How Not to Be a Jerk to Your Incompetent Co-Workers

When you find yourself getting frustrated with colleagues, ask yourself what’s motivating them

A large woman with a crown sits on a throne above her coworkers who are small and looking up at her feet.
Illustration: Simo Liu

Jessica Powell, the former Google vice president who wrote The Big Disruption and told you how to quit your job, is here to answer your common but tricky work questions. Check back every other week for more management advice with a tech inflection.

I work with people who are inconsistently motivated, not particularly high-performing and not possible to get rid of. Sometimes I assume the worst, get frustrated, and am an asshole. But I would like to be a better human. How can I work effectively and without arrogance (clearly I struggle with this) with people of different levels of motivation and performance? In other words, how can I stop being an asshole to idiots?

OObviously, the first step is to not think of these people as idiots, because that’s a matter of opinion — they probably think you’re pretty stupid, too (or at least a jerk!).

Most likely, these “inconsistently motivated” co-workers are not idiots, but rather have different priorities than you. It may also be the case that they don’t feel inclined to go the extra mile because no one is communicating to them — through good pay or proper recognition — that their work is important.

I’m assuming from your question that you are not in charge and have no levers to pull with regards to pay. And the fact that these employees are “hard to dislodge” makes me think you might work in the public sector, or are in a large, bureaucratic corporation where your feedback doesn’t matter.

But almost everyone, in any company, is able to influence how a job is recognized.

Rather than assume that someone is incompetent, instead try to think about what motivates them.

By “recognition,” I don’t mean you have to bring in a birthday cake on a particular day, or send everyone “Great Work!” cards after they hand you a stack of files. Rather, I would encourage you to think of ways you can demonstrate to these employees that their work matters to you, and has a broader impact on the organization.

For example, say you work in HR and are dependent on a bunch of recruiters to help the company meet its hiring requirements. The recruiters are paid or evaluated according to the number of hires they can facilitate, whereas one of your goals, as an HR leader, is to ensure that the best people are hired and integrated smoothly into the company. You’re all part of the same team, but you’re being judged by very different things — them, by their hiring speed and you, by how you help these people navigate and succeed once they’ve started with your company. Your priorities aren’t at odds with each other, per se, but they also aren’t aligned.

So, continuing with our HR example, is there a way to make the recruiters feel more engaged in the full hiring-to-onboarding-process, and more invested in the long-term outcome? For example, you could help establish a “success metric” that shows an individual recruiter how well their recruits have gone on to perform at the company (for example, number of hires who were fired or quit, who has been a stellar performer, and so on.) Perhaps those metrics could have a monetary or recognition-based reward attached to it. In addition, you might share patterns you’ve seen in successful hires with the recruiters. And take the time, when new hires are made, to thank the recruiters for their efforts and call out things that they did particularly well.

Most of us want to feel respected and acknowledged at work — after all, we spend 8+ hours a day doing it. So it’s always important to ask yourself if you’re acknowledging the good stuff your co-workers do as much as you’re getting mad about the bad.

Rather than assume that someone is incompetent, instead try to think about what motivates them, and what could make them care more about the work you are dependent on.

If that doesn’t work, maybe take an anger-management class?

Technophile, technophobe. Music software start-up founder. Former Google VP. Author, The Big Disruption. Fan of shochu, chocolate, and the absurd.

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