Rachel Shadoan Muses

Ethnography and the Bleedy Edge: How to Deal With Useless People

In an ideal world, we would only work with people we wanted to work with. Teams would be perfectly composed of people with complementary skillsets and compatible personalities. Everyone would be honest about their committment to a project, forthcoming about other demands on their time and energy, and considerate of the needs and feelings of their teammates. Any conflict that arose could be solved easily and painlessly with open communication; no one would ever by tired, frustrated, or miserable; we would all get eight hours of sleep each night, a hour of exercise a day, five servings of fruit and veggies; and work would be so fun it would be like getting paid to play.

All of the things above are fantastic goals. One should strive to build teams of people that inspire and excite you, ask for people with the skills you need. We should work towards honest and open communication in our teams. We should definitely be trying to get enough sleep and exercise. Sadly, we live in the real world, and this means that we rarely get everything we ask for, and even more rarely everything we want.

This mean that sometimes you will be forced to work with useless people.

You know who I’m talking about. That team member who is always forty minutes late to meetings with clients. That person who refuses to put forth any solutions of their own, but insists on ripping apart every other solution on the table. That person who disappears for days with no warning and no contact, only to reappear and demand that you justify every decision you made in his or her absence.

We have all encountered this person. Many of us have been this person from time to time–we all have our moments of cluelessness, exhaustion, laziness, pride, stubbornness, and general uselessness. This is understandable, even forgivable, when recognized and remedied. But what do you do with a person who is chronically useless?

1. Recognize that the “problem child” is not actually useless.

Everything is good at something. Make a list of the skills that person has that are particularly good, and then delegate tasks to that individual accordingly. Provide specific, concrete tasks to accomplish, and acknowledge success appropriately.

2. Provide useful, constructive feedback.

  1. Acknowledge the individual’s effort in a positive way. ex “I appreciate that you came to the meeting with our client today.”
  2. Describe the consequences of the unacceptable behavior. ex. “However, when you come to the meeting forty minutes late, it communicates that we do not take our work seriously, and damages our credibility with the client.”
  3. Provide an opportunity for the individual to work with you to remedy the situation, ex “What can we do to solve this issue together? Is there a more convenient time in which we can schedule the meetings?”

If you are unwilling to carry out those first two steps, you are robbing yourself of potential talent and short-changing your “useless” team member by denying them an opportunity to grow. However, if repeated applications of the methods fail, you are left with two options that don’t require involving superiors.

1. Drop the diplomacy and slap the problem child around until they get a clue and fall in line.

I have not yet tried this method, tempting though it is. If someone has in the audience has, I would love to hear how it worked out.

2. Mitigate the damage the individual can do to the project and the team.

  • Recognize that this method will place additional burdens on the other team members and scope accordingly.
  • Do not assign critical tasks to habitually unreliable individuals.
  • Maintain a running list of useful but non-critical tasks to assign to the individual should they wish to contribute.
  • Encourage participation by acknowledging and praising ideas and so forth that the individual has contributed–the goal is damage control, not allienation.
  • Continue providing constructive feedback.
  • Provide frustration relief valves for other team members. Create a confidential space for each team member to frankly air frustrations with the team leader. Encourage dancing, laughing, breaking china, and throwing eggs at brick walls to relieve tension.
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2 comments on “Ethnography and the Bleedy Edge: How to Deal With Useless People

  1. Very nice post!

    I like the sandwich technique to criticise: Make and real compliment (as far as possible), throw the raw truth, make another compliment and drive to a possible solution! I’ve seem this approach working.

    Mapping skills is awesome, maybe at the beginning of a project try to make people manufacture cards of themselves with their skills and its levels (like some card games as Magic – The Gathering). It can help to decide how to build pairs, who must work with whom (to complement or learn a new skill) and also helps you as leader to sign the “problem child” to something they could be more interested, therefore, more participative and capable to delivery something valuable.

    • Rachel Shadoan
      October 11, 2012

      I REALLY love the idea of having people make cards of themselves and their skills for the beginning of a project. That’s absolutely brilliant. The individuals gain something out of the introspection, and the group gains something out of the analysis. Brilliant. I wonder how more established groups would respond to such a system? The researchers I’m working with now have been together for many years; I should convince them to try this.

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