At Popforms, we get emails every week from people who need career advice. And as a team of people who are kind of obsessed with solving career problems, we are always happy to oblige.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from someone I had helped work through a conflict at work earlier this year, and he was writing to give me an update on everything running smoothly now. (Yay!) And then at the end of his note, he attached a note I couldn’t help but get intrigued by.
“P.S. Do you have any popforms content on working with super lazy co-workers?”
And I was off to the races. I asked him to explain a bit more about what kind of lazy coworkers he was dealing with, and he wrote back with this story (slightly condensed for readability here):
“I work in IT and one of our processes stopped working. I created a workaround for the problem after I couldn’t fix it quickly, and then started trying to fix it again.
I documented the workaround, and went over to the Help Desk area and offered to go through the documentation with them the first time around. I was confronted with a lot of sighing and “this is a lot of work” and “I don’t want to do this”.
Thankfully, I fixed the problem about 20-30 minutes after that conversation, and they had done 0 machines in that time frame. They could have easily done probably 4-6 machines, even with the extra steps.
My perception is that they have no desire to work hard and would rather just complain, although I am trying hard to understand what the real motivation is behind this behavior. It is tough, because you bust your own butt to make their lives’ easier and it is only met with complaining about how hard or time consuming it is.”
So this person had a problem, and needed these other guys to change the way they worked because of that problem. Then he fixed the problem and discovered the other guys had made none of the changes he had initially asked them to make, in spite of him telling them that they needed to.
The problem, as I read it, wasn’t really just that this person had lazy coworkers — but that this person had coworkers who didn’t listen to him.
So what can you do the next time you are faced with coworkers who you need to act, but who refuse to listen or do what you need them to do?
Today I want to share a few strategies for learning how to influence and persuade even your laziest coworkers, so you can understand how to help them get the things you need them to get done.
Everyone who doesn’t listen to you has a good reason why
Listen: the people you work with may be lazy. That might be why they ignore you. But few of them are JUST lazy, and so writing them off as lazy doesn’t help you understand why they ignore you. It doesn’t help you learn how to work with them better or get them to do what you need them to do. In fact, it’s counterproductive.
It is usually the case that the person who is being lazy is doing so because of a reason they think is valid. For example, they think their work is too hard, too pointless, their lazy coworkers always take credit for their results, etc. In their minds, the reasons why they ignore you are justified.
So it is much more productive to learn to work with them by learning how to work with/around their attitudes or preconceptions, rather than trying to convince them that their perceptions are wrong or to force them to do something just because you say so.
The next time you find yourself approaching a person who doesn’t listen to you, prepare a little bit before you walk over to their desk or compose an email.
Instead of approaching the situation with the intention of convincing this person to do this thing you need them to do, try asking a few key questions first (start with the ones listed below), to help you phrase your request or your instructions appropriately. You’ll not only learn how to influence and persuade your coworkers, but you might turn a few lazy, difficult officemates into your new allies too.
Question 1: Does this person have a good reason to listen to me?
The number one person that everyone listens to more than anyone else at work is their direct manager.
So before asking someone to do something for you, if you’re not their manager, understand that your request needs to be more than a request. The only person whose requests this person is likely to listen to and act on right away with their best effort is their manager’s, and so a simple request alone is not compelling enough to get them to do it.
The other people listen to at work are their friends. You do this even if you don’t realize it, and so does everyone else. We are much more willing to set aside time from our own priorities to help people we like also succeed and get their things done.
As a result, it is worth considering how you can be seen as a friend to the people on your team (and people on other teams) before you need something from them. Relationship-building in small doses — talking to people about their weekend, proactively offering to help them, giving them credit or praise in front of others, talking 1:1 out of the office — can all help prime other people to be interested in listening to you later on.
If you have no relationship with the person you need help from, then you’re in a hard place influence-wise.
However, making face-to-face contact with the person will be much more effective than just shooting over an email. When you talk in person with someone, not only is it harder to say no or ignore them, but you have the opportunity to build a little bit of trust even in one short interaction.
- Greet the person, smile, ask how they are doing or what they’re working on
- Listen to their answers and try to understand what their priorities are and how receptive they are to you
- Don’t rush into telling them that you’re there because you need them to do something for you. Nobody likes to be surprised and bombarded with new work, especially from someone they weren’t expecting to see
- Listen to their complaints or questions, if they have them, and be prepared to be flexible if you can. Don’t sigh or laugh uncomfortably at their requests. Think in advance about where you can be open to negotiate deadlines, etc.
- Stick around until you get an answer. It can be awkward, but seriously don’t leave until you get a yes and a deadline — or a no and a good reason why they can’t help.
This works whether you’re dealing with someone you know well or someone you don’t work with often. Creating a positive interaction where you make an attempt to understand this person and craft a compelling request for them will increase your odds of success greatly.
The more you show this person you aren’t there to just boss them around or send them annoying directives from across the office, but to help you both succeed (see Question 3 for more on this), the more likely they are to be interested in doing what you need.
