how do I tell an employee he doesn’t have what it takes to do the job he wants?

A reader writes:

I’m in a tricky spot with a long-time employee of mine, “Bob,” and I need advice on how to deliver a potentially devastating piece of feedback: “You just don’t have what it takes to succeed in this role.”

Back story:

Bob is interested in growing from his current position (let’s say teapot painting) into a teapot spout design manager role. He has studied spout design for about two years now, including reading several books and taking a few training courses, all paid for by the company. He’s been provided a few mentors, some inside the company and some through a network of industry contacts.

Bob has been given oversight of several small design projects as part of his learning process. He works hard, but there are a few problems that we keep coming back to, including a lack of communication skills — he frequently mishears or misunderstands initial design requirements, which means that he spreads misinformation and leaves the rest of the team playing catch-up when the correct information filters through – and a completely misguided sense of urgency. For example, a non-urgent request was tacked on toward the end of Bob’s current project. It was made clear when the request was sent that it was out of scope for our current targets, but that it should be addressed by the end of next quarter. Bob immediately rounded up several team members, phrased this as an urgent request, and asked them to step away from their current tasks to ensure that this request was completed within the week. I received several confused and panicked questions from team members asking for additional resources, overtime, and so on.

Bob struggles to receive feedback, even mild course corrections. Each coaching session, no matter how focused on concrete, actionable requests, leads to a spiral of anxiety, depression, and irritability, which ends up impacting the team. Bob has damaged relationships to the point that a few coworkers refuse to work with him or even acknowledge him without me signing off on the legitimacy of his requests. Plus, the mistakes Bob makes as he learns are sucking up so much of my time and energy that I’m not completing other tasks such as developing other employees or growing my own skills in any of my functional areas.

Bottom-line: as eager as Bob is to learn this role and develop his skills, he’s bad at this stuff. A few of his coworkers have picked up a more solid understanding of the fundamentals of spout design simply by spending time in meetings with Bob than Bob himself has acquired. He lacks many of the innate skills that anyone who wants to work effectively in this role require, including communication, time management, and collaboration. He’s willing to train in these areas but hasn’t shown any improvement, and I spend many hours per week clarifying his messages and dealing with conflicts he’s created among his coworkers over what are essentially extra credit assignments. That, plus the inability to respond professionally to feedback makes me think that he’s fundamentally unsuited for this role.

My company won’t spend more resources on Bob, and individuals who had previously offered to mentor him implied that teaching him is kind of a waste of time. So how do I tell Bob that this is not a role he can excel at, at least in our company? How do I say, kindly but truthfully, “I’ve stuck my neck out for you as far as I’m willing and unfortunately, you just don’t measure up. Find another goal”?

Yeah, unfortunately just wanting to do a particular job doesn’t mean someone will be well suited to do that job. It sounds like you and your company have taken Bob’s interest seriously and invested significant resources in helping him gain the skills he’d need for the job he wants — and it’s just not working. That’s okay. That’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just how it goes sometimes.

Hopefully you and the people who have been mentoring Bob have been giving him feedback all along, so this won’t be the first time he’s hearing that there are problems with his work. (If not, this is a harder conversation — and you’d want to resolve to change that for everyone you manage going forward — but it can still be done.)

The best thing you can do is to be direct with Bob. Sit down with him and say this: “I want to talk about where we are with your interest in spout design. I know you’ve worked hard to build expertise, and I appreciate the energy you’ve put into training and working with mentors. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing the skill level we’d need to see to move you into a design role. We’re at the limits of what we can invest in training you, and we’re at the point where I need to move those resources to other projects. I think you’re a great painter and I’m happy to have you stay in your current role, but I want to be up-front with you that I can’t keep you on a training path for spout design any further.”

Bob may have questions — answer them as honestly as you can — and he may be upset or defensive. You noted that he’s traditionally struggled to receive feedback, and that it often leads to “a spiral of anxiety, depression, and irritability,” so I’d expect that to be the case here as well. Being irritable with team members post-feedback really isn’t okay — and I really, really wish you’d addressed that with him earlier on, because it’s not ideal to to address it for the first time right after what might be the biggest blow to him of all. But you do need to step in if he’s rude or irritable with people; that’s not okay and you can’t let him subject colleagues to that. He can be disappointed or upset, but he does need to treat people respectfully while he works through this.

Speaking of other things that I wish we had a time machine for: It’s great that you invest in employees and try to help them meet their own goals. But two years of investing your own time without much payoff, letting it bump other important priorities, and letting Bob damage relationships with people is too long. I’m curious about why this was the priority — versus developing other people and investing your time in other projects — and why Bob was allowed to cause the sort of problems he’s caused. It sounds like you might struggle to set boundaries with employees (any chance you’re a people pleaser, or someone who avoids having tough conversations?) and if that’s been the case here, it’s probably not limited only to Bob. It’s worth taking a look at how that might be playing out in your management more broadly — in particular, what the impact of all this investment in Bob has been on your other staff members and whether there are other tough conversations/decisions you’ve put off too long.

One other thing: It’s possible that Bob will ultimately end up leaving your company over this. If that happens, that’s not a sign that you somehow failed. This might be the nudge that Bob needs to realize he’s not going to meet his goals there, and that’s okay. Or he might just want to try pursuing them in a different context, and that’s okay too. Your obligation isn’t to make this work out for everyone (you probably can’t do that) — just to be direct and straightforward with him about what he can and can’t expect at your company, so he can make good decisions for himself.

{ 226 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Kes

    It’s also not clear to me from this whether Bob actually is good at his current role. A lot of these problems sound like things that would cause issues in a lot of roles (misunderstanding requirements, spreading misinformation, being unable to accept feedback). If Bob really is good at his current job and it’s only in his growth job that he is struggling, you can just pull him back to his current role, but if he has these kind of problems in his current position as well you may need to set very clear expectations and put him on a PIP if he doesn’t improve. It’s great that you want to support and grow your people, but as Alison says, that isn’t the only priority or necessarily the top one.

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    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I’m totally puzzled there, too. It doesn’t sound like he’s good at his normal job. It doesn’t sound like he’s even mediocre at it. And if that’s the case, I don’t understand why he’s still there.

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      1. cmcinnyc

        It sounded to me like his current role is one where he takes direction and produces something, but he wants a position that requires *giving* direction and managing a team. It’s possible to be good at the first and hopeless at the second.

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        1. BeautifulVoid

          This. Also, I may be reading too much into the fictional job titles, but it might also be that his current role is very structured, sort of rote work that never deviates from current procedures, while what he wants to do is more creative and open-ended. I’m definitely not saying that one of those jobs is more important than the others, because that’s not the case, but there are some people who only excel in the former. (And while some people are happy doing those types of jobs forever, it’s also understandable when someone wants to move on.)

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          1. Hapless Bureaucrat

            That’s how I read it. I had an employee like this. Satisfactory at doing their own job, hopeless at strategic thinking or directing others. Unfortunately they’d been given a “growth” role before I got there.

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      2. RUKiddingMe

        And I wonder how many other people’s development were short changed with all this time and investment in one guy for *two years.*

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        1. Washi

          Yeah, this was the most concerning thing to me – that the effort to be fair to Bob and give him all these chances has resulted in what sounds like a lot of unfairness to other employees. The OP acknowledges that she spent less time developing other employees as a result of pouring all this time into Bob.

          OP, it might help to remember that development isn’t a favor to the employee and their interests. Some of it is about retention, sure, but it’s also about the company making an investment in their people and reaping the rewards of improved talent pipeline and other skills. And like any investment, if there are strong indications that it will never pay off, you have to stop throwing money at it!

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        2. LegalBeagle

          Yes. They’re going to lose good employees over this. Seeing the company investing so heavily and for so long in Bob *at the expense of others* would have me job-searching for sure.

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        3. Frustrated Today

          Yup, this is pretty much the type of situation I walked into in my new job. In order to help one of my direct reports grow and set him on a career path (read: keep him happy), they basically made him a manager; let him get a certification that, while it pertains to the department subject matter, really does nothing for him since he doesn’t want that path (!!); budgeted for another certification he won’t use (!!!!); gave him some auditing-type tasks in an area of the department he no experience in; and is now advocating for him to be trained as a backup on an important task (I actually agree this is a great one for him) when he can’t even get his own job done because he’s overloaded (we’re working on that). He’s great at his current job…when he can get to everything, but it completely baffles me that they did all these things in the name of helping him grow and to keep him happy, and had him get those certifications, when he’s made it known he doesn’t even want that path. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against anyone learning and growing, but some of the things they’ve done just don’t make sense. And me having to manage this person more than anyone else because of the huge workload and his reluctance to let *anything* go, even the most mundane task, isn’t fair to the other team members.

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        4. AKchic

          I have to wonder if Bob is actually considered really good in his regular role and that is coloring things.

          I’ve known people that were considered great in their original roles. Very rigid guidelines (sometimes they even wrote the guidelines, which helped make them such rock stars in that arena), set roles, patterns, and very little interactions with outside people. Clear delegation of work, definition of timelines, and only communicating with a few people. That’s it.
          Until they get bored. It happens. There’s nothing wrong with that. Until they decide the thing they want to do is more than they really *can* do. More than their personality can handle. It requires more flexibility, more interpersonal skills, more creativity just *something* that the person doesn’t have. It’s not a bad thing, per se, but it is a bad thing for that person if they want to be moving into that role.

          The bigger problem is the encouragement from a favorite manager who seems to be blind to the employee’s faults and continues to encourage them to reach for this new role based on their rock star status in the old role. The hypothetical encouraging manager will need to be let down as much as Bob, y’know?
          Of course, that’s only if there is a manager somewhere, encouraging Bob to shoot for the stars.
          Either way, wasting two years on someone is really a bad look. If I were getting passed over for training and advancement opportunities because of Bob, I’d be looking elsewhere.

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      3. Imaginary Number

        I’m dealing with a similar situation right now. Someone can be super awesome and a well defined role and completely fall apart when it comes to anything with ambiguity. My coworker is an engineer who for his whole career up until this point has entirely focused on doing analysis for other engineers. He’s amazing at that, but the work he’s doing is literally taking something someone else has designed and giving them results. He can’t move upwards in that area alone and has to learn how to design, something I’ve been asked to coach him on. But he struggles because the work isn’t the type of thing that’s 100% defined for him. He has to prioritize problems, make assumptions, and communicate those things to other coworkers, something he simply will not do. My point is, you can be really good at a specific technical job and awful at anything broader than that.

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    2. Antilles

      I mean, it’s possible that his current role doesn’t have nearly as much impact from these sort of requirements – If you’re a staffer rather than the manager, understanding client requirements often isn’t part of it because the manager has already filtered through the client’s vague requests into a decently written scope before junior staff get it; a junior staffer isn’t getting tons of direct questions so has less chance to spread misinformation; etc. There are plenty of flaws which aren’t necessarily relevant as a junior staff which get magnified when you’re suddenly the point person running things.
      It’s also entirely possible that these problems already existed in his current role but got handwaved away as fixable when they really weren’t.
      Definitely something OP should think through though.

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    3. That Girl From Quinn's House

      I have worked with a Bob, and the main reasons we kept investing in Bob were that he was dependable in his initial job, when we struggled to find dependable employees and were consistently short on staff, and Bob was getting frustrated and burned out being kept in the lower role and passed over for promotions, and we needed to keep Bob happy if we were going to retain him in his initial role.

      I know we like to think of the “ideal” workplace where lower-end performers can be replaced with better performers, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, your company’s place in the economic pecking order is such that an employee who shows up every day to occupy their post is the best you can get, and you need to work to retain that person.

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      1. Busy

        But see, that is what you called a calculated risk. You know Bob is not suited, but you are going in knowing that and can prepare for it. The issues arise when employers don’t realize that, could have had better people, and just didn’t. Knowing Bob is not the best can mean mitigating a lot of fall-out or even changing around the role a bit. It is strategic due to circumstances.

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      2. Richard Hershberger

        Yup: the Peter Principle. Most people are neither omni-competent nor omni-incompetent. They are good at some things, and bad at others. Put them to work on stuff they are good at, and they do just fine.

        After all, Michael Scott from The Office was promoted to regional manager because he was a great salesman.

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        1. Julia

          That’s not what the Peter Principle means, I think? I thought it meant people getting promoted for competence until they get promoted to a role they don’t excel at, but end up stuck in, which is why you end up with higher-ups not good at their roles.

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          1. Emily K

            Yes, I’ve always heard it as, “People rise to the level of their incompetence.” I think you can read it both ways – a statement about workplace dynamics (we see this consistently happening – the way I’d thought of it) or an acknowledgment that competence is stratified across many levels (people have levels of competence both above and below them).

