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I have a direct report who is not experienced at managing people. I see one of their direct reports not living up to expectations, producing mediocre work, not working full time even though she is being paid for full time, distracting her coworkers at work, and generally failing to be proactive. It is impacting the productivity and effectiveness of the department and the organization as a whole.

When I have specific feedback for the person, my direct report won't give it to the person (even when he agrees with it). Many of the issues with this person are kind of vague systemic patterns, such as simply failing to take leadership on anything, when we need someone in this position to be a proactive leader.

If she were my direct report I would set up clear systems of accountability and monitor her work closely. If she still didn't meet expectations I would put her on a performance plan. My direct report doesn't have the skills or inclination to hold this person accountable, and instead defends her performance even though I get clear feedback from many others on the team that she is not meeting expectations.

Suggestions?

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    You manage processes, you lead people. - (don't recall where I heard that)
    – DarkCygnus
    Aug 14, 2023 at 22:29
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    Let me get this straight: you don't know how to hold your direct report accountable for the fact they don't hold their direct report accountable?
    – nvoigt
    Aug 15, 2023 at 5:08
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    @Jenny - “If she were my direct report I would set up clear systems of accountability and monitor her work closely. If she still didn't meet expectations I would put her on a performance plan.” - Why are you not putting your direct report on exactly what you describe? If your expectations is that your direct report would setup clear expectations for their direct report, it seems fair, that you do that with your direct report.
    – Donald
    Aug 15, 2023 at 12:41
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    You should add a few line breaks to this question. It would really improve the readability.
    – Zibbobz
    Aug 15, 2023 at 13:40
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    "My direct report doesn't have the skills or inclination to hold this person accountable..." Why is a person in a position when he/she lacks the requisite skills? That does not speak well of your organization.
    – EvilSnack
    Aug 15, 2023 at 15:04

4 Answers 4

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My direct report doesn't have the skills or inclination to hold this person accountable, and instead defends her performance even though I get clear feedback from many others on the team that she is not meeting expectations. Suggestions?

You need to hold your own direct report accountable.

You need to make your expectations clear with regard to his direct reports. You need to make it clear how his direct report's performance is to be evaluated.

And if he doesn't have the necessary skills, you need to get him some training, and perhaps some coaching. That's something you need to be accountable for.

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    holding this person accountable will model expected management behavior
    – Tiger Guy
    Aug 15, 2023 at 15:28
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    "If she were my direct report I would set up clear systems of accountability and monitor her work closely. If she still didn't meet expectations I would put her on a performance plan." That's what you need to do with the person who reports to you ...
    – deep64blue
    Aug 16, 2023 at 10:13
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Many of the issues with this person are kind of vague systemic patterns, such as simply failing to take leadership on anything, when we need someone in this position to be a proactive leader.

That's not what you describe in your opening paragraph - you describe them producing mediocre work, distracting coworkers, and not working full-time. This contradiction suggests that there might be some confusion about what the actual issues are. I'd encourage you to be as specific as possible about what problems you're actually focusing on. (The book Crucial Conversations can help you make sure that you're discussing the correct topic; this is harder than it sounds, and people often get this wrong).

Also, many of the issues you describe in the opening paragraph are not "vague systematic patterns" - they're specific behavioral issues. For example, if they're not working full-time, they're either routinely late, routinely leaving early, taking excessively long breaks during the workday, or some combination of the above. Again, there's nothing vague about that. The feedback is "quit being late to work - we need you here during core business hours," not "you need to work on [insert vague systematic issue here]".

As for the vague systematic issues, I'd encourage you to clearly define them. In what ways is the subordinate not showing leadership? Are they waiting for people to tell them what to do? Not showing initiative? Not communicating decisions to people? Specifically what are they doing that makes you believe that they aren't showing leadership? If all you say is "I'm seeing this vague systematic pattern," there's a good chance the conversation will devolve into an argument about whether you're correct or not. However, if you have concrete observations of actual specific incidents, it's much more likely that you'll be able to have a constructive discussion about what you're expecting.

By way of example, the book Nonviolent Communication relayed an issue where a school principal was having conflict with the staff. When the author questioned the staff, they said that the problem was that "he has a big mouth." The author pointed out that that's an observation of what they thought that the principal was like, not what he was actually doing. There must be some behavior that makes them think that. The second iteration was "the problem is he talks too much." (This is still not usable feedback; telling someone that they talk too much will likely just devolve into an argument about whether they do, in fact, talk too much). After further clarification, they eventually concluded that the problem was that, whenever someone made a point in their staff meetings, the principal would relate it to a story from his childhood or his time in the war, which was causing their staff meetings to go way over their scheduled time. That was actual, usable feedback that would be likely to lead to a constructive discussion (because the principal could agree that that was happening, and it gave him something specific to change).

Again, the more concrete you can be about the problem the better. It's much harder to disagree with "your subordinate showed up at 10:00 and left at 3:00 yesterday" than "your subordinate isn't really working a full-time job." Thus, it's more likely that it'll lead to constructive dialog about how to improve things.

Also, be sure to clearly define the expectations for the role and make sure that both your subordinate and their subordinate are on board with them.

