how can I help my struggling coworker, who’s possibly learning-disabled?

A reader writes:

I’m in a creative, non-managerial position and I’ve recently been given the task of managing the work of one of my colleagues.  I’m not his formal manager; he and I have the same job title, and we both report to the same manager. I’m more of his editor or lead (we’re both copywriters at an ad agency). I supervise his work, give him feedback, and report to our manager about his work and overall performance. He knows that I’m in charge of editing his work, and he knows that I talk to our manager about how he’s doing. 

The more I try to work with my coworker, the more I notice that he is really struggling to create good work in the time we give him. At times, it seems like he’s trying really hard–he clocks a LOT of billable hours, he isn’t goofing off at his computer. But at the same time, he doesn’t pay attention in meetings, what he turns in is almost never what was asked for, and his work needs significant editing before it could be considered up to par for someone in his role. I’ve brought a lot of these things up with him but they don’t seem to stick.

My interactions with him give me a sneaking suspicion that he might have ADHD or a learning disability that makes it hard for him to remember tricky details or concentrate for long periods of time. I would never ask him straight out if this was the case, but at the same time, wouldn’t it matter if it was? Objectively, he’s not getting his work done in a satisfactory way, but I don’t want to get him in trouble with our manager if it’s due to problems that have nothing to do with his work ethic. How could I deal with this sticky situation?

Well, ultimately what matters is how he’s performing on the job. And these things are pretty serious problems:

* “what he turns in is almost never what was asked for”

* “his work needs significant editing before it could be considered up to par for someone in his role”

* “I’ve brought a lot of these things up with him but they don’t seem to stick”

These are serious issues. And it doesn’t really matter that they’re not caused by a lack of work ethic; after all, it’s possible to work really hard and just not be the right fit for a job. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking that effort is more important than actual performance.

But where effort is relevant is that it can point you toward a path of trying to work more closely with the employee to solve the problems. (Whereas if he had all these problems and a lack of effort, you might not go down that path at all.) Ultimately, he does need to be judged by his work product, not his level of effort, but when someone is trying hard, it can make sense to invest some extra time with them and see if it helps.

So why not talk to him about what you’re noticing and enlist him as a partner in trying to solve it?

For instance, you might say to him, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you don’t always pay a lot of attention in meetings, and there’s often a significant gap between the details of an assignment and what you turn in. What do you think is going on?”

See what he says. Depending on how open he is with you, you might be able to help brainstorm solutions. And as part of that, I don’t think it’s off-limits to say, “You know, I’m no doctor, but it sounds a lot like ADHD or something similar. Would it be worth getting checked out for that to see if there’s a simple way to tackle it?”

You should also share the same assessment you gave here with your manager, including the fact that you do think he’s a hard worker, but that his work isn’t where it should be. And it’s fine to mention that you think there might be something going on that’s making it harder for him.

You should also be clear with your boss that you’ve brought up your concerns with your coworker, but that they haven’t seemed to stick — because that’s a signal that your manager needs to get more involved. It’s one thing to have you reviewing his work and giving feedback, but if he’s not taking your feedback seriously, then he needs to hear from someone with more authority, and that’s his manager.

Ultimately, if he does have a learning disability, it’s up to him to figure out how to treat it and to ask for any accommodations that would help him perform his job better. (And the company should work with him on those accommodations, as long as — and this is the Americans With Disabilities Act speaking here — it doesn’t pose undue hardship to the company and he can perform the essential functions of his job.)

But you, as his editor/lead/whatever, can help by giving him honest feedback, both the good and the bad; helping him try to find solutions; and involving your manager when there are big-picture themes to address (or to just be aware of). Good luck!