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          2. Clisby

            You are correct. As opposed to the Dilbert Principle, created by Scott Adams, which says incompetent people get promoted into management because that’s where they can do the least damage. (Adams once wrote, probably partly tongue-in-cheek, that the Peter Principle wasn’t as bad because at least you knew the person once had been competent at something.)

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      3. CupcakeCounter

        That is where my husband is right now with his company. They are at the point where just showing up for more than 3 months is grounds for a bonus and small raise.

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      4. Katertot

        I’ve worked with a Bob as well. This individual was great at her original job. She was very knowledgeable, wonderful with customers, and could really shine at that position. However, she really wanted to move up. Rather than simply telling her she was not well suited to management and other projects (she wasn’t, similar to Bob), management would give her responsibilities she wasn’t capable of performing well, or make promises and then move the goalpost.

        It’s not only a kindness to your other employees and yourself, but also to Bob to be honest with him about his prospects for advancement in this role.

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        1. WS

          Yes, me too. She was amazing at working with (very difficult and stressed) customers and problem-solving on the spot. Unfortunately, she was terrible at forward planning or directing others, possibly because she assumed that she’d be able to solve the problem later rather than plan ahead so that there was no problem. She eventually transferred into a role where she was dealing with complaints (a difficult position!) and writing reports about possible solutions but not having to implement them herself, and that worked very well.

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    4. MissDisplaced

      It is entirely possible Bob does fine in his current role. Many roles are as a contributor, and they simply require that one does the necessary work they are asked/told to do, which may not require a lot of additional critical thinking and decision making or communication skills. There’s nothing wrong with that! These are the (oftentimes) fortunate people who leave work at 5 and leave work at work! Many employees are perfectly fine with that role and their place. But obviously, Bob is not fine with it and wants more.

      I used to manage a Bob. My Bob didn’t really want to move up so much as he wanted more money. But this was not going to be the case in the role he was in, as there was no upward path for his department and role. He got fairly disgruntled about that, but I couldn’t give him raises for not improving anything outside of small COL’s.
      I wonder if money is the main motivator in this case as well… although the guy did seem to really be TRYING to better himself.

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      1. Hey Karma, Over here.

        Exactly. Bob does one thing well. OP never had to give him negative feedback. Coworkers never had to get instructions from him. Now that they have, they realize that Bob does one thing well. Time to let Bob know.

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      2. TootsNYC

        I’ve often thought it too bad that corporations DON’T pay more money to a Bob in his lower role.

        He’s valuable; he’d be hard to replace. Why couldn’t a staffer make more than a manager? A staffer is the one producing the results.

        I worked on a magazine that sort of had this problem w/ the corporate HR folks. They had reporters who were ace–got great scoops, etc. But those reporters didn’t want to be editors, and they wouldn’t be good as editors. HR didn’t like the idea of a reporter earning more than the editor who supervised them. Our EiC really had to argue to get a salary that would retain his top reporting talent. And the reporting talent was WAY more important to the bottom line than the editing talent was.

        It’s sort of like professional sports–you might pay your players more than your coaches or managers. Because they have specialized skills that are valuable, and they are the ones doing the actual work.

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        1. Working Mom Having It All

          Yeah, this is one of those situations where, if we had something like a functional cost of living related minimum wage , or a Guaranteed Minimum Income, and generally, if you had a full time job doing just about anything, you could actually make a living/be fairly comfortable, I don’t think we would have problems like this. A lot of people are struggling just to make ends meet, and they feel like if only they could transition to In Demand Area X or Management Position Y, they’d be good. But what if material comforts weren’t tied to that, and everyone was just good?

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          1. Asenath

            I don’t think it would solve the problem; different people are happy with different levels of material comforts, and even if you can live comfortably by my standards on a teapot-painter’s income, you will still want to be teapot designer (and get the higher income associated with it) in order to live comfortably by your own standards.

            And, of course, as so many people have discovered, it’s not at all unusual for someone to have a passion for some field, but lack the basic ability to excel it in – the people who can produce things but want to create new things, the people who are best dealing with small numbers of people on an individual basis, but who want to go into management, the people who want to be really great at singing or dancing or a sport, but were born without the necessary physical gifts…at least that third group can sometimes divert their interest into hobby level activities, but on the job, really, people need to be informed when things aren’t working out. And yes, if it’s a case of someone having to realize that their dream ambition isn’t going to work out, it’s going to be bad. But continuing to try to train them isn’t a good solution.

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            1. Emily K

              There’s actually been a bit of research into income and self-reported happiness, and they found that more income was correlated with increased self-reported happiness, up until something like $70,000 a year. Above that, the correlation weakens and the relationship disappears. Which suggests that once people have enough money that their basic needs are met without worry, exactly how much they’re making doesn’t matter enough to a large enough number of people to show up in the stats.

              I make a reasonably comfortable living and I don’t worry about paying my bills, but I still have debt (the “good kind,” a mortgage and home equity loan), I still have to budget carefully, save up for large purchases, delay repairs until I can afford them, etc. And I’ve given a lot of thought to the trade-offs involved in being promoted to the next level above where I currently am, which is probably my only realistic path to getting more than cost of living increases for the rest of my career (I’m in my mid 30s), and I decided I’m not interested. I’d love to make more money – who wouldn’t! – but it turns out that as long as I don’t have bills I can’t pay, there comes a point where more money isn’t worth as much to me as not being on call 24/7 and not having to give my personal cell phone number to tons of business contacts and not having to spend half my day managing people instead of working on content projects – the money isn’t worth what it would cost me.

              Incidentally, $70,000 is also roughly the median household income in the US. Which means about 50% of households are in the part of the scale where making less money decreases happiness, because not being able to pay your bills is stressful and not fun. Those are the people who are going to especially feel like they have to push themselves to the next level even if the aren’t very good at it, because the money is worth more than what it costs them, and they’re about half the working population. I would be willing to bet that a significant chunk of them – not all, but a lot – would give up on the promotion idea if you just paid them $70,000 for their existing job.

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              1. animaniactoo

                I think you’re reading that stat wrong – if $70k is roughly the median for household income, that includes combined incomes in a household and therefore even MORE people are making less than $70k individually. If the $70k is a salary threshold for self-reported happiness and NOT a combined income threshold than it’s probably closer to 75% of people are in households where happiness decreases.

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              2. Anita Brayke

                “but it turns out that as long as I don’t have bills I can’t pay, there comes a point where more money isn’t worth as much to me as not being on call 24/7 and not having to give my personal cell phone number to tons of business contacts and not having to spend half my day managing people instead of working on content projects – the money isn’t worth what it would cost me.”

                This! That’s exactly it! Thanks, Emily K!

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            2. TardyTardis

              When you divorce income from a role, and attach it to a person, we all know that some persons will be more equal than others, whether by last name, gender, skin color, or whatever. (although this is why women do seem to be concentrated in lower level roles by a lot of companies, too).

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          2. Jasnah

            I agree with your point but I think it’s a little off from what TootsNYC is saying.
            The issue is not “do the reporters/peons feel like they have to move up in order to live”
            it’s “does the salary hierarchy have to align with the reporting hierarchy, or can we reward people differently based on the characteristics of their job, how hard they are to replace, etc.?”

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        2. Bunny

          I think part of this is a widespread management problem and the dreaded question “Where do you see yourself in X years here?” in which the answer “I like my job, I hope making more money at it?” is absolutely wrong.

          It is great that a lot of people are very career oriented and seek out larger and more difficult roles, it keeps our organizations humming. Some of us however have satisfying, intellectually challenging jobs that we are very good at and are more than happy not to manage dozens of people and millions of dollars as long as we can maintain a comfortable standard of living going forward.

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    5. hbc

      Others covered the fact that the requirements might be different, but even if he’s doing a lot of the same things as a Design Manager, some people can kind of lose their minds when they’re in charge. Not in the “power corrupts” way, just in a “oh, crap, this is all on me” way. He can read an email as a Teapot Painter and realize that this is a low-key request and someone will tell him if it’s not. That same email as a Design Manager and he doesn’t register the “not a rush” part because he’s all “here’s something else to do, and I’m being judged on how well I juggle everything, panic!!!”

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      1. cmcinnyc

        Yeah, some people hear *any* request as urgent if it’s coming from the boss, even if the boss keeps repeating “not urgent, can wait, next week, whatever.” This does not impress the boss.

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    6. MommyMD

      Sounds like they would be better off if Bob left. You can hire a proficient employee without all the hassle and personality drama. This is dysfunctional.

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    7. Working Mom Having It All

      Yeah, I can’t tell if the example “teapot design” is confusing me because it sounds like something related to getting a certain qualification or learning technical skills you either have or don’t (as in, you can’t just “want” to be a designer or engineer, you have to get formal training). But the problems here sound like concerns about soft skills which come with the territory in a lot of jobs. Now, obviously, you can, say, be a technician in IT and want to transition to project management, and it won’t work because you innately do not have the soft skills required.

      But something about the way this is explained doesn’t add up.

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    8. LGC

      I actually think that it’s not entirely clear that Bob’s issue is so much with spout design as it is with being a manager in general. Although LW doesn’t say glowing things about his knowledge of spout design (to the contrary), most of their issues are with his project management style.

      You’re right in that his soft skill failures are really important, but if he’s an individual contributor, it’s not QUITE as important. And since it sounds like that’s where he’s coming from, he might well be doing good work in his original role but just have a reputation as being prickly.

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  2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

    I’m trying to find a kind way to say this, but is Bob in the right job / company / field?

    I realize that a lack of skills related to time management, critical listening, communication, collaboration, planning and project management, maintaining professional relationships, and receiving feedback are important at all jobs. But given that he has not improved despite targeted coaching and training, I have to wonder if he (1) understands his weaknesses and why they matter; (2) understands how to manage his emotions; or (3) believes the feedback is valid and tries to integrate it into his workflow. It sounds like he may be going through the motions, thinking that attendance is adequate, when really what he needs is basic competency.

    I can’t think of a job where Bob can succeed or advance, especially because his deficiencies seem so durable. But it doesn’t sound like he’s even working well in his current role—instead, he’s become a huge energetic black hole that’s sucking the life, time, and resources from his coworkers. And if that’s the case, why is he still at OP’s company?

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    1. Trout 'Waver

      Not to read too much into it, but it sounds like Bob is a subject matter expert trying to be a project manager. He may be perfectly good at the former and terrible at the latter.

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      1. Kes

        It sounds like it’s probably that plus possibly a shift in subject matter area? However, I have to suspect at least some of the issues are still a problem in his normal role, it’s just that the impact isn’t as great when it’s just him vs when he’s managing others. And some of them are just problems – not being able to receive feedback is going to be an issue in pretty much any role.

        Also, unfortunately even if he was good at his role before, it may actually be worse now due to the damage he caused in the other role, e.g. coworkers may still not want to work with him, even in his original role

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        1. Mystery Bookworm

          Yes, although I think Close Bracket captured something when they noted below about how we can think about different levels in these skills: Bob might not be at a manager level when it comes to accepting critical feedback, but he may be adequate for his current position.

          None of the issues described by OP are binary skills, and generally the more responsibility you have, the more skilled you have to be in those nauced areas.

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      2. Busy

        I was thinking that too. You should see how many of those people work where I work. And then you should see how much damage they actually cause.

        Maybe Bob has that really strict black and white view of everything and can function really well when he has the same small little tasks to do every single day. BAM. Knocks that out of the park. But here is the thing: two years to figure out Bob can’t do anything outside of enter peg A into slow B, rinse, and repeat? I think the bigger advice here is to make sure that when you start investing in someone, you give them small trials prior to investing a ton of time and money to even see if they CAN do it.

        Skills are never transferable – and this is how the peter principle occurs over and over again. Bob should have been given small projects to manage long before classes and mentors were provided and paid for.

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        1. TassieTiger

          “Skills are never transferable”
          I feel like I might be misunderstanding. Are you saying that every time you move into a promotion that requires more higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, you can’t just expect the skills that served you before to suffice?

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          1. Busy

            No haha. Im tired.

            I meant is “Skill are never GUARANTEED to transfer” like how I typed “slow” instead of “slot”.

            But then, I am still confused by your comment and what exactly you are asking here? Maybe I am confused as to why you focused on that one line? Are you trying to engage in some philosophy? If so, that is fine – and I can philosophize, sure. What one needs to manage well is wholly apart and different from the skills generally needed to get promoted to manage when you look at businesses in general. For instance, you may need a manager with product experience or you may just need a manager. You never just need a person with product experience and all the skills that entails to manage other people. No, you need someone who has skills specific to managing time, money, people, processes, and other managers. Ya need manager skills. So no, you can never assume someone who is good at their job can do well moving into management.

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            1. boo bot

              I can’t speak for TassieTiger, but the focus on that one line may be because the typo of “skills never transfer” rather than “skills are never guaranteed to transfer” was the only part of your previous comment that was confusing!

