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Thursday, March 19, 2009

being asked to "fix" a coworker

A reader writes:

I work for a very large company, on a very small team of specialists that does a ton of work. About a week ago, my boss pulled me aside for a one on one. I have a really good relationship with my manager, I can say without hesitation that I really enjoy working with the guy and he's very fair - and understanding to a fault.

A while ago I actually sent in an inquiry to you about a slacker employee on my team, and how to bring it up to my manager. Well, let's just say that this individual finally dropped the ball on something pretty big, and I had no choice but to clean up the mess. Let us also say that I suspect my manager took a fair amount of heat for the mistake once it was made, and came to a realization about how severe the nature of this person's slacker-hood is.

My boss moves my team around sometimes, and we basically had a conversation about how I would be moving next to this individual in hopes that my stellar work ethic and leadership skills will somehow rub off on this less than effective employee and make him a better worker. This happens to me at jobs. People assume that because I work hard, I am going to be able to help them make poor performers better at their job. It's never worked thus far, probably a reflection of my less than stellar leadership skills, but here I am again in this same situation, being asked to help this person who frankly has been in their position much longer than me and who is much older than I am better at their job.

I expressed this concern and frankly some doubtfulness to my boss that I could accomplish this given my track record, but he seems confident I can do this, yet has assured me he will not hold me accountable if this tactic does not have the desired effect.

Can you offer me suggestions on guiding this guy? The conversation between my boss and myself was definitely a confidential one, but I do feel I need communicate to this guy that if he doesn't shape up, he's shipping out - how can I accomplish this without letting on how much I know about his performance issues? I want to do this right (if possible) because I am trying to view it as an opportunity to develop some leadership skills and frankly, some cajones myself, but I have absolutely no experience with making this "Good Employee Fixes Bad Employee" thing work, so I am hoping for some expert advice on doing it in a tactful, clear, and concise way - IF it can be done.


First, unless your boss has specifically told you that you can talk to this guy about the fact that his job may be in jeopardy, you shouldn't address that with him. That's the manager's job, not yours.

Speaking of things that are your manager's job, addressing poor performance is one of them. I hope that your manager's plan for this guy is something more than asking you to mentor him. A good manager would be addressing his concerns frankly with the guy, telling him what the issues are, the ways that he's falling short, and what the consequences are of not improving. I hope your manager is doing all that, and that having you model good behavior for the employee is just a bonus, but I have a feeling that might not be the case.

Your manager should not be putting you in a position where you feel responsible for a problem employee's success, because (a) that's his responsibility, and (b) you don't have the tools to make an impact -- because you don't have the authority that you'd need to address this head-on.

What exactly is it that your boss wants you to do? Just be a good role model? Or something more proactive? If the latter, you need to find out exactly what your role is supposed to be and what you have the authority to do. Without some authority over him, the most you can offer is help and guidance on specific projects. But if this guy is a slacker, I doubt he'll care to benefit from that, and that brings us back to your manager needing to manage.

For the love of god, what is up with managers who try to avoid managing? That's what it sounds like you've got here.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like your manager does not have the skills either. Some people have the strengths for making good better, but not for making bad good.

Regardless of whether that person should be in a managers role, the situation is what it is. This manager is looking for a way to address this issue using your strengths.

I would work with your manager to come up with a plan. Make sure he understands that your strengths are in productivity and not leadership. Your boss should definitely be the one telling your co-worker what the expectations and consequences will be. He should let this co-worker know that he is tasking you with helping him develop a system to make him as productive as possible.

For your part, don't discount your own skills and don't write off the co-worker immediately. Sometimes, people are less effective because they simply don't know how to establish a system to counter their weaknesses.

For instance, if he dropped the ball because he forgot something important, show him your system for ensuring that deadlines don't approach un-noticed. If it was because he didn't understand the priorities, show him how you track that. It's possible he didn't get the work done because he has little time-sense and doesn't really get how to divide large projects into smaller, doable tasks.

It should be up to your boss to ensure that your co-worker has customized your methods for himself and is using those methods.

Like it or not, at some point many of us get assignments like this. The most important thing is to understand that it's just part of work. Next is to understand what you have to offer to the task. If nothing else, think of it as training to develop some of those leadership skills.

Anonymous said...

I understand that you are being placed in a position you would rather not be in. Think of this as a "Teaching Opportunity." For whatever reason your supervisor is reluctant to escalate this just yet, despite the fact that he took some heat for this mistake as well. You are being trusted to make the situation better and maybe enhance your leadership skills in the process.

This is an opportunity for you. Take the ball and score with it!

Rebecca said...

I don't really have anything helpful to say to the question-asker... I just really, really, REALLY hate the "set a good example" idea. It's not setting up a mentor relationship, it's just rewarding your hard work and good conduct by sticking you with the troublemakers and worst performers. It is really one of my least favorite things in the whole universe and should be abolished immediately and everywhere. Ugh. I feel for you, question-asker.

Anonymous said...

I agree with George - this can be an opportunity for you to improve your leadership skills. But it should only be so if you want it.

If you don't want this responsibility it should somehow or other be passed back to your manager without it looking like you are not a "team player." (AAM, I am sure that you have a post somewhere about managers who misuse words or phrases!)

If you do want to use this as an opportunity for yourself then please make sure that you are given the authority or in the very least create an email trail with your boss of what you are doing so that you aren't "thrown under the bus" when things don't work out with this employee. Basic CYA.

AAM said:

"For the love of god, what is up with managers who try to avoid managing?"

To which I can only add:

Lord, how I wish I had a dollar for everytime I had to remind managers to ask themselves "Is it a training issue or a managerment issue?" before asking me as a trainer to help with such stuff!

Anonymous said...

Thanks to all for your useful feedback. At least some of this responsibility will no longer reside with me, as a recent promotion in my department will put me into a situation where I will need to train people who (imagine this) have never DONE this job before, who obviously will take priority over the poor performer, and the "move" will involve sitting me beside one of the promoted new hires, versus the slacker. This, I don't mind so much.

However, I also think it's important to note and I think it's only fair to add in light of all of the questions about what level of authority I am being given in this situation that my Manager did specify that he views me as the default "leader" in this department, and as such, feels comfortable with my making certain decisions that are slightly above what someone in my position would ordinarily make (NOT to include discussing performance issues, obviously) Still, I will need to work on developing this person and there has been some really good advice here on the forum and in the article. I feel like my boss falls into the "too nice" category that AAM addressed some days back

Finally, AAM, being a huge fan of your site, THANK YOU! =)

Ask a Manager said...

Interesting! If you're interested in moving in a management direction, it sounds like you might be able to parlay this into that, by talking with your manager about formalizing your authority and giving you a more official role in the stuff he's asking you to do.

Dan McCarthy said...

You nailed it the first time – it was a perfect answer!!
And as for rationalizing this as an opportunity to development leadership skills... I totally disagree. There are a dozens of things a manager can have their star employee do to develop leadership skills, including running team meetings, participating in interviewing candidates, leading a significant change, helping refine the department strategy, mentoring a new employee, etc…
Dealing with a peer’s poor performance should not be one of them. That’s the manager’s job, and it should never be delegated as a “development opportunity”.

Anonymous said...

While it's a good litmus test for your leadership skills, I agree with others that it sorta shirks the responsibility off the original manager.

If I were in your shoes, I'd set a defined timeframe as a trial period to see if this is really something that can managed.

The only other caveat that I see is that your original manager is setting you up to fail by giving you this "opportunity". So that Slacker Dude's performance problem becomes yours and not his.