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. Under Stand*

    OK, this might come off like a jerk, but I am going to say it anyway. If he is not getting the job done to the level suspected and you have talked to him about it (and you have) and if the boss knows that he is not (and you say that you have talked to the boss about him and that the boss is the one who put you in a position to review his work and try to get up to par) and has taken steps to bring the work up to par (those steps are apparently you), then the employee needs to be fired. I don’t care that he has a learning disability (yes it is sad on a personal level that his learning problems are hindering him but you do not give away money because you feel sorry for someone in a company). At the end of the day, he is not performing and has been given a chance to bring that performance up but has not done so. The company is in business to make money, not to do charity work (and paying an “employee” who cannot do the job is charity).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is true, and it’s what I was getting at in my answer … but I do think that because he’s trying hard, it’s worth working more intensively with him for a few weeks (assuming you have the luxury of being able to do that) to see if he can be brought up to where he needs to be. If he can’t, then he can’t, and you shouldn’t lower the bar, but sometimes that kind of thing can pay off.

  2. Satia*

    Why not encourage him to take notes? If it is ADD/ADHD, then taking notes will engage more of the kinetic learning skills that are typically most necessary for retention.

    Taking this a step further, compare notes together, yours and his, and then create a list or at least an outline. You say that there the work turned in is missing some “tricky details” in his work. It might help him if he had something in writing to ensure he doesn’t miss a detail. And his knowing you have this same list, that you are aware of a mutually defined matrix, will also allow you more room to address where something may still be missing.

    My daughter has mild ADD and her teachers quickly learned that if she was drawing during a lecture she was still learning. Her “doodling” helped her to focus on what the teacher was saying, she still took notes (between drawing one line or erasing another, I assume), and she had good grades.

    An adult with ADD has probably learned their personal coping skills. But before assuming there is a learning disability or other issue, why not just keep it practical?

    Define the task at hand so that you’re both on the same page.
    Encourage note taking to further ensure that you’re both on the same page.
    Then create a checklist of expectations/needs that must be met.

    Another thing to consider is that this person may need a different management style. If you are a hands-off type manager and he needs a micro-manager, it may be that someone needs to step in and really stand over his shoulder.

    But I’d definitely default to practical explanations before grasping at diagnoses.

    1. Satia*

      I meant to also say that having it in writing, a checklist/matrix, will also empower you to address this with your own manager if there isn’t an improvement. Nothing beats a paper trail and when confronted with someone saying that another is not doing their job effectively it can always be boiled down to one person’s opinion. Back that “opinion” up with solid, written, evidence and your manager should sit up and take notice.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      One caveat here is that micromanaging, or managing really closely or whatever, can’t be a long-term solution. It could be something you try for a few weeks to try to help him get on track (and it can indeed be really helpful when someone is struggling), but you can’t really justify doing it beyond that.

      1. fposte*

        Can you talk a little about how that works, Alison? I’ve got a workload that’s predicated on staff being very independent, and I’d have to really struggle to be able to do this even for a short period. How would you clarify the goals for such a period, and how would you differentiate somebody who’s always going to be over their head unless they’re being micro-directed from somebody who will work on her own once she gets a tune-up?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You don’t always have the luxury of being able to do it — and it sounds like in your situation, you may not. But in some contexts, it’s reasonable to work more closely with a struggling employee for a couple of weeks to see if that gets the person on track. For instance, I once had an employee who did good work but was struggling to stay organized — things were falling through the cracks, she was making the wrong decisions about how to prioritize things, etc. I was really clear with her about the problems, and about the fact that we were going to make a last-ditch attempt to resolve things by a period of pretty intense engagement. I then worked really closely with her on those issues for a couple of weeks — to the point of having her send me a daily to-do list that we could then talk about if it didn’t look right — and within a few weeks, she didn’t need that anymore and I was able to back off. If that short-term investment of time hadn’t solved the problem, I would have needed to let her go (because that kind of close supervision isn’t feasible for longer than a couple of weeks), but it worked and she went on to do a very good job for us.

          But it’s not always feasible to do that. Sometimes you just don’t have the time, sometimes you can tell from experience that it’s not going to solve the problem, and sometimes you just need people to come in able to excel right off the bat, with little to no ramp-up period.

