how to manage a hard worker who’s dropping balls

A reader writes:

I manage a girl who is a very hard worker. She goes the extra mile, never complains, stays late and always volunteers to help…but lately I have noticed she is getting lax on things like returning important emails in a timely manner or getting things done that I asked her to do. I know she is busy as we all are right now because we are understaffed and everyone is doing their best to fill the gaps. I also know she has some prioritizing and time management issues, she loves to do creative projects but she takes longer then I would like on them because she wants to make them perfect.

So here is my dilemma: Do I let it go with the excuse that we are all so busy right now or do I address it? I have been that hard worker on the other end of management and I know how it feels when you are outproducing other team members and things are still slipping through the cracks. Is it fair to hold her to the higher standard that she has set for herself even though the expectation is more than I could expect from other team members? She is pretty hard on herself naturally so I wanted to make sure I address this carefully.

Is it fair to hold her to a higher standard than others at her level? No. Should you be holding everyone to a high standard? Yes.

But first, before we go any further, I want to note that I can’t actually tell from your email what the quality of her work is like overall. You mentioned that she works hard and has a good attitude, and those things are great qualities. But they don’t actually get at core performance; it’s possible to work hard and have a good attitude and still not be doing a very good job. So you want to make sure that you’re looking at what she gets done, not just these (certainly desirable) characteristics that she brings to the job.

In any case … You should acknowledge the good things she’s doing (and also make sure that you’re a manager who gives regular positive feedback on an ongoing basis anyway), and ask her how things are going from her perspective, but you do also need to be clear about your expectations and where she’s falling short.

In particular, it sounds like you need to sit down with her to get better aligned. In this conversation, you want to (a) recognize the contributions she makes and the ways in which she goes above and beyond, and (b) explain that you’ve noticed her struggling a bit with time management and prioritization. Acknowledge that in busy, understaffed situations, it can be hard to know what things are the most important, so you want to get on the same page about how to prioritize things — and then lay out clear expectations around that. For instance, you might say that she should generally respond to emails with two business days (or less if something is important/time-sensitive), that X types of requests should be handled within a day or two and Y types of projects should be handled within a week, that she should proactively alert you if her workload ever means that those timeframes aren’t feeling feasible, and so forth.

Particularly in an environment that’s understaffed, she may just need clearer guidance about how to prioritize things, what things can be pushed back and what can’t, and how to handle it if she doesn’t have time for everything. It may seem obvious to you how she should be juggling everything, but it might not be obvious to  her. Sometimes when there’s more work than there is time to do it all, people may respond by making choices and trade-offs that are very different from the ones their manager wants them making — so you need to talk explicitly about it and get everyone on the same page.

Speaking of expectations, you mentioned that she sometimes takes more time than you’d like with a project, but does that mean she’s missing a clearly stated deadline or that she has a different idea than you do about an appropriate timeframe? If it’s the latter, start setting explicit deadlines. If it’s the former and she’s just outright missing clear deadlines, then part of your alignment conversation should include the need to take deadlines seriously — and if it continues after that, address it as a performance issue. Also, touching base on a project before its due date is a good idea too, so that you can check for alignment before the problem occurs.

Now, one last point, and it’s an important one: Is this really a higher standard than you’d hold other staff members to? If you’re not expecting other staff members to be responsive and on top of their work, then that’s a huge problem that you need to start addressing too. Responding to emails in a timely way, not letting projects slip through the cracks, and making good use of time are things you need to expect from everyone. It’s sort of a minimum, in fact. So if you’re not holding others to that same standard, it might explain why someone with a good attitude is becoming lax herself — she may be getting the wrong signals about expectations and accountability.

Good luck!

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Dwane Lay*

    Let’s not forget another important item here, which is the root cause of the issue.

    Someone who is a top performer generally doesn’t see a productivity slip just because they are busy. Issues like burnout or not feeling appreciated can be causing the problem as well.

    Before having a discussion about response times or acceptable results, I’d suggest taking a moment with your A player here and finding out how she is doing, how she feels about her work, if she is motivated and if she feels appreciated. The good ones will tell you what they need, and self-correct on the little things.

  2. Jamie*

    If she’s outproducing and things are still slipping through the cracks then please take Allison’s last paragraph to heart and look at the other members of your team.

