To-Do List Hot Potato: Why Some of Your Co-workers Pass The Buck

The Game of To-Do List Hot Potato

You’ve finally reached the end of the workweek, and you’ve dedicated most of your Friday afternoon to tying up any loose ends.

You’ve sent and replied to requests, wrapped up pending projects, and generally set yourself up for a productive following week. You’re feeling good about what you’ve accomplished... when an email arrives in your inbox.

It’s a response from one of your colleagues. She’s replying to several questions you had passed along earlier in the day. But, here’s the problem: Her message is completely half-assed.

She gave brief, one-sentence answers when you made it clear you needed more information. She didn’t attach supporting documentation as you requested. She even had the nerve to skip some questions entirely.

The icing on the cake? She capped off that totally lackluster response with a seemingly helpful, “Let me know if there’s anything else you need from me!”

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Are you gritting your teeth and clenching your fists right now? You aren’t alone.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to deal with co-workers who are skilled at playing to-do list hot potato—meaning they do a quick and mediocre job of what’s requested, so that they can toss the ball back into your court and avoid having unfinished business hanging over their own heads.

It’s undoubtedly frustrating for those left to pick up the pieces—not to mention that it slows down progress pretty significantly. But, why does this happen? And, more importantly, what can you do about it? Here’s what you need to know to prevent being burned by any more rogue hot potatoes.

Why Is This Happening?

Obviously, you’re adamant that you’d never be so inconsiderate of your own team members. The basic principle behind this hot potato activity, however, is that it’s actually pretty relatable.

“We do this sort of thing in our own management of our projects on a day-to-day basis,” explains Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, “One day, there’s a task you’re avoiding with your whole being, and the next day it’s the task that you’re embracing because you now have a worse task you’re avoiding.”

This passing off of different to-dos is common in your own daily task management. There’s a big difference, however, between passing the buck and procrastinating on your own tasks, and passing it to someone else entirely. The latter is called social loafing—meaning a willingness to make fewer contributions to a group effort than you would if you were solely responsible for that task.

“From a personality perspective, the people who are [constantly passing tasks off to others] are very low in conscientiousness as a personality trait, because they’re taking the short route,” Dr. Pychyl continues, “They’re willing to half-ass the job and say ‘I did my share!’ but their share was poorly done.”

But… Why Keep Doing It?

Here’s the problem: The people who shift responsibility in this way actually do experience a short-term gain. Think about it this way: It feels good to accomplish something, doesn’t it? You get a thrill when you’re able to cross another thing off of your to-do lists.

You can thank your brain chemistry for this. When you complete a task, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine. When that chemical reaches the reward centers of your brain, you feel a sense of pleasure and are inspired to repeat the activity that led to that feeling in the first place.

So, for those of you who are respectful hard workers, that surge of dopamine can be a solid motivator to keep chipping away at your to-do lists. But, for these champions of to-do list hot potato? It provides a totally false sense of satisfaction—and, ultimately, keeps the cycle going.

Are You Stuck Eating Endless Hot Potatoes?

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“This has to do with structural problems in the workplace,” Dr. Pychyl says, “These people will survive and thrive in places where you can do these things without too many consequences.”

So, the trick to getting your colleagues to stop this frustrating behavior is actually surprisingly simple: call them out on it. Have the tough conversations. Let that person know how their own lackluster efforts are impacting you.

According to research done at the London Business School, task ambiguity can have some dire effects on collaboration. Put simply, when people don’t know exactly what they need to do, they probably aren’t going to do it.

So, when making a request of your colleague, make your expectations painfully obvious. Tell them exactly what you need and when you need it. Remove the potential for any confusion or finger-pointing.

I know what you’re thinking: if this person is on low conscientiousness to begin with, why would they care what you have to say? 

Make no mistake, your conversation won’t cause a radical personality shift and transform that person into someone who’s particularly polite and thoughtful. However, by making it clear that the behavior won’t be tolerated, you are setting clear expectations for how you want to collaborate effectively.

“Your behavior is not just dictated by your personality, but also situations,” adds Dr. Pychyl, “We all react to the situation around us. And, if the workplace lacks structure and accountability, that allows really negative traits to be expressed and ultimately results in negative behavior like buck-passing.”

It also pays to ensure that you’re being clear with your expectations when communicating with that non-contributing team member—right from the start. By making the assignment clear and the situation more demanding, you can hopefully inspire that frustrating colleague to step up their own efforts.

One surefire way to reach this degree of clarity—regardless of how direct or unassertive you may be in the office—is to work together with your team to establish a specific structure for any requests that are beyond just a quick question:

  • Outline a simple brief that people need to fill out with all of the necessary information to get started.
  • Create a canned email template that team members should use—which will help them ensure they don’t skip anything important and create more work for someone else as a result.
  • Have a default “route of responsibility” when it’s unclear who should handle the workload, instead bringing in a manager to make the final call.
  • Finally, let each team member communicate their ideal turnaround times and required detail for projects.
A copywriter, for example, might prefer 3 business days to hand back a project draft edit delivered via email, but will accept small grammar requests last minute over chat.  

"If the workplace lacks structure and accountability, that allows really negative traits to be expressed and ultimately results in negative behavior like buck-passing.”

- Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University

Establishing and then implementing these types of team norms will instill a greater sense of accountability and thus act as a shield against any person-to-person dynamics that might send things running off the rails.

Hands Up! No More Hot Potatoes

Like so many other situations in the workplace, you can’t control how your colleagues behave—but, you can control how you react to them.

No, this isn’t your permission to retaliate in a juvenile way. As rewarding as it might feel in the heat of the moment, hitting your colleagues with a passive aggressive “task-splaining” retort won’t get you too far (aka the workplace equivalent of “Nana nana boo boo!”).

That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to roll over and continue to work in a way that’s obviously disrespectful and counterproductive. Instead, the next time someone drops a hot potato on your desk or in your inbox, make it immediately clear that their job isn’t quite done yet—that you need more from them before you can grab the reins and take that away.

Make it known when expectations aren’t met, and that person will have no choice but to take that potato back to his or her own kitchen to add some extra sour cream and chives.

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Next: The Secret To Removing Social Loafing From The Workplace

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