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I was a newbie in software industry, in India, after completing my graduation. Started as a software developer but there was something I could not figure it out what was wrong with me as new technology was assigned to me. I was not able to meet the deadlines. They asked me to share my problems but due to shyness, physiological fear of under performance, contemporary competition and eventually work load prevented me to share anything. Also, my lead was not so co-operative in knowing my weakness, problems. Things that prevented me from saying was the fear of under performance. So day by day my problems started and consequently I have to reluctantly say GOODBYE.

So my question is "Is it good to share one's individual problems with the manager irrespective of manager's nature?" ?

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Hi Sudhir, I'd suggest editing this post to make it clear you're not talking about sharing personal problems, like you can't pay your bills or you have a drinking problem. ;) Instead, you're talking about problems related to your work, and you should clarify this in the post title and body. Good luck, and welcome to the Workplace SE! :) –  jmort253 Dec 23 '12 at 10:06
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What country are you in? Culture - both geographic as well as company - can affect this a lot. –  enderland Dec 23 '12 at 16:13
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I removed the company name but added in country. Sudhir, you can add back in company if you really want to, but if it were me I'd personally leave that out. It's up to you. –  jmort253 Dec 23 '12 at 18:57

5 Answers 5

The dividing line for me is when a personal issue starts to intrude into workplace performance; at that point it ceases to be a personal issue and becomes a professional one.

Many people are driven by the same fears you have; a deep-seated need to impress or a fear of failure is common to many "workaholics", and many don't question this until their professional role impacts on their personal life, which can be just as bad.

It is normal to feel overwhelmed in a role when you first start. In fact, all of us feel this from time to time, especially if we have the courage to try and stretch ourselves by doing new things.

If, however every time you are asked "how is it going?" you cover up and say "fine" then people will tend to take this at face value.

I would much rather have an employee come to me for help earlier, than create the expectation that everything is under control and fail to deliver. In some roles (although rarely software development, I admit!) this can be very dangerous indeed.

Most managers fully expect new staff to struggle a little, even after an in-house induction or training programme; however they also expect you to be proactive when you are stuck, and to ask for help. In fact most line managers of junior staff expect lots of questions.

Those with experience (or who follow the situational leadership model) will recognise their own failings when an employee is struggling.

If an employee fails to meet my expectations it is because I did not lead them appropriately; I should not have delegated that task to the employee, because they lacked the skills, experience, motivation or confidence to complete it.

So, I would encourage you to be honest and speak up; being proactive is the first, and perhaps most important, of Steven Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Successful People", a book that I have found useful in shaping my approaches to work.

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As you progress in your career, you will be able to better assess how much information you can volunteer and how much you should really keep to yourself. For now, the bigger issue seems to be how to address your fear rather than how much of that fear to share with others.

Fear of failure is a big problem in this industry, because so much is expected of us and so few people in management truly understand what it takes to do what we do. There are those who are better at putting up a good front, and those who tend to hide their difficulties by being defensive and non-communicative. In my experience, the better I understand the problem I'm trying to solve, the easier for me it is to focus on finding a solution. Don't be afraid to ask questions about the tasks you are assigned if you really don't understand what it is you're doing. I've been developing software for almost 30 years, and I still have to ask questions in order to produce the correct solution.

In regards to not meeting your deadlines, you will reach a point long before the deadline arrives when you realize there is a good chance you will not meet it. That is the moment you need to bring your concerns to your manager's attention. The manager will likely ask you why. Whether the reason involves getting you better trained on the technology you are using, or improving your understanding of the problem that needs to be solved, you have to give your manager the chance to help you address the problem while there is still time to address it. If you wait until the last possible moment to communicate that there is a problem, it will only make the problem worse. At that point, your manager has to go to his/her boss and tell them that the assignment will not be completed on time, and so on up the line.

People are people, and people are more likely to gracefully accept that a specific approach will not work as long as they have time to try an alternate approach. Because of your reluctance (fear) to admit that you are having problems, you are actually creating more problems than if you simply say "I don't understand." In fact, good managers will appreciate your honesty, maturity, and foresight if you can convey to them exactly where you are having problems. It gives them the opportunity to do what they want to do: help themselves succeed by helping you succeed.