    Even a star performer can only do so much – if everyone was pulling their own weight maybe she wouldn’t be so overwhelmed. It’s easy to make a good performer the path of least resistance – but if you fall into that trap it costs the company in the long run – when you eventually have to hire and train her replacement.

    My approach to this would be along the lines of asking what I could do to help and don’t just come to a meeting of minds on the priorities (although that’s crucial) but give her tacit permission to back-burner the less critical tasks and back her up if people complain that their more trivial requests need to wait.

    Don’t just tell her where her boundaries should be, give her the tools and power so she can maintain them.

  3. Anonymous*

    If you have ideal work conditions ( ie. enough staff) then yes, you should look at someone’s time management skills and ability to prioritize. But when you’re asking someone to perform well in a flawed work environment ( like doing the job of 2 people) it’s a set up for burn out and failure and there’s no amount of coaching that will improve performance. Fix the understaffing issues first , then assess.

  4. Ask a Manager* Post author

    There are a LOT of understaffed employers right now, with more work than there are people to do it. It’s just the reality of the economy right now. That does NOT need to be a recipe for burnout, however, if managers are vigilant about communicating with employees about how to prioritize, what things to push back or not do at all, etc., and if managers enforce sensible boundaries for how much their people take on.

    (As someone who comes from the nonprofit world, I can tell you that sector is used to performing without enough staff or resources, and there are still phenomenal people there getting a huge amount done without burning out or failing, because they are rigorous about this kind of prioritization.)

    In this case, it sounds like the employee isn’t making good decisions about how to spend her time, and she and the manager need to get aligned better on that. It may be that the employee doesn’t realize that she can say no to some projects, or delegate them, or take shortcuts on something things, or that she needs to sacrifice “perfection” on some of the more creative projects the OP cited, in favor of getting higher priorities taken care of.

  5. Anonymous*

    I also hate to state the obvious, but unless she is under 18, she’s a woman, not a girl. I think it is okay to refer to women as “girls” if and only if you refer to all the males in the workplace as “boys”.

  6. Anonymous*

    This sounds a lot like the situation I had been in. My manager sees me as a hard worker and I always volunteer and work overtime if needed, but lately, I had been feeling stressed out from work, unmotivated and there were personal things I was going through. My manager approached me and asked me if everything was okay and I was actually shocked that he noticed because I tried my best to hide it from him (especially the personal issue). After that, I always try my best to stay on top of things. I would suggest asking her if everything is okay, and if there was anything you could do for her. For me, it took that one question my manager asked me to make me realize it and I always try my best to stay on top of things after that.

  7. Rebecca (red square)*

    I wanna reiterate one of AAM’s points — are your deadlines and prioritization of tasks really clear AND differentiated?

    I say “AND differentiated” because I got this exact performance review at a job once, and it was a job I loved and worked hard at. The reason for my slippage: EVERY task I was given was top priority and due ASAP. Every single one. I was always going back and forth between working like a madman to get everything done and panicking about how I was gonna do it all and losing time and energy to panicking… and kicking back and relaxing with a nice fun creative project because hey, I have twenty things to do that are all top priority/ASAP, and I didn’t finish any of them yesterday and the company’s still here today, so who cares which one I do first.

    When I brought this up in the aforementioned review and asked for some kind of hierarchy for prioritizing, my boss said “Maybe I’m giving you too much to do, I might take over some of your responsibilities.” Nothing else happened — I continued to get the same amount of work, and it was all still top priority and needed ASAP!

    1. Anonymous*

      I’ve been in that boat too. Every assignment was urgent, nothing could be delegate to others because I was ‘the only one’would could handle them’, I was told I could not submit for overtime pay because ‘the company could not afford it’, consequently I was working 40 hours a week paid, +10 to 15 unpaid, then on my performance review I was told that I was not being efficient enough or working hard enough by my delusional supervisor. I lost all respect for him at that point and he then no longer got the extra effort from me.

      Luckily, he was fired shortly afterward.

      I was told later, but a supervisor from higher up in the company that I could submit my unpaid hours and that I would be reimbursed no questions asked. I had not kept a count of the hours, so never did submit for reimbursement.

