39

I currently have a direct report who I'm struggling with. He has some good attributes, but is not really stepping up to the level we expected of him when we hired him and when he was in onboarding.

The Good:

  • He is efficient at handling tasks that are assigned to him and clearly laid out for him.
  • He does not "stir the pot" in any way - he is always positive and doesn't really engage in any sort of office politics.

The Problems:

  • He isn't very communicative. Most of his responses to everything are single words or short phrases. Getting him to communicate with any depth is like pulling teeth.
  • He doesn't dig into the bigger business problems that the tasks we give him are addressing. He simply fulfills the task in the most basic way possible.
  • When he does not have a task that he's explicitly been handed, he idles. Mostly, he works on online classes that are usually tangentially related to his job.

He's not overworked in any way - no overtime or anything like that.

I have several times directly encouraged him to communicate more and take a little more leadership in owning problems. When I do that, he responds in his positive but minimally communicative fashion, but nothing seems to change.

Lately, I've been hearing a bit of negative feedback about him from his colleagues, mostly along the lines of being a bit frustrated by minimal delivery, like he's seeking out the least amount of work he can do to finish the task. Some of his colleagues are starting to avoid asking him for things, because spelling things out in great detail to get what they want is often more work than it's worth.

I was recently asked to identify low performers in my department and he made the list, which makes me concerned that he is potentially on the list for being downsized in the future.

What sort of approach should I take with this person?

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 18:20

10 Answers 10

44

He isn't very communicative. Most of his responses to everything are single words or short phrases. Getting him to communicate with any depth is like pulling teeth.

Do his responses actually lack crucial information? Or is he just less "talkative" than you prefer? One is a problem that needs addressing and one isn't.

He doesn't dig into the bigger business problems that the tasks we give him are addressing. He simply fulfills the task in the most basic way possible.

Is that part of his job? Have you explained to him that you want him to look for bigger solutions?

When he does not have a task that he's explicitly been handed, he idles. Mostly, he works on online classes that are usually tangentially related to his job.

Have you told him what to do when he as no explicitly assigned tasks? Is he following that procedure?

How you handle all of these things also greatly depends on what level this position is. If this is an entry or lower level position, then none of this behavior seems particularly problematic. If this is a senior, lead, or managerial position then yes, some of these things definitely need to be addressed.

12
  • 15
    They seem problematic even for junior software engineering. Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 2:57
  • 9
    I'm not sure if this includes any answer(s) to the question(s). It definitely includes more questions, but those would normally be asked in comments on the question. Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 5:05
  • 26
    An other question OP should ask themselves is "Are they compensating this employee fairly?" Because it could be that this employee accepted this "lowball" offer because it allows them to "lowball effort" and earn their bread with minimal work... so maybe they specifically asked a """minimum wage""" position to provide """minimum work""". If OP is really paying a wage not in line with competitors they may consider changing their strategy.
    – GACy20
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 9:26
  • 41
    @TomTom Being motivated is a duty no, you get what you pay for, if you pay minimal wage you can expect minimal work. Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 14:46
  • 11
    @OldPadawan That's great as advice for individual employee, and I feel the same way. But this is not advice for the employee, this is advice for the supervisor. As a supervisor, not all employees have the same motivation. If you want to be a good supervisor, you better learn to deal with employees with different sources of motivation
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 16:51
31

I have faced the exact same situation, to the point where I could have written your original post, with the same bullet-list. As a colleague, then as a manager. 2 of them were just working to pay the bills, not interested by the job, doing just (very little, and no more) what they were paid for. Their attitude were frown upon by the other colleagues, more proactive and willing to move forward, challenging...etc

As time went by, this was a problem, as it was affecting the team, everyone's mood, some thinking that they were working more for the same money. It was very hard to talk to these colleagues, as they were "doing their job", and couldn't care less about making the extra step, even though all employees on the same level were paid the exact same money (legal salary grid and a little more "average+" in the sector of activity, certainly not underpaid).

The third person, acting in exactly the same way, was, as I discovered later, on the spectrum. Different persons, different personalities, almost similar attitude. That's what meetings and reviews are for. Talk to them. You need to be very clear, starting with yourself. Were you crystal clear? Did you clearly and precisely explain and assign duties? Did you set expectations? And so on...

The former weren't much ready to improve, the latter was. What I had to do was to help a lot, with schedule, organization, challenges...

In your case, as mentioned by @frIT in a comment:

being "on the spectrum" is certainly a plausible possibility, as those people often struggle with "unwritten rules" of social interactions and the workplace/reading between the lines that may be "obvious" to others. May be worthwhile to be explicit about expectations.

I discovered that the colleagues that weren't involved wouldn't improve (weren't willing to anyway). But the one on the spectrum, except for communication, would work better for himself and the team, once "put on the right tracks". You're the leader, then, show them the good path. Be specific when asking something or assigning a task. Don't expect people to read minds.

