how to tell your team their work isn’t good enough

Every manager knows the feeling: Someone turns in a piece of work you assigned, and when you look at it, it’s not the quality you wanted. How do you tell a staff member that work isn’t good enough and needs to be better?

If this isn’t a regular occurrence and is just a one-time happening, you should simply be direct about how your vision for the piece differs from what you received. Treat it as a communication error more than a work quality issue – because if it’s not part of a pattern, that’s the likely explanation anyway. For instance, you might say:

  • “I think this is a good start, but I’d like to tighten up the writing. Right now we’re taking five pages to say whatI think we could say in two. And I think we need to address the broader strategy implications more explicitly. Could you take another run at it? The piece you did last month on X is a great model to use again.”
  • “I’m realizing I didn’t fully communicate what was in my head on this. While this would work for an internal audience, we’ll need to be able to show this to clients and funders. That means it needs to be more ____.”

If you’re regularly seeing an attitude of “it’s good enough” on your staff (or in a particular team member), address it directly. You might say something like this:

  • “I want to talk about the bar we’re aiming to meet in our work. One reason we’re known for being great at what we do is that we work hard to ensure our stuff is better quality than anything else out there. That often means we need to take extra time with it to ___. (Insert whatever’s relevant to your context here, like: test ideas/edit flawlessly/make it easy to understand/align with our branding.) Sometimes work that would be good enough in another company won’t be good enough for us; we really try to stretch for greatness.”

If you can follow this up by pointing to examples of work that did meet that bar, that will usually help people understand what they should be shooting for.

You might also lay out different bars for different types of work: “For emails that are just being circulated internally, it’s fine to write informally and it’s not big deal if you don’t proofread perfectly. But for anything going to the public, we need to be rigorous about writing and proofreading; that’s where mistakes matter and reflect badly on us.”

The important thing in all of these cases is to be direct about how the work is missing the mark and what the bar you’re going for looks like, keeping the focus on the work itself and not the person. (That last part is the difference between “this piece needs to do a better job of communicating with sophisticated audiences” and “your writing is making us sound amateur.”)

{ 95 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Just FYI: I know two of today’s four posts were linked to outside articles, which I know some people don’t love.

    I need to figure out how to schedule these differently so that I’m not doing two on one day. I’ll figure it out!

    Also, while I’m giving FYIs, I know a lot of people have asked after regular commenter Jamie, who’s been gone for a while. She checked back in here on Sunday, in case you missed it:

      1. Bio-Pharma*

        I agree! I personally don’t care which format it comes in… and feel good that those external links means more revenue for you (hopefully).

    1. ArtsNerd*

      Glad for the Jamie update! I hear her on not having time to hang out on AAM, but I do hope she feels open to temporarily morphing into an anonymous teapot designer for advice on her work situation.

    2. puddin*

      Thank you for the link to Jamie’s check in! I did miss and am glad I got the update now.

      Like many others, her humor and insight was missed.

    3. MaryMary*

      I don’t usually read the Sunday open thread, so thanks for the Jamie update! I’m glad she’s okay, just stressed and busy.

    4. Labyrinthine*

      Thank you for the link to the Jamie update. I don’t “know” her, but I wondered where she went sometimes. That is the hard thing about these online communities. Sometimes people just go away and you never really know why. It is nice when they pop in to let us know all is ok and they are just powering through a tough time.

      Oh and also, while I’m not the biggest fan of outside links (for no good reason, really, though) I cannot take it too hard. You post so much here every week that it is hard to get too judgy on your articles you post outside this site!

    5. Jean*

      Thanks for the update. I just posted my gratitude _there_ instead of _here_. (Oy. Awake for 1.5 hours and still not thinking clearly! Never underestimate the cognitive benefits of getting sufficient sleep!)

    6. Aam Admi*

      Alison thanks a lot for posting this link. I read most of the posts in the open thread but somehow missed the one from Jamie.
      Jamie it is good to see you back. Hope you are feeling better soon and the work troubles sort themselves out.

