I am looking for some leadership/management advice. My situation is quite similar to this one, but (as you'll see below) I'm already trying to do what was suggested in those answers.
I manage a technical team of three that is part of an internal service department in a large enterprise. We have complete ownership of several web-based tools that are used by internal customers. We do everything from first-line support, through maintenance, upgrades, customisation, systems administration and development.
Two of the team just get on with their work, and only come to me for guidance when they are really stuck. If/when things go south, they come to me with a handful of evils and ask me to choose the least of them. I choose, they make it so, and we move on.
The third member is really struggling to get any meaningful work done, and needs a lot of guidance. I should mention that he suffers from an anxiety disorder. I have recognised this in a semi-official way, i.e. he is allowed to take sick leave whenever he has an attack, and can work from home with no notice if he thinks he needs to.
Earlier this year, I had a meeting with him in which he said he was unsure about his role in the team, and that he'd thought he was going to have more opportunities to do software development work. I assured him that the work he was doing was valuable and appreciated, and that yes, there is a lot of boring support work, but we all have to do it. I also offered him three work packages from our backlog that he could get his teeth into. They needed a bit of business analysis, scoping, and software development. They had a limited "blast radius" and were not time critical, and in my view were good opportunities for "learning while doing". I asked him to pick one to start with, but that all three needed doing "at some point".
He pretty much straight away refused two of them, saying he felt his skills weren't up to the tasks. I said that I would be glad to fund training to close the skills gaps he felt he had, but that solving problems you don't already know how to solve is how you develop yourself. He agreed to take the remaining work package.
To begin with, we paired on this package, but this was not sustainable because it was taking me away from my work. I pointed to who else in the organisation could give advice, places to look (like Stack Exchange!), etc.
There is also plenty of other work that appears "organically" that I expect team members to pick up and run with. There's an internal cycle in our business that means now (September) is the time of year when a lot of this organic work appears.
Yesterday I got an email from the member in question announcing to the team that he'd tried to deliver the work package we'd agreed upon, but that he'd hit a dead end and was giving up. A few minutes later he appeared at my desk asking me to "give him something to do". I said I hadn't had time to process his email, but asked about whether he could start one of the other packages we'd spoken about. He said: "No, something else, please".
We spent a few minutes looking through our backlog and identified something he was comfortable taking on. We agreed some goals, identified an approach, and he took it away. This morning I get another email saying he's hit a dead end. I suggest someone who can help and he says he doesn't know how to contact that person. (They are in the company directory!)
I'm now gravely concerned that I am failing to give him the support he requires.
I've tried to foster a supportive culture. When things go well, I make sure everyone gets credit for their contribution. When things go bad, I make sure the organisation knows it's my responsibility. (I heard this called "push credit down, pull blame up").
The member who is struggling had a really great idea over the summer that enormously simplified one of our annual processes. I publicly recognised his contribution in one of our departmental meetings. And when he screws up, as we all screw up, I make it clear there is no blame, but that he should a) put it right, and b) learn from it.
I know I'm failing him as a leader, but don't know what to do next. Has anyone encountered something similar, and what did you do to get things back on track?
I'd like to thank all of you who took the time to answer or comment on this question. It's really hard to accept just one. To paraphrase Orwell: all answers are acceptable, but some are more acceptable than others.
Everything you wrote has helped me to break this problem into three distinct, but related, parts:
- I am coddling an underperforming employee;
- he has a mental illness which must be recognised by the organisation, medical health professionals, and the employee himself; and
- I may have overestimated his skills and thereby thrown him in at the deep end.
For reasons that should be self evident, I won't share the details of the plans I'm putting in place, but I will say this: I will be imposing a lot more structure on the employee's work; our occupational health team will be closely involved every step of the way; and I will be putting my own work to one side for a time, to pair on the most recent blocked project.
I don't know if I can return to this question once it closes, so I may not be able to update you all on the outcome. For now, I will thank you all for your thoughtfulness, mercy, and wisdom.