              I too was curious about it, but it makes a lot more sense now :)

              Reply
            2. TassieTiger

              Thanks a million for your response! I was just a bit confused because I thought skills usually could transfer.

              Reply
        2. The Man, Becky Lynch

          That’s where I’m stumbling the most. I’ve seen a lot of people hit their personal ceilings in term of abilities. However it took two years to get to this point and a lot of good will and wasted time on probably highly paid individuals parts, yikes!

          Sometimes skills aren’t necessarily non-transferable, they’re just at full capacity in a lower role.

          Maybe if he’s working with his usual team of 3 or whatever people, it’s fine and he could be a shift lead. But he could never be a department manager, you know?

          There are a few skills you cannot teach or just “learn” by following along. Time management is one of those. Some need a rigid structure. Same with being able to “read” people and urgency. I have a lot of people that I really do not tell them I need something until I need it because they will struggle letting it mellow for a couple days, let alone weeks. It’s their way to make sure they don’t forget, so “non-urgent” issue to me is a “urgent, must do now or I will forget/mess it up/get my wires even more crossed than they already are.”

          Reply
        3. President Porpoise

          We have at least one of those too. He’s thorough and knowledgeable (vital in his actual job) – and he’s black and white, confrontational, and poor at reaching consensus (not great when he’s trying to lead a project that requires the buy in of other functions…)

          Reply
      3. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter

        I also think it sounds like that. Unfortunately there are often very few options to get more challenging work and more pay without becoming a manager. I don’t like that. There are many managers who got the position by being good subject matter experts, but are awful managers and hate the management parts of their job.

        Reply
        1. Real_Ale

          At my employer this is true. You can’t get past Sr Consultant / Sr Engineer (and therefore, past those pay scales) without getting the word Manager in your title, and then they expect you to be able to deal with budgets and use scheduling software like Primavera or Project. Even if you’re good at managing people – what they’re working on and when for deadline purposes, plus mentoring – you can fail spectacularly at budget tracking or *shudder* MS Project.

          Reply
        2. Engineer Girl

          That depends on the company. Mine had a managerial track and a technical track.
          It let the brilliant engineers be brilliant.

          Reply
      4. Wintermute

        This is EXACTLY what I thought . Replace teapots with Mainframe Jobs, Control-M Automation scripts or router configurations and it could be a dozen people I’ve worked with.

        It sounds like someone who is a great operator but wants to be a developer, or maybe even a developer who wants to be an architect-level position. They can program a router like mad, diagnose faults, troubleshoot, install and deploy, configure, everything… but design and overseeing deployment by others is just outside their domain of competence.

        Reply
      5. A tester, not a developer

        This. I am an excellent tester. I am a good analyst. I am a terrible project manager. In my company, senior management seems to think the logical progression is tester>analyst>PM. They keep trying to encourage me to take on PM work even though I’m not well suited, because I’m ‘so good’ at what they think of as the proceeding steps, instead of acknowledging they are not just stepping stones but important roles in their own right.

        Reply
      6. FD

        I suspect the same. There are a lot of subject matter experts I wouldn’t trust anywhere NEAR a project management job. Being a subject matter expert requires you to be really good at one narrow area. Being a good project manager requires you to get a ‘good enough’ understanding of all the areas related to the project that you can plan–but without getting too bogged down in the details of any one aspect.

        Reply
    2. AndersonDarling

      I’m wondering if Bob is still early in his career. I’ve seen younger employees that think promotions are like school…”If I take two classes and do one project, then I will get placed in the role I want.” I don’t think they can recognize when something is completed successfully, just that it was completed. And there is a lack of understanding with the importance of soft skills and how they are key to promotions.
      After being in the workforce a while and seeing staff succeed and be promoted, these things become clearer.

      Reply
      1. Say It Ain't So

        I have a co-worker who has been in the workforce for the last 15-20 years at least and still doesn’t understand that consistent, excellent, thorough work is how you get the job you want. He wonders why he’s at the bottom of the structure even though he’s “so good at all these other things.” He’s given a chance to be the lead and never follows through. I end up having to pick up the slack.

        I’m sick of working with “Bob.” I’m the co-worker who refuses to work with “Bob” unless my boss explicitly assigns me to work with him.

        Reply
        1. marxamod

          Yes. The worst part of working with a Bob is that you have to keep working with him even though he’s consistently mediocre.

          Reply
    3. The Man, Becky Lynch

      I think that he’s probably fine at being a “worker” and just not “manager” material. That’s true for tons of people, it doens’t mean they’re not employable but they have a ceiling and simply cannot achieve higher goals despite perhaps believing that’s the only option, since they think it makes them failures to not keep climbing that ladder.

      Sometimes you have to stop a few rungs up or you can’t even get off the bottom rung, it’s where you tap out at skill wise.

      He sounds like he needs specifics “Get this report. Get paint listed on report. Paint spout. Put spout in tray to dry. Move to next spout.”

      Years ago we tried to “promote” a really good production worker to floor manager, he had all the issues Bob is showing here. So it was fast to say “Okay, not your cup of tea, back to doing what you do best [producing specifics off a list handed to you] and no more herding cats, getting the pieces started from scratch and putting it all together.”

      Reply
      1. MissDisplaced

        Exactly! Good at focused and/or set skills, or works well when told what to do.
        Not so good at DECIDING what needs to be done and making it happen w/multiple people.

        Reply
      2. SheLooksFamiliar

        Totally agree with you, Becky. A former grandboss and I were just talking about this. He’s an HR exec at a new firm, and is frustrated by his company’s leadership team. They insist that every new individual contributor hire is hi-potential or hi-performing so they can move into manager roles. Grandboss has been telling them they just don’t have enough manager roles for ALL of these hi-po folks, and it’s unfair to promise such moves.

        More to the point, he said, they need people to perform, produce, and execute with excellence. You know, like, do actual work. He asked, ‘When did it become a bad thing for people to just want to do a really good job every day, and not move into management?’ Good question!

        Reply
        1. The Man, Becky Lynch

          It reminds me of a story I heard, perhaps here. Where an interviewer asked “are you a leader or a follower” and the person answered honestly, saying “actually I follow, I’m not interested in leadership.” and the person actually was relieved and responded with “Thank God, we have enough “leaders” here, we need more followers!”

          I’ve seen it happen all the time. Everyone wants to sound ambitious and like they’re in it to jump ladder rungs hand over fist. One boss actually had to tell someone who was the head of their department that the only way “up” was if they could become an accountant and take my spot. At the time I was 2nd in command.

          I’ve had people answer “where do you see yourself in 5 years” with things like “I want to be in your spot!” or “The CEO!” and I’m like “Dude…the CEO is the owner and I guess if you want to buy the place one day…that’s a thing that could happen but he’s like 40, so it’s gonna be a long wait and a big investment…”

          Reply
          1. Antilles

            With the regards to the last part, was the person fairly young and right out of school?
            Because my last company required us to ask the question of everybody and I almost exclusively saw that framing from young new grads. Which I really blame more on the fact it’s a bad question than anything else – it doesn’t make sense to ask a 23-year old where they see themselves in five years. Partly because they’re fresh out of school and don’t really have the experience to describe their industry framework; partly because the honest answer for someone of that age is “well, probably at another company by then because most people change jobs several times in their first couple years” but you can’t really say that.

            Reply
            1. Mary

              I always tell graduates that my honest answer to that question is, “I want to work in this role for about 18-24 months, at which point I think I will have acquired XYZ skills. I think my options from there are probably A, B or C, and I’m not sure what direction I’ll want to take but I’ll be looking for exposure to those areas to figure out what’s the right fit for me.” Just because someone else has picked the arbitrary “5 years”, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it!

              Reply
          2. Jayn

            I mean it’s possible the owner might decide to change careers and sell the place (happened to my father—his last boss decided he’d rather be fishing, went back to his boat and sold Dad the business) but I wouldn’t count on it.

            Reply
            1. The Man, Becky Lynch

              Fair enough. I have had bosses who have told me they hope that I take over their businesses one day but that’s in the “let me retire but I’ll still own it, you just take over everything else.” Which I have essentially done once but that was a total crazypants situation and it’s usually only when you’re the number 2 position like I was and I assume your father!].

              Reply
          3. EH

            Yep, this. I’m very much a follower in my dayjob – give me assignments, then step back so I can do them. My answer to the five years question is usually “I’d like to get “Senior” added to my title, I am happy to be a resource for newer writers.” I am not suited to or interested in management, though. I figure it’s good to know my limits.

            Reply
        2. RandomU...

          It’s kind of in the lore category now, but a story told to me by my mom on the subject of interviews and work…

          A woman was interviewing for a job. And the interviewer asked if she was a leader or a follower. The woman confidently stated that she was a follower. That’s where she was most comfortable and that’s where she did her best work. The interviewer says “Well it’s about damn time. We need more followers here, everyone’s a leader and we don’t have anyone getting the work done. You’re hired”

          I agree with your former grandboss. Give me a nice mix of people any day.

          Reply
          1. JM in England

            This is a pleasant surprise to read. I think in over 90% of the interviews I’ve done, the interviewer would have interpreted the answer “follower” = “lack of ambition”….

            Reply
    4. Engineer Girl

      I think there is some cognitive dissonance going on. Bob wants his dream so badly that he is minimizing the feedback that he may not be able to achieve it.
      There may also be some Dunning Kruger going on. Bob may not see the difference in his performance Vs others.
      That’s a bad combination. Even if you explicitly train him he may reject the results because they interfere with the dream.

      Reply
      1. Artemesia

        To me the biggest issue is that this has been allowed to go on two years without clear feedback. The OP is now in a terrible position of yanking the rug out from someone who is resisting the handwriting on the wall which has apparently not been very clearly written. This should not have gone beyond 6 mos. Hard to see how yu come back from this with a competent functioning contributor.

        Reply
    5. Courageous cat

      This is kind of why I wish we’d lose the extensive teapot references. I think some of these things would be useful to have a little more context of the actual job for. Probably wouldn’t make a huge difference but could sometimes paint a slightly different picture.

      Reply
    6. Observer

      In this case, I don’t really think so. I think the OP painted a fairly clear picture and the industry wouldn’t really make a difference, because I can’t think of any industry where these would be tenable for MANAGEMENT, while I could see a lot of fields where an these flaws would never even show up in an individual contributor.

      Reply
  3. Amy

    I work with a “Bob” who got her promotion instead of a hard conversation. Even management jokes that she’s not qualified. “Would you do X?” “Isn’t that Bob’s job?” “Do you actually want/expect Bob to do it?” *sigh* Followed by another employee pitching in for Bob, for less money and no responsibility. Yes, it’s dysfunctional, but it’s essentially a tenured job that Bob has. Have the hard conversation.

    Reply
    1. Kes

      Ugh, this is where you’re tempted to reply “Yes, and I want you to hold him accountable or replace him if he can’t do his job”. Managers are supposed to fix or replace the missing stairs they manage, not tell everyone to work around them

      Reply
      1. Seeking Second Childhood

        I loved it when I finally heard a manager say “it’s not your job to do their job.”

        Reply
    1. Seeking Second Childhood

      They might be – OP wasn’t talking about the ones who may have been sucessfully doing projects like the ones that Bob’s not doing well on. OP’s talking about Bob.

      Reply
    2. Kathleen_A

      Yeah, I mean…how do you know that they aren’t? The OP is asking for advice about Bob, so she talks mainly about Bob. That seems perfectly natural to me. Why would she talk about all the stuff her company does for other employees when she’s asking for advice *about Bob”?

      Reply
    3. RUKiddingMe

      Exactly. And it’s a pretty safe bet that at least one of the actually competent people is a woman who hasn’t had *two years* invested into her development. But mediocre male person? Let’s just throw everything at training him while making competent, woman employee fo the actual work.

      Reply
      1. sunny-dee

        That’s not a safe bet at all and there’s nothing to indicate that the OP is treating other employees unfairly, certainly not in a discriminatory way. My company has an open mentorship program, so anyone can sign up as a mentor or mentee. We have an open tuition policy and managers will approve expense requests for books or learning materials — again, open to anyone. All you have to do is ask. Is that somehow unfair if Bob takes advantage of that? Why?

        The only thin you can argue is that maybe the time the OP is investing is dragging everyone else down, but, honestly, it sounds like they don’t really need the level of investment that Bob is requiring … as in, there’s no evidence it’s hurting anyone else, only evidence that the investment isn’t benefiting Bob.

        Reply
    4. smoke tree

      I don’t know that we have enough information here to say that gender is an overt factor, but I do wonder if it might be a case of squeaky wheel gets the grease syndrome–Bob’s persistence in advocating for himself has led to him being given an outsized share of attention despite what sounds like serious issues with his work. There might also be some sunk cost fallacy at work here too. But I would imagine that mediocre people with more privilege are more likely to advocate for themselves in this way than less privileged groups.