  2. Muriel Heslop*

    Jamie! Yay! Thank you for the update – she has definitely been missed!

    When a manager wants me to change/improve my work, I want specifics. It makes me nuts when the feedback amounts to, “Not that.”

    1. Lanya*

      This. As a creative professional, I sometimes get feedback from clients that they don’t exactly like what I designed, but they can’t tell me what they don’t like about it and just want to see “something different”. This is the most difficult feedback to work with, and usually wastes time because it becomes a guessing game of sorts. I respond by asking a lot of questions to try to get these people to zone in on what they don’t like, and often, the solution is surprisingly simple.

      1. C Average*

        Arrrrgh! Yes. There’s a director in my department who has become notorious for assigning vague projects and then, when presented with drafts, saying, “Hmmmm, this doesn’t quite match my vision . . . ” It’s become a bit of a catchphrase among her underlings. Everyone avoids dealing with her because she can’t enunciate her “vision,” but she’s not hesitant at all to let you know you’ve failed to achieve it and need to try again.

        1. Tris Prior*

          The worst design feedback I’ve gotten from a client: “This needs to look better.” No additional details.

          (no wait, actually, the worst design feedback ever was “What is this crap?” Again, no additional details as to how they would like it de-crappified.)

  3. Dan*

    Understanding the context of things really, really does matter.

    Is this work that was presented as client-ready, or otherwise very near a deadline? Yeah, the bar is high. Or is it “prototype” or “proof of concept” work that shouldn’t be mistaken for a finished product? Usually within a few days of a new assignment, I’ll have a “rough draft” of something for the boss/team to look at to decide if this is really what we want and should continue pursuing. I hate too much criticism at that point, particularly if it’s delivered as “your work really needs improvement.” Yes, I know it’s not perfect. The flip side is that I can take two weeks to develop something more polished, but could totally not be what you want. I just want to make sure I understand the problem!

    The flip side is someone whose work is not up to snuff. At my last job, I was the tech lead on some small teams. On one team, one person’s work was just not up to snuff, and I did everything within my control to help her succeed. She had templates and previous work to model from. It was about a week’s worth of work. If she would have come to me on Day 2 and said, “look what I have.” Or if she would have asked a bunch of clarifying questions, I would have been happy with that too. I don’t think I would have cared. But she was radio silent until Day 4, and it was… insufficient.

    I wrote her an email (she’s a telecommuter, only comes into the office two days a week and worked almost a completely different schedule than me) explaining that her work was deficient and why. I got no response to it. Two days later I had to ask if she even received it. “Yes.” Damn I was frustrated.

    I talked to my immediate supervisor who told me it was my team to manage, and to proceed how I saw fit. At his suggestion, I went to her boss, and outlined the situation. My immediate supervisor and I knew that given the state of the company, that kicking her off the project was likely going to lead to her getting laid off. She just had a second kid too.

    That part is better left for the other thread on laying people off. But suffice it to say, if you’ve made every effort to help a team member improve and they don’t, you feel more frustration than guilt when it’s time to part ways.

    1. James M.*

      When someone makes an unhelpful criticism of my 1st draft, I sometimes say “Yes. You’re a master of the obvious.” and continue with the task at hand. It’s just not a good use of my time to explain that unfinished work requires more work before it’s finished.

  4. Jen RO*

    This is so hard for me, and I usually just sigh and do it myself… while knowing it’s a bad idea. I didn’t even think I was such a control freak…

    1. Clever Name*

      In the words of AAM, “Ack! Don’t do that!” You’re just teaching your team that the bar is low and they’ll get even lazier when they know you’ll just fix it for them. I had a PM who would basically re-write everything I did, so I got in the terrible habit of just not trying that hard because why bother putting your all into something that will get ripped to shreds regardless of how good it actually is?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Also, you are denying them the ability to get better at their jobs and grow professionally! That can have a real impact on them in the future as far as raises, next jobs, etc.