          1. fposte*

            Thanks for the insight. I’d like to be as prepared as possible in advance if I do run into this kind of situation.

  3. Naama*

    I just got diagnosed with ADD. There is no simple way to handle it. Even if this guy decided to go on meds and magically found the one that worked for him right away, he’d still probably need coaching. And it’s emotionally difficult too, for many people, especially when your job depends on it. Please don’t tell him it would be simple.

  4. BelindaMDavid*

    I spent over 10 months assisting people who have a learning disability and/or ADHD with their job search.

    They were some of the smartest people I coached but they often didn’t feel that way because of a lifetime spent feeling frustrated by their inability at times to complete even the simplest of tasks. They have usually spent most of their adult life feeling inadequate or stupid because of bad experiences in school or at work.

    If you really suspect that he has ADHD and he hasn’t been diagnosed hopefully by you asking him (in a non confrontational way) about things will spur him to seek help.

    There are so many coping techniques available to help people with ADHD organize themselves as well as medication if that is an option he wants.

    While it can be frustrating working with someone who seemingly is always distracted or turning in work that’s incomplete/late, it is even more frustrating being that person who wants to do well but cannot figure out how to be successful.

    1. Anonymous*

      “They were some of the smartest people I coached but they often didn’t feel that way because of a lifetime spent feeling frustrated by their inability at times to complete even the simplest of tasks.”

      How, exactly, is “unable to complete the simplest of tasks” still get you counted as “smart”? We need to stop medicalizing low performers and realize some people just aren’t that bright. Calling it some schmancy acronym doesn’t change it.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Well, there are plenty of really smart people who also have ADHD. ADHD doesn’t affect intellectual ability. (See, for instance, this from the Yale School of Medicine: http://news.yale.edu/2009/05/14/high-iq-no-help-those-adhd-yale-researchers-find )

        That said, I admit that when I read Belinda’s comment saying “they were some of the smartest people I coached,” I questioned it too — not because people with ADHD can’t be smart (because of course plenty are) but because there’s no reason why this group would be smarter than any other … and because of that it sounded a bit condescending to me.

        1. BelindaDavid*

          My intention wasn’t to be condescending but I understand how it could have come across that wya.

          My point was however to highlight that just because a person is disorganized or can’t make deadlines doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. The people that I worked with often battled issues of depression because they have been struggling with this for most of their lives.

          And as demonstrated by the comment above yours, the idea that individuals with Learning Disabilities or ADHD are just lazy or marginal performers is a misconception that needs to be changed.

          1. Jamie*

            I think this is more a result of the problem with how it’s handled in the school system than in anything inherent with ADD/ADHD.

            Personally, for my myriad of issues, I’ve never had self-esteem issues when it came to my intellectual ability or my performance, work or school. In fact, if anything, it’s always been my comfort zone.

            I knew that I tend to think differently than other people from an early age, but the feedback from parents and teachers was that it was a good thing…channel it, make sure the work is challenging enough – etc. I’ve told my kids that channeled correctly it’s like a gift – and they have never exhibited any issues relating to their ADD/ADHD.

            If some people have a stigma about this, I think that’s just silly. It’s just a difference…and everyone needs to manage their own differences.

        2. Jamie*

          I’m not too old to remember school…gifted classes are filled with people who would test ADD/ADHD. So are all the other classes of every level.

          Of my kids two have ADD and one ADHD. That’s what happens when you have one ADD and one ADHD parent. We all have brown eyes, too…for which the correlation to our intellect is about as relevant as having some attention differences.

          Personally, I don’t see it as a deficit – never have (although I’m aware it’s right there in the acronym.) Actually, once you get out of the structure of school it’s a bonus. Channeled correctly hyperfocus is an IT person’s best friend, as is the ability to bounce from one unrelated problem to the next.