      Oh, the things we do when we are young and naive!

    2. Elaine*

      Rebecca has a very good point. I’ve been in that same situation, with a delusional manager who “couldn’t understand” why everything couldn’t get done on time, and telling me that I should be better at multitasking. He truly thought multitasking meant doing two things at once.

      It was the most frustrating time in my career (admin assistant).

  8. Anonymous*

    @Ask a Manager
    I am so glad you responded to my email! You are absolutely right, I look forward to sitting down with her and following the outline you provided me. I imagine it would re-energize me if I had a manager sit down and align what their expectations were and clearly set priorities if I were overloaded. It would let me see what the main goals were again.

    Kind of embarrassing…I probably used the wrong wording before. I manage only 3 employees in my department and right now it is down to one (the one I wrote in about). I have a new hire starting this week (yay!) and another I hope to be adding very soon. Our “team” consists of lots of little departments with managers over each department. Most of the departments at our company are very lax and their teams produce very little. I just didn’t want it to come across unfair that I was holding her accountable to a much higher standard then the other managers at our company. However, I think that if I handle it correctly and follow your advice she will not feel that way and actually be happy to get the feedback and clear direction.

    I do appreciate the feedback on other team members though, I am new to management and as I add to my department it is great to know that I should have a high expectation for all employees. I will let you know how it goes. THANK YOU for this blog! It provides great advice and feedback for new managers like me who need a little help in the right direction. :)

    @ Dwayne Lay and @Jamie
    You both gave great advice which I plan on using too! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I want to add — I do think it’s reasonable to start this conversation by saying, “Hey, I know we’re understaffed right now and it’s hard, and I want to know how you’re doing” or something along those lines, rather than launching straight into the corrective stuff.

  9. Cassie*

    I’m a firm believer in giving people the chance to improve and if they don’t improve, then you can let them go. I’d definitely agree on sitting down with the employee and discussing priorities and time management. If she’s not responding to emails frequently enough, give her a specific time frame in which she needs to respond.

    It sounds like she’s a good enough employee to give her a chance to be better. If it was a problem of ability (like she simply didn’t possess a particular skill), then a second chance might not be needed. But it doesn’t sound like the case.

    Oh, side note on the terms “girls” vs “ladies” vs “women”. I’m over 18, but I don’t mind being called a girl (probably because I’m younger than the majority of the people I work with). I tend to use the words guys and girls with no reference to ages, but then again, I’m not a manager/supervisor. I know the word “gal” was considered offensive by an older coworker.

    1. Anonymous*

      Cassie, you might change your mind someday when you are the manager. How would you feel if, sitting in a meeting with all the other managers (mostly men), you are referred to as “the girl”, but the others are referred to as “the men”. It’s belittling. Maybe not intentionally so, but still it makes you look less professional than your competition.

      “been there”

      1. Anonymous*

        Hello! I am the one who wrote the original post. I really meant no disrespect by calling her a girl. I am a female in my mid twenties and she is quite a bit younger and than me and yes I do call the males at my work guys or boys but not in a disrespectful way…it’s more just the verbage that we use around here. Looking back I should have just left her gender out of it and said employee. I do see how it can be offensive to some, so I will be more careful in how I refer to people, just in case it may bother someone. :)

        1. Elaine*

          Original OP – Not meaning to slam you about this, but as an older woman, hearing women in the workplace refered to as “girls” hurts my ears. When I started working, more than 4 decades ago, clerical and secretarial women were routinely called “my girl” by managers/supervisors/directors when they were talking to others (“I’ll have my girl check into that”). As though we were interchangeable and anonymous, and all had the same skills, abilities, and experience.

          It still makes me very happy when I see women in managerial positions. The only female supervisor in our office when I first started working for a large company was the supervisor of the Key Punch Department, and all the workers in that department were females. Frankly, I don’t think there was one man brave enough to supervise 30+ women!

          You sound like you’re eager to learn and become a good manager. More power to you!