        1. Jen RO*

          I know! But writing is really hard to explain, and I get into a ‘this is not written well’ – ‘but maybe my way is not necessarily the right way’ – ‘but this still doesn’t sound right and it ultimately reflects on me’ – ‘but I can’t articulate a reason outside of my feel for the language’ etc etc. And then they leave at 6 on the dot and I’m rewriting shit at 7.30… yeah I know it’s bad.

          1. Anony-moose*

            I write about 90% of the time (grants) and I’ve had my boss and her boss turn things back into me and just say “write it better.”

            Given, since coming on board 6 months ago I’m working on rewriting and rebranding the way we present ourselves to funders, and usually what is kicked back is the “old” voice, when I pull content from previous proposals. But if they say “this needs to be better/more succinct/snappier/have more rainbows and happy feelings” or even if they just say “make it better” that’s the end of the conversation.

            Ultimately a good writer should be able defend their writing. Otherwise it’s probably not all that good!

          2. fposte*

            So this is your growth moment :-). Yours doesn’t have to be the only right way for you to require it; you still get to ask for things to be that way and to be done consistently. Yeah, it’s hard to explain, but that’s part of the job. You might find it helpful to look at a collection of that person’s work to identify repeated flaws or failure points, and that might help you articulate them better. You also don’t have to discuss everything–focus on the main two or three things that you’d like to see improve, and show them the difference between what they did and what you did in illustration.

            If you were working in English, I’d point you to a few books that might be helpful, but I suspect this is the kind of thing that doesn’t cross linguistic borders.

            1. Jen RO*

              We are working in English actually! (And I like reading books on language just for fun, too.)

              As a note, everyone on my team knows English very well, it’s just style issues I have to deal with. I think I have a very good feel for what sounds right, but I suck at explaining.

              1. Jen RO*

                Also, as an aside, as I said below, many, many things do cross language borders. The hard part is reading about grammar in English (because that’s how I find 99% of my info) and then translating it to plain Romanian for people who probably have no clue what a misplaced modifier means in either language.

              2. fposte*

                For freebies, look through the OWL site at Purdue (just put in OWL and Purdue and it’ll get you there) and check out its many, many handouts–they’re very specific. For instance, under the “Mechanics” section of General Writing, which is likely to be your first stopping place, it discusses Higher and Lower Order Concerns, Sentence Clarity, Transitions and Transitional Devices, Parallel Structure, etc., in addition to stuff like sentence fragments, parts of speech, and other things you probably are already able to identify, and the examples show the difference between a weak version and a revised version, which is brilliant.

                For actual books, I’d go back to The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, because it’s the most enjoyable and amusing approach that I know with clear right and wrong examples. (I’ve never gotten into Eats Shoots and Leaves, though, so if somebody else recommends that one that’s likely worth considering too.)

                1. C Average*

                  Oooooh, this site looks like fun.

                  I didn’t really care for “Eats Shoots and Leaves.” The author came across as unpleasantly arrogant and not as funny as she appears to think she is–the kind of writer who gives pedants a bad name. But the book sold a lot of copies, so YMMV.

                2. mweis77*

                  I recommend the Purdue OWL sites as well. I also use the Dr. Able Scribe guides – particularly for academic formatting.

                3. Editor*

                  I didn’t find Eats, Shoots and Leaves particularly useful.

                  There are still some things I go back to Words into Type for. I really like the section about prepositions.

                  For some NSFW writing advice, go to the Nasty Guide to Nice Writing. The posts on the site ended in 2012, but if you have a secret penchant for vulgar humor and can tolerate what my grandmother called “bad language,” it can be illuminating. (Also, when I just checked the site, it appears that there’s been some wording blacked out. Don’t know when that happened.)


              3. aliascelli*

                My favorite reference book for all things (American) business writing is “Instant-Answer Guide to Business Writing” by Deborah Dumaine. It’s sizeable and organized alphabetically by topic and includes some sample graphics, guidelines for graphs & charts, and other fun stuff.

            2. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

              Yes yes yes. This has been the hardest thing for me to learn as a manager. I need to ask for things to be done to my standard, even if I can conceive of another point of view. And sometimes, just exactly my way.

