When other people’s bad habits get in your way

When I teach classic time management in corporate settings, a question that comes up a lot is, “How can I get other people to manage their time better, so that I can manage my time better?” (Sometimes it’s phrased as, “How can I make the people I work with stop acting like jerks?”)

My coaching clients ask this question too. It’s tricky when you don’t have authority over the other person and the other person (surprise!) doesn’t appear to be interested in changing their behavior.

In a course I led earlier this week, a participant complained about a colleague whose lack of planning was causing her all kinds of stress. The participant—call her Cammie—posed it as a delegation issue: “I try to delegate, but it doesn’t work out,” she said. “I don’t trust other people to do things on time, the way I need them to be done. ”

In training, as in coaching, I encourage people to ask questions that get more specific. So, “How can I possibly delegate when I’m a control freak without authority and other people can’t be trusted?” might become “Where is the breakdown happening? Who’s disappointing me? When am I hearing about it? What quality standard is good enough? What can’t be compromised? What’s worked, and why or why not?”

Turns out Cammie was successfully sharing tasks with peers on her team. Just the one colleague was giving her problems. He worked remotely, making communication clumsier. He didn’t follow up when he said he would. He didn’t warn her when he ran into glitches. So she often had to scramble at the last minute, when tasks she’d counted on him to do weren’t done, or were done sloppily.

One reason she hadn’t been able to address the situation effectively was her pent-up irritation about the way he kept letting things slip. “Why do I have to keep cleaning up after him?” she fumed. “I don’t want to take the project back and do it myself—I don’t have time. But I have to work overtime when he doesn’t come through. I can’t figure out how to motivate him. Financial incentives don’t work. Embarrassment doesn’t work. I don’t want to get him fired—he really knows this business. Why can’t he just do what he’s supposed to?”

Starting with the quickest payoff

Cammie was putting a lot of time and energy into seething over her co-worker’s personality defects. Which may be considerable. I haven’t met the guy.

As we discussed this issue during the break, we could have spent time analyzing his motives, her communication style, their personality differences, and her options for sending a complaint up the hierarchy. But given that she was going around in circles with her frustration, it seemed practical to start where the quickest payoff was for her—looking at how she could reduce her own stress and last-minute scrambling.

My question for Cammie: What would be a way she could work with this colleague with less emotional investment, less improvising on deadline? We brainstormed emotionally neutral follow-up techniques—interim deadlines, templates, flowcharts.

The plan she came up with:

– Back up from the due date and identify checkpoints.

– List questions to ask her colleague, via email, at each checkpoint. List possible responses that, based on his (non)performance, suggest he’s off track.

– Write email scripts—neutral tone—in response to his potential responses.

– At the time she assigns him a task, plug the checkpoints into her calendar. On every marked date, send him a prewritten email. If needed, send escalating follow-up emails—already scripted—based on his response. So she doesn’t have to think about each step or get exasperated when he doesn’t come through again.

Later, it would most likely be fruitful for Cammie to look into the personality and incentive issues. She could put herself in the guy’s position and ask herself, what’s going on? Maybe he’s overwhelmed by personal concerns. Maybe he likes to see how much he can get away with. Maybe he never learned to juggle competing priorities. In any case, based on what she knows about him, what incentives/consequences would he care about? It’s hard to think through these questions when emotions are running high.

Meanwhile, by building in a follow-up system, she’s not only easing last-minute pressure on herself, she’s making it more costly for him to stick with his current M.O. He doesn’t get to let things slide until deadline.

Sure, it would be great if he would take the initiative and stay on top of projects without her having to breathe down his neck.

I have a saying I like to trot out whenever I’m miffed: “When I am emperor of the universe, a lot of things are gonna change around here.” But I’m not emperor of the universe now. So given the situation as it is, rather than the way I think it should be, it’s helpful to step back and ask, Where do I have influence? How can I lower the emotional temperature? How can I take care of myself?


  1. JoVE says:

    Excellent approach, Janet. Not easy. But possible, which changing other people’s behaviour often isn’t. Always good to focus on the stuff we can actually do something about.

  2. The suggested resolution is excellent but it stops short of being as effective as it could be. If it were under the umbrella of disciplinary action, “he” would improve performance or would leave the organization. And if he were let go, it would be perfectly fair since he would be choosing this option by not abiding by Cammie’s clearly defined guidelines.

    She said she didn’t want to get him fired because “he really knows the business.” Well, his knowledge isn’t sufficiently benefiting her. He does not work out of the office to share his expertise on an ongoing basis, nor does he apply his knowledge to meet deadlines with high quality work.

    It does not appear he holds the best hand politically since we are not told he plays golf with the execs or has any other kind of special influence.

    As a supervisor, she has the power to develop a staff that does the work as assigned. If she refuses to step into her authority, she’s positioning herself as a martyr.


  3. Janet Bailey says:

    @Diana – If she’d been his supervisor, you’re right, it would have been appropriate (and important) for her to claim that authority. But he was a peer, not a direct report, and she didn’t have the authority to enforce guidelines or start a disciplinary action. Hence the need to remove some of the emotional engagement so she could reflect on next steps.

    @JoVE – Agree, not easy, but possible!

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