      Reply
      1. Maria Lopez

        My thought was that Bob (who may be a man or a woman, for OP’s obscuring irrelevant details on purpose) was a relative of someone important. In any event, other employees have been passed over and I’m sure some have quit over this favoritism, so he is losing the company good people and a lot of money.

        Reply
  4. AndersonDarling

    Ugh. I’ve witnessed co-workers coddled into the idea that they can move into whatever role interests them and half the time it ends like this letter. Just because design looks fun doesn’t mean you can be a great designer. Coding may look cool, but not everyone has a mind wired to understand and excel at it. There are managers and HR reps that will keep encouraging staff to take classes and be mentored because they don’t want to be the one to say “You aren’t good at this.”
    Sometimes an accountant will want to become an IT Tech mid career and it works out great for everyone. But other times you have an employee thinking that if they take one more class then they will automatically be placed into their dream job.

    Reply
    1. MissDisplaced

      Yes, it’s more of the Great American Myth at work

      You can be whatever you want to be if you only work hard enough!
      You can get rich if you only work hard enough!
      Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!
      The only thing keeping you from being rich (or successful) is lack of belief!
      The thing that separates successful people from those that aren’t . . . is the willingness to work very, very hard.
      Self belief and hard work will always earn you success.
      Working hard overcomes a whole lot of obstacles.
      Patience, persistence and perspiration make for unbeatable success!
      Success is a state of mind!
      All our dreams will come true if we have the courage to pursue them!

      and on and on.

      Reply
    2. Cordoba

      I have a relative who works for the state helping adults with their job searches and applications.

      She describes it as “All their life people have been told they can be whatever they want to be; my job is to explain that this isn’t really true and that they need to focus on applying for positions they might actually get.”

      It’s apparently quite a struggle to get folks to realistically assess their qualifications and limitations.

      Reply
      1. Clisby

        What would people say if we went around telling every kid “You can be an Olympic athlete if you just try hard enough!”

        No, you can’t. Well, a few of you can, but generally speaking, no.

        Reply
        1. Asenath

          Some people do – or something similar. A friend of mine used to quote her mother as saying ‘There’s no such thing as “can’t””, and even then, young as I was, I was pretty sure that there were some things I simply couldn’t do, no matter how hard I tried. Being an athlete – never mind an Olympic athlete – is definitely one of them! It’s a bit of a balancing act between discouraging kids by telling them what they can’t do, and setting them up for failure by telling them that there’s nothing they can’t do, and some people fall on the over-encouragment side.

          Reply
    3. Sloan Kittering

      Yeah I think it’d be kinder to tell Bob he needs to look at painting – adjacent fields for his best chance at advancing, rather than that he should stay in his current role forever. Tell him the things that make him valuable and point out areas where he can keep playing to his strengths, perhaps? (I’m assuming he is valuable in his current role or you wouldn’t have kept him on and continued to invest in him). Perhaps he could someday be Senior Painter who gets the tricky drip jobs or something. Not manager.

      Reply
  5. The Man, Becky Lynch

    It can feel soul-crushing to have to smash someone’s “dreams”, you’re human and so is Bob, so of course you don’t want to hurt him. However as a manager you have to have these tough conversations when they come around. Sometimes we’re lucky and never have this situation come up, everyone who shows promise really delivers and can step into the roles they have their hearts set on. Other’s will fall down on their face like Bob has and you’ll have to pick them up, brush the dirt off him and say “I appreciate your efforts but the plug has to be pulled, we can’t keep letting you run yourself into the ground like this.”

    Be ready for his emotional outbursts and give him as much room to deal with them as possible. However you do have to also let him know that he’s not allowed to lash out at the team after he receives bad news and disappointing feedback. Otherwise you are just going to have toxicity brewing over in the painting department, bringing everyone there down, which isn’t acceptable either.

    I like Alison’s approach/script. I think you need to rip this band off immediately. Stewing and fretting over it will make it worse in the long run. Write things out if you have to and practice them before you have the sit-down.

    Desire is not enough to succeed in just about anything, unless you’re some kind of super human.

    Reply
  6. animaniactoo

    “Bob, at your current rate of improvement, you will not become skilled enough to make you useful before you die.”

    Okay, don’t say that. But it is a concept that I’ve put out there before for people who are “trying their best”. Yes. You’re trying. But you have to do more than try for this to work out, you have to succeed. And the effort is appreciated, it is simply unfortunate that it has not created results that make this a workable situation. There is a limit to how much time I/we can wait for sufficient improvement to make investing more time into this a worthwhile risk on my/our end.

    There will still sometimes be hard feelings over it no matter how kindly and compassionately you explain it. It’s okay for them to be upset* and disappointed and the goal should not be to magically avoid having that happen. The goal on your end has to simply be making sure that you have tried from your end, and that you are clear about what the current status is, and refrain from placing blame on them for not having made it or recognizing that they won’t make it.

    *Yes, they might initially be upset with you. Sometimes it will pass, sometimes it won’t. You can’t control that, how they respond is up to them. Don’t take more responsibility for it than they do.

    Reply
    1. Seeking Second Childhood

      I’m hearing this in a Yoda voice, because it’s a specific instance of “There is no try. There is do.”

      Reply
  7. RandomU...

    On the bright side, it sounds like the OP works in a good organization that wants to help employees grow.

    On the not so bright side, yeah it didn’t work out so well in this case. I think the best and kindest thing to do if Bob is an otherwise good employee is to lay it out much like you did in the letter. I wasn’t clear if Bob is defensive/won’t take feedback/etc. in general or just in the arena of the project management. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt because I’ve seen otherwise good employees show out of character responses in isolation. In this case I’m wondering if it’s sensitivity to feedback on performance because of stress or the importance he’s putting on his role as Design manager.

    One thing I would say is that one misstep that you may want to look at in the future is how you are developing all of your employees. I’m not a fan of 1 at a time development which you alluded to. In other words, Wakeen shouldn’t have to wait for his turn at development and opportunities because they are all going to Bob. That’s not healthy within a team and can lead to resentment and ultimately turnover.

    I’d also suggest that you use this as an opportunity to put some gates up around these projects, especially when you are giving them to newer people. You want to make sure that you don’t fall into the same trap of a 2 year trial period like what happened with Bob. So maybe look at specific goals and core competencies and development milestones that you can use with people as they take on some of these advanced roles. I don’t know enough about your work to suggest any, but it might be a good way to track and document development (or lack of). Also handy when it comes to performance appraisals.

    Reply
    1. RUKiddingMe

      Honestly if I as another employee wanting training and advancement saw all these resources going into incompetent Bob, especially if I was picking up the slack…I’d be leaving.

      Reply
  8. Richard Hershberger

    Bob reminds me of a roommate I had in college who was a complete grind: study day and night, with no social life. He pulled down Cs. It was really very sad. Having no life in order to excel at your studies is one thing. This was quite another.

    Reply
    1. MissDisplaced

      Sigh. My husband is this way.
      He studied SO HARD and so many hours to get mediocre grades, and he’s not a good test taker. I also studied a lot, but never needed to pull all-nighters or got stressed out and got A’s.

      I came to find that Hubs tended to put emphasis on memorizing over understanding the subject matter. So much so, that he thought he could “memorize” tests and quizzes. Thus, he worked much harder. I worked with him a bit to improve his study habits, such as getting his books early and especially reading and writing papers far ahead of due dates to give him more time to absorb material. Actually, he did get better, and was getting A’s and B’s towards the end of his studies. Sad no one had ever told him you need to study smarter not harder.

      Reply
      1. Dust Bunny

        I worked with a neighbor who was like this: She got by pretty well in high school memorizing stuff but when I started reviewing it with her during her senior year, it was clear that she didn’t have the underlying concepts down. Which was scary, honestly. Fortunately, she’s going to a college that has a lot of support for first-generation students and is learning much better study habits.

        Reply
      2. Samwise

        I work with college freshmen. Happens fairly often — for many high school classes memorization and rote learning will get a student pretty good grades. College is a different animal; if students don’t correct their approach after the first set of exams, they can be in big trouble.

        Reply
    2. The Supreme Troll

      I wonder in this case if your roommate was just working hard (which I am assuming he was) – or was he working hard and actually understanding the material? That is a key difference maker.

      Reply
    3. The Man, Becky Lynch

      I feel for a person in this situation. It’s one reason why in the end, it’s just better that I didn’t go to college. I don’t learn by books and by people lecturing me. It is all whirling around and I’m trying to catch the pieces, that I’m jotting down on paper and trying to understand/make it stick. Unless it’s a subject that sticks in my brain naturally [numbers and organization of things I can follow along with and can find purpose in, etc] it just kind of falls to the floor and I can’t keep it in my head. So testing is the worst, ever.

      However I was thrown into a business, shown a few things and it all stuck. The procedures, the math, the structure, it all clicks together like the puzzles. I’m a puzzle person, I think it terms of “where does this fit” and abstract thinking blows my mind to pieces. I also don’t like debate or arguments, I just like facts or math because it has an answer.

      So I didn’t struggle to pull in C’s but I capped out at a B in most instances because most of it can click in some way, whereas others just won’t be bothered with. It was frustrating and tiresome.

      It reminds me of those Amazing A+++ Students with perfect GPA’s who fall on their face in the workplace and can’t keep up in that environment. I’ve seen graduate students who couldn’t do pretty “low rung” jobs because their minds just don’t wrap around things. A lot of times it’s too basic and they’re trying to build a rocket ship when we’re just making paper airplanes.

      Reply
      1. DaffyDuck

        Ohhh – this! Memorization of facts and how to recognize and implement their use are two completely different things. I saw a lot of folks who could memorize well have a very hard time when they hit college classes that asked them to think or in the real world where the answer could be more than choice a, b, or c on a piece of paper. I’ve also seen a lot of people who think “they aren’t smart” due to early education (which is almost all about memorization) but are fantastically skilled at all sorts of complicated jobs.

        Reply
        1. M&Ms Fix Lots of Problems

          So much this. Critically thinking vs rote memorizing are two completely different skills. Fortunately I had teachers in middle and high school that tried to teach how to think critically about content while acknowledging that even when thinking there are some things you just have to memorize. The trick was figuring out the balance of what skill set to use when.

          Reply
      2. Not So NewReader

        omg, yes.
        I have seen adults with degrees like alphabet soup after they names but the day-to-day life stuff just leaves them stymied.
        In watching this, I had to conclude we do what we place a high value on. Some folks highly value endless learning, which is fine until they limit it to one arena and exclude other arenas such as living skills or people skills.

        Reply
        1. The Man, Becky Lynch

          I’ll never forget the time someone called me, literally in tears because they couldn’t put together a piece of furniture they bought. They were convinced it was defective and we were #theworst ever. The parting line was “My husband is an engineer and cannot even figure this out! We’ll just throw it away!” [It was not that complicated, I could put it together in my sleep and so could the thousands of other people who bought that piece. This was the only time someone had a meltdown on me, I mean sure, maybe some just threw it in the trash but I doubt it, they weren’t cheap!]

          Reply
          1. KayEss

            I once found a perfectly good Ikea-style bookcase down by the dumpster, but after hauling it up to my apartment, noticed that it stood a bit funny–well, I had put together a few bookcases in my time, so I took it apart and reassembled it correctly. It turned out someone had made a mistake in assembling it in like… the second step, and just powered through until they finished. Then they apparently looked upon what they had wrought in despair and chucked the whole thing.

            I do think it’s kind of funny that I genuinely enjoy putting together furniture and that sort of thing (I recently tried out a hobby model kit and was like “oh no, gotta stop this before it becomes an expensive obsession”) but a tax form or job application will leave me in tears.

            Reply
        2. Librarian (not Marian)

          We once had a super-smart physics postdoc student at a Very Prestigious University house-sit for us for a week. We came home to find all the newspapers we had received that week still lying on the front porch, and an obvious, significant amount of water from hard rain soaking several boxes (and the stuff in them) near the bottom of the stairs in the basement. Fortunately nothing really important was ruined, but yeesh.

          Hopefully he’s learned some of those day-to-day life things since getting out into the working world.

          Reply
    4. boo bot

      Well, all C’s still gets you a college degree! I mean, that sounds really tough, obviously, but it must have been worth the effort for him.

      Reply
      1. FD

        +1 And truthfully–I bet he learned a lot more skills from having to really work for it. Working hard does not guarantee success, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people who had to work a bit harder in school do better in the real world because they know how to not give up when they encounter serious difficulties.

        Reply
      2. VlookupsAreMyLife

        “C’s get degrees” was a friend’s mantra in college. It took him 6 years instead of 4 to get thru undergrad. Now, he’s an extremely successfully electrical engineer making bank.

