Organising disorganised people

26 May 2020 by Isla Lightfoot

Imagine this scenario: after a week of hard work, you send an important report to your colleague. His task is to edit the wording and make a few key decisions to finalise some of the content. The deadline is still three weeks away, but you hope he'll finish it early because you'll have more work to do once he gives you his input. Your colleague, however, delays making the changes.

After numerous reminders from you, he sends it back the day before your deadline. This means that you have to rush to complete your final changes in time. His delay has caused you some serious stress, and it's not the first time that this has happened.

Working with disorganised people can be a stressful experience, especially when it starts impacting your own productivity. But what can you do about it? Is it your responsibility to help them get organised? If yes, how do you do it tactfully?​

Finding the cause

Before you begin looking for solutions, take time to discover why they are disorganised. Ask the following questions:

  • Do they understand why it's important to be organised?
  • Do they feel that organising isn't important? If so, they could be habitually disorganised. Perhaps they don't see their disorganisation as a problem for themselves, so they believe it isn't a problem for anyone else. You'll need to make them aware of how their disorganisation impacts you.
  • Are they going through situational disorganisation? This occurs when a person experiences a traumatic or one-time situation or event. For example, a new job or promotion, divorce, death of a family member, or time-consuming project can all cause sudden disorganisation.
  • Do they "thrive" on their disorganisation? Some people sub-consciously create chaos and "artificial emergencies" to keep themselves interested in what they're doing. They feel that they work best under tight deadlines, and they may even get an "adrenaline buzz" from them.
  • Do they have a medical condition that can cause moderate to severe disorganisation? Depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder (ADD), or even a long-term illness could be a cause. If you suspect that someone has a medical condition that isn't being treated, talk to the person about seeking medical help.

Once you've identified why you think the individual is disorganised, try some of the strategies below to help.

Lack of knowledge

If people don't know about being organised, or why they should bother to be more organised, this could be a fairly easy fix.

  • Express your concerns: Start by letting them know that you're concerned about their disorganisation. You want to see them succeed, but you believe that their disorganisation will hold them back.
  • Focus on the benefits of organisation: Your colleagues might not want to invest the time or effort to change, so make sure you stress the benefits of organisation. Let them know they'll likely have less stress, more time, and higher productivity if they spend the time now to get organised. Also, being organised can open doors to some great opportunities in the future.

Lack of motivation

If you suspect that a person is simply unmotivated to get organised, then you need to make them realise how much their chaotic work style affects you and others.

  • Make it clear that the disorganisation is causing you stress – Mention specific examples from past situations where their disorganisation impacted you in a negative way. Knowing how their actions affect you may motivate them to change.
  • Explain the benefits of organisation as it relates to them – For instance, if a colleague always submits their projects late, then let them know that this reflects poorly on them professionally. If they ever want a promotion or increased responsibilities, they must get organised.
  • Find out why they're unmotivated – For example, perhaps you need a statistics report from a colleague on the 15th of every month, and they never submit the report on time. Once you start asking them about it, they tell you that they dislike doing the report because they don't feel confident about statistics, so they regularly delay working on it. Some extra training might be all that's needed to give them the knowledge they need to feel comfortable doing this task on time.
  • Discipline, if necessary – If you manage people whose disorganisation impacts their performance – and coaching or training does not lead to improvement – you might need to take disciplinary action.

Organising your manager (or managing upwards)

When it's your manager who's disorganised, the situation can be difficult. It's tempting to just do key tasks for them to save yourself the stress caused by their disorganisation. If you're their personal assistant, or if you were hired specifically for your organisational skills, this may be fine.

However, if this isn't your job, then doing the work for your manager only adds to your current workload and stress level. It also may motivate them to continue with their disorganised habits.

So what can you do?

Start by bringing the issue to your manager's attention. Perhaps they truly don't realise that their bad habits have a negative effect on you and the rest of the team.

You can also help your manager get organised by putting in place some of these systems that make communication and work easier:

  • Use colour-coded files: These help to organise work that's transferred between people. For instance, put items that are urgent in red folders, items that need signatures in green folders, items that need reviewing in blue folders, and so on. If everything goes into the same type of folder, important things and unimportant things are mixed together. But a colour-coded system helps your manager to remember what action they need to take on each item.
  • Use descriptive subject lines in emailsWhen you send emails to your manager, make sure the subject line communicates essential information that can be easily identified later. Remember, the subject line is just like a headline! It must communicate crucial information and grab attention.
  • Limit choices: Many disorganised people have a tough time making decisions. If this is the case with your manager, then limit their choices so that decisions are easier. For instance, if they're going to travel to a conference, don't list six potential hotels. Instead, list three hotels that you think are best. Limiting choices helps people feel less overwhelmed and better able to cope with making a decision.

More tips for organising

Sometimes, a few small changes in your own working style make a big difference when working with a disorganised co-worker or manager. Try these tips:

  • Package information together: If you send a series of separate emails, on the same subject and over several days, these can easily get lost or separated from each other. But if you combine essential information in one document (either electronic or on paper), it's easier to keep that information together.
  • Schedule accordingly: Consider people's levels of disorganisation when you schedule things. This means that if you need something from them, ask for it as soon as you know you need it. Allow yourself plenty of time whenever you're depending on them for anything, and set early deadlines for delivery of work to allow for their disorganisation.
  • Bring in an expert on organisation: A great speaker can make your team members realise why they need to get organised and give them strategies to take action.
  • Set organisation goals: If you manage disorganised people, it could be helpful to set organisation goals as performance targets. Let them know that you'll measure their efforts at their next performance appraisal.
  • Praise efforts: Any time you see your colleagues making progress, make sure you praise their efforts, no matter how small. If you let them know how their efforts to get organised are helping, you might keep them motivated to continue.​

Corndel has created a publicly available Support and Resources Hub to help organisations and learners navigate these challenging times. Please feel free to browse. This hub is updated continuously through this period.

This material has been sourced from mindtools and forms part of the ‘Stretch Library of Resources’ available to all Corndel Learners. More information on Corndel Diplomas. 

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