Once you know which category this person is in, talk to him, explain, then talk to the others, and explain too. Don't let them be in the dark. You may not improve everything, but, at least, you'll stop the fire from spreading around.

15
  • 4
    Being "on the [ADHD] spectrum" is certainly a plausible possibility, as those people often struggle with "unwritten rules" of social interactions and the workplace/reading between the lines that may be "obvious" to others. May be worthwhile to be explicit about expectations, even if not "on the spectrum" - I sometimes think more and more people these days grow up not well socialized through no fault of their own.
    – frIT
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 11:41
  • 8
    @frIT Are you sure it's not the autism spectrum...? Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 13:34
  • 4
    I'm pretty sure this what's meant (except for the acronym), and what my colleague is
    – OldPadawan
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 13:39
  • 5
    Everyone is "on the spectrum"... That's kind of the definition of a spectrum... Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 17:50
  • 11
    @ScottishTapWater Assuming you aren't just taking an opportunity to be pedantic, "on the spectrum" is highly associated with Autism, even to the point of having a definition in Cambridge Dictionary to that affect - dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/on-the-spectrum.
    – mjjf
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 21:29
21

He isn't very communicative. Most of his responses to everything are single words or short phrases. Getting him to communicate with any depth is like pulling teeth.

So, you want to dictate his communication style? Perhaps you'd like to tell him how to dress and what to eat as well? If he's effectively communicating what needs to be communicated then why is this a problem?

He doesn't dig into the bigger business problems that the tasks we give him are addressing. He simply fulfills the task in the most basic way possible.

Is he supposed to? Is that part of his job responsibilities? Does he do the job for which he was hired? If so, why does he need to dig into the bigger business problems? Isn't that the responsibility of the business leadership? Isn't that your responsibility? Is every employee supposed to dig into the bigger business problems? As far as how he fulfills the task, how is the fact that he fulfills it in the most basic way a problem? If a solution isn't complex it isn't valid? Is that your position? If a task is completed effectively in an expedient and simple manner is it invalid?

When he does not have a task that he's explicitly been handed, he idles. Mostly, he works on online classes that are usually tangentially related to his job.

Is he self managed? Should he be assigning his own tasks? If so, what exactly do you do there?

It appears to me that the issues you've stated are deficiencies at the management level, not the employee level.

9
  • 7
    Not sure why this is getting downvoted
    – solarflare
    Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 22:37
  • 18
    @solarflare I'm not sure how this answers the question. Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 5:06
  • 20
    @ToddWilcox Yeah, ask a whole bunch of questions, then presumably assume a whole bunch of answers, and then assert something at the end. Weird. Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 5:08
  • 8
    "how to dress" - dress codes are not uncommon. Tie or T-shirt? Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 8:38
  • 13
    @solarflare Maybe it's downvoted because this style of answer doesn't really help that much. You're basically putting blame on OP simply going by the fact that he asked the question, assuming the worst. While sometimes reframing is useful, this style of answer just comes across as, well, not particularly helpful, and not motivating people to post their questions here. IMO and all that.
    – AnoE
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 15:58
11

I have a few thoughts on this.

The first - is that this is maybe who they are. I don't mean this in a negative way, there are some people who always go above and beyond and others who just do the absolute bare minimum. Again, no judgement.

The next is culture - there are some cultures that I've worked with where only the tasks that are explicitly defined are done and anything outside, even if it's pretty clear it needs to be done, is not done. In general, I've experienced this from cultures that have had a very top-down approach to life (so former dictatorships for example) whereas other cultures that are much more bottom-up are more likely to identify the big picture and work to achieve it.

Again - not judging.

After that is Incentives. How are you rewarding pro-activeness? I don't just mean financial. Assume for the moment that he does go above and beyond and really applies himself - is this recognized? a Mention in a company wide email? Buy him lunch? Hi-5 and ring a bell? If he is seeing that other people go far beyond the scope of what is asked, yet this is met with deafening silence, he might not be getting the social cues that this is expected.

Speaking of Social Cues - They may be on one of the spectrums - and so you may need to partially adapt your method of communicating to them so that he knows what is expected. I say partially, because he also needs to buy-in and try to adapt himself to what is expected (and that can be really challenging).

It may also be that they just see this job as a stepping stone and are reluctant to apply themselves maximally for something that they don't consider as having much worth past the paycheck they get.

And in case I haven't mentioned it - not judging.

How to actually address this:

For the Communication element, I would tell him that a good rule of thumb is that the length of the email that he's received should dictate the length of the email that they right (as an example) so if you send a one line email, then a one line response is perfectly fine. Whereas if they are sent a 3 paragraph email, then the expectation is that their response should be around 3 paragraphs as well. You may have to fine-tune this, especially if they are on a Spectrum of one kind or another.