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    I'd give this more than +1 if I could. Nail down exactly what the issues are, nail down how much they are actually affecting the company, nail down what you want your direct report to do about it, then communicate that to them. Fuzzy dissatisfaction is not actionable; be specific about what you need to see from the first-line manager, listen carefully to their answer in case they actually have good reasons for the approach they've taken, get to some consensus and tell the manager to apply the same process to the employee. If they don't know how, train them, or suggest considering other roles.
    – keshlam
    Aug 15, 2023 at 19:52
  • It's hard to live up to someone else's expectations when they can't give you a way to measure them. +1 Some of us know what needs to be done and do it, but if micromanagers disagree then they need to let us know what their rules are, or we'll constantly miss the mark.
    – ps2goat
    Aug 17, 2023 at 6:40
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    The contradiction you've noted may be because the quote refers to the OP's direct report, and the opening paragraph refers to the OP's direct report's direct report - i.e. two different people.
    – traktor
    Aug 17, 2023 at 12:30
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If the department is delivering the expected results and is happy, leave them alone.

If they aren't delivering, that gets reflected in the manager's yearly evaluation. A gentle reminder of this may be all that's needed.

If not: discuss the situation with the manager. They may have good reasons for giving this individual some slack -- I know my own productivity was down significantly after a major illness, for example, or when having medications adjusted; that was correctly reflected in my year end review being "meets" rather than "exceeds" expectations but demanding I immediately shape up would have been both unrealistic and insensitive (and possibly legally actionable).

Deciding how much slack to give an individual is something you have delegated to the first-line manager. You can not delegate responsibility without delegating authority. Trying to do the first without the second is a classic example of micromanaging.

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    OP assumes that the things he sees are a negative, while it is entirely possible that the small interaction this staff has makes the workplace feel less like a prison. Real life is not like The Sims where you can open up the status window of them and see a number. As a manager 2 levels removed from the situation, if the output is fine, going deeper isn't going to significantly improve things, and it'll only add strain to the middle-manager.
    – Nelson
    Aug 15, 2023 at 2:45
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    So... if the department isn't delivering, the solution is to way a year and then address the issue after the results have already been bad? Also, it sounds like there have been more than a few gentle reminders, since they have discussed complaints of poor performance
    – Mars
    Aug 15, 2023 at 9:57
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    @Mars the important bit is to first hit (or miss) a milestone. For giant projects where a team is a lynchpin that can be a small one, for general day-to-day running I would give it more time.
    – Borgh
    Aug 15, 2023 at 10:26
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    I disagree. Nothing on the yearly evaluation should be a surprise. If the OP is dissatisfied with something that their direct report is doing (or, in this case, not doing), the time to discuss it is now. Aug 15, 2023 at 13:36
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    @Mars what is the failure in the scenario here? That the manager doesn't do what the upper manager expects them to? That's not a failure, that's micromanaging. everyone hates being micromanaged and avoiding that is something I'd consider high priority. Yeah, the damage should be limited but "just vibes" isn't what I would consider enough of a reason bothering your employees for,
    – Borgh
    Aug 17, 2023 at 19:49
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Many of the issues with this person are kind of vague systemic patterns, such as simply failing to take leadership on anything, when we need someone in this position to be a proactive leader.

Is it possible that the problem here is that you're attempting to alter some je ne sais quoi about the person's personality or capability?

It doesn't sound like the indirect report is in a leadership position in any real sense, given that it's two levels down from you, and not even your direct report one level down seems to command much respect from you.

And secondly, is it possible the problem is your interfering with the management of your own direct report, whose feedback to you is that they are essentially satisfied with the work of the indirect report?

Everyone may accept that the indirect report isn't the very best performer, but it's simple arithmetic that not everybody on a team can be above average.

The danger of gaining "feedback" from your indirect reports, is that they may simply be commenting on their relative status in the team - not urging you to take corrective action.

And if by their feedback they are urging you to take corrective action, they might implicitly be urging you to improve standards of recruitment, for example by increasing pay to attract better talent.

You might not actually be willing to solve the problem in the way those giving feedback envisage - your direct report may already understand this constraint (because as a manager themselves they are tasked with organising the solutions, not just expressing the problems), which is why their opinion would count for much more.

Your direct report may also recognise that creating hassle will not likely improve the performance of the specific indirect report, but it may significantly undermine the trust and moral authority used to govern the team as a whole - or just cause the loss of a staff member, which they then have to cope with.

In other words, your proposals of "accountability systems" and "performance plans" may not be solutions, but a kind of problem in their own right, leading not to more performance, but to destruction of important capacities (including management influence over the whole team, and team headcount).

not working full time even though she is being paid for full time,

What exactly does that mean? Does it mean she is regularly absent without authorisation in some substantial way? Or does it mean she is occasionally seen to be chatting to co-workers at her desk, in a fairly normal way?

There's something about the overall tone of the question that suggests the latter is the more plausible interpretation, and that you're intentionally oblique in order to make something sound more grave than it actually is.

It's quite normal in workplaces to have some people who are a little more chatty than average. These people often provide necessary relief to others, and team-building/morale-boosting.

Conclusion

My recommendation would be to work through the medium of your direct report.

Why are you in disagreement with your direct report over the existence of the problem with the indirect report, if in your view the problem is so clear?

You seem already to be begging that question, with the only question in your mind being how to "deal" with your direct report's failure to abide by your instructions about how to handle the indirect report, rather than taking a step back and working on why your own direct report either doesn't agree with the seriousness of the problem, or at least is opposed to your proposed solutions.

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  • I've been called out for "being distracted" due to how many slack posts I made... In reality, I'm filling my time waiting for small, repetitive tasks to complete with helping others, answering questions, or as you put it, "necessary relief... team-building/morale-boosting!" But no quantitative way or even explicitly saying "too much slack" for me to figure out how they expected me to "improve."
    – ps2goat
    Aug 17, 2023 at 6:48

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