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.


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