For the digging deeper element, perhaps this would help if you give him the overall strategic objective - consider these two statements:

1: "We need you to move your division from point A to point B"
vs
2: "In order to win the War, we are sending in a crack squad to attack this location at this time, we need you and your team to move from Point A and make sure the route is safe for Point B, as that will be part of the advance, once at Point B, we want you to provide overwatch and support to the other team. Also - if you see an opening or opportunity for initiative, take it."

Yes, the latter is longer - but rather than assuming he knows all the minutiae of what is expected, you've given him the big picture, what you are aiming at and what he's expected to do at each step.

Finally on the idling front - I would set a series of expectations on what he should do when Idle, it might look something like this:

1: Check the Ticket queue/Jira
2: Ask your colleagues if they need extra eyes/manpower
3: Update/check documentation
4: if all the above is done, then you can do E-Learning.

8
  • He is efficient at handling tasks that are assigned to him and clearly laid out for him.
  • He does not "stir the pot" in any way - he is always positive and doesn't really engage in any sort of office politics.

That sounds awesome to me. Having a really inefficient colleague would be much worse; and having someone who constantly "stirs the pot" can be a very stressful experience.

I like to picture this kind of people (from a communication perspective) as "jelly" - you poke them, they react friendly, but nothing happens. The thing is... there is not necessarily anything wrong with that. Either they cannot or do not want to react. As long as they are like you describe - i.e., working just fine when they can, and otherwise friendly, that is absolutely their prerogative. I found that most people like this (that I met in my own team or elsewhere) do not really change, no matter what happens.

As their manager, it is your job to enable them to perform to their best capability for your company. This is relatively straightforward for you to do. You do not mention where you are working, but if you were in IT or in a modern manufacturing company, you would be familiar with things like Scrum, Kanban or in other words, "agile" processes. These all have in common that there is always supposed to be a very clear, open, public understanding of which tasks are to be done right now; and also a "backlog" of tasks that are described enough to be picked up at any time when someone is idling.

So restructure the way you or your colleague or your team is working to fall into this line. Make all tasks visible - on a whiteboard, with sticky notes, or if you are working remotely, in a tool like Jira or other task tracker. Make it so that people (or at least this colleague) are doing everything around the tasks in that system - i.e., they will find all info about what to do there in a structured manner, and can designate tasks as "Open", "Working on it" and "Closed".

Finally, make doubly sure that there are always more tasks than the employee can handle right now, prioritized, and make it so that it's par-of-the-course that whenever the employee runs out of current tasks, he'll pick the next one from the top of the backlog. If the backlog is empty, then there either is simply nothing else to do and the employee can go home; or the person filling the backlog has failed. You can put your ideas about looking at the bigger picture as separate tasks right at the bottom of the backlog, structured just so much that the colleague can do something, if you like.

Heck, there could be a explicit default task "ask other colleagues about things they need, and write up a proper task description for them" (if it makes sense in your particular case). The high-brow term for that would be "Refinement", and it is an absolute standard part of agile processes.

There you go. With a bit of luck, your employee will now churn out work like there's no tomorrow, efficient, friendly, and happy that he does not need to communicate in a superfluous manner with others.

Now comes the magic of being a manager: if at any point in what I describe up there there is an issue where you say "I cannot do this because of XXX", then you have found the spot where the actual problem lies. Then you can use your managerial prowess to work on that spot, which by your description is not that particular person, but probably something in your company; some way your information flows, things like this. Kanban has been proven in auto manufacturing for decades now, and both Kanban and Scrum are so commonplace in IT companies (which are famous for attracting people with less than stellar communication skills) that you are hard pressed to find any that even can, much less want to work in any other way...

5

Even you want all this, does your environment actually want this behaviour? I have seen way too many times where they want people to engage at their work, but once they do, they get shutdown. "since it wasn’t my idea, I will refuse it"

For me this has resulted in just doing as I get told, don’t say too much and solve the task as required and nothing more. I could of course start arguing why I solved it this way, why I believe my way is a better way and so on, but why should I fight for something that in the end is not my benefit?

At the moment I’m building software full of bugs, because there isn’t any room for debate nor changing how it should be done. I’m the person you describe (and I don’t like it, but that’s what I get paid to be).

So make sure your environment actually want people to engage and that it takes what's being said seriously and make sure every input is not treated as a "good vs. evil" battle where it can only be one way and leaders are afraid of losing face by not being the one who had that idea.