          3. Jennifer*

            Trying to teach people who don’t write well how to write better is one of the worst things to have to deal with. I am pretty much convinced that some people do not have the knack of “what sounds right” and if they don’t read enough to know what sounds right, then they don’t get it. Writing is incredibly hard to correct for or to get people to do better, especially when “it doesn’t sound right” is about as clear as you can get.

            (This brought to you by a friend of mine who likes writing but NOT reading….and critiquing her work.)

            1. YourCdnFriend*

              I agree. Writing is hard and finding good writers is harder. Sometimes the only solution is to transition the heavy writing needs to team members who do it well or, if absolutely necessary, reconsider the fit of the person in the role.

            2. fposte*

              I’m pushing back on this, because I think identifying the weaknesses in writing is like the writing itself: it’s a skill, and everybody can improve on it. The thing is, a lot of good writers have learned from modeling and practice rather than formal education, so they don’t have the technical skills–but because they know they’re good writers they don’t realize that they possess a significant deficit and don’t think to teach themselves past it.

              1. C Average*

                I agree with this. I’ve had to educate members of my team about parallel construction of bullet points and the proper use of “i.e.” and “e.g.,” and they now use those things correctly when they write. If you explain something, give it a name, and provide a correct and incorrect example, people CAN learn this stuff and get incrementally better at writing. Sure, it’s work their high school English teacher should’ve done, but cursing the most-likely-dead English teacher doesn’t solve the problem.

                1. Jen RO*

                  Thanks, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about (but not only). We are technical writers, so it’s pretty damn important – I can’t blame them though, only one person on my team had prior writing experience.

                  I owe so, SO much of what I do to my secondary school Romanian grammar/lit teacher. Even though the details are different compared to English, he taught me how style rules *make sense* in all languages. (Except for your commas inside parantheses – that’s just wrong.)

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Ah, but C Average, you’re talking about technical things, which I do agree can be taught. But I’m really skeptical that voice, flow, and rhythm can be taught in the amount of time that a manager could reasonably invest in someone.

                1. C Average*

                  True. So true.

                  I’d argue that just as being a good driver means being able to pilot a motor vehicle AND navigate, being a good writer means being able to execute the mechanics AND organize ideas.

                  In both pairs of skills, the second one is way harder to teach, and in some cases flat-out hopeless.

                2. fposte*

                  The ROI time is a key aspect, that’s for sure, and I agree that you can’t create a writerly ear in somebody who doesn’t have one within reasonable managerial time. But a lot of the stuff on the OWL site are things that help quantify “ear”–that good writers do without knowing there are names and rules for them–and if you can turn it into a technical lesson you might at least keep yourself from staying until 7:30 rewriting somebody else’s work.

            3. Alter_ego*

              I cannot write well. I just don’t know how. Many an English teacher has attempted to convey to me how to be better, and it drove them nuts, because I love to read, I’m articulate in person, and in class discussions, I always knew what I was talking about. But apparently reading my essays, it sounds like I’m a totally different, much less competent person. I’m an engineer now, luckily, and the writing I do has some very industry specific conventions that are easy enough to comply with. As long as I’m not asked to write an analysis of the major themes of moby dick, I’m content with my total lack of ability.

              1. fposte*

                Not that you were digging for this or anything, but the paragraph you just wrote was clear and fluid with a demonstrable sense of rhythm. It may be that it’s the expository aspect that throws you or it may be that you just dry under formal circumstances, but when I think of “not writing well” that paragraph is a far cry from what I’m thinking of.

                1. Alter_ego*

                  Thanks! Yeah, luckily, with much less formal stuff like this, I do okay. But I once got an essay back from my high school English teacher (my senior year! I was not a teeny baby freshman), and she had written on it “do you realize you did not once, in this entire paper, actually use the name of the character that the essay is about?” Luckily she let me re-write that one, but I know it drove her nuts, because I obviously was doing the readings and comprehending things, or else I couldn’t have participated in class as fully as I always did. Something about trying to translate it to paper just totally trips my brain up.

