“Gain a modest reputation for being unreliable, and you will never be asked to do a thing.” — Paul Theroux, American travel writer and artist.
“From the backstabbing co-worker to the meddling sister-in-law, you are in charge of how you react to the people and events in your life. You can either give negativity power over your life, or you can choose happiness instead.” — Anais Nin, French-American diarist.
Volunteer leaders, freelancers, and corporate employees alike all depend on others to contribute or provide work. At some point, you will run into people who fail to deliver what they’ve promised. How should you react when people leave you in the lurch? Your reaction depends on a number of factors:
• Was the failure an oversight, or did they outright break a promise?
• Was this a one-time thing, or does it happen often?
• Do you rely on their work so you can do yours?
• Do you depend on their work for your team’s success?
• Are you co-workers, or is this your boss?
• In what way and how badly did their failure impact your productivity?
Based on the relevant combination of factors, you have several options, which may escalate if the situation worsens.
1. A gentle reminder. Nudge them about the matter; you may jar loose what they’ve promised. Maybe they just forgot. This is the most common response in most situations, especially when dealing with co-workers or the boss. Usually this is enough to produce a result.
2. Communicate the inconvenience. If their failure has compromised your productivity or the team’s, or if this has happened more than a few times before, be more direct than Step 1. Make it clear you depend on them to do what they say they will do. If your project requires their input, flat out tell them you can’t do your work until they supply it.
3. Have a serious chat with them. If Step 2 fails, take it up a notch and have an earnest face-to-face talk. Remind them of their promise, and pin them down on a due date. Look them in the eye when they tell you they will have it to you by a certain day and time.
4. Go around them. No result as yet? Find someone else to help you. This works best with co-workers. If someone has promised to do something for you and doesn’t, take them out of the loop altogether and go to someone else—if you can. This should be low on your list of options, after you’ve already pushed them for what they promised. Sometimes it represents the only way to avoid bottlenecks caused by what Albert J. Bernstein calls “dinosaur brains,” people who enjoy wielding petty authority.
5. Go over their head. The purpose of any business or organization is to produce useful products or services, whether widgets or government policy, in as efficient a manner as possible—not to keep lazy or controlling coworkers happy. If you find your way blocked by one, consider going over them to their boss. Depending on the situation, you might obliquely mention your need, or bluntly point out so-and-so won’t produce. So-and-so might call you a snitch, but so what?
Fair warning: going over YOUR boss’s head is a really, really bad idea, no matter how crummy the situation, and doing so should represent a last-ditch effort. No matter how unfair it may be, you could wind up jobless for not following the chain of command. Go to HR first in dire circumstances.
6. The nuclear option. If the other person keeps it up and proves to your satisfaction they just don’t care—or worse, they think it doesn’t matter if they lie to you—end the relationship. If you’re coworkers, tell your boss you can’t work with them and why. If you’re the boss, put them on notice; and then fire them if they don’t improve. If they’re the boss, arrange a transfer or quit. You can’t do your job if those you depend on won’t let you. Again, this is the sixth and final step. It rarely comes to this, thank goodness.
You may work in an office where you suspect certain people don’t meet the minimum requirements of their jobs. You’ve seen it: they roll in at 10:00 AM daily or take two-hour lunches. My recommendation? If you’re not management and this doesn’t affect you directly, ignore it. For all you know, they stay till 10 PM to make up for arriving late, based on a previous agreement with the boss, or they have personal issues that limit their ability to work a full day. Even if you know they’re cheating, don’t let it stress you. It’s unfair, but you have enough to worry about. Put your head down, bull through, do your best, and trust those in charge to notice and have the intestinal fortitude to do what they should.