A work group that successfully collaborates on a project is analogous to an orchestra: Each musician in an orchestra produces a distinct, vital sound that harmoniously fuses with those of his fellow musicians into a symphony. Likewise, each member of an effective team produces a distinct, vital contribution that harmoniously integrates with those of his colleagues into an impressive final product.
But just as one out-of-tune musician may cause a symphony to disintegrate into discordant tones, an uncooperative colleague can doom a team’s group project.
So how should you deal with an uncooperative colleague who is fouling your group project? First, reevaluate whether he really is a problem. Perhaps, for example, your colleague’s tardiness or subpar work is a fluke or an everyday human error that should be overlooked. Or perhaps your colleague’s project responsibilities are more demanding than they appear to be—and so he actually is doing his fair share for the project.
Another possibility: Your colleague’s usual diligence is temporarily overshadowed by personal problems. If so, consider cutting him some slack, and for a reasonable time, shouldering a little extra responsibility.
Why? To show all-too-rare compassion. One of the best ways to generate good will from another person is to help him when he is in need. Everyone needs allies at work.
Alternatively, perhaps your colleague is well-meaning but his negligence is rooted in an honest misunderstanding about project responsibilities, or perhaps he is naïve about group dynamics and would improve if his misjudgments were gently pointed out to him. Or perhaps your worst suspicions are, in fact, correct—and your colleague is taking advantage of you because he knows that you will cover for him in order to keep the project on track.
Once you seriously suspect that your teammate may be a team-wrecker, start documenting his negligence. This is important because no matter how offensively unforgettable your colleague’s uncooperativeness may seem when you’re grappling with it, you may soon forget its specifics.
So document. Print emails that reflect your specific concerns. Record the dates and details of troublesome encounters, missed meetings and ignored deadlines. Make appointments with him electronically instead of just verbally, and keep copies of shoddy work he produces and your improvements to it.
Also, work to identify your colleague’s true intentions by meeting with him about the project status. During the meeting, clearly delineate the lines of responsibility and define the timeline for expected milestones and deadlines.
If you feel uncomfortable about initiating such a discussion, prepare by role-playing with trusted advisors. And keep reminding yourself that whatever discomfort this discussion may cause, it will pale compared to the discomfort and anger you will feel if your colleague’s negligence continues to create extra work for you over the long haul or if you are blamed for low quality of late work that was actually his fault. What’s more, if your colleague is intentionally taking advantage of you, he will probably continue to do so as long as you unintentionally tacitly enable him by failing to assert yourself.
During your discussion with your colleague, keep your tone non-accusatory collegial, friendly and polite. Only address the project at hand, not his personal shortcomings. If appropriate, follow-up your discussion with an email to your colleague that reviews project expectations that you mutually established during your discussion.
If your colleague is well intentioned, your discussion—possibly along with occasional reminders–will likely inspire him to shape up. If so, don’t act resentful; focus on amicably advancing your project together. But if your colleague’s negligence is habitual, consider ratcheting up the issue to your boss. And although you shouldn’t take such action hastily, if is necessary, do so long before your project disintegrates into disaster.
When you approach your boss, show him documentation of your colleague’s serial uncooperativeness. By doing so, you will help compel him to act on your behalf rather than dismiss the problem as a murky, irresolvable “he said/she said” squabble.