            4. CA Admin*

              I totally agree. I’m a pretty good writer, thanks to getting a writing-heavy degree and spending a ton of time reading books, but I’m not a natural at it. If I haven’t been “practicing”, I’ll often end up with weird sentence constructions or incorrect prepositions (on v. in, etc.). It’s a skill that can be developed, but it is hard and takes a ton of practice to sound natural. If it’s something that you’re a “natural” at, you need to practice and/or read a lot or else you start sounding “off” or making stupid mistakes.

              I worked retail after college for about 2 years before I could find an office job. During that time, I wasn’t writing or reading much at work. What little I did read, professionally anyway, was a hot mess of grammatical mistakes and misused words. I did my best to retain my skills, but they definitely degraded. It took a couple of months once I started the new job to get back on track.

              1. CA Admin*

                If it’s not something that you’re a “natural” at**

                Here I go, proving my own point!

          4. YourCdnFriend*

            This is so hard! I used to be an editor and sometimes I would edit something from a writer and then let it sit for a bit (maybe an hour or a day if I had the time). Then, I’d revisit my edits and ask myself, are these critical edits that make the piece better or are they just edits that make me feel better. I’d only send it back with the critical edits.

            I’d also try to come up with broad strokes feedback on some of the bigger issues and call them out specifically with examples.

            1. MaryMary*

              I have a coworker who cannot separate his voice from “good writing.” He complains that our other coworkers are terrible writers, and there are a couple people for whom he’s right, but other times it’s a stylistic difference. I’m sure Hemingway wasn’t crazy about Jane Austen, but that doesn’t mean either was a bad writer. We don’t have a style guide, and frankly, I disagree with some of his style choices (he uses a lot of adjectives, and is oddly fond of italics). He’s told me that he considers me an excellent writer, and he still rewrites 90% of what I send him. I’ve started just sending him bullets, so he can rewrite the content to suit himself.

          5. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Is writing well a key qualification for the role? Because if it is, you might need to hire different people. Teaching people to write well isn’t easy or quick (or possible, in some cases), and it’s not something a manager should be doing with her time.

            1. Jen RO*

              It’s even in the job title! (See above.) The situation isn’t as bad as it sounds, I’ve been training people for a few years and, even though I am pretty sure I’m not very good at explaining what’s in my head, everyone has made huge progress, even the ones that started out as crap (and today’s guy is at least decent). It’s just been a long day and a long year of trying to get a new team off a the ground and also learn about this managing thing. Sorry for venting all over the place.

          6. Wheth*

            I had a manager who did this and it drove me CRAZY. It was so frustrating to see that I’d clearly done something wrong, but not be given the information I needed about why it was wrong, what she’d like to see done differently, or anything else I needed to do better the next time. My anxiety shot through the roof every time I gave her what I hoped was a finished product, because I had no way to tell whether she’d accept it as written or completely rewrite the whole thing. Not to mention, because she didn’t talk to me about her changes, I didn’t have a chance to explain why I’d done something one way and not another–every once in a while I’d have to ask to reverse one of her changes because it disagreed with something another person had requested.

            If you can’t articulate what you want different, try rewriting a small piece of it so at least you can say “more like this please”. Also, it’s totally fine to say, “This is my preference for how things are written, that doesn’t mean it’s The Only Right Way, but when you work on projects with me this is how I want it done.”

            1. Jen RO*

              When I review work, I always use Track Changes or something similar. I just don’t know if it’s an approach that fits everyone…

    2. Exhausted*

      Well, I’m not a manager (thank god) but I do find it easier to end up fixing other pe0ple’s mistakes than telling them when they fuck up. Especially when uh… THERE IS A LOT OF THAT. I have been training older coworkers in an area of expertise for 2 years now and it only gets somewhat kinda better when they are admittedly kinda resistant to learning it.

