5 Ways to Work With Incompetent Colleagues


Ryan Ong



Every office has them: Colleagues who contribute less to a project than bent paperclips. You know the sort; if you asked them to staple documents, they’d find a way to cause a plane crash doing it. Then there’s the tears, premature hair loss, and raised blood pressure they bring to your work week. Under those circumstances, how do you stay productive without becoming the feature of a Crimewatch episode? Let’s find out:


1. Make Sure You’re On The Same Page

A colleague can seem incompetent because he has different frames of reference.

An example: One of my worst work disasters involved telling a colleague to “put a date on every report”. I meant for each report to be individually dated, but my colleague thought I meant “put today’s date on every report”. The end result was a sarcastic remark about how well Windows 95 was selling (in 2007), and a sudden desire to leave my boss’s office via an eighth storey window.

Would other colleagues have understood me? Yes, because after a few months, we all worked with the same assumptions. But for those who take longer to fit in, always ask how they intend to execute a task. They may have a different interpretation of what you mean.


Guy reading books
That’s a guide to bowling. This is a criminal law firm. “Three strikes” isn’t as awesome as you imagine.


2. The Read Back Message

This is one of the simplest methods to use. If you know someone’s green or unreliable, ask them to repeat any important messages you give them. This method works especially well for anything involving lists or ordering systems (e.g. warehousing or waitressing).

Explain it at the start of the conversation. For example, lead with: “Hey, this is really important, so I need you to repeat it to me after I say it, okay?”

This also cues your colleagues to get a pen and paper. Good for you, since if they write it down, they’re less likely to forget it. Be sure to follow up with point 1; apart from repeating the message, you need to know how they interpreted the message.


People playing pictionary
Next, we’ll take turns hand illustrating the concept, and role-playing it. Then you repeat the whole thing.


3. Describe Process, Not Outcome

For less capable (or just inexperienced) colleagues, try to describe process rather than outcome. In other words, give them a routine, not a goal.

An example of a described outcome would be saying: “What we need is something like MoneySmart; a mind blowing hybrid of extreme sports and financial news.”

An example of a described process would be: “Okay, step one, open this file. Step two, click this button. Step three…etc.”

With luck, your colleague will “pick up” after a few months. Once they’ve internalized the process, you can start including them in team goal discussions. This is micro-managing, no two ways about it; but you already knew incompetent colleagues mean more work. Between coaching them and appearing inept yourself (i.e. when they turn your project into a train wreck), pick the former. More job security in it.


Sketch picture
And then I had to simplify the simplified list. 


4. Ask Them For Help (No Really)

Some people respond to incompetent colleagues by dodging them completely. Hey, it’s less damaging right? Actually, an incompetent colleague with nothing to do is even more dangerous. They tend to find even more dramatic ways to mess up, and take all of you with them.

If anything, the incompetent should be kept even busier. A good tactic is to ask for their opinion a lot. Ask them to put it in writing (like an e-mail) if you can. This shows you are open to feedback, absolves you of potential blame (you can claim it was due to their stupid suggestion), and makes them feel useful.

This is also a great way to motivate people. Once someone has ventured an opinion in writing, they are more committed to seeing it through. If your colleague is incompetent by inclination (i.e. lazy) rather than by nature, this is a good cure.


Man in a dunce hat
The client’s arguing and being an idiot. Luckily, you’ve got more experience there. Now get on this phone.


5. Periodically Offer Help

If someone’s incompetent, they may not know to ask for help. Or maybe they just don’t want to, because they know they’ll be approaching you every 15 seconds.

The solution is to be proactive. Every other day, stick your nose in and ask them what they’re doing. Note: The question to ask is not “Can I help you”, but “What are you up to”?


fireman putting out a fire
It’s uninvited, but I better help you vacuum the office. And put out the fire you started while doing it.


Most Singaporeans will refuse your offer to help. But if they show you what they’re doing, you can throw in suggestions and request changes. Think of it as gently opening their mouth, then suddenly and violently shoving your assistance down their throat.

As an alternative, some incompetent people ask for help so much that you can’t get on with your work. In which case, you…also schedule periodic help sessions. The functional term being “periodic”. Have them drop by one day a week, or after lunch every day, to handle all their questions at once. Otherwise, you’ll be running a 24/7 FAQ service for them.

Image Credits:
L, skippyjon, James Trosh, See-ming Lee, emilydickinsonridesabmx, Loco Steve, Bennett 4 Senate

How do you deal with incompetent colleagues? Comment and let us know!

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Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.