Ask LH: How Do I Deal With A Frustratingly Dumb Coworker?

Ask LH: How Do I Deal With A Frustratingly Dumb Coworker?

Dear Lifehacker, I have a colleague who, for lack of a better word, is really stupid. He asks me how to do the same thing several times per day, regularly makes inane comments, and screws up projects for the whole team. I only care that he’s so dumb because he regularly affects my work, but obviously someone thought he was smart enough to hire. What can I do? Thanks, I’m With Stupid

Images by Tereza Linhart (Shutterstock), bikeriderlondon (Shutterstock), and jorgen mcleman (Shutterstock)

Dear IWS,

You can’t always choose the people you work with, but if a colleague makes work harder for you and others you certainly have cause to complain. However, by taking action you might put this dumb co-worker out of a job. That’s a tough thing to put on your shoulders, regardless of how incapable he may be. On top of that, you may see a lot of mistakes because they are at the forefront of the work you do. This guy may do great work on other tasks outside of the constant errors he makes where you’re involved. So you need to see the full picture before taking action. When you’re truly sure you’re dealing with an incompetent colleague you just can’t work with, here are your options.

Find The Root Of The Problem

Ask LH: How Do I Deal With A Frustratingly Dumb Coworker?

If you’ve tried to instruct the poor dumb guy (or girl) in the past and he or she just won’t learn, make an attempt to find out why. You don’t want to say something like “why don’t you understand me?”, but rather something along these lines:

I’ve shown you how to do this a few times now and you seem to be struggling with it. Is there a better way I could explain it? Am I not giving you enough detail?

Don’t assume that the problem belongs to them. This is part of how you come to see the full picture. They might be poor learners, but they also might not understand what you keep telling them and fear your reaction if they tell you. By not blaming them, you give them a chance to offer an explanation. Maybe you are a terrible teacher and you just don’t realise it. In this case, they can help you learn. Maybe they just struggle with certain tasks and don’t know what to do. In this case, you can ask how to teach them and work with them a little more closely.

Of course, it is not your responsibility to spend a lot of your time educating a co-worker. They should come in mostly knowledgeable about how to do their job. You shouldn’t spend hours training them in basic tasks they should know how to do, unless you have the time and the desire to help someone else improve. Most of us have our actual work to get done, however, and can’t devote this kind of time — especially when we’re not sure we’ll actually get anywhere. But if you can spare some moments each day, you can help someone struggling who will, in turn, remember what you did and want to help you in return some day.

Ideal outcomes rarely happen, however, and if this co-worker hasn’t learned yet he or she probably won’t learn in the future. It doesn’t hurt to try for a week or so, and dedicate a little energy to solving the problem, but don’t get your hopes up too high.

Ask Another Staffer To Try

Ask LH: How Do I Deal With A Frustratingly Dumb Coworker?

In the event you’re alone in dealing with a colleague of deficient intelligence, make sure other people know about the problem as well. Even if they work with him or her, they may not notice the issue and only see how the problem affects the team. If others don’t know the source, make sure they do. Ask someone on your level or above you to work with this problematic staffer for a little while and assess the situation.

Your smarter colleagues may not find a problem. If they don’t, you have to consider that you have some sort of issue with this “dumb” co-worker and need to resolve it. Often a breakdown in communication can make someone seem stupid when they actually have quite a bit of intelligence. Consider having lunch with them and getting to know them. This might sound miserable, given how you feel about them, but it can give you a chance to understand their behaviour a little better. That can provide insight into how they operate and how you can communicate with them more effectively.

If your colleagues agree that you have a problem on your hands, you then have witnesses to the problem. You’ll need these in the event you decide to take a step further and report the problem.

Talk To A Manager Or Human Resources

Ask LH: How Do I Deal With A Frustratingly Dumb Coworker?

One role for human resources is to help solve issues between employees. If someone doesn’t carry their weight, employers want to know. If you decide to report the problem to the company, follow these steps:

  1. Schedule an appointment with HR.
  2. Explain the issue. Be as unbiased as possible.
  3. Suggest a few options that don’t include termination.

More specifically, here’s an example of something you can say to cover these points:

Sam, Tim, and I have a problem with Janice. When working with her, she makes frequent mistakes and doesn’t pay attention when we try to teach her. This results in a lower quality of work and delays. It also frustrates us. We don’t want to get her in trouble or fired, but we do want to do our jobs effectively without wasting time instructing her repeatedly or fixing her many errors. We’d like to explore how we can resolve this problem amicably, perhaps by having someone train her more thoroughly or having her reassigned to a department that suits her better. Of course, if you have alternative suggestions we’d really like to hear them. We’re struggling and not sure what to do.

However you address the subject with HR, you want both honesty and compassion in your messages. Anger won’t win you anything, and might make the problem worse. Even if you’d love to see your dumb co-worker kicked to the kerb, show some sympathy. Act like you want to help even if you don’t. If you come at the situation in a cold-hearted fashion, people will see you as vindictive rather than frustrated. You want to frame your request in a way that shows you care about the company and your co-workers and want to find a solution that works for everyone.

Find The Humour In Their Stupidity

Ask LH: How Do I Deal With A Frustratingly Dumb Coworker?

Sometimes dumb colleagues are here to stay despite their lack of intelligence. Sometimes you’re the only one who thinks they’re dumb. Regardless of the situation, if you fail to resolve it through the above means you should stop fighting the battle and relax. Try to find the humour in their stupidity. Replace the frustration with a laugh. If you didn’t have to work with them, you’d probably find a lot of their actions funny. Making a concerted effort to laugh about the dumb things they do rather than conjure up more anger will help you let go of a lot of the frustration.