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+1 great post, Neil. –  GuyM Dec 23 '12 at 10:39

Bounce up your issues with the PM or manager asap (at least when you are a non senior dev). Its easier for managers to adjust deadlines, training, resource allocation etc. if they are aware of the issue.

It is way worse for a manager to get inaccurate "almost done" when this is not the case - which can jeopardize many things.

Also, a very good thing to do is to give a hint about what you need to overcome the issue. "I probably need two more days since this is new technology for me" or "I would go forward a lot faster if Mr Senior could help me over this obstacle", etc.

Managers are there to handle these kind of issues, adjusting the expectation levels, resources, staffing - that is - adjusting the plans to reality.

I guess fear of under performance is quite common for new software developers, since the field is so broad and it's quite complex to know everything from start. Communication of your obstacles and progress is therefore essential for you and your teams success.

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I'd be for sharing performance problems where you may have deadlines that are too aggressive or unforeseen circumstances arise that create doubt in being able to meet the deadline. The main reason why I'd suggest this is that if you repeatedly keep saying, "I'll do better next time," when a deadline is missed, then at some point you'll likely be terminated or at least have no credibility when someone wants to hold you to a date you gave. There is also something to be said for how isolated are you in this workplace as if you are part of a team, then there may be times when the rest of the team will step up to save you rather than let the team fail horribly.

Where it can be challenging to say, "Hey, I don't think I'll meet that deadline we had," consider what may happen when you do raise the flag that you need some help to get things done. It can be great to either get the help or adjust the deadline, workload or other factors that make this less stressful. The other point here is that this is all professional since it is about the work and not one's individual personal problems that aren't material here.

The earlier you can identify that a deadline isn't realistic or likely to be made and tell someone then the easier it is to remedy. If you wait until the 11th hour, then this can be seen as making things worse as you either didn't see it, didn't care or didn't trust to bring it up. Just as a couple of minor side points to consider before bringing this up:

  1. Know exactly where the issue is. Is it the deadline coming too soon? Is it having difficulty learning a new framework? What is the cause of the problem that you may well have to articulate here for, "Why aren't we going to make the deadline?"

  2. Be prepared to have a couple of possible solutions to give. Is adjusting the timeline a good idea? Is bringing in someone else to help you finish something going to work? Is changing the scope a better solution? Have a couple of possibilities to show that you aren't merely trying to get out of doing something but have considered alternatives that you hope could be taken as a compromise on some level.

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In any culture and with any two people (employee/manager) - talking about performance problems is a tricky thing. It is usually hardest when the employee and the manager are significantly different - different cultures, ages, expectations, or work styles can all pose even further barriers to what each side assumes is the "typical" behavior.

Here's a couple tips that have worked for me.

We're all on the same team

For many, performance problems are easiest if you can phrase them as problems with the work environment, not personal failings. For example not knowing a given peice of technology that you've never used or been formally trained with is hard, and not understanding immediately does not make you stupid, it makes you new to the topic. In this example, you'll get much farther saying "I am not familiar with this technology, can you make suggestions for how I might get training?" or even "do you mind if I do these things to get myself training? (take a course, read a book, ask for mentoring from another employee, etc)". This is not much different from not having the technical equipment you need - you and your manager should be able to work together to get the project done.

How Soon do I Report a Problem?

As I understand it, different cultures are different - I've noticed when working, for example, with mostly Indian teams that the manager takes on more of the initiative for this, and the individual contributor may only report a problem when an emergency is about to arise. American culture can be very different with employees piping up almost as soon as the project starts with what they'll need and things we should consinder for ultimate success.

Non-confrontational Problem Reporting Tricks

I've also seen big differences in how a problem is raised. Having gone through a few cultures, my first attempt is usually non-confrontational. It's usually been my strategy that I can start off with a very light, mild report of an issue, and then escalate to something more urgent. My key to success is to always try to stay blame-free - avoiding both blaming myself and blaming my manager (or anyone else). That keeps most defensiveness out of the picture.

