what to do if you’re not doing well at your job

I’ve watched a lot of people struggling in their jobs. And the difference between those who fix the problems and manage to go on to be successful in the role versus those who continue to struggle and often eventually lose that job is very clear: It’s all about what they do with the fact that they’re struggling. Do they bury their head in the sand and avoid confronting the problem, because it’s painful or uncomfortable to stare the problem in the eye, or because they refuse to even see that there’s a problem at all? Or do they put aside their ego and tackle it head-on?

When you’re in this situation, how you handle it is crucial to what the outcome ends up being. Here are five key steps you should take:

1. First, don’t pretend it’s not happening. Many people react to difficulties at work by not doing anything about them, either because they’re worried about drawing attention to the situation or because they hope that the problems will somehow just go away. This is about the worst thing that you can do, because if your boss knows that you’re struggling and you appear not to notice or care, it’ll look even worse for you.

2. Instead of hoping the problem with go away, tackle it head-on. Sit down with your boss and say that you feel you’re not doing as well as you could be doing. Ask for her advice, and then listen with an open mind. Don’t focus on defending yourself; focus only on hearing and understanding what she tells you. If she’s vague, ask her to help you understand by giving you a specific example or two. When she does, remember: The goal here isn’t to defend yourself. You are just trying to understand what her concerns are with your work.

3. Thank you your boss for talking with you. Yes, really. It doesn’t matter if you agree with her assessment or not. Thank her for giving you honest feedback. This can be disarmingly effective because managers are used to many employees resisting serious feedback like this and even being adversarial.

4. Next, give yourself some honest feedback. Even if you disagree with your manager’s assessment, you know now how she sees your work. Is there any truth to her perspective? If not, is there an explanation for why a reasonable person could perceive things that way? More importantly, having heard what your manager wants of you, do you realistically think you can meet her expectations? What can you do differently? Sometimes the answer can be as simple as changing a work habit or the way you organize things. Other times, the answer might not be as simple.

5. Now it’s decision time. Perhaps you’ll realize that she’s pointing out things in your work that you can/should change, and you can work on changing them. If this happens, let her know. Otherwise, you’ll realize that she’s pointing out things that you can’t easily change (or don’t particularly want to change). If this is the case, the best thing you can do is to start looking for other work.

The goal throughout all of this is to figure out where you stand and why so that you can make good decisions for yourself, based on candid discussion, not speculation.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I watched a rather brilliant discussion between a superior and subordinate this weekend. The superior states the performance has been unsatisfactory, states why, and offers to transfer the subordinate to an alternate position without noting it on the subordinate’s record. The subordinate’s response was surprise, and a willingness to make the needed changes immediately.

    Don’t know why, but it really struck a chord with me. I hope to someday be as good a supervisor as “Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the episode Gambit, pt 2. Lol. Data is Captain with Worf as his second when everyone else is captured. It really was a great exchange! Here’s the ending of the reprimand exchange:
    “Mr. Worf, I am sorry if I have ended our friendship.”
    “Sir, it is I who has jeopardized our friendship, not you. If you will overlook this incident, I would like to continue to consider you my friend.”
    “I would like that as well.”
    “Thank you, sir.”
    – Data and Worf, after Data reprimands Worf in the captain’s ready room

    :) It’s Monday, have a laugh at my expense! I’ma SF NUT

    1. Dan Ruiz*

      That is one of my favorite episodes too.

      I always thought that show was an idealized version of how a business should run. Everyone pulled in the same direction, everyone was competent, leaders were wise, luck was on their side, and there was no inter-personal problem that couldn’t be solved with a heart-to-heart conversation or 5-minutes in the holadeck. Good stuff.


      1. Jamie*

        I want to thank you both – my trekkie of a husband will be so delighted when I go home tonight and ask to see this.

        It will be the first time in our marriage where I’ve requested Star Trek. He keeps telling me that if I just give them a chance I’ll love it…so I won’t listen to him but a couple of strangers on the internet, that’s a different story!

  2. Anonymous*

    One of the biggest obstacles is getting your manager to change the way they see you. I was in a situation where my boss was only noticing the small errors I made and magnifying them to be critical mistakes, while overlooking everything that I was handling perfectly. I had a meeting with her and told her I was committed to improving my performance and wanted her guidance. To be honest, I changed nothing about my actual work habits or job performance after that meeting, because I wasn’t doing that much wrong in the first place aside from the usual occasional human error/adjusting to new tasks I’d never done before. However, the fact that I’d met with my boss to express my commitment to the job seemed to make all the difference and she instead began noticing everything I did right and overlooking the small errors. We now have a great working relationship, she compliments my work regularly, and I’m very secure in my job and planning on staying with my employer for quite some time to come.

    Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t get so lucky with their bosses. Some people make real, concrete improvement to their work and their boss continues to fixate on what they do wrong. In my previous life as a counselor I worked with a lot of people who were clinically depressed and their work had suffered. As they got treatment and their depression lifted, their work would often improve, but their bosses were still stuck seeing them in the old light regardless of any actual changes. The only option for the employee was to quit and find a new job where the bosses didn’t have these same negative preconceptions about their work.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I obviously can’t say for sure, but in your case, it might be that the fact that you had that meeting with your boss told her that you cared about doing well, that you heard her feedback and weren’t blowing it off. Sometimes a big component of a manager’s frustration is feeling like the person isn’t processing feedback / taking it seriously enough. Everyone makes mistakes, but the person who doesn’t seem to care that they made a mistake is much more frustrating to deal with.

      Unfortunately, a lot of people who DO care about their mistakes don’t actually show that to the managers … from a mistaken sense that doing so may make it worse.

    2. Dan Ruiz*

      I was in the same situation when I started this job.

      I had a newbie manager who focused on minute mistakes instead of the fires I just prevented or extinguished. Unfortunately, instead of getting him on my side, as you did, I argued with him and defended myself. That didn’t help me one bit.

      Years later, he’s become a very good manager. However, our relationship is damaged beyond repair :-(

      I’ll do better with my next manager.


  3. T.T.*

    Interesting read! I’m not employed yet but hopefully I will be soon so I can take these tips to heart!

    By the by, you misspelled “bury” in your post. You can delete this comment after you correct it.

  4. Jamie*

    What if the employee knows they are having performance issues, but the boss doesn’t agree and thinks everything is just swell?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Similar, actually, just with the boss removed. I’d say to figure out what you’d need to change in order to do better, and then figure out if those are things you can change and want to change.

  5. De Minimis*

    A lot depends on workplace culture and the nature of the job. I didn’t do well at my last job, and once they decided I was a poor performer I didn’t get much opportunity to try and change their minds.

    It really depends on how much a company is willing to work with people on an individual basis. Companies that hire a lot of people at once may be more likely to write employees off and just put them on the shelf until they decide to fire them at year-end.

    BTW, how does one go about interviewing for a job when their only experience in their chosen field so far was one where they were not successful?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think the key is to really get clarity in your own mind on why the employer should hire you — what happened at your last job, what have you learned from it, how are you moving forward, and what have you done to ensure the next job will go differently? If you’re really clear on that, it’ll show and you’ll be able to convey it.

  6. Christine*

    I wish I knew about this site 3 and a half years ago! In my last job, I was beginning to realize that I was in way over my head, and it was pretty much confirmed about 2 months into my time there when my supervisor sat me down 5 weeks ahead of my scheduled end of the probation period. Sadly, though, I never fully got the hang of the job and was laid off after 10 months of employment.

    I had numerous chats with her about my continuing struggles and I really do think she tried to help. However, I am my own worst enemy and got too focused on doing and saying everything right rather than building on my strengths and just letting everything fall into place. Thus, I’m not sure the steps in this article would’ve saved my job, but I will keep them in mind for future reference (though hopefully that won’t happen!)

  7. Effective Delegation*

    Not doing well at your job is a real dilemma in today’s economy. People hold on for dear life because there are so few jobs available. In a different economy, the employee would be well to face the facts and seek another position. Today it may require finding a way to get additional training or expand skills suited for you to then have what you like be utilized.

  8. jmkenrick*

    Love that you posted this. A lot of job advice seems to assume that you’re a strong or good performer – but it’s very frustrating when you’re trying and just not quite meeting the bar.

  9. Carrie*

    Is 6 months too soon to ask for feedback from your manager? From what I can gather, reviews are done yearly in my company and the next round would be in March. I don’t feel I get any sort of guidance or support from my manager, so I mostly just feel like I’m not doing anything right and struggling in my role. This really effects my life outside of work as well. I left a bad job/boss situation last year and really took some time (2 months) to find what I thought would be a better situation, which it hasn’t exactly turned out to be. I’m trying not to let my negative feelings from my last position to follow me here, but I think having the boss that I do hasn’t helped and I again feel like I’m in a bad situation.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Too soon? If you’ve gone 6 months without any feedback, I’d say it’s late in the game! A good manager would be giving you feedback regularly, and especially in your first month or two. Ask for feedback!

  10. Frank*

    I find the testimonials (in a way) and the discussion here in general very helpful. However, this doesn’t wash away my jadedness towards the general working world and the poison I have to face up with on a daily basis as I’m searching, or not doing well at any position. I used to tell myself it wasn’t personal until I came across several bosses and managers who just didn’t like me. However, I am finding happiness working for myself and dictating my own future rather than having to lay my life and line of work in the hands of someone else who doesn’t have their own lives in order. I recently have been applying for work as business isn’t as hot as desired… only to get rejection after rejection! Is today’s work culture surrounded by the doctrine of rejection/elimination rather than acceptance/selection???

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Re: Managers who just don’t like you — Think of it this way: You probably have had bosses and coworkers who you just didn’t like. Not everyone meshes well. You’ve got to just let it roll off of you, because you’re not going to like everyone either.