          Everyone – diagnosed with something or not – has something with which they struggle. It’s all about knowing your weaknesses and putting your own accommodations in place.

          For me – I keep running logs of long term projects and checklists religiously. I know I will never remember we have a meeting next Thursday at 11:00 am – so it’s in my Outlook and now I never have to. Develop habits to mitigate your weaknesses and you will save yourself a lot of heartache. I check my Outlook calendar every night to prepare for the next day – task lists and alerts are my friends.

          As a result, some of the people who work with me hate how organized I am, because I never forget to follow up. Actually, I forget all the time but Outlook reminds me. I never forget to put it in Outlook, though.

          That said, the OP’s problem employee may or may not be ADD related at all. The same issues would come up in someone who is in a bad fit.

          1. Anonymous*

            “Develop habits to mitigate your weaknesses and you will save yourself a lot of heartache.”

            YES! Under-performer, learning disability, whatever, we all need to do this at work and/or work our managers to do so.

            At this point, whether or not this employee has a learning disability is not the issue. The quality of his work is the issue. As a manager you can help with strategies to mitigate employees’ weaknesses, but only to a certain point as AAM has pointed out.

      2. Joanna Reichert*

        Hey, I fully believe that a lot of junk that we call ADHD and ADD is actually called a child who’s eaten too much sugar / isn’t appreciated at home and is acting out / etc. I also fully believe that we’re a nation of “slap a medication band-aid over it and call it good”.

        But the fact is that there ARE people with, shall we say, different wiring in their brain that makes their input processes very different from ‘the norm’ – and it’s not bad, it’s just different enough to cause hiccups in a ‘traditional’ setting of school and work.

        We’re all smart in different ways, after all. If this person has come this far, especially gotten hired, then I would definitely advise them to get a full checkup with their doctor – there could be some major underlying anxiety/stress that they don’t know how to cope with, or maybe some kind of chemical imbalance.

        1. Natalie*

          And if it is anxiety, stress, depression, or ADD, a counselor or therapist may be able to help them identify places they are struggling and learn techniques and coping skills. Their GP can hopefully recommend someone.

      3. KellyK*

        Um, because there are lots of different aspects to intelligence and lots of different ways to be “smart.” I’m really good at test-taking, horrible at remembering directions. I know someone with multiple master’s degrees who is really, really bad at spelling.

        Also, I usually don’t nitpick grammar in other people’s posts, but if you’re going to question other people’s intelligence, you should probably do it in a grammatically correct fashion. Otherwise they might start to question yours in return. (It should really be “How, exactly, does“unable to complete the simplest of tasks” still get you counted as “smart”?”)

        1. Christine*

          Exactly! People’s intelligence comes across in all different ways. I have a masters degree and even had one of my term papers incorporated into a faculty member’s poster presentation; yet, I can’t cook much beyond boiling pasta. Doesn’t make me any less “smart” than the next person….we all have areas of strengths and weaknesses.

      4. Doug*

        @Anonymous: I find your comment about “schmancy acronyms” condescending, snarky and rude. Is that even a word?

        1. Anonymous*

          I’m pointing out the medicalization of low performance. People slap an acronym (ADD, ADHD) or a made-up disorder name (autism) to simply hide stupidity, bad behavior, or garden-variety retardation. No one wants to admit that their kid is bad, or dumb, so they call it something they can wrap their egos around – a “disease”.

          1. KellyK*

            Do you have some medical qualification to define autism, ADD, or ADHD as “made-up?” Heck, even an example from real life of someone who you know for sure is “just dumb” and has one of those diagnoses. (To know that you’d have to know that whatever treatment wasn’t doing a lick of good. If the Ritalin is helping, then the ADD is probably *not* a schmancy made-up acronym to disguise laziness or stupidity.)

            Also, thanks for proving my point about it sometimes being a bad idea to disclose illnesses, particularly mental ones, at work. I really hope you’re not a supervisor of someone with ADD.