        Reply
    5. Artemesia

      I had a roommate like this. She would take excellent notes, then copy them over that evening and then before a big test copy them again. I took sloppy notes and would never dream of copying them. It drove her nuts that I ran circles around her in grades, but I think her real problem was not that she tried hard and I didn’t — because I did, but that she didn’t have a strategy for learning. You can’t really do it by brute force; you have to work for understanding. I studied but did it in a way that maximized understanding so when confronted with a challenging question I could reason it out; she had to try to dredge up something she memorized. I don’t think she was stupid — truly think that she didn’t know how to learn effectively probably as a result of habits developed as a result of really bad teaching.

      Reply
    6. Rosalind Montague

      We just had a conversation about this at work; a manager I really respect said, in the course of talking about a difficult situation his team had handled with grace, “I don’t want to praise them just for working hard. You can work really hard at the wrong thing. I want to praise them for having the judgement and commitment to work really hard at the right thing.”

      I wanted to cry when I heard him say that, because it was so wise and loving, and I also think I will remember it forever as excellent work and managerial advice.

      Reply
  9. Megasaurusus

    It sounds like Bob has at the very least acquired the training (maybe even certification?!) to pursue this next step elsewhere if he is not satisfied with returning to his current role – and perhaps a new environment where he has to build relationships from scratch would provide an opportunity for a complete career overhaul – but maybe not. Learning in formal learning environments like in high school, college, and formal training are very clear cut. You pass/fail, are graded, etc. In the working world, colleagues and most supervisors are far from direct and so often rely on you to figure out from subtle clues what you are doing wrong & right. Not everyone has the emotional I.Q to read those cues, even if they have substantive intelligence in other areas. Receiving effective, actionable, and embraceable feedback is the most valuable gift you can receive in the workplace.

    Reply
  10. MuseumChick

    I know this isn’t the focus of the post but I have to ask, have you had a hard conversation with Bob about his inability to receive feedback, irritability, etc? If not, I think that has been a major mistake here. Bob has been getting away with poor behavior with (it appears) no consequences.

    Reply
    1. DCompliance

      This. It does not sound like a great employee if he cannot take feedback, let alone an employee who can move up to the next step.
      Also, the way he reacts to feedback sounds like how he has been handling leading projects- not listening and freaking out- a common theme that needs to be addressed.

      Reply
    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Yeah; I’m baffled about how his bad reaction to feedback hasn’t been aggressively addressed.

      Reply
  11. Close Bracket

    I would be so much more specific than Alison is. “Skill level” could mean anything since there are a variety of skills that Bob needs. I would specifically say that his communication, time management, and collaboration skills are not at management level. I would give examples, and I would point out the ways that he is not working at the right level even after training in those areas, with examples, so as to explain why they are not going to invest more in training. I would also highlight how he needs to be able to process negative feedback more constructively.

    Reply
    1. JSPA

      If you give examples, he can argue each and every one of them (or say that it can’t be all bad, you must have it out for him if you think he’s weak in all those ways). And once he does that, not only is it an argument rather than the conversation you need to have with him–it’s also the point where his ears and brain will shut down. That’s a huge problem–you need him to process the core of the message. Later or never is soon enough for the specifics. Ditto if he was good at some small piece; a bit of praise will be a derail.

      After the meat of the message, you can tell him that you sympathize with how painful it is, to find that you’re not particularly suited to a job that you love, want, and have worked so very hard for. And that, while the company had hoped to help him along the path he’d envisioned, there’s no shame when the person and the path are not a great fit, after all. Add that you hope he takes pride and comfort in the fact that he’s deeply skilled and appreciated [ONLY IF THESE ARE TRUE!] at the job you hired him for.

      If the company had not already burned so very much time and money on him, you could offer him a session with a service designed to assess a person’s strengths and best career moves, if he’s not content and fulfilled in that role. But at this point, it probably makes more sense to leave it there.

      Reply
      1. Mystery Bookworm

        Are you suggesting that because examples can be argued they shouldn’t be given? I’m not sure I follow the logic there. Examples can be really invaluable for helping people to understand nuanced feedback. (And while that’s something Bob struggles with, I don’t think the letter offers us enough info for us to speculate reasonably non where his “brain will shut down”.)

        I think Close Bracket is right to talk about skill levels in these areas and to offer concrete examples (which you can do without opening up a subject to debate).

        Reply
        1. JSPA

          Specifics matter when you’re looking for improvement. In this case, the chance to improve is gone.

          Remember, this is someone who’s primed to miscommunicate! It’s absolutely essential to get the essentials across.

          The immediate goal is to close the door in a way that’s firm, kind, and respectful, and leave no room for confusion. Anything that could muddy the water or interfere with this simple fact absolutely needs to wait until the basic fact is received and processed and digested and acknowledged.

          Reply
        2. Observer

          Are you suggesting that because examples can be argued they shouldn’t be given?

          Absolutely. In some cases, examples can be useful. But ONLY when there is something actionable there. At this point, there is nothing actionable. I’m not even sure that the OP should go into the specifics of the skills. But for sure, no examples. Because this is not time for instruction – that door is closed.

          Reply
      2. Close Bracket

        Later or never is soon enough for the specifics.

        What? No. Feedback should be immediate and specific. It’s already later, nothing good can come from waiting even longer.

        Reply
      3. BethDH

        It seems like there’s a happy medium here, where perhaps there is a fairly bald conversation that is minimally specific, with an offer to answer questions. He can ask for specifics then if he wants, and OP can expect that and be ready to offer details. Some people will find it insulting and demeaning, especially if they had a sense that it wasn’t quite working, while others won’t absorb that the evaluation is real without the specifics. Seems a lot like the discussion last week about what people want to hear in a rejection letter, though at least in this case OP has experience with Bob’s style.

        Reply
  12. Colette

    I think there are some lessons the OP can take from this for herself.

    1. When you give someone a growth opportunity, you need to keep a close watch on how it’s going, give targeted feedback when you want something done differently, and then pay attention to what the person does with that feedback. Do they make changes and try to improve? Great, keep going. Do they resist or dismiss the feedback? Time for a more serious conversation about receiving feedback, and possibly dropping them back to their previous role.

    2. When someone cannot play well with others (i.e. takes out their feelings on their subordinates or coworkers), it’s again time for a more serious conversation and possible demotion. That should be a deal-breaker. You cannot make your problems other peoples’ problems.

    3. Not being able to understand requirements and priorities is a serious failing – you cannot effectively manage people or projects if you can’t do those two things. If someone is being considered for a higher-level job and they are not able to display those two skills, you need to dedicate short-term coaching to help them get there, or else again consider that they are not right for the role.

    Giving this kind of feedback is hard – no doubt about it – but it’s a key part of managing people, and it’s also a kindness – it gives the person who is struggling the chance to improve, means that they won’t be surprised if other consequences are necessary, and gives them the opportunity to make good decisions about their life (by not buying a house just before they get fired, or by taking a job they wouldn’t have considered otherwise, etc.)

    Reply
    1. RUKiddingMe

      “When someone cannot play well with others (i.e. takes out their feelings on their subordinates or coworkers), it’s again time for a more serious conversation and possible demotion. That should be a deal-breaker. You cannot make your problems other peoples’ problems.”

      Bery much this. Bob needs to understand that he is required to act like a grown up and behave no matter how he feels.

      Reply
    2. JediSquirrel

      All this, plus one more thing: you have to put due dates on things. For fairness, people need to know when you expect things to be achieved, and you need to distinguish between those things with negotiable due dates and those things with hard due dates.

      I’ve recently moved a lot of our to-do lists to a Kanboard system because people can see without digging in too deeply, what is done and what still needs to be done.

      Reply
  13. k

    As someone who is a Bob—poor at communication, time management and collaboration, due to neurological issues for which there is no cure currently—what am I supposed to do?

    Unless society develops a radically different approach to things like universal basic income, my only way to survive — literally, to be able to have a roof over my head, food, etc. — is to advance in a company at a rate that keeps up with the rising cost of living, both prompted by age (more medical bills, etc.) and by societal/economic factors.

    Reply
    1. MuseumChick

      This is a really good question. I would encourage you to write into Alison with it because I would love to hear her answer.

      Reply
      1. MsM

        +1

        Although I will say you communicated this pretty clearly, so maybe it’s just a question of being open with your struggles (or at least as open as you’re comfortable being), and encouraging coworkers to keep the lines of communication open via whatever method you’re most comfortable with when there are points of confusion?

        Reply
    2. irene adler

      Wouldn’t this be a partial disability such that you could collect disability payments to supplement your income?

      Reply
      1. ToS

        Ohhh, disability payments are not what you think they are if you are in the United States, especially when the SSDI criteria is that the disability make you unable to work. Most people who receive supplemental disability as income that I am aware of served in the military and their partial disability comes from what happened while they served, which can be PTSD from morgue work, an autoimmune disorder from a chemical exposure, an vehicular collision on post, traumatic brain injury from being thrown (but not penetrated by anything) in a blast zone…it’s not all combat injuries. When you have a condition that just exists, some are inherited, some happen, most people adapt and muddle through. Often they find communities online and learn how others adapt and earn a paycheck.

        There are a number of programs that each state’s vocational rehabilitation department does to help people with disabilities who might be able to work, with or without reasonable accommodation.

        Most disability insurance is for temporary situations, or are a bridge until you qualify for SSDI

        Reply
        1. animaniactoo

          It depends – I know people who have had to fight hard to get their qualification, but they’ve done it for inherited condition, etc. Usually it happens in childhood and it’s easier to get through the screening then, but it’s possible as an adult if the condition has become sufficiently debilitating. However, you’re probably going to need to sue them to make it happen. The rule (as far as I know it) is that you’re going to get rejected at least 2x. My friend has epilepsy and was having at least one grand mal seizure every other day. They told her she was capable of holding down her previous jobs at a dry cleaner and in a bookstore. She had to sue to get them to acknowledge that the fact that she was physically capable of doing those jobs didn’t mean that there was a business on earth that was going to take the risk of hiring her when she was going to fall flat on the floor at least once a day and possibly damage herself or the stuff around her.

          It’s likely that the difference you’re seeing in who has it is a question of who has the resources to fight for it or is associated with somebody who can fight for it.

          Reply
      2. JSPA

        Nah, at this point, partial disability is pretty hard to get. It hasn’t caught up to the problem that underemployment might as well be unemployment, in many cities, as far as keeping a roof over your head and beans and rice on the table.

        Reply
        1. Artemesia

          Even full disability pays so little that it doesn’t meet the person’s need who asked this question. We have a society that has not confronted inequality or the fact that many people have needs that they cannot under this system meet. It is only going to get worse with technology and the ways to address it are not even close to politically acceptable in a system run by a handful of people with great wealth.

          Reply
      3. Dust Bunny

        ha ha ha no. Not likely, at least not in the US.

        I’m on the autism spectrum and, in my early 40s, feel like I’ve pretty well maxed out my ability to compensate. I have a BA and a decent job but will never make enough to, say, rent a basic apartment near work (large city. Not hugely expensive, considering, but the “affordable” apartments often have a lot of issues in terms of safety and cleanliness, and craptastic landlords). But I would very definitely not meet anyone’s criteria for disabled, no matter how exhausting it is to hang on to an underpaid clerical-ish job. And I shouldn’t. I can work well enough that I ought to be able to live on my own if it weren’t for sagging wages in general.

        Reply
    3. LQ

      Do work you are good at?
      Sorry if this is obvious, but if you are great at doing the tasks put in front of you, do those, and then if you get told no, you don’t have the skills to get promoted, ok you don’t. Keep doing the job. Not everyone gets promoted. That’s just not how that works. Lots of people, most people don’t rise to the upper management level. Getting promoted isn’t the only way to continue to have a roof over your head. Go to another organization that pays more for the work in front of you that you can do instead of the work you can’t do.

      There is a ton of work I can’t do. And a lot of it pays more than what I make now. But that doesn’t mean you should promote people into work they will fail at that will make the people around them fail as well.

      Reply
      1. MarfisaTheLibrarian

        Being Really Good at a non-management job, though not something generally overtly appreciated, is really important. There’s not as clear a way forward, but there are still options like negotiated raises commensurate with your experience/skill, or lateral moves to similar jobs that will pay more for your expertise.

        I think that, at least as I am now, I would suck at management jobs. Maybe one day I could lose enough of my conflict-averse-ness to be able to do them, but not soon. So that limits how far I can advance “up,” but there are still jobs out there that will give me more control/independence over my own work, and maybe more money, as I become better at the job duties that I have and love.

        Reply
        1. LQ

          Absolutely. And maybe the thing to do is move to larger companies where they are more specialized and so there are more chances to be really excellent at doing the work you’re good at and being paid for it. It’s easier to be niche when there are more people around doing their niches letting you do a niche.

