Nine months ago an employee, John, was hired for an entry level position. John had a boss and two other team members.

I was brought in two months ago after John's boss was let go. I've found very quickly that all three team members are very hard working. However, John is simply not intelligent enough to do the job. If I explain something to all three, the other two understand immediately while John messes up and has to have it re-explained several times.

Similarly when John has an idea or has to come up with his own approach to tackle a problem there is almost always a very obvious reason why this would not work that is immediately pointed out by me or one of John's team members.

As a result if John is left to his own devices he ends up being unproductive and requiring someone else to come in and redo everything.

Although neither of his other team members have expressed any issue with John, I can tell (despite both of them having the same or less experience) they are holding John's hand.

I have now come to the conclusion that there is no way I can trust John's work, and do not feel comfortable in giving him ownership over anything - which is a requirement for this position.

The difficult part of this is that John is very hard working. He puts in a lot of effort, loves his position, and he thinks he is doing a great job.

So now I am trying to figure out how to properly handle this. I do not want to simply fire him, or even to move right into a "you are basically going to be fired" PiP, as I think that would be very unfair to him and would severely hurt the morale of his team members.

However I cannot come up with constructive feedback for him besides that I think his intuition and judgment surrounding his day to day duties is severely lacking. If I went through a PiP I want there to be some actionable direction I can give him and right now I feel like I don't know what I could even tell him in a meeting that would be productive and not demoralizing.

So I guess my ultimate question is, how do you provide actionable feedback to someone who simply doesn't get it?

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    You mentioned that the "ownership is a requirement for the position", but on a lower level, are you still asking a fish to climb a tree?
    – Sandra K
    Nov 21, 2017 at 23:01
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    @SandraK I think it is very possible, and I think I might be using "intelligent" and "smart" too harshly when describing this person. I might want to rephrase "intelligent" as "intelligent with regards to the tasks that this position or any other position at this company would require." The reason I include "all positions at this company" in my edited explanation is because this company is only ~10 people in size and as a result every role requires some creativity, autonomy, and ingenuity. Nov 21, 2017 at 23:07
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    Do you have an age range, or at least the "generation" that John is in? This changes the communication method. I assume entry level means fresh graduate? The Net Generation function differently in the corporate world, and requires different sets of management skills. It's an interesting phenomenon.
    – Nelson
    Nov 22, 2017 at 3:45
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    @nelson Where can I learn more about those management requirements for the Net Generation?
    – Sandra K
    Nov 22, 2017 at 5:13
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    The Net Generation function differently in the corporate world, and requires different sets of management skills. - Citation needed. I suspect that all generations had an adjustment from entry level to become a professional. I know I did and so did all my friend. Nov 28, 2017 at 23:09

6 Answers 6


So I guess my ultimate question is, how do you provide actionable feedback to someone who simply doesn't get it?

Don't use phrases like "not smart enough" or "doesn't get it." Instead, try to explain specifically what is lacking and how he can improve.

I feel that sometimes you don't understand assignments the way I explain them. If you don't understand something early on, please come to me with questions as soon as possible. Don't wait until after you've spent a lot of time on an assignment to ask for help.

If you've only been managing him for two months, I don't think stupidity is a foregone conclusion. When he does something wrong, don't immediately tell him the answer. Ask questions that will lead him to the correct answer. In this way, you can teach him not only what to do but how to think about a problem. He may have a different learning style than his colleagues, which might require a different managerial style. If you usually use pictures and diagrams to explain assignments, try using written explanations instead. Conversely, if you tend to use written explanations, try incorporating more visuals.

He's been on the team longer than you have and his teammates clearly like him. The question you should be asking is "how can I help him succeed?" not "how can I tell him how stupid he is?"

If you have, in fact, reached a definitive conclusion that he doesn’t have what it takes, I agree with Joe Strazzere’s comment—just fire him and be done with it.

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    Visuals yes, a lot of things can be explained with somes images instead of long walls of text that require you to put a lot of effort to draw that image in your mind.
    – Walfrat
    Nov 22, 2017 at 8:21

You provide him with Specific Measurable Achievable Results-Focus Time-Bound goals that set your expectations of him.

It is unfair to say that he is not smart enough, that is an assumption of the cause. It is entirely possible that he could be only failing your subjectivity bias tests. (You are looking for faults) If you set expectations that he knows to strive for then you can judge just by his results how he is doing.

  • I think this is the correct solution. It looks more a communication/expectation problem from OP than from John. Also note John was working for seven months before OP stepped in and maybe he stills lacks knowledge/vision in the company business
    – jean
    Nov 22, 2017 at 18:52
  • @jean I have been at the company far longer than John. I was brought into this specific role 2 months ago specifically to clean up the mess left by John's old boss. Nov 29, 2017 at 23:07
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    @MyPrivateWorkProfile - That you make that argument about this tends to reinforce the idea that you are bias against john. You asked how to give feedback and I still say this is the proper way to provide feedback to anyone not meeting expectations. Nov 30, 2017 at 5:24
  • I agree very much so with your comment and the sentiment behind it - I wish I could select both you and AffableAmbler's as correct. I just wanted to address @jean's point specifically about lacking the "knowledge/vision in the company business." I made my argument about this because that was the only thing in the answer/comment that I disagreed with. Nov 30, 2017 at 23:34

Now that you've mentioned he is a fresh graduate, John probably have not switched from school to work mindset yet.