Of course, if their stupidity causes you to correct work often, you can’t really laugh at that. You can, however, anticipate the same, stupid mistakes you’ve dealt with time and time again. Budget time to correct them. If you don’t need to, you get a pleasant surprise. If you do, it’s just another task on your list that you now allowed time for.

Furthermore, if you have the control, you can just delegate work they more often manage to do without any major failures. In the end, if you can’t easily work with them you ought to find ways to work around them. And laugh, because you might as well enjoy the stupidity if you have to endure it.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I have a friend dealing with exactly the same issue. Yesterday’s question was “What is in a lemon lime and bitters?”

    • I don’t think ‘lemon, lime, and bitters’ is the proper answer for the question ‘what is in a lemon, lime, and bitters’.

      At best the answer is ‘lemonade, lime cordial, and angostura bitters’. At worst the answer is ‘I have no idea what that commercially mass produced ‘lemon lime and bitters’ beverage has in it. Does the bottle have an ingredients list? Flavouring 223? What the hell is Flavouring 223?’.

      If anything, I think the person has shown some intelligence for thinking beyond a product name.

      • There are many ways to make a Lemon, Lime & Bitters. So asking what’s in one is a valid question. Some places use Lemon Squash rather than Lemonade, the construction of the drink is also important.

        The worst one I had was when the guy I was working with asked what was in a rum and coke. We had 1 type of rum and it was automatically dispensed. He didn’t ask once or in jest he asked every time it was ordered. That combined with the fact that he couldn’t pull a beer and we where in the Members Bar at State of Origin, I needed somebody who could handle a drink order.

  • it would be great to see a similar article titled “How Do I Deal With A Frustratingly Dumb Boss/Manager?”

    • thats easy, manipulate the hell out of them, make them think your ideas are their ideas, guide them away from their stupidity by making it seem like someone elses idea. Been doing this for awhile, easier than fighting it 😛

      • Yep, if your manager is so dumb and you are clearly so much smarter than them, then it shouldn’t be hard to run rings around them and make the situation to your benefit.

  • Two counterpoints:

    a) This person may have a diagnosable learning difficulty that you are not aware of (or that person may not even be aware of).

    b) Why is it that often the person whining about their coworkers are often the person with the most flaws themselves?

    And to all you people judging that others have asked seemingly stupid questions, I am an analytical chemist and these are the types of questions I ask. Does that make me dumb too?

    • Where I used to work there was a very dumb co-worker who used to complain about another co-worker all the time for being “dumb”. He said he kept asking the same questions, and that he couldn’t undertand it – and stuffing everything up. What he didn’t know was that the “dumb colleague” was making fun of him. He was explaining everything wrong and correcting things that were already correct. The “dumb colleague” was terminated for bullying. The other colleague was sent away for further training, but never came back.

  • Be careful. They are probably related to someone senior in the company, and will be your boss or running the company in a few years.
    Didn’t you get the memo, corporate Australia is a feudal system, not a meritocracy.

  • Go to HR as an absolute last resort, and only if your next option is to leave the company. Too often dealing with them will result in more problems for you. Sorry to HR professionals reading, but generally I’ve found the HR function to be part of the problem, not the solution. Actually, no, I’m not sorry.

    • Couldn’t agree more, as a Team leader i had to deal with horrible HR department.

      I had a bloke who was 26 years old, and couldn’t read or write, he applied for a job on an IT technical helpdesk (think 2nd level remote PC support) i was the TL, i did the interview, he failed it hard.
      His Referee’s from his last job advised they would not hire him again and that hiring him in the first place was a serious mistake, he was unable to follow simple instructions, couldn’t read or write and constantly made mistakes.
      I put forth my recommendation that he not be hired as he wasn’t right for the role and didn’t meet minimum requirements.

      2 Days later he rocks up to work hired by our HR department, when i asked the HR head why she hired him against my direction, her response and i Quote was “He seems like a nice boy, and i liked him”….

      I spent the next 3 months of his probation explaining the same shit to him day in day out, when i finally got it through to the HR department that i didn’t want him anymore because he was useless, they removed him from my team and gave him to another team, who had the EXACT same issues, but by this time he had been given a full contract by the HR team.

      HR departments should have NO say in day to day operations.

      • They need to have some. HR staff are very well paid for a reason. Not saying this is the reason you didn’t like him, but if it’s possible you didn’t want him because he had a mental/intellectual/physical disability or was black/gay/overweight/ugly/father/etc. then HR are the people responsible if he brought any claim against your company.

        • I was going to mention that some employees who are considred ‘dumb’ may in fact have some sort of intellectual disability, and from my experience with such people it’s normal having to repeat things to them on a weekly basis. It’s a difficult situation, since employees who are informed their ‘dumb’ colleague has a disability may purposely treat him/her differently and gain an understanding (maybe even sympathy) as to their particular working nature. Whereas if employees aren’t told about his/her disabillity, they will continue to think the person is utterly pathetic and lose all hope in them.

  • Person who is dumb at their work role may be malicious/vicious when it comes to responding to complaints about their behaviour, especially if they feel they can use any conceivable discrimination angle.

  • Somewhere I used to work, a colleague used to complain about a “dumb colleague” all the time. When in fact this “dumb colleague” wasn’t dumb at all and just making fun of the dumb person complaining about the “dumb colleague”

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