  10. Anonymous*

    What a great answer, AAM! I could be that worker. I can’t convince my manager to give me clear expectations or enough specific feedback. I don’t mind finding my own work but I need some hints on whether I’m on the right track. I’m a hard worker and work late and volunteer, and I know he appreciates that because he says so. But I need for him to say, “THIS work matters! THAT work, well, not so much, because Joe can do it, and we’re phasing it out, so you’d do better if you …” But nothing seems valued except hard work. Time management is a moot point since it depends on prioritization, and every task contributes equally to “working hard.” My manager pooh-poohs my questions. I suspect he thinks that his priorities and expectations are so obvious that only a fool would need them explained. Well, I’m that fool. I can’t read his mind.

  11. Anonymous*

    I’ve also had situations when people who were good performers suddenly starting to make odd mistakes and not getting things done and it turned out they were having major things going on in their personal life (divorce, major health issue with a loved one) and that was distracting them.

    What was interesting was that they did not want to bother me with that knowledge and were really surprised that I noticed these changes, when from my standpoint I would have much rather they came in and told me that this was going on.

  12. Smithy*

    Do be careful not to be too critical if the problems are relatively minor. I can remember when I worked in a very busy office. I did all sorts of things outside the core function and frequently had to deal with the problem customers “becuse you’re good at it”. My outputs were also at the same level as my colleagues.
    At reporting time, I was told that they had to mark me down because “your desk is untidy” and “you have been late on x occasions” (ie rarely and not badly late).
    Not too much later, they had to find someone else to deal with the problem customers; deal with office suppliers; fix the photocopier; liaise with other offices etc, becuase

  13. KellyK*

    Smithy, wow, that’s a good point. That had to be really discouraging to do so much extra and get marked down for little things. (Not that lateness is nothing, but it happens to everyone now and again, and a few minutes every once in a while is minor.)

    1. Anonymous*

      In my typo filled comment above (sorry) I was in pretty much the same situation as Smithy. My difference is that I outlasted my manager as it became obvious to other higher in the company how big of a problem he was.

      Frankly, if it had happened to me today, I would have left. It was a very low-paying job, and with my skills and hard work ethic, I could have found something paying 2x better.

      So, my vote is either outlast them. Or leave.

  14. Amy*

    One more observation. In the original post it was mentioned that things take her too long because she wants them to be perfect. Maybe part of the discussion can be about what absolutely needs to be perfect and what can be “good enough.”

  15. Joey*

    I like alison’s advice but I think it’s a little premature. I think the first issue to raise is to ask the employee why the ball is being dropped. Maybe it isn’t a time management issue. It could be Jim in accounting that doesn’t get back to her or Jane in PR that’s taking forever to respond. I think with a hard worker you have to make sure there aren’t any barriers that you might be able to fix before you start clarifying you expectations.

  16. Anonymous*

    I have to agree with those who are saying that we are not looking at the reason why the employee is dropping the ball to her usual (high) standard.

    The first thing that came to my mind is that the person might be having some sort of struggle in her personal life that the manager might not know about – a parent’s illness or death, financial problems, etc. And the person is being professional enough to leave the issue at home and not discussing it at work. However, while keeping it in, the person’s work suffers.

    Others brought up that it could be a burnout. That too.

    And third, which is somewhat supported by the OP’s last paragraph was about the standards of the office. Instead of the employee’s high standards for work rubbing off onto the others, then perhaps the lackadaisical attitude of the others is rubbing off onto her. If she sees that she is busting her behind on these projects to make sure they are perfect, as the OP says, and everyone else is doing mediocre work, she might not be seeing the worth of the effort. Of course, that depends on how much appreciation she is receiving from the manager. She might be figuring that if the others can get away with less than perfect standards, then why should she have to worry either.

    Before the manager jumps to conclusions, the root of the cause should be found and dealt with, and then hopefully everything else will fall into place. If there isn’t a cause, just those things the OP thought (time management and priorities), then there has been plenty of advice already given by other commenters.

  17. Carin S.*

    At my last job sometimes work was overwhelming. I had one boss who when she became my boss, she sat down with me at the very beginning and said that when things got overwhelming, she wanted me to come to her, tell her the situation, and we’d figure out the answer together. And that totally worked. I’d come to her and say, “I have 5 projects due this week and I can only do 2 of them.” We’d go over all the projects, she’d prioritize them, she’d notify people of the 2 that weren’t going to be done, plus she’d find someone else in the department who was in more of a valley with their work and conscript them to help me for a day. It worked so well.

