How would one proceed to restart a relationship of respect with a fellow colleague with the below characteristics considering the absolute requirement to work together for the foreseeable future. Quitting is not an available option for both sides.

+ side

  • Trustworthy
  • Loyal
  • Friendly
  • Content
  • Detail oriented perspective
  • 10+ years of experience
  • Respectful

- side

  • Single thread thinking
  • Comprehension/Forgetfulness problems
  • Unable to self motivate to research a reason for a problem
  • Non existent (basic)job competence (in 10+ years)
  • Unless specifically told what to do (mail/directly), never does anything.
  • No desire or effort to improve

There is a lot of work to do and It creates a large constant burden when it feels like I'm alone. I'm pushed to answer for everything regarding the project. Hence, even though I don't have the title I have to manage him (because of the reasons above and he is fine with it). We don't have a project manager yet so we are alone to manage this project together. His every actions affects me to a degree. His direct official manager says exactly this :"It is what it is."

Management will expand the team eventually.

Things I have tried and failed,

  • passive agressive answers to his questions
  • absolute communication blocking (his tasks stop completely)
  • watching that part of the project crash thinking maybe the fear will work.(no effect)
  • assigning easy tasks (task becomes a pair programming venture, then is eventually finished by the person after several days)
  • assigning difficult tasks (task becomes a pair programming venture, then my work)
  • assigning nothing (nothing is done)
  • pushing to answer for some project related problems with the idea of confidence boost will fix things
  • trying to jumpstart his initiative and encourage ideas
  • trying to cover his mistakes, maybe fear was the blocking factor (results in cocky attitudes for some reason)
  • praising completed tasks privately/publicly
  • 4
    I think you'll need to expand on your relationship to this coworker. Are you his direct manager, or are you only assigning tasks to him because you are the senior developer? If you are not his manager - I think it would be his managers job to solve such problems and not yours.
    – s1lv3r
    Jan 15 '16 at 10:50
  • 1
    I'm not sure what you're trying to accomplish. If you don't manage this person, his poor performance isn't your problem to solve. If his inaction/screwups are blocking your work you need to raise that with your manager. Otherwise, be cordial and collegial but let him dig his own grave.
    – Lilienthal
    Jan 15 '16 at 10:51
  • 2
    @mechanicum Frankly, there's nothing you can do: you don't manage this person and he's probably not oblivious to his poor performance. If his manager couldn't get him to change you're not going to. Go to your manager and ask him what you should do to handle upcoming projects so you don't "crash".
    – Lilienthal
    Jan 15 '16 at 12:05
  • 1
    What is your role related to his? You imply you're not his manager.
    – Brandin
    Jan 15 '16 at 12:07
  • 1
    You may want to rethink how he can have 10+ years of experience and yet still not be competent. Maybe he just really knows how to play the system better than you.
    – JB King
    Jan 15 '16 at 18:34

There is so much missing in your question. To start with, what is your goal? Your title says it's to be able to respect the coworker. Most of the body says it's to not have to do all the work of two people. Some parts of the body say it's to improve this coworkers skill level. You really need to know this. What do you want?

Second, in your giant list of things you've tried, I see no questions at all. When the coworker doesn't finish something, or just sits there and expects you to finish it, do you have any idea why? Is it fear, laziness, incompetence, distraction, ... ? Does the coworker wish they could finish things, or wish you wouldn't assign hard things, or have any opinions about the way the two of you work together? And why doesn't the coworker start things? Is that about your process (no backlog to pick from, no written plan to review, no regular meetings about what work is left) or a more emotional reason such as fear or laziness? I don't see any signs of insight into the coworkers motivations, yet you're trying to change behaviours. That rarely works.

A piece of advice I sometimes give unhappily married people is "do what you would do if you broke up." I don't mean "date other people" but in many cases unhappy people say things like "if I left my husband, I could read a book on Sunday mornings" or "if I left my wife, I could go to the gym after work every day." I suggest they find a way to do those things without breaking up. After all, if your wife would kick you out over the gym thing, there's no loss, you were ready to leave. But maybe she won't, and maybe going to the gym will make you happier and improve the relationship.

So to apply this advice to your situation, what would you do if this coworker left the company (or was fired) but the workload didn't change? What would you do if you were truly alone on this project? You'd do the most important things first, right? You'd have some sort of plan or checklist, and mark things off as they were done. You'd warn your boss that there was too much work for the staff available (you.) And you'd do as much as you could and be proud of what you've done. So, start doing that.

While managing yourself as though you are the only person on the project, you can simultaneously try to get some help and support from the coworker. The key here is likely to be asking things. Some sample questions:

  • looking at this list of tasks, are there any you think you could do alone right now?
  • ok, are there any where if we do the first one together you could do the rest of the group on your own after that?
  • is there a task on this list you think is important to do first? Do you think you can do it?
  • what would you like to do next?

