How to Cope When You Don’t Understand Why Someone’s Work Is So Disappointing

Have you ever been deeply displeased with someone’s ability to perform a function that is squarely within their area of responsibility? If you’ve ever supervised more than a couple of people, you’ve probably experienced a profound dissatisfaction with somebody’s work; in fact, even as an individual contributor with no responsibility or authority to manage another person, you’re also likely to have felt this kind of frustration.

When you’re unhappy with someone else’s work, the situation could be as straightforward as how to load the breakroom dishwasher, or it could involve critical-path deliverables for a crucial initiative that affects multiple constituencies and has significant financial impact.

To Stave Off Disappointment, Take a Look at Yourself First

Either way, once you’re aware of feeling disappointed that someone else apparently isn’t pulling their weight, you need to do something to prevent it from becoming a larger problem. You can’t simply criticize, punish, or threaten the person who’s letting you down—not only is that bad for the relationship, but it won’t ensure that the work gets done more effectively.

Practically speaking, the best first action always involves self-examination and situational assessment: Were the instructions clear enough, whether they came from you or someone else? Were the necessary resources in place, including time, money, or associated assignments of appropriately skilled people? And has an effective lattice been built to hold the various aspects of the responsibility in place—for instance, are you accessible to answer questions as they come up?

Find Out What the Other Person Knows—and Doesn’t Know!

An example of a breakdown of expectations in the workplace—along with a way to move forward—is featured in the first episode of my new animated mini-series, Better at Work with Liz Kislik: Getting a Direct Report to Open Up. When Rick approaches his manager Whitney to ask how he should handle something, Whitney assumes he’s asking about her preferences and encourages him to move forward on his own.

But Rick really needs help! He actually doesn’t know what to do, and he also doesn’t know how to express his fear about how far off track he might be. If Whitney had only told Rick she’d be happy to hear about any concerns he has, and then invited him to chat with her before digging in, it’s possible that weeks of stress could have been avoided for both of them. Their chat might have been awkward and upsetting—with self-exposure on Rick’s part and disappointment on Whitney’s—but they could have come to a better resolution together.

Usually, though, we assume that (1) we’re not the problem, it’s the other person who is the problem, and (2) it would be better not to make the other person uncomfortable. So Whitney, like most of us, wants to avoid engaging deeply with Rick and needs a nudge to do it skillfully. You can learn more by watching the episode.

Recognize the Value of a Heart-to-Heart

Waiting for people to figure out how to do things they don’t know how to do rarely delivers a satisfactory result. You may be able to prove that they don’t know what they’re doing, but that’s usually a Pyrrhic victory—your win comes with so much damage that it’s really not worth it in the long run. So as soon as you can tell that things are going off-course, call for a pause and arrange for a meeting with the disappointing employee so you can talk about whatever’s in the way. You may feel like you have to over-invest up front, but if you work through a heart-to-heart, you’re much more likely to get a result you can live with in the end.

Onward and upward—

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