      Re: lots of rejections — It’s math, in a lot of cases. In other words, if you’ve got 300 applicants for one slot and, say, 20 of those are very well-qualified, the majority of the well-qualified applicants are going to be rejected. So yes, from one perspective, hiring IS about weeding people out. There’s no other choice when you have fewer slots than good candidates.

  11. Scott*

    I had a problem with a past manager where I was asked to do A,B, and C, I then did A,B, and C but it wasn’t a department priority so when it came to ratings time I always ended up in a bad position. After 2 cycles of this we decided that it just wasn’t a good fit as my background/strengths didn’t match up with the what the group was emphasizing. Found a new role in the org with a new team that was a better fit and after a little over a year I got a promotion.

    Just goes to show that sometimes it is as much about fit and group dynamics as it is about competence and performance. Looking back it was a bad decision on all parts for me to join that team as my profile didn’t fit what they were looking for and there was no way I was going to succeed. The advantage of working at a large company is I was able to find a new position that ended up better for the company and me.

  12. NikkiN*

    I agree that fit is an extremely important factor in job success. I have unfortunately had to have too many conversations with staff members whose work performance was not up to par. It was not for lack of trying; in fact they worked very hard to keep up. That was part of the issue- even in all of their trying- they couldn’t keep up. Working in a busy ER is not for everyone. My experience is: if your boss has several conversations with you regarding your inability to produce the minimal amount of work, and you find yourself in disciplinary action over it, start looking for something else as soon as possible. Denial of your inability to fit into the role expectations will not prevent you from being terminated. The job market is harsh now, but a resignation looks a lot better than a termination.

  13. Anonymous*

    I was going to bring up fit and culture.. I have worked for 12 years and have never had any issues with coworkers or employers. In fact just had a B day party and invited 17 ppl from old jobs! We are all still good friends.
    However my new job? Forget about it. Everyone seems petty, they will call you out etc, you will get nasty e-mails DAILY etc etc. Thing is all employees see this in our boss, he thinks the same of himself, but he never changes.

  14. Anonymous*

    I won’t lie, I feel like I’m terrible at my job. I rarely get talked to about it, but I kick myself for every mistake I make during my shift. I feel like people noticed it, when I see them I can’t help but wonder if I’m the subject of conversations, etc. I feel like a disappointment. When I start doing well in one area, I can’t help but noticed I get worse in another section of my job.

    1. Anonymous, Too*

      I can relate to this. I’m looking to get out as soon as I can. Someone out there will appreciate my skills, and I’m sure that is true of you, as well.

      Good luck!

  15. Fustrated Guy*

    I am currently in this situation. I’ve moved to a new job in a big global bank. Never been in such a big organisation before only big local companies. Never met my manager before, my manager isn’t in my country and most of my team aren’t even in the same country. There’s only a couple of people in my office locally and my manager relies on my team for feedback on how i am going. The easiest way is to get close to my team but i find it hard because they are all girls and i’m the only guy. I can never get as close to them. They do everything together and i know they talk about me and i feel left out and i feel REALLY uncomfortable. My manager gave me feedback that my performance isn’t good enough (obviously it was from my team). Said i’m too slow, making basic mistakes and also not a team player. I’ve only been here for 1.5 months and i was really surprised. I know i wasn’t doing the best but i thought i was doing okay at least. And i also have a toothache. Of course my boss didn’t care at all. I’ve tried to turn all my negatives into positives but it’s really hard and under so much pressure and i feel so stressed because i feel i won’t pass probation…..

  16. anil singh*

    I had salary account in a bank of my ex employee & again i got another salary account in the same bank but i am hiding the ex employer name .so in this case does my current employer knows about my ex employer ??

  17. Schmuckatelli*

    Yeah, I had a job about a decade ago where my boss and co-workers had a clique, and I wasn’t in it. After about a year and a half in their department, I tried to transfer to another one. Non-stop ridicule and criticism meant that I was about as welcome as a skunk at a picnic. Boss once said that if co-workers give a hard time, it’s “because they like you”, which defies logic to me. Boss said flat out that my only way out of his department was to walk out the door. I sought and found far more lucrative job offer and left lousy job on my terms. Former boss used to beat chest about how he’d made life so miserable for previous employees whom he couldn’t sack, that they’d eventually say #^@! this and walk off the job. I vowed never to give him the satisfaction and gave a two-week notice. Another co- worker not in the clique, incidentally, walked off the job after learning that he’d have to work more weekends in my absence. Sorry to digress. Thought it was worth sharing. Take care.

  18. Schmuckatelli*

    That’s a mighty self-righteous tag-line you got by your avatar, that I just noticed. Them management folk sure got it all figured out, and I’ve always wished I could be in the shoes of those in middle management or above. I found a stat quite bewildering that between working-class folks and those in charge, there’s about the same job dissatisfaction. All I’ve ever known and probably all I’ll ever know is entry-level work, so I gotta assume that the grass has gotta be greener somewhere else. I can see a lot of what my supervisor’s job entails, and I wouldn’t want it. Her boss however, only seems to show up when there’s a meeting w/ free food. Quite a leisurely job and more pay for it. Wish I coulda gone to college.

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