            1. Anonymous*

              If, as the ADD “patient” who was described before, they had “inability to complete the simplest of tasks”, then no, I wouldn’t manage them. I’d never hire them.

      5. Under Stand*

        OH, I believe it very easily. In my experience, the smarter people are, the more likely they don’t have the common sense to come in out of the rain. It seems smart people just think weird by our standards. So The simple stuff is too simple, they over think it and they make it hard.

  5. class factotum*

    he clocks a LOT of billable hours….what he turns in is almost never what was asked for, and his work needs significant editing

    Everything after the “LOT of billable hours” is negated by what follows. If I were a client, I would be very unhappy to know I paid twice as much as I needed to because the person who did the job did it wrong (and hence needed more hours for correction) or more slowly than someone else would.

  6. Andrew*

    I suspect that management already knows about this employee’s problems, and is reluctant to take possibly unpleasant corrective steps. Hence, they have sidestepped the issue by turning the OP into a de facto manager–they are counting on his/her work ethic and thoroughness to take care if the problem.

    The OP should politely and firmly tell management that it should step in and oversee this other employee’s work. He /she. (boy, does the English language need a gender-neutral pronoun other than “it!”) is being taken advantage of, and is doing management work that is not in any job description– and is not being compensated for either, I would guess.

    1. Andrea*

      This was my first thought as well–management doesn’t want to deal with it and has instead decided to get another employee to do it because it’s easier or less uncomfortable for them. While I was reading the letter, I expected AAM to address this in her answer. This guy needs to be managed by someone who has the authority to set deadlines and goals for him and to fire him if he can’t do the job. The OP isn’t this guy’s manager, and it shouldn’t be up to her to deal with this “sticky situation.”

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s absolutely possible that this is what’s going on, and if it’s really the case that the manager just doesn’t want to deal with the problem and has pushed it off onto the OP rather than doing his/her own job, then the OP does need to firmly push back. (Here’s a previous post about exactly that situation: https://www.askamanager.org/2009/03/being-asked-to-fix-coworker.html )

      However, it’s also not uncommon to have a “team lead” or something like that, where the person doesn’t have managerial authority but is responsible for the sort of things the OP described. The key there, though, is keeping the manager in the loop about any problems, and escalating things to the manager to handle when first-level feedback hasn’t worked.

  7. Hannah*

    ““You know, I’m no doctor, but it sounds a lot like ADHD or something similar. Would it be worth getting checked out for that to see if there’s a simple way to tackle it?””

    I think this is a really bad idea. If someone said this to me I would be extremely offended. He might be sure he doesn’t have ADHD, and interpret it as you saying he is so bad at his job that he must be disabled. He might also be actively avoiding seeking treatment for something, and be in denial about it. Either way I really doubt his response would be positive.

    1. fposte*

      In some cases, sure. But this is a case of somebody who’s seriously risking being fired, and who probably will be if nothing changes. He *is* that bad at his job, and if he’s in treatment, it’s not working. I’d rather give one possible avenue a try than have nothing but failure and termination, even at the risk of somebody’s being offended.

    2. Joey*

      I agree with Hannah on this. Everyone in the office tries to be the doctor and diagnose medical conditions they have no business even attempting to diagnose. And I couldn’t tell if Alison was suggesting this but it’s even worse to blindly suggest to his supervisor that he may have a medical condition. Stick to the performance and attempt to solve those problems. If he raises a medical condition that’s making it hard for him to do his job he should be directed to HR or his boss. It’s reckless to diagnose co workers with no credible evidence. If he brings up attention problems or whatever just tell him he probably should go see a doctor.

    3. Anon*

      “…If someone said this to me I would be extremely offended. He might be sure he doesn’t have ADHD, and interpret it as you saying he is so bad at his job that he must be disabled…”

      Unfortunately, it has come to this because he IS so bad at his job that we ARE thinking he must be disabled. If this offends him, then maybe he would be less offended by being fired for incompetence.

