your next move

‘I’m Tired of Dealing With Incompetent Co-workers’

A woman wearing glasses, a sweater and a blazer sits in front of a laptop at a desk. She's squeezing her eyes shut and she supports her forehead with her hands.
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Dear Kimberly,

I’m looking for advice on how to stay sane in disorganized/inefficient work environments and having to work for/with people who wouldn’t know effective leadership or collaboration if it bit them in the ass. (Sorry, dramatic … but true.)

In the last six or so years I’ve worked for two organizations in a significant capacity. At first, I was everyone’s go-to person because I’m thorough and hardworking. I was young when I started that job and I didn’t know enough about setting boundaries. Now I’m in a part-time position that’s sort of a stopgap before I feel ready to start applying to full-time jobs again.

The issue is I have such a hard time dealing with people whose disorganization and ineptitude derails work. Folks who always want updates from you but never remember what you tell them; who try to get you to do stuff that clearly isn’t your job; who never follow through on a single task; who have no problem changing the nature of a project that you’re in the middle of. I push back whenever I can, but the dynamic remains.

I strive for open communication and I try to go into every interaction, even with the most frustrating of co-workers and superiors, with a sense of compassion and understanding. I started to get down on myself because it feels like everyone else can just do their job and not care. But I always seem to form “alliances” in the workplace with others who have the same or similar issues, bonds formed through mutual frustration. I’m tired of that too!

I don’t know how to stop this cycle and not get sucked into a toxic workplace dynamic again. I believe in my capabilities — which some do notice and appreciate! — but it feels like my drive and skill gets taken advantage of over and over. I feel hopeless about finding a workplace where I’d be truly respected, because you never know going into a new job.

I dread all the time I’d have to spend searching and trying to prove myself in a job market that keeps getting more and more competitive. At this point, I want to stop working altogether and just chill for a bit on savings and a little help from my supportive partner … but I know I have to make a living somehow.

Working in an environment where you feel like every day is a battle can be extremely frustrating. I often see high-achieving professionals struggle with navigating the nuances of different personalities and leadership styles while being in what I like to call “the magic middle” of the workplace.

The magic middle is where a mid-career professional like yourself either sinks or swims. You’re in roles where you’re capable of executing tasks autonomously, but you’re not quite senior enough to stand up to toxic leaders who can make or break your career. You have such a solid body of work that you may be tasked with “special projects” that actually take you away from your main area of expertise. Last but not least, while you play a part in your workplace’s culture, you’re not able to meaningfully shift that culture without support from other “magic middle” employees and executive sponsorship.

It’s a tough place to be.

To address the first part of your question about dealing with difficult leaders, let’s identify the needs of your stakeholders so you’re able to “beat them to the punch.” When you work with a leader who constantly asks for updates on projects and never remembers what you shared, figure out what medium and frequency of updates they need so that you can get ahead of the task. Maybe you’ve been giving verbal updates in passing, but your leader is always on the go and can never take notes. In this case, it may be helpful to deliver written updates once a week or prior to their meetings with their manager. If they ask you for that information again, you can simply forward your previously written email update. The key here is being consistent so that your leader can begin to anticipate your updates and, in time, loosen the reins a bit.

The reality is that we have to continuously communicate how we’d like to be treated in every relationship in our lives, and this includes the workplace. I recently read a social-media post from Nedra Glover Tawwab, licensed mental-health therapist and author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself, about how we must repeat ourselves in our relationships. Stating a need, desire, or boundary one time is not enough for to enforce it. In time, we hope that others will respect our boundaries and preferences, but we have to be able to articulate our needs regardless.

As far as the workplace alliances that you described, I’d go as far as to say they’re necessary for you to be successful. We can form these alliances over shared projects, interests, areas of expertise, or positive or negative experiences at work. When I reflect back on my own career in higher education and corporate America, some of my strongest alliances with my peers came from going through an uncomfortable period in the workplace. It could be a stressful new project, a lack of resources, or unrealistic expectations for a deliverable; those experiences bonded us together in a unique way, and this is absolutely normal. Continue to lead with open and clear communication when you can, and you’ll begin to attract allies that are in alignment with where you’d like to go in your career.

When planning your next career move, you’re correct that you will never truly know the dynamics of working with a prospective manager or team until you’re in the new role. However, you can obtain insider information through your network of peers, mentors, or alumni networks and ask more in-depth questions during the interview process to ensure you have the clearest picture of the opportunity. I’ve found that most job candidates rarely take the initiative to do this. It’s important to answer the following questions before accepting any offer:

  • What is the leadership style of your potential manager?
  • What are your potential manager’s red flags or pet peeves?
  • What is the preferred communication style of the company, team, and manager?
  • Is your potential manager someone who likes to see the finished product, or do they like to be looped in during the ideation phase of projects to provide input?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of the other employees on the team and where is there overlap?

If you are feeling burnt out and have enough savings to comfortably support yourself while taking a career break, that may be a great way to “detox” from the toxic work environments that you’ve experienced and decompress from the experiences that have been weighing you down. At the same time, I’d encourage you to get clear on what your expectations are for the manager and environment you want to work with next, as well as what boundaries you’d set from the moment you start a new job.

Career and leadership-development expert Kimberly Brown helps readers make sure their next move is the best move. Listen to the Your Next Move podcast here and keep up with Kimberly on her website.

‘I’m Tired of Dealing With Incompetent Co-workers’