Recent Graduate Too Smart for His Own Good? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

How do you guide a recent graduate—someone new to the work world—to not be so confident of his own work? How do you convince him to check his work, question his solutions, and search for the best answer instead of the first one?

I don’t want to tear down anyone’s confidence, but this person’s cockiness seems to be a surefire recipe for disaster. Plus, you really can’t learn if you think you already know. I appreciate your thoughts on this.

Want to Guide


Dear Want to Guide,

You have to love it when a young new employee is an enthusiastic beginner and is cheerfully ignorant of the massive amount he doesn’t know! I’m not sure how long this newbie has been in your care, but of course there is no way to go back to the beginning to set the expectation that you will be watching carefully and giving feedback. (Note: It is always much easier to closely supervise a new hire and then loosen up as they demonstrate competence than to start loose and later attempt to tighten up. Tuck that piece of advice away for future reference.)

For your situation right now, I would suggest you go at it with subtlety. Next time the recent graduate turns work in, set up fifteen minutes to go over it with him. Call out what works with his first draft and then ask him some questions that will help him go deeper for the second draft. This way, it isn’t so much that you are criticizing as acknowledging the positives of his work so far and now asking him to go deeper.

Here are some examples:

  • What don’t you know about this topic? Is there a way to find out what aspects of this topic you might be leaving out?
  • What if you were to question the assumption in your first point?
  • Let’s try looking at this from another point of view.
  • What if you were to take nothing as face value?
  • What arguments might you use to support your point here?
  • How might you expand on the implications of this?

Hopefully, your new hire will gain some ground in the discussion and you can ask him to put himself through the same list of questions for his next presentation.

You can also proofread his work, track your changes, and ask that he proof his own work in the future. (He must have had to proof his work in school, no?) Here are some fundamental rules you can remind him of.

  • Leave time between a first draft and subsequent edits. It is much easier to see errors with fresh eyes.
  • Ask a peer to do the proofing. It’s always much easier to catch errors in work that isn’t your own.
  • In a slide presentation, first go through it in “presentation mode.” Errors will stick out like a sore thumb in that format, and it is much better if there isn’t an audience for the discovery!

If you need to go at it directly, start by sharing your regret that you didn’t set the expectation up front that part of your job is to develop your people and that you would be giving feedback. You can also share that it isn’t your intention to demotivate him or shake his confidence, and that your input is designed to help him to grow and to achieve his full potential.

The key is to be clear that it’s fine for him to be where he is in terms of his development in the new job—but now it’s time to sharpen his skills. Make it all about the work, not about the person. Be kind, clear, concise, and relentless. Don’t let anything egregious get by you—this way he will know you are paying attention, and pay more attention himself.

Most employees report that they don’t get enough feedback. You would be doing him no favors by letting him skate by. Eventually, he will have to clean up his act, so he might as well get started now. Someday he will thank you for it.

You can do this!

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

2 thoughts on “Recent Graduate Too Smart for His Own Good? Ask Madeleine

  1. Good questions thanks! Another neutral way to ask could be to request that s/he prepare for potential questions by applying some Quality Assurance and Risk Management techniques to their own work, and then present potential questions and responses to you as practice.

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