          Reply
    4. MissDisplaced

      It is a good question!
      Because in America, there is so much emphasis on people “advancing” in their jobs or careers. But of course, not everyone can and at some point a wall will be hit.

      I suspect it will have to be that you find a job and level where you are comfortable and make a decent wage doing your job, with the expectation that maybe there will be much smaller and/or more lateral steps to types of advancement.

      Reply
    5. animaniactoo

      Hmmm. Do you need to advance, or do you need to find employment that pays sufficiently well to put you ahead of the curve on what you need for rent, groceries, medical care? Does your condition have an advocate society? Can they help you figure out what path will keep you self-sustainable? Is there any funding for job training? Is there any possibility of SSI qualification? If there isn’t an advocate society, is this something that you can explore with your therapist/doctor/whoever is helping you manage your condition?

      If you’re poor at these things: “poor at communication, time management and collaboration”, what are you strong at?

      Reply
    6. RandomU...

      I’m sorry that’s got to be tough. I think the best answer is to find something that allows you to advance as an individual contributor. I have a person that I manage that is terminally shy. She’s fine with communicating with people in the course of her job, but she will never be a person that will lead a group or big project. What she does do is to be great in other areas. Her attention to detail has no rival. She is super patient and thorough leading 1:1 training. Given a task she will get done on time and accurately.

      So one of the things that I used to do when I was her manager was to make sure I had projects that suited her working style and strengths that she could take on that would fill the ‘above and beyond’ requirement for performance appraisals.

      It sounds like you have some different challenges, so my example isn’t very relevant on the surface, bu the underlying message is. Work on the things you do have control over and find, either in your current position, or a different one, where those things can shine.

      Everyone has to do this to some extent or another. I say that not to diminish you or your challenges. There are jobs that I can say with all certainty, that I suck. There is no way I’d not be fired for incompetence from those jobs.

      Reply
    7. Washi

      If your question is “Why shouldn’t Bob try to advance even if he’s not suited for the position; I need to try to advance in order to pay my bills” the answer is that it’s not that Bob is doing anything wrong by trying to advance, but it may not be a good strategy. If you force your way into a position that you know you’re fundamentally unsuited for, you can end up getting fired, demoted, compromising your reference or otherwise in a worse situation than you were before.

      If your question is “Why aren’t people being more sympathetic towards Bob?” I think the answer is that Bob doesn’t come across very well in the letter, not because he is struggling with the skills, but because he does not take feedback well and sounds like an unpleasant person to work with.

      If the question is “what should I do if I find I am being Bob?” I think a good start would be to acknowledge your shortcomings to your manager and work to find solutions, which it doesn’t sound like Bob is being very proactive about this.

      If your question is “how is it ok that my only choices are faking my way into a job that pays the bills but I can’t do, or doing a job that I’m fine at but won’t put a roof over my head?” Then I think the answer is, it’s not ok. And I’m sorry you’re in this position. The other folks on this thread have some good suggestions, but likely nothing you haven’t thought of before. Best of luck to you.

      Reply
      1. k

        The question is “I am Bob; what do I do from now until death?” Bringing up shortcomings does not seem like it would accomplish anything because these skills are explicitly called “innate skills” in the question, and whether or not they really are innate or trainable, it doesn’t matter if people believe them to be innate.

        Reply
        1. Close Bracket

          “I am Bob; what do I do from now until death?”

          Are you succeeding at what you are doing now? Keep doing it. Bob may well be unsuited to teapot design management, but OP says nothing about him being bad at teapot painting. He should stick with teapot painting. You should stick with what you are doing.

          “it doesn’t matter if people believe them to be innate.”

          It matters if *you* believe them to be innate. There is a correlation between fixed mindsets and growth mindsets and whether someone is able to change characteristics thought to be innate. Of course, it matters whether you get the right feedback and coaching. If OP just fixes Bob’s messes and never tells him, “Hey Bob, you need to watch the urgency on these requirements and prioritize according to that so you don’t waste time and damage relationships,” well, then Bob will never grow even if he does have a growth mindset.

          I don’t know how neurotype impacts a growth mindset. Maybe it means that you can develop but will never be a time management master, much like I can train to run faster than I do, but I will never run as fast as Castor Semenya.

          Reply
          1. k

            I should probably clarify. (This is part of what I meant about being bad at communication, even text.) Regardless of whether these skills are innate, and regardless of whether I believe they are innate, if the equivalent of the OP in this question believes they are innate, then there is nothing that “bringing up one’s shortcomings” can accomplish, because in their mind, they are fixed, permanent shortcomings, to which there are no solutions.

            Reply
            1. Cordoba

              One option is to bring them up not in the context of “how do we change these shortcomings” but rather “how do we work around these shortcomings”.

              Example: I work with a good technician who is very colorblind. It was valuable for him to inform me of this, not because we can do anything to “cure” his colorblindness but rather so that we can use work-arounds such as me not giving him diagrams etc that have information encoded solely in colors. His other skills and quality of work are such that (even with the colorblindness) he’s a great colleague and I’m happy to make this small accommodation in order to keep working with him successfully.

              So if you are a Bob, one approach might be:
              1) Realistically assess your abilities and limitations. It sounds like you’ve already done this.
              2) Search for positions and types of work that benefit from those abilities and are not strongly impacted by those limitations. If you struggle with collaboration and communication, try to find some work that is largely individual.
              3) For the inevitable situations where those limitations are an issue, work with people to identify and implement work-arounds that minimize their impact. You’ll have to communicate with somebody sometimes, what’s the easiest and most effective way for you to do it? Can that be the standard approach?

              Reply
            2. Washi

              What I meant by bringing up shortcomings is that if there are very clearly problems with your work (as with Bob) you can either be the person who is underperforming but demonstrating that you are actively working on those problems, or you can be both underperforming and seemingly oblivious to what’s going wrong, which is much more concerning.

              It’s not like being honest about your struggles is 100% going to save you every time, it’s that NOT doing that can be even worse. And even if someone believes certain skills are innate, I think you can still try to show that while these things will never come naturally to you, you are putting strategies in place to bring yourself up to standard. A lot of people on here have talked about how time management or attention to detail will never be their strong suit, but that they’ve developed systems for themselves to compensate.

              Again, it may not be enough, but especially if you have other skills that you bring to the role, or even if it would be hard to find someone as reliable and pleasant as you, then some managers will be more understanding and ready to work with you.

              Reply
            3. Not A Manager

              I see two issues here. One is, “can these so-called innate skills be remediated,” and the second is, “if they can’t be, then what are my options?”

              I wouldn’t assume that just because some people refer to these as innate skills, or just because Bob personally couldn’t be remediated, that you yourself can’t improve in these skills. Can you talk to your own supervisors about clear, specific, tangible skills you could be working on? Or can you research more generally what skills you think you would need to move into roles that would provide you with more economic security?

              Once you’ve identified what you want to work on, there are a variety of options from targeted therapies, to peer group support, to things like improv classes or Toastmasters, that you can try. I’m not saying that all of those are accessible to everyone, or that any of them will work for you, but these are all options to answering the first question.

              You’ve jumped to the second question, which is, “if I can’t get these skills for whatever reason, what should I do?” In that case I think you should really find out your own strengths (which again your supervisors might help you identify), and lean into them. If they won’t take you as far as you’d like in your current job or in your current field, what can you lateral into? What other skills can you acquire that complement your current strengths, rather than trying to remediate your weaknesses?

              I’m sympathetic to your indictment of our current system. I agree with your question and with your premises. I hope you find some options that provide you with more economic security than you have right now.

              Reply
            4. Close Bracket

              I know what you meant. What I am saying is that your improvement is not dependent on what another person believes. Demonstrating your improvement is also not dependent on what another person believes.

              I think you are projecting a lot from this example onto your own situation and blowing it way out of proportion. OP has sent Bob to training and invested a lot in his development, but your take away fixates on the word “innate.” Clearly even though OP believes that the traits are innate, they have invested in development anyway and took two years to conclude that Bob isn’t going to improve. The take away should not be, “I won’t be able keep a roof over my head bc I can’t go into management bc somebody who is not my manager thinks things like time management are innate.” That’s catastrophizing. A better take away would be to find ways to advance that play to the strengths that you do have, make sure you demonstrate how you are absorbing and applying any training you get, and take feed back constructively. We can’t all be managers, after all. Most people are not.

              Reply
            5. Minocho

              “Regardless of whether these skills are innate, and regardless of whether I believe they are innate, if the equivalent of the OP in this question believes they are innate, then there is nothing that “bringing up one’s shortcomings” can accomplish, because in their mind, they are fixed, permanent shortcomings, to which there are no solutions.”

              So, given this, yes, there is little you can do about to progress in your current situation if your manager believes that certain skills are innate, and they believe you do not possess these skills at a level high enough to be promoted. But you can change your situation.

              Let’s say I am a teapot painter. My boss has expressed that she believes I will only ever be a mediocre teapot painter, and this is innate and cannot change. She also thinks I am a poor communicator, and cannot ever become something like a Teapot Painting Team Lead because of this. Let’s also say that I disagree. I believe I can improve my teapot painting skills, and I believe I can improve my communication and leadership skills. Maybe I won’t ever be the Teapot Painting Guru Master, but I can get better. I work on that, in any way I can, and I start looking for other Teapot Painting teams to join, either with my company or another, since this manager has an idea about me, and will turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy if I let her.

              I have done this myself. I actually made the conscious decision to focus on my favorite hobby, D&D, specifically being the dungeon master, because I find it fun, and I believed it would help me shore up my communication skills, my emotional intelligence, and my leadership (all the responsibility of herding cats [er…D&D gamers] and no real power!). My bosses in two jobs in row had formed stereotypes about me that were harmful to my career advancement, so I had to move on to advance – but I kept working on shoring up some of my skills that I felt were weak and holding me back, while leveraging the stuff I was already strong at (nerd stuff mostly!) to keep myself gainfully employed. I believe it has worked. I did get promoted in my new job this spring in a direction I had been working toward.

              I think it’s important to try to think positively in these cases. Rather than focusing on how bad I was at normal social interaction, I looked for ways to improve, and believed I could improve. Rather than focus on how I wasn’t getting a fair shake where I was, I got what I could out of my current position, and looked for opportunities to move to a place where old opinions and assumptions others had made about me couldn’t hold me back.

              For what it’s worth, I believe you’re a clear communicator here. Don’t feel defeated. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion of you stop you from going after what you want.

              Reply
            6. The LW

              k, I can give you an example from today if it helps explain what I mean about “innate”:

              Bob sent me an email saying “Great-Grandboss needs to talk to you about some major concerns she has about New Product Launch” with some other ominous phrasing thrown in. I was incredibly confused – there’s no concerns that I’m aware of around New Product, and if there were, Great-Grandboss wouldn’t be talking to me about them, and she certainly wouldn’t tell Bob to tell me about them.

              I reached out to Great-Grandboss for clarification, and she was mystified – she’d never spoken to Bob and wasn’t aware of any problems around the product launch that would impact my team.

              As it turned out, a member of the product team mentioned to Bob in the breakroom that Great-Grandboss was scheduling a meeting with ALL of the management team to talk about media response around New Product.

              If that doesn’t sound like something you’d do, you’re probably fine.

              Reply
    8. JSPA

      The answer may be more political than managerial in nature, but that part’s not suited to this site.

      So, disparate straws:

      If you have the makings of a knowledge specialist of any kind, that can point you to a field where advancement does not require supervisory activity, real-time collaboration or management skills.

      “Marry someone more employable who both compliments and complements the skills you do have / move someplace with a lower cost of living” are…going to land spectacularly badly with a lot of people. Not that they’re wrong, if they happen to work out for you. Alternatively / possibly more achievably / perhaps less offensively: less owned stuff, more room-mates, more shared stuff.

      If you’re happy with your job and decent at it, but it does not pay enough, let your employer know that, while you’re aware you’re not really management material, you’re very eager to find suitable tasks that can incrementally be added to your job description, in ways that would justify a periodic boost to your paycheck.

      See if there are “triple/quadruple bottom line” companies or nonprofits formed in part (or primarily) to promote employment for whatever your neurological “type” is, if relevant.

      Some private companies have an explicit religious or sociological mandate to pay well at at ranks, and hire people who may not be easily promotable. Unions used to be very loyal to their members who had some limitations, but deep desire to succeed, including helping to train them (above and beyond what a boss would have time to do) to work out strategies to compensate for what doesn’t come naturally. (Some level of time awareness and time management can be enforced by routine, even if it’s entirely unnatural to your brain’s normal function. It’s even possible to make and use rubrics for effective communication, depending on the job. And better collaboration can sometimes be as easy as relinquishing the anxiety-driven urge to control other people’s choices.)

