Chaos Everywhere: How to Help Disorganized Co-Workers


Has this ever happened to you? Entering your colleague's office and asking for a piece of information, produces a long wait filled with frantic searching sounds and paper shuffling. Amidst heavy sighs it is not unusual to be asked to return later once the errant item has been unearthed. Disorganization can be frustrating for the person with the paper pile as well as the poor soul waiting for the document. Whether this is an associate, a vendor or your boss, you must be able to deal with another person's lack of organization. Since getting irritated simply ages you but does not help, try these suggestions:

  • Package information for the disorganized person. A series of individual communications is easily lost. Place all of the information related to an issue in a folder, envelope or brightly colored container. This will help them keep like things together.
  • Allow extra time. Do not wait until the last minute to request information, a meeting or a report. For a meeting you request, allow an extra half-hour in your schedule to accommodate their possible tardiness. Similarly, if you need a decision next week let your co-worker know several days in advance. Lead time and reminders are helpful.
  • Focus on the positive. Your disorganized colleague does have skills and excels in other areas. Be sure to compliment them on what they do well and do not become preoccupied with their weaknesses. Your colleague may be a genius at sales analysis, but poor at organizing paper. Be creative about finding ways to build on that person's strengths. Evaluate your tasks with a view to giving some of them to your colleague in areas where they can shine and reciprocate by taking some of their tasks that are easier for you.
  • Identify motivations. Sometimes disorganization hides an underlying problem or concern. Is it the statistics involved with the monthly reports or something requiring a personal confrontation? Once you can identify the problem you are in a better position to offer assistance.
  • Be clear - subtle hints, broad swipes, or humorous asides are often ineffective with a chronically disorganized person. Be direct and frank about the effect that the disorganization has on you. Ask about ways you can assist him/her in getting items to you promptly. If asked to help, be persistent and set up a schedule to work with the person. A single conversation or suggestion is not as helpful as setting up a three-month plan where you will check on progress every Friday.
  • Promote learning. Many people need to learn organizational skills. Circulate literature about organizing, classes and resources around the office. Mention these at a staff meeting. To keep everybody interested and enthusiastic about getting organized, try spending five minutes at the end of the meeting discussing one thing people have done in the last week to organize or streamline their work.
  • Offer assistance in planning and setting priorities. Providing help to a co-worker in ranking tasks will help that person focus on the things that are truly important. On large team projects, offer help with planning them out in detail. Meet weekly to go over the key items that need to be completed over the next five days.
  • Anticipate problems. You can probably predict your colleagues' patterns -- when and where the shortfalls are likely to occur. For those who habitually underestimate the time projects take suggest an earlier start time. Set deadlines for major pieces of the project, not just the final due date. When getting a prompt response is difficult, wherever possible send memos or make calls indicating that you will move forward unless you hear otherwise by a certain date. This way they need only respond if there is a problem. Concentrate on systems or processes you can both follow to make your interactions smoother.
  • Combat indecision - disorganized people often have difficulty making decisions. Offering too many choices can create paralysis. Limit choices of hotel locations for the conference to three or four only. Keep the pros and cons list of each site short as well.
  • Praise often. Change is difficult. When you see progress, say something. Whenever you get a report early, offer your appreciation. Even if the step is a small one, they add up to big changes.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: Visit us at: call: 1-800-599-8463.


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