Dear Annie: Last night, for the zillionth time, I had to stay until 9:30 p.m. -- missing my daughter's piano recital -- to finish a project because another member of my team went waltzing out the door at 5 p.m. without completing his share of the work. (The deadline was this morning, and "we" made it, no thanks to him.) Other people on our team have also picked up the slack for this person on many occasions, so it's not just me, but I'm really starting to feel like a chump.
So far, he's gotten away with slacking off because he's very likable and fun to have around, and everybody has tiptoed around the fact that he's not doing his job, but I really think it's time to do something about this. Should I tell our boss what's been going on? What do you think? —Steamed in Seattle
Dear Steamed: This person has saddled you with his work a zillion times, and you're just getting mad now? You and your overburdened teammates are remarkably patient. But seething silently is probably just making things worse. "By not speaking up when someone isn't pulling his or her weight, you're tacitly giving that person permission to keep on with the behavior," notes Kerry Patterson, co-founder of training and development firm VitalSmarts and co-author of a book called Crucial Confrontations.
Alas, your dilemma is far from unique. "When we've done surveys over the past 30 years, one of the top complaints that always comes up is 'carrying dead wood,'" Patterson says. In an online poll of about 550 full-time employees earlier this month, for instance, 93% said they work with at least one person who isn't doing his or her fair share.
Still, only one in 10 has confronted an under-performing coworker. "Most people worry that bad things will happen if they say something. They want to avoid conflict and unpleasantness, or even retaliation," says Patterson. "It's easier to just grit their teeth and do the extra work" -- up to a point, anyway, and then look out.
"What usually happens," he adds, "is that people wait until they are really fed up, and then they blow their stack. The trouble is, that doesn't usually do any good and, what's worse, it can backfire on you. Even if you're completely in the right, losing your temper makes you look unprofessional and out of control." And who needs that?
So what should you do that might actually help? First, don't rat out the slacker to your boss, at least not yet. "You'll never be a real team if you go running to the boss without talking to each other first," Patterson says. Instead, make an appointment to speak with your errant teammate in private (maybe even over lunch, since he's such a fun guy) and, before you meet with him, calm yourself down.
"It's all in your attitude and the language you use. Don't go in all angry and full of judgment, with the idea that you're going to give him a piece of your mind," says Patterson. "Instead, be curious. Find out how he sees the situation." And stick with the facts. Say something like, "Last week, my understanding was that you'd be doing X and I would cover Y, but I ended up doing both. What was up with that? Did you understand this project the same way I did? How did you see your part in it?"