In school, everything is well defined. You do this problem, using this formula. At least you know you have about 5-10 formulas for the course. You don't get creative. If the teacher says to do bitwise operations by converting to strings and looping through the strings? You do that. You don't go look into the API and look for bitwise operator on INT variables.

In school, someone also knows the "right" answer. No matter the subject, there is a specific answer to be attained, especially in classes like math. A student's goal is to get this "right" answer and get a grade, usually within the week. The cycle repeats until you get to sit there and write on a paper for 3 hours, then you get another grade outlining how you did for that 4 month period.

At work, both of these main points are thrown out the window. Work is not well defined. Anyone who has worked with clients will know, they are "always right", but have no freaking clue what they need. Lots of soft skills involved.

Problems are not well defined. You have a business need, how do you translate that to code? Anyone who has worked on a project that has a detailed software requirement will know, you always miss something. Always.

At work, nobody knows the "right" answer. There isn't one. Nobody sits there and create frivolous questions to quiz you. All the problems you encounter are genuine problems. Nobody knows how to fix it yet. If they did, they would've fixed it already! You also sometimes don't know the implication of what you did, and you almost never know who's "at fault" if something goes wrong. Upper management do not necessarily have the "right" answer, although they can still fire you even though they were wrong.

You mentioned the three are "hard working". How do they show that? By cranking out code? That's not hard working. That's a car spinning its tires, and this is driven by fear of being fired. Some of the most useful work developers do are collaboration, bouncing ideas off each other, know and use each other's strengths. Any time you have a "team" of 3 sitting there just cranking away at code isn't particularly effective.


You definitely want to avoid even thinking "not smart enough", as that will come back to bite you.

You need to determine whether or not John is suited to the role he is in and whether this "hand holding" is getting john up to speed or is just covering for him.

So, before giving feedback, you'll need to ask yourself if he can be utilized in the team, whether his teammates are willing to deal with his shortcomings and whether you are.

Once you determine that, then you proceed by either setting up a plan to use him where he has value, and design feedback around that, or get prepared to push him out the door.

If you decide to keep him, you're going to have to investigate carefully what his strengths are, in addition to his weaknesses and focus on the former and mitigate the latter. Your feedback should be structured around that.

Again, don't dismiss him as not smart enough. He may have value that you haven't seen.

  • Yep. My thoughts have always been if an employee didn't cut it, his boss let him down.
    – A.fm.
    Nov 25, 2017 at 5:44

"... John messes up and has to have it re-explained several times.

Similarly when John has an idea or has to come up with his own approach to tackle a problem there is almost always a very obvious reason why this would not work that is immediately pointed out by me or one of John's team members.

As a result if John is left to his own devices he ends up being unproductive and requiring someone else to come in and redo everything.

Explain to him that things can not continue like that. If there's an easier position he could move to that; otherwise he can come up with a plan to eliminate the aforementioned problems or you will.

The ability to receive and retain information is a critical (life) skill. Similarly you should ensure that there is no fault on your part, do you ask him if he understands and has a couple of questions?

I've had owners and supervisors offer their ideas of how to do things and I've been happy to comply, I'm prepared to prove that I did exactly as asked; if left to my own devices I attempt to produce an almost perfect result quickly (baring instructions to the contrary).

Maybe you assume he has a background in the field which he does not but the others do. The words you use mean one thing to an experienced person and something entirely different to a layperson.

Assuming you are correct tell him that you have figured out how you would like the task to be done, it goes as follows; after ask if he has a question or two.

If he can not do that then get him something else to do, if there's nothing else then explain that is all you have for him today and to return tomorrow (or next week).

It's unfair to: the company, your other employees, the customers, maybe also to John, and to the unemployed, that he gets special treatment.

Break a complex task into smaller pieces, give him the small piece, explain it, ask if he has questions, get him started and Helicopter Manage him for a few minutes providing corrections as needed; if it's in one ear and out the other for a trivial task then something greater is bound to be beyond him.

You owe (or it is fair and reasonable) to explain clearly what you want and check if he is up to the task but you don't owe him money for nothing. He should fulfil his job description for the most part, if he can not then he can not stay.

A final point is that they let John's former boss go and kept John, what if they had let John go and kept his former boss; would you be able to follow his former boss or lead the team?

  • 2
    +1 for "ensure there is no fault on your side". And be sure he's used in the domain he's the most efficient. Finding him better suited tasks would be a much better solution - if possible, of course.
    – gazzz0x2z
    Nov 22, 2017 at 9:56

Given the data points that he's only been there 9 months, and that he thinks he's doing a great job, I'd approach it as a professional growth issue rather than a "you're in danger of being fired but I didn't tell you before" thing.

Explain that as a small company, it's critical that each employee be able to contribute independently. At larger organizations there's a role for people who need a little guidance, but here you need to be able to solve problems quickly and correctly. Obviously there's a learning curve to starting a new position, but going forward he needs to consistently deliver high quality results. His output was understandable as a new hire but needs to improve.

Define what that means, and give an example of a time he floundered. Explain specifically what you're looking for. Highlight that you appreciate his effort level. You aren't looking for him to work harder. Instead, you need him to think deeply about his approaches to problems and to not make conceptual mistakes where he goes down a dead end or builds the wrong things. As he becomes more senior, it's not acceptable to make intuitive errors.

Hopefully it'll be a wake-up call and he'll improve. If you make it explicit that he needs to carefully think through his approaches, maybe he will. If not, you're at least more naturally escalating the situation: first laying out what's expected, then warning him as he fails to meet those goals, and finally letting him go if he can't catch up.

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