      I know what it’s like to be picked at and nitpicked and told how everything I’m doing is wrong all the time so I don’t want to do that to others, especially in a job where it’s Very Important That Everyone Like Me And Not Be Actively Against Me. If I told people how many mistakes I found in their work for real, when they get crestfallen and hung down all day if I tell them half the errors I found…god, I can’t take the problems I’d be causing for myself socially here if I told them everything I found that they fucked up. Especially when as far as I can tell 90% of the errors boiled down to “was lazy and didn’t bother to look it up.” Or possibly “did not hit save button.”

      They’re also ah…older than I am (I’m the obnoxious whippersnapper on their level, which is another tightrope to walk), we’re all in jobs where there is no advancement anyway, and one of them is nearing retirement. “Can’t get other jobs in the future” and “raises” aren’t actually factors here–the only factor is that every time someone finds a problem it ends up going to me to fix anyway.

      What it boils down to is that there more emotional drama and turmoil on me to correct them every time than there is benefit to having them “learn from their mistakes.” Especially after 2 years of training and my boss doing her best to nag them. I do not have the emotional wherewithal to keep fighting this battle “for their own good.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        The issue here sounds like these people need their manager (who isn’t you) to address this as a real performance problem, and probably replace them if they don’t make significant improvements. Have you told your boss that it’s at the point where you’re spending significant time fixing their mistakes and haven’t seen any evidence that they’re equipped to do the job at the level required?

        1. Exhausted*

          Replacement isn’t an option either (hiring freeze). And to be fair, they’re good at everything else at work except that one thing so it’s not worth a firing over.

          I think my boss is aware that they slack at the job and she’s seen some of the errors when someone complained to her directly or to the group e-mail. And we’ve had a few conversations about it privately. But I’m not going to be super flat out blunt about “No, seriously, there are tons of errors all the @#@%$#@ time because they still can’t be bothered to proofread this” beyond that. Because if I do, then she will have me tell them every single time to fix their mistakes and how, and that leads back to how I don’t want to have to be the front line naggy bitch always telling them they’re wrong. It unfortunately would be easier to have me do it than to have her do it, and I don’t want to encourage that.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Someone needs to have a conversation with them about the pattern, not the individual mistakes. If your manager won’t do that, the problem is actually your manager much more than it is your coworkers!

            1. Wheth*

              Or, perhaps it’s simply going to be part of Exhausted’s job to correct their mistakes, along the lines of having one person in the office designated to be a proofreader. If Exhausted’s manager is okay with the time being spent on this and it’s not interfering with other parts of Exhausted’s job, then maybe it’s just something that’s worth doing as a support for people who are pretty good at the other parts of their jobs.

      2. Jules*

        It could also be the way you bring it to their attention. As an impatient person myself, I have learned to take a step back, deep breathes and think about what I want to convey to them. Focus on the work and not the person. There is a way to convey the msg without getting people’s back up or feeling down. Tailor your approach to individuals. And as a person who do get emotionally attached to my work, I might feel ‘unhappy’ about the feedback for a day or so, but this is a learning curve. If it’s not said, I don’t improve. I do really appreciate coworkers and managers who take time to tell me how I could do it better.

  5. Clever Name*

    Ouch. Yes, this feedback is really tough to hear. In my experience, having the full context is immensely helpful. Sometimes I’ll design spreadsheets that are just for internal consumption that will be plugged into other things. Sometimes the spreadsheet itself will be part of a report and needs to look polished, complete with headers and footers and needs to look good when converted to pdf. If I don’t know a spreadsheet’s intended audience, I may produce one I assume is for internal consumption and will thus be sub-par by the standards of it needing to go to a client.

  6. Kai*

    I get prickly at “we” statements when I know the work is solely my responsibility. People in my department do that a lot when they want me to fix something (“could we change this part to XYZ?”), and I completely get why–it softens the request, makes it feel more collaborative, and doesn’t sound so much like they’re commanding me. But it’s still something I notice.

    1. YourCdnFriend*

      Oooh. I think I do this sometimes. I’m going to start paying attention because I can see how that can be irritating.

      But, I bet for some it’s more comforting. Hmmmm. Now I’m thinking hard on this one..