    I was later assigned to a different boss. I’d come to him and say, “I have 5 projects due this week and I can only do 2 of them.” He’d say, you have to do all of them. I’d say, no, I’m telling you that’s physically impossible, and I need you to tell me which ones can wait until next week. He’d say, none can wait until next week. You must do all of them. Well, without a cloning machine, that never worked. I would do a slap-dash, half-assed job on the projects, I’d be incredibly stressed, and I felt like my boss didn’t have my back, didn’t understand my workload, and didn’t care that I was frustrated, doing a poor job, and felt unsupported.

    Sometimes at work there are too many things to do. Bosses need to be proactive about letting their people know how to deal with that situation, and then they need to back their people up so that they can do their best job and feel supported.

  18. Anonymous*

    I have someone like this working for me, they miss deadlines and ask for exceptions when they blow it. The problem is deeper than the workload – it’s respect. Respect for the job, the quality of the work and working with others successfully.

    I’ve coached and mentored, even lent support but the problem is theirs and not correctable unless they own it. Good luck with that.. their pride and “I do so much” will be all over the situation regardless of how you deliver the concern. My staff member, an exceptional employee when they want to be, will soon be on a PIP.

    1. Mike*

      You need to stop personalizing this situation. It’s a job.

      People work there for a paycheck, some benefits and nothing more. Read that again – they are there for a paycheck and nothing more. They are not there because they “respect” you or “respect” the company. No one is. That went away with pensions and gold watches for long time employees.

      1. Cassie*

        I think it depends on the person. To maybe 95% of the people in my office, it is just a job. You show up, you process paperwork (or whatever it is you do), and you leave. You collect your paycheck, get your health care and take your pension when you leave.

        For me, it’s more than that. Not because I have a “career” – I’m not a doctor, lawyer, engineer, artist, etc. I’m simply a clerical person. I believe that my performance in my job is a reflection of me. If I perform badly, it reflects poorly on me (and my parents/family). I know it’s not the usual “American” way of thinking and it’s antiquated.

        I skated through school and got good grades. I could probably do the same at work – do just the bare minimum – and still do okay. True, my extra effort doesn’t result in much other than pat on the back but maybe somewhere down the line when there’s an opening for a higher position, they’ll remember me. (Maybe not).

        1. Dawn*


          I WISH I had more employees like you! Employees that are invested in their work. Too many people have the attitude that it’s just a job.

          And you’re right to think that maybe someday you will be considered for a higher position. Good managers remember those who work hard and are invested in what they do.

          1. Mike*

            Too many employees have that attitude because they’re getting screwed over by their boss and company.

            In my personal situation, I work in a laboratory as an analyst. We don’t receive performance reviews. We aren’t told about raises or bonuses. We were told that our 401(k) matching would be put on hold and the money set aside for “when the economy gets better”, but that money isn’t there. Our health care becomes worse and worse each year.

            And all throughout this recession, our company has thrived. We all work huge amounts of overtime to protect the safety of our clients, and with the “thanks” we receive I think you can understand my negative attitude.

            But hey, the owner was able to buy some more fine art to hang up in his office, so I guess that counts as a “perk”, right?

      2. Anonymous*

        I wouldn’t call having an employee own their situation personalization. This is more a realization that it can’t be fixed without their consent and acknowledgment. The role of respect in this instance is obvious. If the employee is missing deadlines, they are not respecting the task. The role of manager is also clear – you get to the heart of what the issue is but at the end of the day, the employee is responsible for their results.

    2. Anonymous*

      I kind of agree with you, even though I feel that I do too much and am undervaluated. The only thing is, if you’ree not happy with your job, just leave it for another one. That’s what I’ll do before it affects my performance. I used to love my job but never underestimate the capacity of bad management.

      1. Anonymous*

        Leaving, good management or bad management isn’t the OP’s issue. Seems to me their manager is concerned enough to delve into the root cause of dropped balls before passing judgment.

  19. Elizabeth*

    If the employee has *always* had these issues, that’s one thing. But this employee is only having these problems *lately.*

    I highly recommend checking in with the employee to see what’s changed, using the framework of “everything has been so good up to now; has anything changed for you that has caused these challenges?”

