I am a fairly new manager for a well established and growing not-for-profit organization that brings arts education to underserved communities. When we have open positions, we prioritize hiring alumni of our programs.
About nine months ago, I hired a promising alumnus who seemed perfect for an entry level program administration job. She had graduated college with excellent grades, had glowing recommendations, and is a delightful person.
I expected her to take to the job quickly and blow us all away. That hasn’t happened. She just doesn’t seem to be able to retain any information about how to do certain tasks. I keep having to walk her through the directions for tasks every time, even though I have done it repeatedly.
The purpose of hiring someone for this position was to free me up to do other critical tasks—but I am spending so much time teaching and re-teaching this person that I now seem to have double the work.
I am frustrated and confused. I can’t tell whether she can’t do the tasks or won’t. I don’t want to make her feel like I’m not happy with her performance (even though I’m not) but I have no idea how to get her to up her game without making her feel criticized.
Any advice would be welcome.
Beginner Stalled at Go
Dear Beginner Stalled at Go,
This sounds frustrating. I am sure your new hire is equally frustrated and confused, because everyone wants to be successful. This sounds like a perfect occasion for you to apply SLII®, our company’s time-tested, research-based development model.
Essentially, SLII® helps managers and direct reports break down all goals and tasks, diagnose the competence and confidence of the employee in relation to each task, and then identify exactly what kind of leadership style is needed. You can watch a little video that describes it here and download a cool e-book about it here.
In the language of SLII®, your alumnus—Let’s call her A for the sake of clarity—is stuck at Development Level One, “Enthusiastic Beginner.” She seems to believe she needs to come back to you for clear direction for every task, every time. What could be going on? Is it that she can’t build competence or is it her confidence that is lacking? Here are some ideas:
- It’s possible A has a learning disability she hasn’t shared with you and is somehow not able to retain your instructions. You can’t really ask without insulting someone (“what’s wrong with you?” never lands well) but some questions (see below) may help to surface an issue like this. If a learning disability is, in fact, present, you might consider having A take notes when you give instructions and send them to you for editing so she has written instructions for next time.
- Maybe A doesn’t believe she is ready to do things on her own. She thinks she knows what to do and how to do it, but still needs permission from you to try it and some reassurance that it will be okay if she makes an error or two. Sometimes young people new to the workplace just need permission to go for it.
- Perhaps A isn’t crystal clear that you expect her to do things on her own yet. I know it sounds crazy, but I worked for a lovely man long ago who kept saying “we need to get this done and that done,” and he would go down the list of everything we needed to do. I kept waiting for him to come to me and get my help with all of things on the list. After a couple of weeks, I asked him how he thought things were going and he said, “I am confused, I keep asking you to do all of these things, and you seem eager, but then you don’t do any of them.” I was shocked. I told him I was waiting for him (he was, after all, the boss) to initiate the tasks “we” needed to do, but it turned out that every time he had said “we.” what he really meant was “you.” I guess he didn’t want to sound bossy—but he was so indirect, I didn’t understand what he wanted. I was young and was used to being bossed around by teachers, bosses, parents. Today I would just say, “do you actually mean ‘we,’ or are you telling me to do it?” But that is the beauty of being older.
We can speculate all day long, but ultimately you are going to have to ask A what is going on. Let go of your judgment and pre-conceptions and gently ask the questions. They might go something like this:
- I have explained how this task needs to get done several times now, which is okay. However, I had anticipated that you would be able to do it on your own at this point. Can you help me to understand what is getting in the way of that?
- Is it possible that the way I have explained this is not clear enough?
- Would it be helpful for me to create written instructions for some of these tasks?
- Is there something I am doing or saying that leads you to believe that I don’t trust you to do this task on your own?
- What would give you the confidence you need to do this task on your own?
- What do you need from me that you are not getting?
- Are you worried you will make a mistake? I expect that you will make mistakes—that’s okay. I will show you the little spots where errors are likely to occur and what to watch out for.
The key is for you to kindly share your expectations for how she should be progressing and ask her how you can craft a plan to help her get there. Pretending everything is fine is not going to get either of you anywhere.
So bite the bullet and raise the issue. The sooner you do, the sooner you will know what’s what.
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.
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