dealing with incompetent coworkers

A reader writes:

I was recently hired to direct a highly visible urban beautification program. Moderate amount of grunt labor hiring, lots of design and in field production.

My Executive Director is results oriented, as am I. Just get it done gorgeous, with in budget, on time. Then up the bar – do more. Great! I love it.

Again, I’m in the field A LOT. I leave what seems like the most rudimentary HR tasks with the oh, I don’t know… HR Director??? only to experience lack of follow up, missed appointments, limited information – very minimal, bordering on obstructionist service. Last week I began to just do the job myself as it pertains to my dept. hiring and follow up. The result is a deep freeze from this executive in all but public forums.

My value to the organization is predominately creative and requires enormous attention to detail, costs, efficient use of resources. I am largely self directed. Senior staff have begun to ask me to work on their properties, provide visioning, give aesthetic suggestions. When we meet on these private issues, this HR person is accommodating and mission driven. Yet on the job – where it belongs, the team work is non responsive.

HR – A key driver that consistently under delivers? Guilty of talentism? Or just a dark bureaucratic force?

I love this question, because I’ve all too frequently encountered the personality type you’re describing in your HR director. I don’t think this is an HR thing — based on what you’ve said, it sounds like an incompetence thing, combined with a lack of sense of urgency. You’ll find it in every field; it’s not specific to HR. And, as is so often the case, your success is tied into her performance (which is why you’ve started finding ways to go around her).

Fortunately, it sounds like you have the type of executive director who is action-oriented, which means she’s likely to back you up if it comes to that.

You didn’t ask for advice, but I can’t help giving it since, well, I’m bossy. So here’s what I’d do in this situation, although obviously you should take personalities and your office politics into account. I’m also assuming for the purpose of this answer that you both report directly to the executive director.

There are two possibilities here: (1) She’s incompetent and has no sense of urgency, or (2) There’s more to the picture that you don’t realize and that could change your perspective.

Here’s what I’d advise: Meet with the HR director and tell her your concerns. But –and this is crucial — also tell her that you realize you’re only seeing one piece of the picture and that you realize there may be parts of it that you don’t know. Ask her what her perspective is — and be genuinely open to hearing it, since maybe there really are pieces here that would change your opinion. If you don’t hear anything like that, though, then ask her if the two of you can mutually figure out changes that will help the issues you’re raising. I think it’s key to go into the meeting with the mindset that you simply have different perspectives and that you genuinely want to collaborate on fixing the issues; if you go in secretly thinking she’s an obstructionist buffoon, it’s going to come across and it’ll color the whole interaction.

Then give it a couple of weeks and see what happens. If you don’t get anywhere, at whatever point you feel like you’ve made a good faith effort to resolve the issues with her directly, I’d meet with your executive director and ask for her input on how to get around your concerns. Keep it impersonal and unemotional; keep the focus on how it’s affecting your ability to move forward and produce. (But of course it’s key to have already met with the HR director herself to discuss the issues; only go to the executive director when you’ve been left with no choice in order to get the problems solved. You don’t want to start out there.)

Now, a lot of people out there will disagree with this advice, feeling that you shouldn’t go over people’s heads. But if you address the issues head-on with the problem staffer and can’t get resolution, I think practicality (and effectiveness) demands that you escalate. I know that if I were your executive director, I’d want to know about it. And I also know that when I’ve bumped into this kind of thing in the past, this is how I’ve handled it and it’s always worked well. If you’re clearly an action-oriented high performer and you handle it calmly and unemotionally, you’re going to have credibility (assuming you’ve given her perspective a fair hearing and are being objective). I’ve also found in this situation that when you raise these sorts of issues, it’s rarely a shock to the boss; they usually sense there are issues, although they often don’t have specifics, because so few people bother to use this process.

{ 2 comments… read them below }

  1. John*

    What a useful blog! I’ve added you to my blogroll. Your advice here is exactly right, at least as far as we understand the situation. This question inspired me to elaborate on your post and offer my own unsolicited advice on The Promotable Employee.

  2. sandy*

    What I can hear is you are an excellent fit for the independent work you do.

    I also hear a lot of arrogance. From my broadcasting past, I know this comes from the pressure of intensely creative work. You have a lot of weight on your shoulders.

    However, if you looked at your HR director as a support instead of a hindrance to your vision, it might help.

    Here’s a story:

    I remember one has-been rock star (who shall remain nameless) ordering me to pull the long-winded opening act off the stage because the audience had come to see HIM!!!! Well, the opening act was covering for the rock star and entourage’s farting around backstage until THEY decided it was time to go on.

    Needless to say, this guy’s road crew had fun eating his catered meal and (as much as they dared) messing with the rock star’s sound. I have the cheap thrill privilege of saying I stomped around in the rock star’s cowboy boots when he wasn’t watching.

    Remember, never piss off your road crew.

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