      A side craft that can be monetized can make the difference between sinking and swimming. Depends what your outside skills are, and whether you trust yourself with machinery, sharp objects, and whether you find any particular craft engrossing and soothing or boring and enervating. Now, if you’re someplace with a high cost of living, no way spending three Saturdays a month doing “pay what you like” face painting (or balloon animals or knitting beer coozies from recycled yarn or dog walking or picking up things that should not have been put out for the trash and selling them from your garage or on ebay) is going to float you; in other places, it might. (All come with caveats: if you might say something inappropriate to kids, don’t paint faces. If you have any hoarding tendencies or neighbors who don’t care for you, don’t run a perpetual garage sale. etc.)

      If there’s some task or pattern of tasks that you communicate easily about, or focus on with far less effort than most tasks, and it’s at all in demand, that’s a bit of real luck.

      People who find many things hard often pigeonhole themselves as “screw ups,” and discount the things that they’re good at, or even the gonzo things that they’re magically excellent at as, “stuff anyone can do.” If you’re one of the lucky ones who can easily mentally rotate objects in space, automatically “see” how many outlets will be needed above all those new counters, visualize a page of text clearly enough to read it off from memory, remember every new face, or know exactly how much of substance A will fit into irregularly shaped container B…most people can’t do any of those things. Now: who needs that thing that you can do? Find them.

      But really, so long as the minimum wage remains so far behind the living wage (and much further behind the real dollar value of the minimum wage, as originally instituted), people who are committed to working hard–but within the context of neuronal differences–are going to face a lot of (counterproductive, dis-motivational) anxiety and the need to cobble together a range of life hacks to stay afloat.

      Reply
    9. Mary

      If you are Bob — unable to advance but performing perfectly adequately as a teapot painter– and teapot painting ages aren’t keeping up with inflation, then please look into joining a union! Bob is still working: he may not have the skills for the promotion he wants, but if the only way to keep up with inflation is to get promoted into a new role, then the pay structures in your organisation are badly fvcked and the only answer to that is collective action.

      I realise that there may not be a union for you to join and obviously by definition you cannot unionise by yourself, but it may be worth looking into. “I am working but not getting paid enough to live” is a problem that can currently only be solved by changing jobs or unionising.

      Reply
    10. Minocho

      Well, if you’re not good at those things, and believe you’ve reached your best point there, focus on what you are good at, and maximize that.

      My father is an investigator. He’s also a perfectionist. His current job is as an insurance fraud investigator. This job does not meld well with his perfectionism. He knows someone is lying to collect insurance. he knows he can catch them at it…eventually. He know he can, with enough time an effort put together a case. He writes his reports so well that lawyers always want his cases, because he’s practically put it in legalese for them, and he know all the crossed “t”s and “i” dots that were needed for a good case. BUT – there are times the company says “yeah, but your level of investigation plus court costs will be $12 k. The policy is for about $6k. Meh. Let him cheat. It’s cheaper.” This causes my dad lots of stress and grief. He’s often pushed to be less thorough and more efficient. Mad mesh of personality and job.

      He used to work for the government, investigating people’s backgrounds for security clearance. Here, his thoroughness and perfectionist tendencies served him very well – the government was a lot less consumed with efficiency than perfection. You don’t want to have a really high throughput with a 2% failure rate to catch spies and / or double agents.

      Everyone has strengths. Find yours. Lean into them, and make them work for you!

      Reply
    11. The Man, Becky Lynch

      A lot of people who lack those skills still keep a roof over their head and food on the table. It’s because they manage to get by with what they can excel at and live within the means of whatever salary they are able to get with their skill set. I’ve seen many people who have challenges due to their cognitive impairments succeed and pay their bills.

      You may not be able to get to the top of a company, you may be capped within a lower salary range but the reality in the world is that we aren’t all cut out to be the top or even close to it. Yes it’s a struggle. Yes it’s unfair, just like life is in general.

      It’s all about finding your spot and knowing that there will always be limits in a variety of different ways. I say this as a person who comes from parents who are both laborers, who raised a family on the broken backs they now nurse. My brother is a high school drop out who makes decent enough money as a chef because he wasn’t cut out for the “office” work and wasn’t cut out for construction either, it suits him well for a variety of different reasons.

      Society isn’t going to change very much, not in our lifetimes, it takes longer than that. Especially if you’re in the US. Sometimes you dont’ have bootstraps to pull yourself up by, it’s the crude reality. And we break people even further down by telling them that they can achieve anything they want to, sometimes the answer is there’s nothing more you can do besides figure out how to live on the lower rung salary.

      The short answer is keep grinding. Keep trying. Do whatever you can but life is hard, cold and unfair.

      Reply
    12. Jules the 3rd

      A bit of practical advice: Watch the job market and when it’s hot, switch companies. When it’s cool, do training.

      It does help to be in a field that pays decently and to stay current in it (eg, be a sys admin, and take classes in security / docker or go into construction and learn green skills). But my general experience across several industries is that companies pay more for new employees than they do in raises for existing employees, even in the same jobs.

      So, maybe job hunt right now as the market is blazing hot. I do expect a slowdown or even recession within 12 months, though, so factor that in.

      Reply
    13. Natatat

      This may not be your situation, but up until very recently (like 3 months ago), I had assumed that the only way to move up in the work world was to go into management. Now, this may not be true of your field, but I came to realize that there are many people (granted I work in a large org) making quite good salary on par with managers as basically subject matter experts. Their role requires a high degree of responsibility and consequence of error, but they don’t manage anyone. I realized that I can still move up without becoming a manager, which I don’t feel I am ready/suited for. Perhaps this is possible where you work? Or you could find an org that is larger in your field that has this possibility?

      Reply
    14. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy

      How are you at physical stuff? There is a whole realm of work out there that requires skill but not book smarts. It’s called blue collar. Some of it can pay pretty decent: I took a quick look at Indeed in my medium cost-of-living city. Welders pull $15 to $25, electricians $20-$40 an hour. Median income comes to $30/hr. And there is one ad for a master plumber paying $75-$120K!

      Now, these jobs don’t have much prestige. And you maybe don’t want to keep doing them when your back gets old and creaky. Maybe they aren’t intellectually stimulating. But there’s nothing degrading about them. And there is nothing NOTHING wrong with making your living doing them.

      Reply
    15. Gazebo Slayer

      Thank you for posting this, k. I am much like you, and I’ve learned from experience that there are no jobs I’m truly good at.

      At the moment I am doing gig work that basically doesn’t care about my crappy work history. I’m working more hours than I’d like, and my pay is not great; I feel like the only thing I can really do to make up for my shortcomings is to say no to very little. You want me to work 8 am to midnight, I’ll do it.

      Reply
  14. Louise

    I really believe that work ethic trumps innate talent 9/10 times, but this seems like one of those times that no matter how much work and effort Bob puts in, it’s not going to get to the level it needs to be. It does make me wonder how seriously he’s been taking feedback — if he’s getting defensive I wonder if he’s sort of putting it aside as not legitimate and pouring a bunch of effort into things that *he* deems as most important (aka things he’s already comfortable with/good at). It might be one of those situations where he genuinely is putting in a bunch of effort, but I wonder if he’s actually been directing that effort to what everyone is telling him to work on.

    Either way, I hope you’re able to have this convo without him getting too upset and that you’re able to invest in other employees who will really thrive!

    Reply
    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      The thing that tends to throw up the stop block on work-ethic being enough is when it comes to the ability to adapt, change and take direction. It could be he grossly underestimated what it takes to do the design job, including the herding of other people who have to do things to pull the whole project together. When you struggle with communication skills, you cannot be in a project management setup.

      A lot of times someone will see someone doing the job they think they want and think it’s so easy. “Jane just tells Jim to pull these reports and then tells Nancy to order the paint swatches. Sally then just pulls together some sketches. Then BOOM! new teapot for sale! I can totally do Jane’s job.” When it’s much deeper and detailed, the details aren’t obvious until you realize that there are specs to learn, programs to learn, many little details that people take years mastering to make their jobs look easy from the outside because they’re at the point of muscle memory.

      So without the patience and ability to learn each step, along with good communication and understanding of what others are pushing you to do, you really can fall flat even though you have a desire to work hard, show up and grind until the very end of time.

      It works 9 times out of 10 because most people are in touch with their limits as well!

      Reply
    2. Colette

      I agree that work ethic trumps talent most of the time, but I don’t see the problem here as being a lack of talent. It seems more like it’s an inability to take feedback, work well with others, and put the effort in at the beginning to understand the requirements and priority. Those aren’t talents – hard work will absolutely succeed in those areas – but you have to put in the hard work and recognize your failures.

      Reply
    3. BethDH

      “pouring a bunch of effort into things that *he* deems as most important (aka things he’s already comfortable with/good at)” — thank you, this is such a good way to put a problem I see a lot and have myself. Going to need to think a lot about how I can use that awareness to be better about it for my own work and in how I give feedback . . .

      Reply
  15. animaniactoo

    “For example, a non-urgent request was tacked on toward the end of Bob’s current project. It was made clear when the request was sent that it was out of scope for our current targets, but that it should be addressed by the end of next quarter. Bob immediately rounded up several team members, phrased this as an urgent request, and asked them to step away from their current tasks to ensure that this request was completed within the week.”

    As a separate matter, I’d be curious to know how this issue was handled with Bob. Because the more I think about this, the more it feels like Bob is majorly lacking in some critical thinking skills and that’s playing out all over his “communication, time management, and collaboration”.

    Coupled with his defensiveness on actionable feedback, it sounds like you have somebody here who would realistically only make progress with somebody who was working more on developing his critical thinking skills than giving feedback on what was good and what was bad. It’s a very different style of coaching and would involve far more questioning to get HIM to see the issue and the solution, and less explaining and handling fallout for him. Simply telling him to do it, or not to do X in the future is not getting through to somebody who doesn’t understand why or why not. He literally lacks the analytic development to figure out what the most probable results are when he is making decisions about anything other than his own schedule, so nothing will get anywhere until that is developed.

    For example, in the situation above, I would be asking why Bob had treated a non-urgent task as an urgent task. I’d be asking him to explain why it was more important in his view than [X, Y, Z] results of waiting until next quarter as directed. I’d be asking what he thought the impact would be of changing the status, what pieces he thought would be adjusted to make it happen, etc. What about possibility of Y? Would that be reasonable to expect? How can he adjust in future to take Y into account?

    Asking whether he thought the result was worth the choice he’d made. And then I’d be asking him to figure out how to retract it and update the rest of the team – draw up the e-mail, and let me review it before he sent it. Make sure he knew that sending it before letting me review it would be a death knell for any additional help from me and if he wants to continue to have opportunities he will come back to me with that and we’ll go over it and when I feel it’s in good shape, then he can send it out under his name. Because he’d need to break that down in his own head – learn to explore the possibilities. And then a chance to course correct EVEN IF he’s being forced on to that course by me – he needs to see the results of what happens differently when he does it this way. Obviously, sending out that e-mail may take longer than you have in terms of notifying others – in which case I’d send a brief notification: “Please note that EC project will not be moving forward at this time. Bob will update within the week.”

    However, it is also true that teaching critical thinking skills to somebody who is lacking in them is a major project and you’d have to think really hard about whether the attempt is worthwhile. You could try the different coaching style a couple of times, but if you didn’t see some very immediate results from it then that’s something that might need to happen in a therapeutic relationship. And his manager cannot be his therapist.

    Reply
    1. Serin

      I see two common stories that could explain that particular error of Bob’s:

      1. Someone above me told me to do this. The way you do a job is that when someone above you tells you to do something, you drop everything and get it done. Prioritizing isn’t my job, it’s the job of the people above me; my job is to do what they tell me.

      2. If getting it done by the 30th is good, then getting it done tomorrow has to be twice as good, right?

      Reply
      1. JSPA

        Or, gumption. “Wow! they finally trusted me with something totally new that’s all mine! I’ll show them how great I am by blowing it out of the water, and in record time!”

        Reply
      2. pamela voorhees

        I would second #1, along with “I very much want to do this management job, and I do not like my current job. Because getting the management job is my priority, and I am unhappy doing my current job, that means that the management task is my priority instead of doing my current disliked tasks.”

        Reply
  16. ToS

    Bob sounds like he’s in a version of hell, and chances are, his “not taking feedback well” is exacerbated by the fishbowl experience of navigating work experiences with his colleagues as a non-verbal greek chorus.

    Does the org have a Toastmasters group? That’s the type of sandbox that lets people test things out and network, building confidence, even if it’s to go from Subject Matters Expert to Better Subject Matter Expert…instead of Subject Matter Expert now with Management Responsibilities. It is also less intensive than one-on-one mentoring.

    Reply
  17. ThinMint

    OP, no matter how well you ace this conversation, Bob will likely be unhappy and need some time. Hold firm in your expectations about behavior/reaction/retaliation but otherwise, just do your best.

