Long-time Employee Is Timid and Skittish? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I have a long-time employee named Tom who has more than 25 years’ experience in our field—but he totally lacks confidence. He is very timid in response to questions from other less experienced professionals on staff. He doesn’t take the lead even when it’s in his area of expertise. For example, recently one of Tom’s direct reports told him he couldn’t do something that was well within his scope and ability to decide. He listened and didn’t do what he wanted to do, then told me about the situation.

He doesn’t take initiative to get things done. He is always contacting me for little things such as telephone numbers that he can easily obtain from other people or records. In meetings with our staff, he contributes very little and doesn’t seem comfortable with the give and take.

What do I do? I don’t like to micromanage, but he is taking up a lot of my time and energy.


Dear Frustrated,

Don’t you feel bad for someone who has so little confidence? I sure do. You have to wonder what on earth happened to your timid, skittish employee to make him so uncertain—not that speculation will get us anywhere.

I highly recommend that you consider using the model our company has been teaching for over 35 years. It is called SLII®. The goal of SLII® is to match your leadership style to an individual’s development level on a task. Learning how to do this requires the ability to diagnose a person’s development level and deliver the right leadership style (one of four) for each situation.

When you match your leadership style to the individual’s development level, their competence, motivation, and confidence grow. On the other hand, over-supervising or under-supervising can have a negative impact on performance, confidence and motivation.

While SLII® may be considered common sense, it is not common practice. Only 1% of managers use all four leadership styles. SLII® teaches leaders how to manage the development of individuals, which allows the leader to stay in close touch with each person’s performance.

What does this mean to you? It means you have to break down all of Timid Tom’s tasks and goals and assess the extent to which he needs more direction to eventually fly solo, or whether he simply needs a boost in confidence. You can share with him that your goal is to help him feel exceptionally competent and confident so that he can trust his own judgment. To get more detail on the topic, you can download this white paper. Once you have a clear sense of Tom’s tasks and goals, you can discuss with him what he needs and agree on how to move forward.

So once again, this is a hard conversation—but in this case, it is a planning one. Then it will be regular 1×1 check-ins where you review all Tom’s tasks and goals and make sure you are providing the right leadership style for each one. You can share the SLII® model and white papers with him and remind him that your intention is to have his back and help him be successful in his job. He may never be a superhero, but with enough focused attention on the right things, he should become more independent.

If you provide Tom with the right leadership style at the right time for a significant period of time (say six months) and there is still no change, you may have to resign yourself to the fact that he is either in the wrong job or simply not psychologically strong enough to rise to the occasion. It happens. At that point you will have to make a decision about what to do.

Good luck.

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!

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