Here's a few of my tricks and the order I try them:

  1. Ask a question - "I don't know XYZ technology. How important is it? Will not knowing impact our schedule?" This is usually a good way of getting the other person thinking about the problem, and not feeling attacked. Also, in cases where there's a big power difference between myself and my boss, it lets them benevolently consider my request instead of having to deal with my insubordination.
  2. Give an if/then - if option 1 fails, and I think the problem is too urgent to be ignored, I gather some evidence and go with an if/then statement - "if I don't have X, I can't do Y within X constraints" - it's alot more authoritative, but it's also a lot more clear - this is for when I am quite sure there will be a problem.
  3. Please check my work - my final ultimatim - if I simply can't get the point across, I'll sit down with the body of work (after doing #1 and #2, it is usually substantial) and ask my manager to check my work - what did I miss? what could be different? As it is, I'm usually in a position at this point where I cannot see a way to success. At this point, I'm rarely focused on the simple issue at hand, my main focus is on what went wrong in the overall process and how to fix it so that next time, we don't have to end up here.

Clarify Expectations before Problems Occur

It's not unusual in a new job for me to sit down with my manager in the first two weeks and ask when and how they would like to hear problems. This is certainly an American trick, but it's seemed to work well. I've never tried it in a traditional Asian learning environment - but I've also found in these environments, my teachers will read my body language very clearly and ask me what's wrong, and they expect an honest response.

Quite often, a manager will have a preference - some folks like hearing all the problems in a team meeting where the whole team may be able to help. Others may ask that you bring them to in privately in one on ones, or that you speak to a senior mentor first because the manager himself will be very busy.

By asking way ahead of any actual problems you can get a sense of how long a problem may take to get resolved, and you're doing it at a time when you have no pressure around a serious work issue that needs assistance today.

It may also be a good time to talk about how your manager judges good performance - different managers certainly look for different things and understanding the requirements of both your manager and your job before you start doing it is a very good thing. The key is to come across as wanting to meet your manager's expectations, and not wanting to figure out what you can get away with.

How frequent?

I don't know of any manager who can handle being bombarded by problems day after day. But problems can tend to cluster, so just having gotten assistance with a problem does mean never, ever ask when you encounter another problem shortly therafter.

What I often look for as a manager in terms of signs of a good employee is:

  • The first time is never problem free. If the employee doesn't encounter problems, they either aren't being challenged, or they aren't telling you their problems, and there are scary problems lurking under the surface. Ask, make yourself available, and hope you get to hear about the problem before it's too late to fix it.

  • The second time should be lower in problems. Having learned new things and made a few major mistakes, the employee should be able to repeat the task with fewer mistakes and most mistakes should be new because two tasks are rarely ever identical. The area of concern is when an employee disregards a clear guideline or command that was given in the course of the first task, because he didn't realize that it pertained to this task as well.

  • Third time should be almost problem-free - if something comes up it's either very small or very large - and the employee should show good judgement in whether to raise up the problem for help or to try fixing it himself.

Over the course of time, it is also a good sign if the employee is actively asking "how can I do better next time?" and if the employee and I are having discussions about ways to improve efficiency. This isn't necessarily a case of personal efficiency - certainly if we have a problem with adhering to work hours, communicating with co-workers or other individual work elements - then we'll start there and I'll be hopeful that the employee can address individually controlled areas of the job. But over time, this conversation usually changes to ideas that may help the whole team. That's a natural transition point from a junior role to a more senior one in most technical work.

I expect that problems decline over time and at the same time, the problems that do come up are actually harder to fix, as they show the need for longer term insights, and harder to acquire knowledge.

I suspect that my approach here is an American one, but I also know that there is virtually no realm of knowledge work where employees do not get smarter as they get more experienced, and I would suspect that most cultures expect that there needs to be more time allocated to training the new guy than is required for overseeing someone very experienced.

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