This may result in the coworker doing at least some small part of the project alone, lowering your workload from "everything" to merely "more than is fair." That would be progress and something to build on for next time.

Maybe this poor sad coworker says "no" to everything and "I don't know" and so on. Assign something medium priority and say you do not have time to work on it together. When you have the high priority stuff done and would be turning to the medium stuff anyway, check in with the coworker and if no progress has been made, pair on it for a while. Maybe you do it all in reality. Maybe you get the coworker past a rough patch and they finish it. Again, if they do, that's fantastic because you're moving from "everything" down to "too much" which is progress.

Keep asking, keep listening. Keep trying to figure out why this coworker can't start or finish things without you, so that you can help them to get to that place. Notice and enjoy the times when the coworker does pitch in. But above all, accept the reality that you are "single" on this project and should act like that. The weight is on you. Apparently you can carry it.

  • I want everything. I want a capable coworker I can respect, covering my back. I want to be able to trust his work. I can say he is the most unique person I have ever met. I have never met another person who has to restart himself mentally to accept another question. That being said, I am going to organize week start and end meetings starting monday to try out your suggestions.
    – mechanicum
    Jan 15 '16 at 15:22

You need to stop seeing him as a horrible human being that you have to put up with (even if that's true).

The list you wrote is all negative things. When I read your post, it's clear you don't have anything you can respect about him. Your "pluses" are vague generalizations and your "negatives" are specific complaints/concerns that show a deep resentment for that person.

Assuming you actually want to change this:

  1. Make a list of specific things the coworker has done well or does well. If you can't put at least 10 things on this list, you can pretty much give up on this whole approach because either:
    1. Your perspective is so biased against the coworker that nothing will change it
    2. The coworker is completely horrible and never will be useful
  2. Give some of this feedback to your coworker. Giving positive feedback is a ridiculously good motivator for nearly everyone. Yes, not everyone, but the list of qualities you gave as positives suggest it would be.
    • This isn't a "I said one compliment, didn't work, I'm done" type of thing, it takes time especially if you come across as condescending/superior (which given the tone of your post I suspect is true)
    • Your coworker probably feels your negative attitude towards him, too.
  3. Identify tasks that they can do which are low-risk, time consuming, and easily defined. Some people will not take initiative. You can either fight them, or accept it, and delegate appropriately. There is always time consuming work to do on any project team.
  4. Talk with your manager to understand what steps you should take.
    • If your company is large enough you may be able to find a mentor outside your current team who can provide valuable insight, being separate from your management structure.

You might consider, depending on your relationship, just having a "so this really isn't working, I feel like we're frustrated with each other often" conversation with your colleague. I've done this before when I had significant frustration with someone and it worked great, but it is 100% dependent on your relationship with that person.

There is a phrase "Rome wasn't built in a day" and it's true when reconciling/repairing broken relationships, too. It'll take work, effort, and probably involve frustration on your part. And it might not work, at all. People are complicated.

  • Downvoter care to comment?
    – enderland
    Jan 15 '16 at 21:27

The other answers are too complex.

Your coworker is a good 50% of the workforce, maybe more. If there were more people like you than you would have a harder time getting promotions and moving up in rank.

My advice:

  • Deal with it

  • Give him very specific tasks to do, check in with him, make sure he is on time or communicate with others that he is not. You are not only his defacto manager but his babysitter.

Others at your company understand this dynamic and will be pleased that you can handle him. Doing things like this right and getting people like him working shows leadership. The alternative is to keep failing and go down with him or at best, waste your time.


I think you should have a talk with him with all these items you posted here, make sure to tell him that you don't mean to offend him in any way, explain to him that you had to talk to him about those issues because it was getting in the way of the team's performance, let him point out some of your flaws too, be extremely kind while pointing out his flaws but straight to the point, be a gentleman and again show him that you don't mean to offend him, but plain enough to the point he's going to dream of it at night.

I wouldn't let him "dig his own grave" because he seems to be a nice person with really important traits like loyalty, and trustworthiness, which are really rare to find in co-workers.

Don't forget to show him the positive aspects of getting rid of the bad behaviors to his own personal growth.

I hope everything works out well.

  • This is what first comes to mind but wouldn't it backfire magnificently if he thinks he is doing his best. He may not be aware of some of those flaws himself.
    – mechanicum
    Jan 15 '16 at 11:42
  • @mechanicum That's why you need to make sure to exalt his positive traits more than bash the bad ones and show him examples of his bad and good behavior, it's going to be hard, human beings are complex :D, try to sound like a friend more than a co-worker
    – Kyle
    Jan 15 '16 at 12:44
  • @mechanicum Oh don't forget to fiercely glance into his eyes while pointing out the bad and good things, don't stare at him, it always works for me 8 out 10 times, it's going to be like walking on eggshells, just be patient and confident
    – Kyle
    Jan 15 '16 at 12:50

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