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I've got a new(ish) colleague with whom I share a manager. I was tasked with onboarding the new colleague when they joined, although I think they're pretty settled in now. In a meeting with my manager I was told the colleague often asks what they should be doing next, instead of deciding themselves what to do based on the project and tasks remaining. My manager asked me to bring this up with my colleague to presumably try and get them to be a bit more independent.

I'm unsure on how best to do this. I don't want it to be obvious that my manager has given this feedback and I'm relaying it, but a random call with this as the only discussion point makes it feel inevitable. In terms of the actual conversation, I would probably ask questions about how they feel about the assignment of work, and perhaps stress that we have a lot of freedom about how we go about things as long as it's working towards the agreed goal.

As a sense check, am I even the best person to be doing this? Part of me feels it's my manager who should be having this conversation.

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    Yes, this is your manager's job. If I were you I'd ask my manager why he isn't talking directly to your new coworker. – DaveG Sep 23 '20 at 1:18
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If people think leadership is restricted to managers, they will never show enough leadership to be promoted to being a manager.

This isn't uncommon. Your manager is giving you an opportunity to mentor a new employee and is trying to 'soften' the feedback. Instead of telling the new employee directly and having them get all snowflake-triggered, the manager is trying out trusting you to help lead new people in the right direction. And this can be more effective - "I order you to do work without orders!" is a bit of a mixed message, especially if you are trying to encourage the team to be self-starters. Many Agile organizations would expect this guidance to primarily come from team members.

So how to deliver the feedback? As a peer mentor. Mention it casually when talking about something related. If, in this remote COVID time, there's no time where you'd be talking with him normally, set up a call to "see how he's settling in, see if you can help him with anything"; he'd probably appreciate having a safe opportunity to ask questions of a peer not the manager. And then whenever something comes up like "Oh yeah I finished that, going to ask the boss what to work on next/waiting to find out what I need to work on/etc" you can just say "Oh, hey, the way we do things here is we team members are allowed/empowered to pick the next work based on what we think is important. Can I help you with any project/business context that'd help you decide what to do next?" Your instincts on how to approach it are pretty good, so improvise away.

You don't need to say "our manager told me to mention this" unless the employee is aggressively unwelcoming to the feedback, because it eliminates the "softening" benefit of it coming from a peer. Even if he doesn't fully accept it at the time, he'll have it in mind and when your manager seems impatient next time they get asked he'll realize "Oh... OK yeah maybe I should shift from asking what to work on to asking about priorities or something..."

If you do this well then your manager will note you do have leadership ability and will likely lean on you for things like this more in the future, preparing you for higher responsibility roles.

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    or the manager might start delegating all distasteful or confrontational tasks to you. – Kilisi Sep 22 '20 at 21:10
  • @Kilisi Exactly. This is the sort of approach why many seem to have burnt bridges without their active involvement. – Sourav Ghosh Sep 23 '20 at 9:13
  • @mxyzplk - Thanks for your reply. Part of the issue was definitely having a random online meeting with no other content, but I've thought of some other things we can talk about too. I agree with your way of going about it, I'm also going to ask questions to try and see their side on how their work is going - perhaps they've got some concerns that might be leading to this (not understanding the direction, lack of visibility etc.). I'm not worried about any aggression/push back thankfully. It was interesting to see the range of opinions on this. Cheers. – user2891659 Sep 25 '20 at 12:50
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This isn't uncommon, your manager trusts you to take the new person under your wing.

I've been on both sides of this. When I was young, I was in the position of the new person, then I've been in your position.

Your manager wants this person encouraged, and wants to keep it as low-level as possible, and it puts you into the position of being a mentor. It's actually an honor, take it as such.

Help your coworker to become more independent and it will not only make that person look good, but you as well. This is also a good way to start down the path of lead or manager, if you are so inclined.

Also, your manager told you to do this, so it's your job, treat it as any other task. It is not a punishment for you or to your coworker. Treat it as any other task you have.

Now to the specifics

You can take any of the following approaches, use your judgement as to which approach would be best for your coworker. You haven't given us much details, so I'm just going to give you a few different approaches. These are only examples, and not scripts, use your own words and ideas.

DIRECT

Hey, coworker, DaBoss asked me to take you under my wing a bit. I think you're doing fine, so don't worry, there are just a few corporate culture things I need to help you with.

SUBTLE

Hey, coworker, I've noticed you're getting acclimated, but I see sometimes you seem a little lost, are you having any difficulties in prioritizing?

FRIENDLY WARNING

Hey, coworker, I see you're asking for quite a bit of direction from DaBoss. Come to me first, and see if I can help.

If you go the friendly warning route, you are going to need to do some hand-holding.

Many of the younger crowd aren't used to having the level of freedom to pick their priorities, and you are going to need to help your coworker to get used to that and emphasize that it is not insubordination to do so, but the preferred method.

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I don't want it to be obvious that my manager has given this feedback

Why not? You have been tasked with relaying information, there is no need to be secretive about it's source. You have no business relaying it as if it comes from you.

Ideally the manager would do it himself but if you have been tasked with it there's nothing wrong with passing it on.

'Whatshisface said he noticed you needed to be more independent and for me to let you know. So something to think about.'

As a sense check, am I even the best person to be doing this?

No, the manager should usually be the one. But you're in a sort of mentor type role and have built assumedly some personal rapport so can give a 'heads up'. Once it becomes a manager/employee conversation there is a hint of discipline, authority, formal warning type thing etc,. rather than a friendly heads up.

Personally I'd prefer the 'heads up'.

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    I think there can still be a friendly "heads up" from the manager. I agree with you that it still has that hint of authority/warning that makes it much harder than a peer delivering that information. – Joel Etherton Sep 22 '20 at 14:33
  • @JoelEtherton it's relative, new people who are insecure in their position are harder to read how they'll react, different if the manager is known better. – Kilisi Sep 22 '20 at 14:40
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Part of me feels it's my manager who should be having this conversation.

I agree with that part.

Unless you are their superior in some capacity, you have no business managing or trying to manage their activities. This is a poor call from your manager, or a deliberate attempt to "come clean" in case the suggestion does not go well with the new(ish) employee.

Anyways, if you are not in a managing position (ex: lead of a team where the new employee is a member - both of you still have the same manager), you should not be doing this. Reach out to your boss and ask

  • Why should you intervene in this? (based on experience of team culture or otherwise, which is considered a part of the onboarding exercise)
  • Hint that the new employee might find it more acceptable if an unsolicited feedback comes from a manager and not a colleague.

To summarize:

"How do I best pass on a manager's feedback to a colleague?"

You don't. Let the manager to the management, including providing the feedback.

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Don't.

You are not a team lead. You are not a manager. This is, quite literally, out of your pay grade.

I'm not saying you can't or shouldn't. Learning to give feedback is an important skill but it should be something you want to do and see the need for. Here it seems that so far this is not the case. If you ever get to that point, ask your manager for help. This is something important to get right and if you are unsure of how to proceed (at least unsure enough to post here) I'd recommend against it.

On the other hand, your manager hopefully has some training and experience in giving feedback so he is better equipped to do this.

Leave it to them, this is their job.

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  • I think we can say OP shouldn't. :) – Sourav Ghosh Sep 22 '20 at 11:50
  • Yeah in this case he shouldn't but in general I think it's important to be able to know how to give feedback. – Borgh Sep 22 '20 at 11:56

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