      1. Kai*

        I think it does matter who you’re talking to, but more so for what the project is. When I’m in marketing meetings and we’re kicking around ideas, “Could we do A instead of B?” doesn’t bother me so much because we’re all kind of in it together, even if one person in particular has to do the actual work later on.

        When it’s just my boss who needs me to change some work I already did on my own, I feel like: yes, I’m responsible for this work, and I don’t need to be hand-held through the process of changing it or fixing a mistake. I can own that.

    2. the_scientist*

      So, my old boss did this ALL THE TIME and it really rubbed me the wrong way. Was that unreasonable of me? It’s one thing when you’re talking to a team of people, but my boss would do this when something was my sole responsibility- or even worse, when it was no one’s responsibility! It just strikes me as so passive-aggressive! Like, please just tell me that you’d like me to do this thing and when it needs to be done by. I’m a conscientious employee, I’ll make sure it gets done, but don’t use the passive-aggressive mom voice at me.

      1. jillociraptor*

        I really don’t like it either. It feels like being treated with kid gloves. I’m a professional adult person; I can definitely take it if you think I need to do something differently. Typically, I take feedback really, really well; but it’s in situations like this (and also the dreaded “walk me through your process” interrogation when there’s just simple, clear feedback you want to give) that I get frustrated.

        Interestingly, the WORST offender of the we-statement I’ve ever had was my high school voice teacher. There’s something super weird about hearing “Our voice is falling flat at the passaggio today” or “We need to breathe from our diaphragm to maintain this run.”

    3. Kyrielle*

      “Could we do this?” is the sort of language you use with children. It’s not collaborative…it’s patronizing. If “we” are going to do this, it’s collaborative. If it’s a “join with me” way of saying “Could you do this?” then it’s patronizing. (And I suspect the kids it is used on think so too.)

      1. C Average*

        Thank you! Yes.

        (I always picture my dad, who is kind of a redneck, saying, “Who’s the ‘we,’ white man?” He IS a white man, and I think it’s some catchphrase from a TV show he watched as a kid. He used to say it whenever someone used “we” when they really meant “you.”)

        1. 22dncr*

          I think that’s from the Lone Ranger. Not that I watched it and then told my father that I wanted to live in “the real west” when we lived in Texas surrounded by ranches – no, not me.

          1. C Average*

            Thank you! I suppose this information would have been a Google search away, but I always just kind of filed it under “weird shit my dad says” and then more or less forgot about it until the next time I got we-ed.

        2. MaryMary*

          I got called out on the “we” thing when I was a young manager, by a woman who looked at me and said, “What’s this ‘we’ sh*t, kemosabe?”

          I was speechless. It was also not entirely fair, because I a) talking to another coworker, not her, and b) speaking about something we actually were going to do together. But I’ve never forgotten the comment, and I’m much more aware of using we.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think it’s project-dependent though. If I’m working on a project jointly with someone (say, writing a piece with them), “we” seems to fit. It’s ours, not theirs.

        1. MaryMary*

          Yes, there have been some ruffled feathers in my office when an executive uses “I” when talking about a project to which many contributed. In fact, the exec probably contributed less than several other people.

    4. CrazyCatLady*

      I’m not a fan of this approach either. I recently made a minor mistake, and asked about it, and my boss was like “Yes, it looks like we did XYZ…instead of ABC.” and to clarify, I asked “So I did ABC?” and she said, “Yeah I think that’s what we did.” I get that you’re trying to be nice about it, but in an instance like that, when it was clearly me who made the mistake, it just sounds weird trying to soften it.

    5. Jessie's Girl*

      Same here, and I’m getting more of these “can we do x, y and z?” for things that are someone else’s responsibility because it’s easier to ask me. At this point, I’m starting to feel like my boss is taking advantage and everyone else feels they can do so as well because Mrs. Jessie can get it done.

    6. Jules*

      Interesting. I deliberately don’t use ‘I’ in a lot of my correspondence/communication.

  7. Workfromhome*

    Sometimes work is not up to snuff.
    Just as often the requirements aren’t clear or worse change part way through.
    Also managers need to take a really hard look at whether the work is “not good enough” or deficient in some way or if the reality is that its just “different’; from the way the manager would do it .

