Are your co-workers lazy? Incompetent? Or both?

Unaccountable coworkers - VitalSmarts infographic

New study from the authors of "Crucial Accountability" suggests you're to blame for your coworkers' bad behavior.

June 25, 2013—Provo, UT—Clarissa shared supervisory duties with a co-worker who complained she had too much on her plate. And what happened? Clarissa’s hard work was rewarded with more work as the boss shifted many of her co-worker’s responsibilities onto her already full plate.

When co-workers break promises, violate expectations or behave in irritating ways, we have a choice. We can assume they’re underperforming because they lack ability. We can assume they lack motivation. Or we can assume both. But what do the Clarissa’s of the world assume when they find themselves the victim of a co-worker’s bad behavior?

New research from the authors of the New York Times best-seller Crucial Accountability shows that three in four employees quickly attribute co-workers’ bad behavior to lack of motivation while only one in 10 consider ability deficits. As a result, they avoid holding problem colleagues accountable, engage in costly workarounds and perpetuate the very problems they detest.

The online survey of 1,225 people found that this misdiagnosis and resulting lack of accountability has caused major fallout in the workplace:

  • Those who assume their co-worker is unmotivated rather than unable to change are half as likely to speak up and share their full concerns
  • 94 percent fail to effectively hold their co-workers accountable
  • One in three employees suffer the effects of their co-workers’ bad behavior for more than five years
  • Three in four report that unaccountable co-workers create severe problems for them, their customers or the organization

Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Accountability, says the biggest problem isn’t necessarily the problem behavior itself, but rather how our misdiagnosis affects our response.

“We found that those who assume their co-workers are maliciously misbehaving instead of potentially lacking ability are more likely to either bite their tongue or lash out,” says Grenny. “Ultimately, this kind of response is the least likely to solve the problem.”

Grenny says the key to building an accountability culture is to help employees question their belief that their co-workers are simply lazy, selfish or rotten.

“Those who think more generously and carefully about the cause for others’ misbehavior are far more likely to speak up and explore potential motivation and ability barriers to their co-workers’ performance and report success in resolving the issue,” says Grenny.

For example, it finally came to light that Clarissa’s co-worker was a terrific individual contributor who was promoted too soon and as a result, lacked the skills to fulfill her supervisory duties. Armed with a more accurate story, Clarissa was able to help arrange for her co-worker to move into a role that played to her strengths.

Grenny offers three tips for holding co-workers accountable by correctly diagnosing their bad behavior:

  1. Identify the right problem. When approaching your co-worker, think “CPR” (Content, Pattern, Relationship). Our natural inclination is to talk content—the immediate offense. But if and when your co-worker continues to behave poorly, it’s time to talk about the pattern of bad behavior. If the infraction continues, talk about the long-term damage the pattern is having on your relationship of trust and dependability.
  2. Make it motivating. If the other person is able to do what’s been asked, but chooses not to, start by making the invisible visible. Talk about the natural consequences—both good and bad—he or she cares about. What are the effects of his or her behavior on other employees, customers, shareowners, etc.?
  3. Make it easy. If you find out the problem is not due to motivation, then it’s likely due to an ability barrier. Maybe your expectations aren’t realistic. Maybe you didn’t provide him or her with the right tools. Maybe he or she is constrained because of bureaucracy. Whatever the constraints, discover them and make changes. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for your co-worker to meet the expectation.

To view an entertaining video about unaccountable co-workers and access an online game to test your accountability skills, visit

About VitalSmarts
An innovator in corporate training and leadership development, VitalSmarts combines three decades of original research with 50 years of the best social science to help leaders and organizations change human behavior and achieve new levels of performance. VitalSmarts has identified four high-leverage skill sets that, when used in combination, create healthy corporate cultures. These skills are taught in the Company’s award-winning training programs and New York Times best-selling books of the same titles: Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than one million people worldwide.

 Note to editor: Author Joseph Grenny is available for interviews. Copies of Crucial Accountability are available upon request.

About the research: The study collected responses via an online survey tool from 1,225 individuals. Margin of error is approximately 3 percent.

CONTACT: Laura Potter of VitalSmarts, L.C. +1-801-510-7590, or

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