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How to tell your teammate that his work is sloppy?

You consider yourself a hard worker. You’re responsible at work. Everything you do is high-quality, meticulous and very neat. When you have a task to complete, you are fully committed to finishing it even before the deadline. When someone asks you to prepare a report, you verify it a couple of times, checking whether your data is accurate and your graphs are flawless.

But that’s you. Not everyone follows the same standard even in the best companies. You’re sometimes compelled to work with people who are rather sloppy. The ones who generate low-quality work that forces you to push back the deadline which in turn poses a danger of pissing off the client. Working with that sort of people can be a nightmare, mostly because their attitude doesn’t affect just you. It also affects your whole team and it may even affect your client. As a consequence, you are the one who needs to work under pressure and clean up their mess. In the long-term that may be very demotivating and detrimental to the work process.

But what are you supposed to do if you experience such problems in your team? In this article I’m going to uncover a few tricks that will help you handle a difficult conversation about your team member’s sloppiness. You’ll find here a few ideas about how to tell someone that their work is sloppy without it affecting your relationship negatively.

Don’t assume bad intentions

When you notice poor quality job on one of your teammates’ part, you sometimes assume from the get-go that it was done on purpose. You think it’s probably because the person is lazy, mean and any other negative trait you can imagine. I know it’s easy to fall into that negativity spiral, especially if a similar situation doesn’t happen for the first time.

In psychology, it’s called attribution bias [1]. We tend to explain another person’s actions by overemphasizing the role of dispositional factors and minimizing the influence of situational factors [2]. For example, if one of your colleagues is late for a meeting, you are more likely to explain this behavior by their carelessness or laziness, rather than attribute it to a serious incident, disease or some other unforeseeable situation. 

I often come across situations in which people are simply unaware of doing something wrong. They have no idea that their poor performance is harmful and affects others. Their inefficiency may also be caused merely by the lack of knowledge. As Hanlon’s Razor, one of the famous aphorisms, states:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

However, it may not actually be about stupidity. That’s too strong a word and it’ll definitely be considered offensive. Keep in mind that some people can simply be afraid to ask questions. They are afraid of losing face in the eyes of their team which in fact ends up causing them to lose it. That makes them unaware of what they’re doing is actually shoddy work.

Speak up straightaway

The sooner you address the problem, the smaller impact it will have on the future work. Addressing it early on allows you to talk about the issue in a more informal way. As opposed to a more official route, when there’s already huge pressure on the team.

If you notice that your colleague’s work is sloppy and it affects the team, you should start right away but with a light approach. I’d suggest organizing a one-on-one meeting during which you can discuss those “minor” issues. But first, you need to understand why your colleague didn’t care about the quality of his work, why he made mistakes in the report or forgot about a deadline.

During such a meeting you can notice if that person is aware of his mistakes and how it could negatively affect the whole team or even the whole company. After a while you can determine whether that was just a single incident or it’s actually a part of the work culture. Once you’re sure that it’s an issue with performance, you can decide if “two times is one time too many”.

Ask open-ended question

Start with high-level questions since it’s essential to understand the context for the situation right away. You can start by asking about your colleague’s feelings regarding his recent work. Try anything that opens him up a bit and allows you to analyze the problem:

ask open-ended questions

Pay attention to every word you hear and show genuine interest. And by “interest” I mean real interest, not just this fake “active listening” approach you can read about in any communication book. The more genuine and interested you are, the more likely your colleague will be to open up and receive feedback later on. You need to show him that you will be able to offer a helping hand.

Avoid placing blame

Don’t use aggressive language that will assign blame directly. You should avoid phrases like “you messed up” or “it’s your fault”. When you place blame on someone directly, their first reaction will be denial. That person will instantly jump into a “fight or flight” mode. That’s a natural way for humans to react to stressful situations. As a result, your colleague can start to look for excuses, trying to preserve his self-image instead of admitting to a pitfall.

avoid blaming

Assigning blame directly to one person is a typical behavior for micromanagers. But it doesn’t actually solve the problem. It’ll more likely cause the subordinates to hide their problems rather than convince them to discuss possible solutions honestly. According to a study conducted by Nathanael Fast and Larissa Z. Tiedens [3], people actually learn less and perform worse in such environment. Moreover, pointing fingers will spread easily from one person to another and that always leads to creating a toxic culture at work. 

Focus on facts, think about actions

Everything you say should be based on facts, not just your emotions. Try explaining the problem in a clear and uncomplicated way and then ask about possible solutions. 

focus on facts

You can also give some input about the impact of the recent situation on the team. You may explain why you care so much about it as well. Your colleague should understand that he’s a part of something bigger and he’s responsible for the team’s outcome. But it’s not only about the words. Involve him in the process of finding a solution that will prevent him from failing next time and explain his role to him.

ask for solutions

Then you can discuss what the best approach to this situation would be. Maybe you’ll introduce an additional double-check performed by another colleague or you’ll divide tasks into smaller ones that are easier to handle by the teammate in question. Anything you agree upon should become an action item to be introduced right away.

make sure it will take place

Once you have a plan, you’re almost done! Now it’s just a matter of tracking its progress to see if it works. Make sure you have time to give and receive feedback, adjust the plan and offer a helping hand any time there’s a need for it. Start right away and focus on small steps that will become a part of a bigger improvement strategy.

Conclusion

Sometimes bad things happen not because of bad intentions, but because people didn’t think it through properly. Don’t assume that people are just lazy and mean. Try to investigate what the root cause of a problem is by offering a genuine conversation. Before you start blaming anyone, give them a chance to improve. If that doesn’t help, you can think of other approaches and only then should you decide if “two times is one time too many”.

References

[1] Samuel Himmelfarb. Behavioral Science. 19 (3): 213–215. 1974. Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior.
[2] Lee Ross. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, New York: Academic Press. pp. 173–220. 1977. The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process.
[3] Nathanael Fast, Larissa Z. Tiedens. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46(1):97-106. January 2010. Blame contagion: The automatic transmission of self-serving attributions.