    4. Anon*

      I agree with Hannah. I wouldn’t get into suggesting someone has a disability; talk about offensive and a tad too confident in your ability to diagnose. It could very well likely be the person sucks at *that* particular job vs. having a disability that can make them ineffective in all jobs and different aspects of life. Don’t do it OP. If the person is offended enough they can even tell your bosses. Sure they may be thinking the same but I can’t imagine they would see you in a good light.

    5. Charles*

      Agreed! Suggesting that someone has a medical condition when they didn’t ask for your input IS offensive.

      Sorry, AAM, but such a suggestion is off limits; and it is off limits not just for the co-worker, but also for a manager. AAM, Don’t you always say focus on the issue? The issue is his getting or not getting the quality/quantity of work done – not whether he has a “condition.”

      Don’t play doctor if you’re not one.

      (sorry for the rant – I guess I didn’t take my “bitchy pills” today)

  8. A suggestion*

    As his editor or lead, are you able to help him break his work into manageable steps so you can give feedback at shorter intervals? Like checking in together after a meeting to compare notes, and planning out a timeline. A starter conversation might be: “For the Jones project, I want to make sure we’re on the same page. Can we spend 5 minutes recapping after today’s meeting, to make sure we heard the same thing?”. Then you have the opportunity to point out where he might have missed crucial details, before he spends hours on the wrong path. Then the recap conversation leads to: “OK, so we need to have a first draft by Friday. We know the key things they’re looking for. Can you walk me through how you’re planning to approach this draft, so I can get my head around the editing flow?” And then you check in with him halfway before the first deadline, to reconfirm that you’re both moving in the same direction.

    If you can coach him through smaller steps, he might be able to master the bigger process more effectively. (I work frequently with a high-performing colleague who has ADHD, and note-taking seems really key for her success.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think this could be a really good way to help, short-term. I’d just caution against it as a long-term plan, because the OP’s job isn’t to be this guy’s manager and she has her own work to focus on. If she has the time, it could be a great thing to try for a few weeks — just not forever.

  9. Christine*

    I don’t have time at the moment to read through the comments, but I am itching to jump in because I can completely relate to this situation, but I was in the shoes of the coworker. I had a job in which I tried really hard–almost TOO hard–to do a good job, and I think I drove everyone nuts, my manager included. I have learning disabilities myself (though different from what’s described in this situation). I only wish I had the intense one-on-one assistance that this gentleman seems to need.

    But yes, I agree with Allison that sometimes, despite all efforts, the person just isn’t the right fit for the job. I would talk to the coworker again, but if that doesn’t help, then go to the manager. I hope it works out for everyone, but it might end up that this isn’t the right job for him. That’s what happened to me in the job I mentioned above.

  10. NDR*

    Have you considered giving him samples of work that meet the criteria for what you want? Having worked in a creative department, I know that requests from business-y/sales clients can get misinterpreted quickly or translate poorly into the lingo of the creative department. I always found that having a sample ad or web page to work from not only helped clarify the client’s expectations, it also helped us keep all of our work product consistent across the team. I admit that I am not always awesome at executing a task that has only been explained to me aloud (I always have to be front and center in excercise classes so I can watch the instructor demonstrate or else I’m like “you want me to put what where?”), but having something in writing or pictures makes it click immediately.

    If you have a piece that exemplifies the language, message, tone – whatever – that you want for each project, you might share it with him and explain to him which parts he should use as a model for his work.

  11. NicoleW*

    I agree with some other posters that you may not want to be direct about if the person has a disability. Especially since you’re the person’s peer, I think there is a way to get the point across without guessing at a diagnosis. “It looks like you’re not paying attention in meetings, is there something getting in the way of your focus?” and “I notice you missed key details on both the Smith and the Anderson campaigns, what happened there?”
    While to us it sounds like the OP’s coaching is the last-ditch effort, if the manager has not made this clear, I wouldn’t resort to the “Do you have ADD?” I think it’s management’s place to tell this under-performer that his job is on the line.