1
  • 1
    As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 19:20
3

This sounds like a technical individual contributor that is relatively new to their field, so perhaps hasn't established a technical confidence nor expertise to be able to contribute to possibly ambiguous or higher-level/business-oriented discussions. Alternatively, maybe they are, but there is a communication style mismatch. Either way, it sounds like you know what you want, but need to some digging on what motivates the employee and how to best enable him to grow. Finally, note that the goal is to get enable him to provide the most value to the company. While this doesn't mean you shouldn't ignore growth areas, it also means adapting to his strengths and where there can be applied best to the company, and not perhaps a cookie-cutter definition of what is a "good" employee.

I would focus my efforts on (1) Setting him up to succeed better at what he already does well (getting through well defined tasks), (2) Getting him motivated & engaged, (3) Helping him grow.

Finally, regarding communication. I feel it doesn't go very far to just "ask" someone to be more communicative. See: https://medium.com/fact-of-the-day-1/september-7-good-mechanisms-outperform-good-intentions-93f6c8ef2612. Good communication comes from an inclusive, safe, and healthy atmosphere that also adapts to individual communication styles. Some people (like me), are shit at communicating synchronously, and do much better given time to think through thinks over email.

3

These two are closely coupled:

The Good: He does not "stir the pot" in any way - he is always positive and doesn't really engage in any sort of office politics.

The Problems: When he does not have a task that he's explicitly been handed, he idles. Mostly, he works on online classes that are usually tangentially related to his job.

The fact they don't engage in any sort of office politics is a good thing for the employee, but not for you, the project, and the company.

Why? Obviously, the office politics (so the relevant processes) set in the company are not mature enough to prevent the employee from slacking around. Perhaps, you want to have a backlog of tasks and instruct the employee to pull one and do it in case they have finished their previous task. You need to handle such a situation on the process level rather than assigning them a certain task day by day.

It would be great if the employee points out insufficiencies in office politics, but it's not everybody's nature. The employee either feels not experienced enough to do so (don't underestimate the opinions of newcomers and juniors as they bring unbiased points of view, though), or they are happy with the current situation of having tasks to do and free time once all assigned is finished.

The employee is not responsible for asking for work. You are also not responsible for assigning work to them. The environment is and there must be mechanisms to enforce it.

  • Consider running stand-up meetings with a Kanban board.
  • Consider having a backlog of tasks ready to pull them.
  • Consider motivating the employee to adhere to some proactive behavior.
  • Consider reevaluating the office policies.
2
  • Re "lacking around": Do you mean "slacking around"? Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 4:07
  • @PeterMortensen: Yes, that's a typo. Thanks, I'll edit it. Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 5:05
2

What exactly does a solution look like to you?

The most obvious way to make sense of the behaviour you describe, is that he is simply not interested in his job.

You mention him engaging in online classes that are "tangentially related" to his job - that suggests his current job is only tangentially related to any interests he does have. Is there anything you think you can do about this, to either appeal to his interests, or to shift them in your favour?

There can be a lot of variables that determine people's interest in or engagement at work. Personality, alignment with interests, remuneration, future plans. Is anything which is under your control obviously mismatched?

Also, how much of a problem are the "problems"? It doesn't sound like he's leaving his duties completely derelict, in that you acknowledge assigned tasks get completed efficiently and responsibly, and he doesn't seem to be in a negative mood. Is it possible perhaps to pair him with a peer who can provide more of the desired initiative?

1

One thought is that the employee may not see how it is in his interest to take the initiative. The narrative today around the employee manager relationship is the manager is out to take advantage of the employee, and so any "going above and beyond" is just giving the manager an unearned freebie.

However, in the real world, this is not how things work. Going above the immediately assigned and seeking to solve the business level problem is what makes an individual really stand out and get noticed, along with the ability to get promotions and raises and other opportunities. Plus, the individual gets to determine their own path, instead of just being told what to do. Such an individual is a godsend to managers, and a smart manager would reward the individual appropriately.

So, two take aways, a negative and a positive.

First the negative. It does not motivate people to subtly imply they aren't measuring up to expectations if those expectations weren't made clear up front. That feeds into the popular narrative that managers are just doing a bait and switch, hiring a person with one set of explicit expectations, and then when they start work the hidden expectations come out. If you've seen office space, this is like the restaurant manager trying to get employees to meet their "flair quota" by passively aggressively encouraging them to "express themselves".

Second the positive. Give the employee the vision of what initiative taking will do for them from a self interest perspective. It opens up opportunities, helps them grow, and makes them a master of their own fate instead of a cog in the machine. This can all be done without burning the midnight oil and sacrificing one's personal life for the company. In fact, taking the initiative makes it less likely a person will end up in a delivery death march. I think most people actually want this sort of thing, but we've been lulled into an oppressor/oppressed mindset that is popular these days, and so we do the bare minimum both as employees and managers.

One parting comment. Toastmasters helped me get over my fear of public speaking and communication. It's worth a shot.

Also, Invictus:

“Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.”

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .