A Good Job is a Team Sport
How to Help a Colleague Who Seems Off Their Game
By Art Markman
When we think about productivity at work, we often think about how to motivate ourselves. But sometimes the people who are struggling to stay focused and engaged are our peers. And while it may not be an official part of your job description, helping a colleague is the kind thing to do and can be beneficial to your own productivity. To help a coworker who’s going through a rough patch, start by letting them know that you’ve noticed that they’re off their game. Find a time to chat with them at their desk, or invite them to grab a cup of coffee or a drink after work. Tell them what you’ve observed. Then talk openly about the times you’ve struggled with projects or had bad days. And make sure the conversation stays productive. It’s easy for a well-intentioned check-in to turn into a gripe session about what’s wrong with the workplace. Talk through small steps they can take to make progress on their most important goals.
When we think about productivity at work, we often think about how to motivate ourselves — or the people on our team. But sometimes the people who are struggling to stay focused and engaged are our peers. And while it may not be an official part of your job description, helping a colleague is the kind thing to do and can be beneficial to your own productivity.
Here are several things you can do for your colleagues to help them through a rough patch.
The first step is to let your colleague know that you’ve noticed they’re off their game. Find a time to chat with them at their desk or invite them to grab a cup of coffee or a drink after work. Tell them what you’ve observed. Perhaps they look down, or frustrated, or unable to concentrate.
You can’t force a colleague to disclose what’s going on with them, but just letting them know that you’ve noticed that they seem to be acting differently shows them that someone out there is paying attention. They may not want to discuss the issue when you first bring it up, but you’ve planted the seed for future conversation by letting them know that you are there.
And sometimes that’s enough. In an era of hot-desking, flexible schedules, texts, and emails, it is easy to lose the human connection at work, which can make you feel as though you are working for an unsympathetic and faceless organization. Knowing that you have colleagues who care can sometimes be motivating in itself.
Beyond just stating that you’ve observed that your colleague is struggling, you can also help to validate the difficulty of being productive. One of the big motivation killers for many people involves a combination of imposter syndrome and social comparison.
Imposter syndrome is a common feeling where people believe they’ve risen to a position they don’t deserve. They fear that their colleagues and supervisors will discover that they don’t deserve the position they’ve gotten, so they do their best to hide their bad days and the limitations of their Imposter syndrome is reinforced by the tendency to compare yourself to other people. In particular, people often engage in upward social comparisons in which they compare themselves to other people who are more successful on some dimension. It’s easy to find people in the workplace who seem to be accomplishing more than you are. You look at them and believe that you don’t have the same qualities they have.
The problem with social comparison is that you can only see what other people project to the world (intentionally or unintentionally). You see what they say and what they do, but not what they are feeling or thinking. So you assume they don’t have the same feelings you do about your work.
This is why reaching out to your colleague is helpful: By talking openly about the times you’ve struggled with projects or had days when you feel like you are running at half-speed compared to everyone else, you’re showing them they are not alone in what they are feeling.
It’s likely your colleague thinks they are unique in their concerns and frustrations. You can help them more clearly understand that everyone has days where they do not get as much done as they had hoped or worry they’re missing the skills they need to succeed.
This type of validation has two benefits. First, it may help your colleague recognize that their feelings about work are not a sign that they don’t belong in their job. Second, sharing your experience makes you a safe colleague to talk to. People may be reluctant to disclose their own frustrations with work to someone else unless they believe their feelings will be understood. By validating their experience, you make it more likely they’ll talk with you further.
If your colleague does talk with you about the factors that are limiting their motivation, it’s important to make the conversation productive. It’s easy for a well-intentioned attempt to check in with a struggling colleague to turn into a gripe session about what’s wrong with the workplace. But it’s important to develop a plan for the future.
This plan might take many forms. Some colleagues may be ill suited to the organization or their role. Perhaps they don’t resonate with the firm’s mission. Perhaps they just hate the day-to-day work they are doing. If so, then you might be helping a colleague to make the decision to pursue other opportunities. That isn’t always the case, but there will be rare occasions where the plan you help your colleague make is to reconsider their current situation.
More likely, your colleague is suited to their job but is having trouble getting things done. In that case, have them talk through small steps they can take to make progress on their most important goals. It’s possible they’ve lost the forest for the trees. A project may seem so all-encompassing that it feels impossible to make steady progress. But any contribution at work is the result of lots of small jobs done well. Someone paralyzed by the enormity of the project can benefit from focusing on what can be done this afternoon or tomorrow rather than what has to be done over the next several weeks.
Of course, you don’t have to solve everyone else’s problems. And you need to be careful that helping your colleague doesn’t drain your energy or hurt your performance. The aim is for your coworkers to know that they are not alone at work and to help them think about concrete actions they can take to get out of the doldrums.
Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. He is the author of several books including Smart Thinking, Smart Change, and Habits of Leadership.
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