    1. Christine*

      To add to this and other posters about asking if he has ADD – I’m not sure it’s even legal to ask the employee if he has a disability. I know that’s the case in the job application process (e.g. interviews, job applications), but I’m not 100% certain about that in the context of being on the job. I would say that it really falls on the employee himself to self-disclose; otherwise, the employer does not have to make accommodations.

      I was in a rush in my earlier post, and I want to clarify by suggesting that perhaps the OP and the manager could sit down with this person and address the issues, noting that this could put his job in jeopardy if there is no discernible improvement soon. I’m not a manager so I can’t offer any specific strategies, but there has to be some way that this can be done so that he can perhaps open up and say “I should mention that I have ADD” or “You know, I really am struggling here and I’m not sure why”. Definitely a Catch-22.

    2. KellyK*

      I like the way you phrased that. I think it would be much better to bring it up in a generic way rather than suggesting ADHD point-blank. “Something getting in the way of focus” is good because that something wouldn’t have to be ADHD, it could be just about anything.

      1. Nellie*

        Christine – I understand the stickiness of implying someone has a disability who doesn’t, but if he does and has no idea it could be that he’s relieved/grateful that someone planted the possibility in his head so he can seek help. I’m not sure someone who was totally blind to this would say “you know, I really am struggling here” in response to a vague “what happened here? / is something getting in your way?” It might just make him feel worse if the possibility hasn’t occurred to him. Not that the goal is to make him feel better – but if OP suspects that he has a specific disability and he is absolutely not aware of it there may be potential for him to improve that way.

        Then again, if he is aware of it this is a polite entree. It’s a tough call.

  12. Anonymous*

    Is there maybe some small communication problem (on either his or the mangers’ side) that could be easily fixed? It might take a little digging to find, but it could be worth it.

    For example, when I first started at my current position, I would let little task fall through the cracks. That really isn’t like me, and I sometimes felt like my computer was playing tricks on me (e.g. Boss: Did you follow up with John Smith about project X? Me (caught off guard): Project X? I never saw a first email about project X.) Basically, my boss would often bury tasks for me in the body of emails I was cc’ed on (AAM – cld u pls post re: bad tasking), but that did not involve me in any other way. Also, she abbreviated more than a loquacious tween writing her memoirs via twitter.

    So, after picking up on the pattern, we both made a couple of changes–I put a filter on my email to star any emails from her with “key-abbrevs” that indicated a task and I read through seemingly random emails extra thoroughly. She made tasks for me stand out a bit more by putting them in a separate paragraph and started cutting back on the crazy abbreviations.

    Changes like hitting the return key a couple more times and writing ‘could you’ instead of ‘cld u’ were not very disruptive changes (not like sitting down every day and going over a to-do list) but they made a huge difference.

    1. L*

      I think this is a great idea and something that more managers should consider before resorting to micro-managing a struggling employee.

      Of course, this means that the employee has to be aware that there’s a problem and creative enough to think of simple solutions, as you were. That’s not always the case. But I think when managers sense there’s a problem (warranted or not), they tend to quickly jump into “intensive support” mode without first thinking about simpler, more hands-off solutions that might also be effective. The article “The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome” over at the Harvard Business Review is a good primer on why that can be a bad thing for everyone involved:
      http://hbr.org/1998/03/the-set-up-to-fail-syndrome/ar/1

      Of course, some employees *need* to be micro-managed, but this is a good strategy to see if that’s the case.

  13. Anonymous*

    In terms of attention span and not getting the work in that was requested: I wonder if just changing how the work request is given would be helpful. I had an employee once who seemed to always understand what I was asking of her but never could follow through, until I realized she needed something in writing. Then she was just fine and it made a huge difference in her performance. Sometimes remembering people process information differently and trying to find what works can be helpful.

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