How to Motivate an Idle Colleague

Working with a lazy person can be extremely frustrating, especially when this individual is a coworker. An idle colleague wastes a good portion of the day taking long breaks, playing games, surfing the Internet, chatting with coworkers or taking personal calls. This individual is satisfied with only putting in the minimum effort to fly under the radar of management. For the diligent employee, watching a lazy person get away with this behavior can become infuriating. Having to co-exist in the workplace with an idle colleague is challenging and can lower the efficiency and positive atmosphere of the organization. This article will address strategies for motivating and working with an idle colleague.

Ascertaining Your Options

Since you are not your colleague’s boss, how do you handle the situation? Is there anything that you can actually do to address the issue? Maybe you feel that simply tolerating the lazy coworker’s behavior is your only option. On the other hand, you might wonder if you should confront the situation head on. Some options are listed below.

  • Ignore the Issue – You can decide to mind your own business and ignore the behaviour. If you are not negatively impacted by your colleague’s laziness, then this could be the best option. You may still be annoyed that this individual is flying under the radar with only doing minimal work. However, focusing on this person’s behaviour can cause you to lose focus on your own career goals.
  • Pick up the Slack – You can pick up the slack, doing work that your colleague isn’t completing. However this solution may not be the best one for your stress level. The work will get done, but you will probably only stress yourself out more than by simply doing your own work.
  • Get Assertive – Depending on the situation, you may want to get assertive and discuss this issue with your colleague. This is the best solution when your colleague’s idleness is negatively impacting you, your work and other team members. Allowing such behaviour to occur in the workplace can negatively impact your organization’s professional reputation.

Steps on How to Approach an Idle Colleague

If you decide that the situation calls for you to get assertive and approach your colleague, there are four steps you can take to handle the situation in a professional manner.

# 1: Open the Lines of Communication

The main goal here is to speak to the idle colleague with the purpose of finding a resolution for the situation. It is best to meet with your colleague in private at the office. Don’t begin a confrontation in front of other coworkers. Remember to be professional. Don’t criticize harshly, but rather explain how his or her laziness is negatively impacting you and the other employees in the office. It is best that you have thought this through before opening the dialogue and that you have specific incidents to cite. Making a blanket statement with no facts could only incite this individual and cause more harm than good. Follow these tips to help you get through this meeting.

  • Practice the proposed discussion with a trusted friend or mentor before approaching your colleague so you can calm your nerves.
  • Learn the art of good communication skills prior to discussing the issues so that you can professionally handle the situation.
  • Research techniques on how to deal with difficult people in the workplace. This article by Human Resource Expert, Susan M. Healthfield should help.  
  • Document the meeting with detailed notes so that you have recourse to defend yourself in case the colleague brings your discussion attempts to the attention of your manager.

# 2: Hone your Listening Skills

You cannot always take everything you see at face value. Sometimes there are issues behind behaviours that you were not aware of. Learn how to hone your listening skills so that you are actively trying to pursue the truth behind this colleague’s idle behavior. Many times we see negative behaviour and assume the individual exhibiting such conduct is lazy or doesn’t care. However, you need to dig deeper to ascertain the reason why this person is acting out. The following tips can assist with this second step in the process.

  • Take time before the meeting to mentally prepare yourself to be open to finding the truth and not making blind assumptions.
  • Learn how to become an active listener who pays attention, offers feedback and defers judgment.
  • Ask your colleague to explain his side of the story and be genuine in your request by showing that you are an active listener and want to find the best solution for all parties.

# 3: Become an Invisible Mentor

This third step involves a bit more effort on your part, but the rewards can benefit everyone involved. You can become an invisible mentor and help this colleague without the individual realizing you are mentoring him or her. Maybe after discussing the issue, you have perceived that the colleague is unmotivated by his or her job and that is why laziness has set in. Here are some tips to help in becoming an invisible mentor.

  • Take the time to find ways to subtly motivate this individual by sending projects in his or her direction that may be appealing and motivating.
  • Share ways that you have tried to stay motivated at work and continue succeeding in your professional goals.

# 4: Ask to Speak to Your Manager

You may have been diligent in following all of the three steps mentioned above, and nothing about the situation has changed. Your last resort is to ask to discuss the issue with your manager. The main caveat here is that you alert your colleague to the fact that you now feel obligated to speak to the manager. Don’t go behind the individual’s back and blindside him. That could further incense the colleague. The following tips will advise you on how to handle this step.

  • Document everything that you have done up to this point and also take notes on the examples of how your colleague has been mishandling his time at the office.
  • Take one to two weeks to gather this data before approaching your manager so that you come with comprehensive evidence of your colleague’s idleness and you don’t sound petty reporting on only a single incident.
  • Remember to be professional and follow all of the above-mentioned communication and listening techniques when speaking to your manager. You don’t want to be perceived as a whiny coworker who is wasting the boss’s time.
  • Once you have discussed this issue with the manager, you need to leave the colleague alone and allow the boss to deal with this individual.

Motivating an idle colleague may seem like an intimidating task; however, if you diligently follow the advice mentioned in this article, the process will be made easier. Remember to ascertain your options first and then follow the four steps. Once you have done all that you can, you need to leave the issue with the manager and then focus again on your own job and career development. 


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