Other colleagues also may lose respect for you after hearing you speak poorly about a coworker. You do not want the reputation of being critical of colleagues or perceived as arrogant by coworkers.
2. Document problems when considering how to deal with incompetent coworkers
You should have proof to back up your concern about a coworker’s incompetence. You do not want to approach supervisors with the claim that someone is incompetent and not have evidence to back it up. Start documenting everything you can to show the incompetence of the colleague.
It is also a good idea to show that you spoke to the coworker about problems. While it may be difficult to approach them because you find their behavior annoying, it is important to do it. One of the first things a supervisor will ask when you present the problem is, did you try to resolve it.
It is also possible that you can help them by discussing the problem with them. This will eliminate the problems that you are dealing with and make the colleague bearable to work with at the office. You will also be seen as a helpful and attentive colleague by others if you help the coworker.
3. Don’t make it personal
This is business, after all, so do not take things personally. Act professionally, and that means do not let things get ugly in the office. This is true regardless of whether you are an office leader or just another colleague.
An incompetent coworker can be difficult at times, but this does not give you the right to act unprofessionally. Do not disrespect them or say things when you are agitated that you will regret. Keep things calm and reasonable so this will reflect well on you.
If your coworker’s incompetence upsets you, try not to get emotional in the office. Take a walk or run an errand, just get out of the office. If you act in an unprofessional or overly emotional way, you may be regarded as more of the problem and not the incompetent colleague.
4. Do not do their work for them
Sometimes, when we struggle with how to deal with incompetent coworkers, we think it is easier to do the work ourselves. But this is a big mistake in an office setting. It will not serve to resolve the problem and will only lead to making things worse.
When you see the incompetent colleague doing sloppy work, do not step in to correct or fix it. There is a difference between being helpful to a colleague and giving them permission to be incompetent. This may be an opportunity to document a problem instead of trying to fix it.
It is one thing to offer to help a coworker who clearly is going through a difficult time or who mentions they are struggling. We can all benefit from a helping hand at times and we appreciate support from our colleagues. This is part of what it means to be a collaborative, supporting colleague.
But if you do this with a colleague who has shown themselves to be incompetent, you are perpetuating the problem. When you step in to do their work for them, you eliminate the need for them to change. If they know their colleagues will always correct their mistakes, they have no motivation to improve.
5. Serve as a role model for others
The way you respond to an incompetent colleague is an example that others will notice. You want to act in a professional way that serves as an example for other colleagues to follow. You should realize that your behavior sends a message to others in the office.
When you criticize an incompetent colleague in private to others, that sets an example. When you step in to do their work for them, that sets an example for others. You want to ensure that everyone in the office is held accountable for their work, including you.
Your colleagues work hard and expect everyone to pull their weight. If they work long hours and do the hard tasks that the job requires, they want to make sure everyone does that. They do not want to see you doing the work for someone else or gossiping about them.
In time, every worker’s shortcomings will be revealed on their own. You can serve as an example to others to continue doing good work and to be supportive of colleagues who also deserve respect. When an incompetent coworker does not pull their weight, it will be clear they are a problem.
Always act professionally, speak courteously to colleagues and treat everyone with respect. That is the example you want to set and it is the true mark of a leader.
6. Remove the incompetent coworker if you have the authority
Once you have determined that a colleague is incompetent, you can help them find assistance if you are a supervisor. You also should be prepared to remove them from the position if they do not respond to assistance. You have a duty as a supervisor to ensure that you maintain a productive, healthy work environment.
The team you lead expects you to solve these types of problems with coworkers. But you also want to make sure that you take steps to help the colleague first. Your team members will watch to see how you handle the situation.
Some may worry if you act too quickly to remove the worker that you did not try to help them. They may fear that you will treat them in a similar way if they struggle with something.
Others may fear you are not strong enough of a leader if you do not remove the incompetent worker after trying to help them. It must be apparent that you are working to help the colleague, but if they are terminated it is because they did not adapt.
As a supervisor or leader, you know you want to act in a fair and proper way. You should not fire someone without following a process that includes trying to help them improve. Only after they fail to adapt to the job’s responsibilities, even after receiving special help, should you consider getting rid of them.
Remember these tips
Make sure you remain professional and respectful in the workplace. Consider these tips and others when thinking of how to deal with incompetent coworkers. Remember, your actions can serve as an example for others and they will define you as a colleague to others.
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