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Solving the case of the disappearing coworker

Coach's Corner--May 18, 2009

The Client
Name: Doris 
Age: 49
Title: Senior IT analyst
Industry: Local government
Issue: Dealing with unreliable coworker

Q. I have a co-worker who leaves early every day and is frequently away from his desk during the course of the day. We get along very well; however, I'm getting angry about covering for him. When I talk to him, he straightens up for a bit and then is back to his old ways. My management doesn't handle these things directly or effectively, and I'm not sure what to do.

A. Clarify your responsibility and focus on getting through to him about the consequences of his behavior.

The inner game
Get past your anger. Figure out what is underlying it. You may feel taken advantage of, afraid for him, annoyed that he hasn't taken your advice or concerned that your role in protecting him puts you at risk with management. Shift to a positive or neutral emotion, such as compassion or curiosity. You'll have more energy for a constructive conversation with him.

Understand your past choices. Why have you taken on the role of protector? Focus on understanding what you're getting out of covering for him. Perhaps you need to be needed, like to be the hero or victim, or maybe the situation just crept up on you. This may not be a simple question -- if necessary, talk to a counselor or other professional.

Know what outcome you'd like. Just having him be at work and doing his job would probably be a good starting point. Look deeper than that and know what type of working relationship you'd like to foster. Also think about what you'd like from management. Many of these aspects are outside of your control; however, knowing your hopes will help you influence the people around you.

The outer game
This situation begs for accountability on the part of everyone involved -- you, your co-worker and management. Focusing on your accountability, here are some steps to consider.

Plan your approach. Talk with your co-worker; you can always go to management later if you choose. Find a time when you aren't angry with him. Since you are ratcheting up your feedback from past conversations, get clear on your key message.

Provide direct feedback. A behavior-based feedback model would fit well here. For example, "When you slip away from work early, our manager asks me where you are. When I have to cover for you, I feel uncomfortable and angry." Then, point out the consequences for him if you quit covering or aren't able to cover -- even the risk of losing his job in this market.

Promise your support. Here's where managing your anger will help. You don't want to go from being an ally to throwing him to the wolves. Engage him in ways to change, and offer your support for his new behaviors. Expect some pushback, though; you may have to follow through on letting him experience the consequences of his choices before you get through to him. This likely won't be easy for you, either, so prepare yourself to be strong.

The last word
Help your co-worker and yourself by holding him accountable for his actions, while also providing the right amount of support.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted May 17, 2009
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