Getting Value from a Low Performer Who You Don’t Manage

A reader asks:

What is the best way to approach a department assistant about task effectiveness when she doesn’t technically report to me, but owns certain processes/administrative tasks? I purposely limit my interactions with her because I and others find that it can sometimes be like pulling teeth to get a helpful answer, result, or response. She seems to be signalling,“I just don’t care.”

I don’t want to whine to her boss (who is also my boss) or appear as if I’m exerting some kind of authority over her that I don’t have. Most of us shy away from addressing the issues because she’s moody and resentful enough as it is. I’m simply looking to get more value when we do have to collaborate on something. Our small department needs all hands on deck and I’m unsure of who should (and how to) approach this.

Ways to Deal with Low Performer You Don’t Manage

If this is someone who you rely on to complete your own work, and if she’s impacting your ability to do your job well, then you need to say something. And note that that says “need,” not “could.” You actually have an obligation to address issues when they’re getting in the way of your work.

In general in situations like this, you should start by talking to the person herself, and if that doesn’t resolve the problem, then you take it to someone with more authority – your boss or hers (who in this case are conveniently the same person).

So talk to her. Tell her specifically what you need that you’re not getting. For instance, if you’re having trouble getting client billing histories from her, say something like, “Jane, I’m having trouble getting client billing histories from you. Is there a better way for me to ask you for this type of thing? I need to be able to get it without a lot of back and forth, and if there’s something I should be doing differently on my end to make that happen, let me know.”  Or, “Jane, I’ve noticed that I often end up following up with you about emailed requests because I don’t receive a response the first time. It’s holding up my ability to move forward with my work, so I wonder if you’d be able to get back to me more quickly on this kind of thing.”

If the problem continues after that, you could go back to her for one more try (“Jane, like we talked about last month, I need to receive replies to my emails so that my projects don’t stall”) to show her that you’re not going to be stop pressing for what you need regardless of what roadblocks she puts up, or you can jump to your boss at that point.

And you will need to talk to your boss if this keeps up. Good managers want to know about problems like this, and they won’t necessarily realize how much you’re being impacted unless you tell them. If your efforts to resolve the problem yourself haven’t worked, then the problem is one for your boss to handle. Let her know what’s happening, with clear and specific examples, and let her take it from there.

When to Take it Up Directly with the Boss

One final note: While I’m a big believer in starting by talking to people directly, if you know that realistically you’re just not likely to take it up with Jane herself because she’s so difficult, then go straight to your boss — and explain that you haven’t addressed it directly with Jane because you don’t feel comfortable raising sensitive issues when she’s already hostile and resentful. But don’t let your discomfort dealing with Jane become a reason to say nothing.

 

Do you have problems with a low performing colleague?  Tell us how you dealt with them in the comment section below.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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