Influencing an Irresponsible Colleague

It’s fairly straightforward to work effectively alongside responsible colleagues who want to work hard, do quality work and build productive relationships. It's an altogether difference situation if you find yourself working alongside an irresponsible colleague: one who is purposefully unreliable and wants you to do some or all of their work for them.

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It’s fairly straightforward to work effectively alongside responsible colleagues. Responsible colleagues generally want to work hard, want to make progress on the tasks that sit with them, and want to build productive relationships with you and their other workplace contacts. They may, from time to time, get things wrong or make mistakes or fail to attend thoroughly enough to something important. But these are likely to be genuine errors rather than actions borne out of irresponsible or purposefully unreliable behaviour.

It’s the latter two instances that are a completely different kettles of fish, and they are much more confusing and troublesome to deal with. Irresponsible colleagues don’t always want to work hard, often aren’t committed to creating quality outcomes, and may well actively look for opportunities to coast or take credit for work they haven’t done. These colleagues often come to work simply to get by, doing just enough to get through the day without drawing undue attention to their slipshod ways. Some of these co-workers are also very skilled at appearing to be busy when they are not, at manipulating the perceptions of those above them, and at covering their backs. Others simply approach their work in a careless way and seem to get away with it, often because more conscientious people cover for them. Hopefully, you won’t have to cope with this kind of irresponsible conduct that often but, when you do, it can be wearisome to say the least.

Irresponsible colleagues are often irresponsible because they get something they value out of taking this approach. It will vary from person to person, but one of the key things they gain is the opportunity to avoid being accountable, to avoid having to engage and work hard, to avoid having to make decisions and take the consequences of them. And when put on the spot by co-workers frustrated at their approach irresponsible colleague can be expert at shifting the focus of the conversation away from their own shortcomings and onto other issues. They can:

  1. Dodge the issues put to them.
  2. Create fog around the key points they are asked to address.
  3. Obfuscate and change the point of the conversation onto other issues instead.
  4. Place responsibility for their lack of endeavour with other people, including you for daring to hold them accountable.
  5. Disown their irresponsible behaviour and shift the blame elsewhere.

These behaviours can be exasperating to deal with and can result in you feeling annoyed, confused and powerless. And you could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that an irresponsible colleague is beyond your influence. And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can use behaviour which holds an irresponsible colleague to account. To do so, you need to find the resolve to confront them using a suitable example of their wayward behaviour around which to build your feedback.

When you decide to tackle your irresponsible colleague – when you decide to call them on their counterproductive approach - try the following:

  1. Set up a one-to-one conversation with your colleague away from other people.
  2. Take control of the conversation from the start and don’t waver from your commitment to remain in the driving seat throughout it.
  3. Use a calm and steady tone, one that is neither emotional nor unassertive, and maintain a firm and measured delivery style throughout the conversation.
  4. Play back to your colleague exactly what they said or did or did not do, describing their actions and words as a series of facts which cannot easily be disputed.
  5. Make it clear to your colleague that, as a direct consequence of their irresponsibility, there will be unpleasant consequences for them to deal with, consequences which will be awkward and embarrassing for them to handle.
  6. Describe what these consequences will be, making a direct link between their conduct and these particular outcomes. Make sure that you enforce these consequences so that, this time, the difficulty which ensues from their irresponsible behaviour sits with them rather than anyone else.

Here are a couple of examples that have been successful for other people.

  1. Providing feedback to the effect that as a direct result of the irresponsible colleague failing to get you the data they owe you by the agreed deadline, you cannot include it in the report you are compiling, and will make a note to that effect in the report which will be circulated to all the managers in the business.
  2. Providing feedback to the that as a direct result of the irresponsible colleague failing to brief you for your upcoming meeting with your managers, your colleague will be accompanying you to that meeting to explain in front of you what prevented them from briefing you.

To learn more:

Aryanne Oade

chartered psychologist, executive coach, author and publisher, Oade Associates Ltd

Hello and welcome to my blog. I specialize in handling challenging workplace dynamics, successfully working from the premise that the additional resources you seek are already within you. My aim is to be a catalyst so you can turn areas where you feel under-resourced or vulnerable into skills and strengths, become resilient in the face of adversity, and develop a life and work experience you are passionate about. Working from the evidence-base of psychology, and over twenty-five years’ experience, clients tell me they experience my coaching and books as insightful, practical, non-judgmental and empathic. My work on recovery from bullying and bully-proofing has been featured in leading publications such as The Independent, Irish Independent (Sunday), Psychologies, Good Housekeeping and Marie Claire. Learn more at