    And it’s just so incongruous to hear the word ‘girl’ applied to grown women, and it’s just lunatic when it’s used in referring to a 50 year old, for example. So many women find it off-putting that I think we should just refrain from using it.

  20. Dawn*

    Maybe this woman is a yes-woman. Meaning, she wants very much to climb the ladder and she believes the way to do it is to say yes to every project that comes along, not thinking about the fact that, realistically, not everything can get done. I experienced that earlier in my career. I wanted very badly to advance as quickly and as far as I could so I said yes to everything that came along. Great experience, right? Eventually things started slipping through the cracks, but I didn’t want to say anything to my workaholic boss for fear of being seen as weak. As a result, I got to the point where I was so overwhelmed that I had a meltdown when my other boss asked me how things were going. I eventually I was able to hire an assistant who took on some of the workload.

    1. Mike*

      This is quite a good point, and something I can see more inexperienced folks like myself doing. It certainly leads to situations like this, or being treated like a doormat as mentioned by Smithy above.

  21. Emily*

    OP–I had a little daydream that you might be my manager . . . I don’t think you are, but I would consider myself lucky to have a manager who is as tuned in (recognizing your employee’s hard work, affinity for creative projects, and tendency to bs hard on herself, as well as her weaknesses) and as concerned about handling things constructively as you are.

    Maybe she spends more time than you’d like on the creative stuff not specifically because she wants them to be perfect or could she be lingerin over them because they are what she likes best about her job? When I have a lot on my plate and feel overwhelmed, I’m guilty of dwelling on the stuff I really enjoy and putting other stuff off.

    As others have said, there might be something personal going on in her life that’s distracting her, but the change in her behavior (assuming it is a change–you said “lately”) could be at the office. Maybe you could talk to her about what she really likes doing and talk about efficiently allocating time for the type of work she really enjoys (you said “loves!”)

    Maybe you could delegate some other things to your *ahem* underproducers, or, if appropriate, give her a new challenge with the opportunity to take on a leadership role and train a coworker to take over something from her.

    1. Emily*

      *sigh* I’m a terrible smart phone typist. Please excuse the flawed sentence structure and typos!

  22. This Manager Stinks*

    The manager in this article actually has the stones to question somebody who he is overworking and relying on more than others because of ticky tack things that mean nothing in the long run?

    How about you, as the manager (i.e. The workplace “adult”.) adequately staff your department and manage expectations instead of deliberately exploiting a hardworker for your professional gain.

    God willing this worker that you’re slaving to death is only working hard to polish their resume and leaves your gulag of a company.

  23. Anonymous*

    Askamanager touched on this but I would like to point out that there is a big different between: always puts in extra hours and a star performer.

    When I read the OPs text it made me think of one of my previous co-workers who is constantly in the office late, never pushes back on a project no matter which business line it should belong to, and constantly sighs about working weekends … but rarely answers emails in a timely manner, consistantly misses deadlines, and many of the projects the co-workers delivers have glaring errors that must be re-worked.

    Yet, for some reason this employee was held up as the example to the rest of us to emmulate and my question is why? Even as I read through this forum I see a lot of people referring to the employee the OP wrote about as “star” employee but the only fact we have about her is that she works more hours. Maybe if this “star employee” spent more time critically analyzing her workload, developing more efficient proccesses, and learning to push back/speak up on deadlines she knows isn’t realistic her performance would improve.

    I’m strongly in the school of work smarter not harder and I often find myself picking up the slack from these “in-the-office-constantly” dare I say work-a-holics who seem to value a project by hours spent instead of results.

    Please managers don’t fall into this easy rut! Reward productivity and not face time.

  24. Lawrence Steinert*


    SITUATION: Worker A is responsible for passing the ball off to Worker B after Worker A has done his part on a project. Worker A informs Worker B that the ball is being passed off now, and passes a control sheet for the project, but does not pass off the project itself. Worker B cannot do his part without the whole ball, and asks Worker A where the rest of the ball is. Worker A informs Worker B that Worker A is still doing his part, and will pass off the whole ball when it is ready for Worker B. Several weeks go by, and Worker A does not pass the ball. Damage results due to untimeliness of project completion.

    QUESTION: Who is to blame here?

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