Team-based projects don't disappear after college. In one capacity or another, in the professional world, you'll be working in teams to accomplish collective goals. Sometimes that means partnering up on a budgeting initiative, and other times that means working on individual segments of a broader vision. Either way, the performance of the team is affected by the individuals within that team, and regardless of how well you do individually, your project and your reputation could be affected positively or negatively by your teammates.
When you have smart, talented, experienced teammates, this is great. Your own accomplishments are amplified and supported by those around you. But what happens if you have an incompetent coworker on your team?
Now, "incompetent" can mean a lot of things, and it's often used as a pejorative phrase, but in this context it doesn't necessitate that the coworker has done something wrong or egregious. It doesn't mean he is lazy or stupid--just that he's incapable, perhaps due to lack of experience or capacity, of performing to an adequate level.
So how do you deal with incompetence when it threatens your own performance?
Set Clear Expectations
Your first job is to make sure everybody on your team is clear about the expectations of the project. This must apply on several different levels. First, you must make sure your coworkers are all aware of their individual responsibilities, the level of effort and skill necessary to execute them, and the target objectives that must be met. If your coworker knows he is over his head, this will be the time for him to bring it up. Assuming he is incompetent because he's unprepared for the responsibilities, this is a chance for him to realize this and request his removal from the project.
If everybody's onboard with the expectations, there's nothing more you can do at this point.
Offer Your Help
Let's assume your coworker is overwhelmed but can't withdraw from the project for one reason or another. In this scenario, you can offer your help and guidance to ensure your coworker lives up to his responsibilities. Sometimes a one-on-one sit-down to hash out a few problems is all it takes to get someone back on course.
Now let's assume that the incompetent worker doesn't understand that his performance may be comparably weaker to the rest of the group's. If this is the scenario, you can offer your help as a backup--something like "hey, I know you've got this, but in case you hit a wall, let me know and I can help you out."
Provide Additional Resources
If you've offered your help but that still doesn't seem to be enough, you'll have to take additional steps to get your coworker the resources he needs. This is also true if your coworker is responsible for something outside your area of expertise.
This can come in a variety of forms. You could recommend a class for the person to take, or online resources to consult. You could direct him to an industry expert you know who might be able to offer some additional advice. If you have an assistant or an intern, you might even be able to lend him manpower to tackle the simpler responsibilities he's dealing with.
Unless there's some reason why you've been forced into your given roles on the team, there's nothing stopping you from exchanging responsibilities. Let's say one of your teammates is incompetent when it comes to performing background research, yet he's been assigned that role for the group. Another team member is weak when it comes to number crunching, but the "incompetent" worker excels at it. Simply have them exchange responsibilities to make the most of each of their abilities.
Work together as a team to understand each other's strengths and weaknesses, and as long as you aren't interfering with some grand plan, you should have no problem working together for the best possible overall outcome.
Confront the Person
If none of your strategies to improve the situation are making anything better, speak bluntly and openly to the person who's the subject of your concern. Be polite and professional, but point out that you're concerned about his performance as it relates to the entire team. Don't judge or insult the person's abilities; instead, identify the situation as a potential weakness that can be improved, and work together to find a mutually agreeable solution. This might mean requesting additional team members or asking the person in question to talk to the boss.
Explain the Situation
If none of your strategies have worked, including confronting the person directly, you can consider going to the boss (or whoever's in charge of reviewing your work) and explaining the situation. Again, be polite and professional; never disparage another worker. Instead, explain the situation objectively and emphasize your individual efforts to resolve it. This is ideally done before the project is completed and submitted so there can be time to rectify, but can also be done after the project is completed to explain any missing pieces.
Incompetence is something you'll experience in every workplace, and in every industry. We're all incompetent at something, so it's inevitable you'll eventually be placed on the same team as someone incompetent at the task at hand. When you do, use these strategies and steps to help improve the situation and mitigate any possible losses.