Has this ever happened to you? You enter your colleague’s office and ask for a piece of information. This produces a long wait filled with frantic paper shuffling and nervous comments like, “I just know it’s here somewhere,” or “I just saw it a minute ago.” It’s not unusual for the colleague, amidst heavy sighs, to ask you to return later once the errant item has been unearthed.
Vexing, isn’t it? But make no mistake: Disorganization is frustrating for the person with the paper pile as well as the poor soul waiting for the document. Whether he or she is an associate, a vendor, or your boss, you must be able to deal with another person’s lack of organization.
Getting them organized
Since getting irritated 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 him keep “like” things together.
Allow extra time. Don’t wait until the last minute to request information, a meeting, or a report. For a meeting that you’re requesting, allow an extra half-hour in your schedule to accommodate your coworker’s possible tardiness. Similarly, if you need a decision next week, let your colleague know several days in advance. Lead time and reminders are helpful.
Focus on the positive. Your disorganized colleagues may have superb skills and excel in areas other than organization. Be sure to compliment them on what they do well and don’t become preoccupied with their weaknesses. A coworker may be a genius at sales analysis, for example, but poor at organizing paper. Be creative about finding ways to build on that person’s strengths. Evaluate your tasks and see whether any of them are better suited to your colleague; if so, give them those jobs so that they can shine. Meanwhile, you can ask to take over your colleague’s most onerous tasks, which you may actually find quite easy.
Identify motivations. Sometimes disorganization hides an underlying problem or concern. Is it the statistics involved with the monthly reports that is the problem, or something requiring a private conversation? Once you have identified the problem, you’re in a better position to offer assistance.
Be clear about what you need. Subtle hints, broad swipes, or humorous asides are often ineffective in dealing 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 or her in getting items to you promptly. If you’re the employer, a single conversation or suggestion is not as helpful as setting up a three-month plan in which you’ll check on progress every Friday.
Learning to organize
Promote learning. Most people need to learn organizational skills, so consider circulating literature about classes and resources about organization 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. Help your coworker rank tasks that will help that person focus on the things that are truly important. On large team projects, offer help with detailed planning. 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 colleague’s patterns — when and where the shortcomings are likely to occur. For those who habitually underestimate the time that 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, send memos or make calls whenever possible, indicating that you’ll 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 interaction smoother.
Combat indecision. Disorganized people often have difficulty making decisions, and offering too many choices can create paralysis. If you’re choosing a conference hotel, for example, limit the choices to three or four only. Keep the pros and cons list of each site short as well.
Don’t forget praise. Change is difficult. When you see progress, acknowledge it. Whenever you get a report early, offer your appreciation. Even if the steps are small ones, they add up to big changes.
“Disorganized Office Coworker,” WomanWork.net
“Common Characteristics of Chronically Disorganized Individuals,” National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization, 2003 Fact Sheet