Question 2: Have I given this person reasons not to listen to me in the past?
Be honest: do a lot of things feel like emergencies to you?
Do you often wonder why no one else gets why something is such a big deal? Do you feel like you are always the person leading the charge to get the most important things done on time and correctly?
Unfortunately, while this is often a good quality for being productive, this can be a very bad quality for getting people to listen to you.
If you are the person always rushing to get things done and (especially) getting things done for other people who can’t keep up with you, then you may have trained some of the people you work with not to spring into action when you make a request.
It makes sense if you look at it from their perspective, right? If someone rushes over to your desk every day with a new a crisis, it gets old. Especially if they usually end up solving the problem later that day. What’s the point in your dropping what you’re doing to tackle something you think is likely to sort itself out in a few hours anyways? Isn’t it better to wait a little while and then decide if it’s worth taking action?
That person who said they needed your help now looks like they were just making a big deal over something that clearly didn’t actually need your attention.
If this sounds like you, don’t worry too much. While you can’t go back and fix things you’ve already done, you can consider how you typically interact with people in your work life and make adjustments going forward.
It’s a little bit like “the boy who cried wolf” story. Make sure that you give people urgent assignments only when they are truly urgent and you really need them, and not just because you are freaked out about a deadline or feeling stressed about new changes.
Action item: The next time you feel like bringing in other people on a problem, or try holding off for an hour even waiting longer before you reach out. See if you get more information or resolution that might help the problem get solved before you bring in others.
If you still need someone’s action after an hour, write several drafts of your email requesting their help before you send it. Tone down any extreme language and try to pare it down to just the information they need to do the task, without emotion. Take it as bare bones as you can, and then send.
Question 3: What is important to this person?
In his timeless book, How To Win Friends And Influence People, Dale Carnegie explains that the only way to get people to do something is to make them want to do it.
And it’s true. Everybody wants something and once you can tap into how your request helps that person get that thing they want, you will have unlocked the secret to influence.
Even your laziest coworkers want something — whether it’s to be left alone or to get out of the office earlier — and if you can identify what they want and help them get it, you will be able to get them to do the things you need them to do.
But again, be careful not to automatically label people as lazy. What looks like laziness to you is probably just you not understanding what is most important to this person.
And don’t forget — just because a person doesn’t jump to attention when you ask them to do something doesn’t mean they’re lazy either. After all, a person who reacts calmly and first looks for ways around big problems is also a person who makes a great customer support person or a great sysadmin. Their reaction, while it might displease you, is actually what makes them a great member of your team.
So instead of looking to create the sense of urgency you feel yourself in another person, try finding ways to speak to *who* they are and *what* they most want to do, get, and be.
Let’s look deeper at this, and go back to the customer support person. In their day, their biggest priorities are going to be handling calls and emails, and looking out for any big potential problems coming down the pipeline that might create a big influx of user response.
If you ask them to do a task that either slows down or takes them away from those big priorities, the odds are pretty good that your task will go somewhere very low on their to-do list.
So how can you make your task important enough to this person that they want to set aside the things that make them successful, amazing, and productive in their jobs? Well, you make your task help them be more successful, amazing, or productive in their job. :)
Be super clear about how what you need helps them accomplish something that they want. When you think of the task you need them to do, don’t just phrase it as “I need you to [do this thing] by [this time] please.”
Instead, ask yourself why. And ask yourself why from THEIR perspective.
If you need customer support to start documenting every call after they do it, don’t think about why you need them to do it. Because from their perspective, you are asking them to do something that is going to slow down their ability to take calls, which is one of their key priorities.
Instead, pretend you are them, and ask “why” to your own request.
- “Why should I record every customer call?” We need you need to record data on each call so we can keep better records of customer interactions.
- “Why do we need better records than what we already do now?” Adding this particular data will help us better track what the most frequently asked about issues are.
- “Why do we need that?” When we collect and analyze that data, we’ll be able to understand how our customers interact with our product better. This means we’ll be able to create better training materials so new support people can answer the most common questions faster, without needing to consult a manager as often.
And there it is! You have now shown this person how your task makes their life easier and helps them achieve one of their primary goals for being amazing at their job — being fast and effective at support.
Key take-away: Your request should always include your answer to the final why. That is, when you ask someone to do something for you, don’t assume that they will automatically understand why this is good for them or why it’s so important to do. Make it clear.
When you make a request, make it super easy for the other person to say yes. By making it something they would actually want to do.
Bad request: “Management wants you to start recording this new data on every call you do.”
Better request: “To help us track customer issues, we need all customer support people to start recording this new data on every call. It will help us provide better training to new support hires so they can answer the biggest customer questions faster and more effectively, without needing to ask a manager as often.”
How can you influence the people around you?
Share your stories of difficult coworkers and your best tips for influencing them in the comments. We’d love to hear how other people make it work, or what roadblocks you’re struggling with.