    Different doesn’t mean wrong. Being a manager doesn’t necessarily mean you are the subject matter expert that the person doing the work is. I find it infuriating to do work that multiple other experts review, agree is great only to have the final product revised, changed and maybe even degraded because its not exactly the way the manager would do it or doesn’t 100% agree with their own personal point of view.

    Give good employees the task. let them do it. As long as it appears professional and is well researched and supported don’t change it just so you can say you managed them.

    1. the_scientist*

      I work with a lot of academics and this happens ALL THE TIME. I think it’s especially common with writing (whether reports or academic) because everyone has their own style and voice. Many academics seem convinced that their style is the one true way to write. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve spent hours on a piece, often working overtime to produce high-quality content, only to have it basically re-written by an academic because they feel like it’s “not quite there yet” but can’t give me any specifics on how to get the writing to the level they want (really, the answer is they wanted to just write it themselves/ for me to be able to mind-read).

  8. Artemesia*

    The ‘bar setting’ conversation is really important. I was spoiled by having an assistant on a difficult project who produced first rate draft work for me, so that I could use her work with minor edits if it were a writing product, or make use of it without further research if the purpose was to brief me. Then the next person I got seemed to have her thermostat set permanently at C-. She would produce shoddy ‘only it is just a first draft’ work that was almost useless. With people like this, it is important to make very clear what the standard is you are looking for and not just assume they know. Many can meet the standard if it is clear and if they can’t, then you know they need to be let go.

  9. C Average*

    What if you’re the employee and the work IS the best you can do?

    My team and I have been on the other end of the occasional “I need you to step it up” speech, and we’ve always stepped it up. I actually really value these speeches. They’re a rebuke, but they’re also a pep talk. When someone says “I have faith that you can do better,” I really want to match that expectation.

    But there are times when I’m asked for something I can’t deliver. Last spring, my manager told me she needed me to be more engaged and more vocal in the meetings with our digital agency about the redesign of the graphic interface of the website for which I write content. I’m a copywriter. I don’t have a trained eye or a particularly good one. I could’ve shot off my mouth in the meeting, but my input would not have been helpful. To be brutally honest, I sincerely can’t tell the difference between the old website and the new one. They look the same to me. I’m a really good copywriter, but I am completely oblivious to graphic design.

    At what point–and how–do you communicate to your manager, “This is not in my skill set or my wheelhouse or my job description, and if you need better work than what I’m doing in this area, you need to find someone who actually has training and affinity for this kind of work?”

    (My employer is kind of famous for treating employees like Swiss Army knives, leveraging any and all skills we have and some that we don’t. It’s often fun, but it sucks when we really do bash up against our true limits.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m a fan of just being direct and saying basically what you’ve said here. I’ve said something like this:

      “I want to be transparent that this is very much not my area of expertise. I’ll give it a shot, but I don’t feel confident that I’m equipped to do it at the level that we need or that you’re describing, and I’m hesitant to commit to handling well when it’s so outside my wheelhouse.”

      I’ve also said:

      “I’ll be honest — this is not an area of work that I really like or would be happy making a major focus of my time. I can definitely pinch-hit in the short term, but I want to be candid with you that it’s not something I want to do more than on an interim basis.”

      1. C Average*

        Thanks! I like this. Pinch-hitting is a great way to phrase it, especially in a culture like ours, where sports metaphors are everyone’s go-to.

  10. The Other Dawn*

    This was a great article. Luckily my new team is pretty great and I haven’t had anything come through that is “good enough,” but if it did I know I would struggle with what to say. Thanks for the examples!

  11. AnotherHRPro*

    I would add that if you have seen a recent change in the quality of an employees work you should ask what is going on. Acknowledge that you are seeing a change and try to find out from them what is behind it. Maybe they have competing priorities that does not enable them to put the time and effort in.

  12. Moe*

    #2 work at home should be policy not doled out at whim bad management just plain old favoritism

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