    Reply
  18. Myrin

    I’m reminded a lot of the related-but-not-the-same issue of the many people I encountered during my school and university time who would always go on about how they put so much time and effort into writing that paper/preparing that presentation/studying for that test, how come they still only got a mediocre mark? Well, ususally because, despite all the time and effort they put into Thing, they were still really bad at it.
    Which is understandably frustrating and can get demoralising very fast! But it also doesn’t mean that you should just be handed stuff because you want it and are willing to work for it.

    Reply
    1. HigherEd on Toast

      As a teacher, I think something else- specific in this case to essays, since I teach writing- is that a person can genuinely put more effort into something than they’ve ever put before and it still doesn’t fulfill requirements. I worked with a student last semester who became extremely frustrated because she said she was putting a lot of effort into writing and not noticeably improving. I finally sat her down and asked her to tell me exactly what she had been doing and how long each step had taken her, and it came out that she had done no pre-writing, had started the first draft five minutes before the class where it was due, had not used any of the required in-class sources, and had tried to do research only through Google despite being told that wouldn’t work and given a list of alternatives.

      I think that student was in fact working harder in my class than she had in other English classes she’d taken, and I know, because she told me, that she was very comfortable with Google, not the other databases, and that she tended to procrastinate. But it still wasn’t enough by itself to let her write a passing paper. (She ended up writing a low-C-but-passing paper once I made it clear that she couldn’t continue to simply ignore some requirements of the paper and let her have some time in my office to work with her laptop on research so she could ask me any questions she had. That time included mandating that she put her phone away, since it was a big source of her procrastination).

      Reply
      1. Samwise

        Yes. This happens a lot — even when a student is working a lot harder and and putting in a lot more time, it’s still not ENOUGH time and effort to do well.

        Reply
      2. Jennifer Thneed

        I am so grateful to the 9th grade history teacher who had us do a research project, and each tiny stage was graded at very short intervals. Pick a topic, decide how to do research, actual index cards with notes on them, very crappy first draft, halfway decent second draft, final draft. I think the typed-up final draft got the largest portion of the grade, but we simply couldn’t skip all the earlier bits and get a decent grade on that project.

        Reply
    2. Cordoba

      I’m of the opinion that (in a professional context) “hard work” is by itself meaningless. Why would I care how hard somebody works instead of how good their outputs are?

      I don’t want a surgeon or an airline pilot who *works hard* and *really tries* unless the outcome of all of that striving is that they actually get a good result at the important thing I’m paying them to do. If you don’t land the plane safely no amount of “But I really worked hard at it” will fix that.

      I have co-workers who work hard and really try, but get mediocre results. I have other colleagues with the same job who produce excellent work without any unusual effort or stress. I much prefer to work with the second group of people, and don’t blame management for choosing to reward them at the expense of the first group.

      Reply
      1. WellRed

        Right? I was surprised to get negative feedback ( here, I think) about how, if someone needs to retake the bar 20 times, maybe being a lawyer is not the best idea.

        Reply
        1. Cordoba

          That definitely sounds like something that a contingent around here would react negatively to, but it seems entirely sensible to me. Not every person is good at every thing, if the thing you’ve chosen to do for a living is not also a thing you are good at then your best move may well be to pick a different thing as soon as possible.

          If somebody *wants* to take the bar exam 20 times they certainly have every right to do that, but it’s probably not the best use of their time – even if their dream is to be a lawyer. Find another dream.

          I also think it’s perfectly reasonable for a law firm to decline to hire the candidate who passed on their 21st try and instead hire the person who got it the first time. Again, I don’t want the pilot who crashed 20 times in the flight simulator before he managed to figure out landings.

          Reply
        2. fhqwhgads

          I forget the number, but I was under the impression if you fail the bar four or five times, you are not in fact allowed to take it again (this may vary slightly state to state). So it’d seem the bar association not only agrees with you but sets the threshold lower than your hypothetical.

          Reply
          1. George McGeorge, Esq

            About one third of US states have a limit on the number of times you can take their bar exam without requesting a special dispensation to take it again. Some as low as three, while others as high as six. Most states have adopted the MultiState bar exam, so you have a few more chances to retake the sections you failed independently, but still have to jump through most hoops (fees, character & fitness review, etc) to try again.

            Reply
      2. Where’s My Coffee?

        Completely agree. Much has been written about the increasing complexity of many (most?) professions. It’s reasonable to assume that some people will just not have what it takes. I could practice shooting hoops for 7 hours each day—doesn’t mean the NBA is going to come knocking at my door.

        Reply
      3. Shad

        “Work hard” is for simple, binary tasks—did you scan the item or not? (And even with that example, scanning the item is only a small portion of the job of cashier!). As soon as the job is more complex than that, “work hard” becomes an inadequate measure, because you have to achieve a huge number of interlocking tasks (taking “task” on a work hard level definition) in the proper sequence, correctly, and with the proper interaction between them in order to succeed. Letting go of something as small as “put the file in the right folder” can make a mess, slow things down, and disrupt work functionality. “Working hard” has to mean all of the tiny little subtasks, down to the is it right subroutines, in order to measure for success. And that’s not just working hard at that point.

        Reply
    3. The Man, Becky Lynch

      A lot of this comes from “participation” and “credit for effort” that some teachers have brought into fashion. It set up people for utter failure when they enter the workforce.

      I’m reminded of the new grads who want to “plead their case” instead of taking feedback properly. It’s a bad habit left over from being able to get some teachers to budge on a grade because you “see their thought process” and well that’s great…in a school setting. I don’t care to see how you got the wrong answer, unless it’s going to teach you not to do it that way next time!

      Reply
  19. Heidi

    Reading this, I’m wondering if management is still what Bob wants. It sounds like his ventures into leadership have turned out to be a pretty bad experience for him as well as his coworkers. It might worth pointing out that going into a managerial role would mean having to do a lot more of the tasks that have turned out to be upsetting and unproductive for him and way less of the activities that he’s good at (whatever they may be). It’s fine to come to the realization that something he thought he wanted isn’t at all what he imagined and take a step back.

    Reply
  20. Lora

    I have this conversation a LOT, explaining to junior engineers that the requirements for senior roles are much more business development-y and social and not a whole lot of actual engineering as much as having enough experience for a quick sniff test to make sure the numbers sound reasonable. And they definitely think that they have more skills for the role than they actually do, and I have to have the conversation that’s really a corrective type of feedback conversation: “when you did X, here’s all the things we had to do to correct it. When you did Y, here’s all the work we had to do to get it up to standard. Here’s what I was looking for…here’s the level I need to see from you, here’s the expectation.” And sometimes I have to say, “look, these expectations that I gave you, they are VERY basic. They are not advanced skills. For advanced skills in a manager I would be looking for much more.”

    About half the time they take the point. The other half….there’s a lot of “but whyyyyyyyy”. I try not to rule out anyone from any job, because hypothetically there is a company out there, somewhere, who has the structures in place to help them eventually, slowly, grow into being at least okaaaaayyyyy at that role, with much effort, right? I don’t know what company, but maybe someone who is just Not That Good in a Fortune 100 company would be an absolute rockstar working on a Hellmouth. So I try to keep it as, “here, in this company, at this time and for the foreseeable future in this organization and potentially in this field, this is how things are.”

    Reply
  21. Bad apple stinks!

    I think you’ll need to have a totally different kind of conversation. Bob needs to be fired.

    He doesn’t seem to be doing his current job right. (getting requirements, wrong, priorities wrong or maybe purposely wrong so he can show management how HE went out of his way and over delivered, cracking the whip on coworkers saying this is urgent when it wasn’t, not being able to receive feedback and work on it, etc etc) This one bad apple is breeding bad atmosphere. Let go of all the sunk cost, get rid of him.

    Reply
  22. SurprisedCanuk

    I like the LW. I think it’s great they tried to help Bob advance. However, while I think they good intention they didn’t really help Bob. They needed to be more direct with him about his shortcomings. They need to tell him he doesn’t take feedback well and that until he does it doesn’t make sense to keep offering him training and opportunities to advance. Maybe try to help him learn to communicate and plan better. Maybe using spreadsheets to better keep track of things and finding techniques for him to better communicate with the team. This sounds like a lot of work, but it’s better than watching him alienate his coworkers and mismanage projects.

    Reply
  23. RG

    Slightly off topic, but there’s nothing “innate” about using good communication, time management, or collaboration skills at work. All of those are learned things. On the off chance you keep Bob in that role, I’d suggest you expect him to learn those things and put them into practice.

    Reply
    1. WellRed

      I disagree these things can be learned by everyone. Some people genuinely suck at time management and communication.

      Reply
      1. Shad

        Even we can get better than our starting stat with practice! I’m never going to be perfect at time management or speak like Obama, but practice has allowed me to anticipate how long a task should take, prioritize to some degree, and be able to adjust my expectations as I go (as long as I write everything down and know what kind of tasks and priorities are on my plate at any given time). And I’ve gotten significantly better at both initial communication and at the kind of checks and redirects to make sure what others hear matches what I’m saying.
        Our cap may be lower and the mechanisms we rely on for success may be more involved, but not being able to excel doesn’t mean we can’t improve to a perfectly adequate level for most applications.

        Reply
        1. RG

          Exactly. I struggle with time management, so what do I do? I learn strategies and systems to help me with that. It takes a lot of effort, yes, but it’s something. Like you said, it doesn’t have to be the best, just acceptable enough.

          Reply
      2. Cordoba

        They may “suck” at these things but they can probably still improve at least somewhat over whatever level they’re at now. There are few cases where a person genuinely can’t be even just a *little bit* better at something than they are now.

        I have no musical talent whatsoever. Still, if I practiced playing an instrument 1 hour a day for 6 months I would definitely be better at playing that instrument than I currently am. Somebody with a natural affinity for music would learn much more with that same amount of effort, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t learn enough to materially improve on my current state.

        Reply
    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      It drastically depends on the person you’re dealing with. I’ve seen it over and over again, people beating themselves up and truly trying to learn these things and it’s impossible for them. There is a natural quality to it, however I mean sure, it’s not like breathing, I suppose if you want to be that hardlined about it.

      Reply
      1. RG

        My comment was more so on OPs part – listen, if someone is struggling with things like communication and time management skills, then point them to resources to improve them. Soft skills can be learned in the same way hard skills can. But we shouldn’t just wing our hands because Bob should just “get it”.

        Reply
  24. The LW

    Thank you, everyone! There’s a lot of great stuff here for me to chew on.

    As several commenters have guessed, Bob is actually really good at his current job, and spends 30+ relatively low-stress hours a week on his core functions. It’s only when he starts the side projects that things have gone off the rails. He has received A LOT of feedback on the work he’s done so far – so much so that the prospect of getting feedback is what causes him to lash out at others. We’ve had a few conversations about that as well. The last one was disciplinary in nature with a strong warning that this behavior would cost him his job if it continued.

    Some additional background information, my organization places a lot of cultural value on continuous education, cross-functional training, and promotion from within. It’s not unusual for an employee to receive financial or other assistance training for a job that isn’t especially closely related to the work that they were hired to do, although we do try to keep that assistance in line with the primary goals of the company (no underwater basketweaving classes unless you’re making a basket-themed teapot). It’s a program that lots of employees have taken advantage of, myself included! Over the years, I’ve helped several of my teapot painters transition into lots of other roles (IT, marketing, training, you name it). Most of the time, employees pick learning paths and career goals that are at least somewhat in line with their existing skills. I’m not really sure why Bob is so fixated on spout design, let alone spout design management, but it is what he’s consistently wanted and the official training and mentoring he’s been given are not extraordinary compared to what others have received.

    Honestly, I suspect that a lot of Bob’s frustrations are related to seeing other coworkers promoted or transferred into their preferred roles over the last year.

    Reply
    1. voyager1

      Wow. That is some context. Maybe asking him about why he is so interested in design management is so important to him. But if he has been disciplined then I think it is time to cut your losses.

      Reply
    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      I wonder if he got fixated because he thought it was going to be pretty easy. Then got in there and it was rough waters…then he just started paddling around like a drowning victim. That can lead to people digging in their heels and swearing that “I can do it. I WILL DO IT.” even as they slip under the water in front of your face as you’re holding out a stick for them.

      I wish that this could have been curbed for him earlier and he could have used the funds for something else that he may have done great it =(

      Reply
    3. AcademiaNut

      It sounds like it’s time for a basic but fairly blunt conversation, then. He’s really good at his core job, but he’s not working out at spout design, and you can’t put any more resources into training him for it. In the future, he will still have development opportunities that aren’t management based. And then take him off the new duties completely. No more training, no more assignments – let him go back to his core duties and let things calm down. I’d do this conversation on a Friday afternoon to give him the weekend to react in private – but if he’s doing outburts/sulking at work, that needs to be addressed firmly.

      And yeah, it’s going to be a hard conversation, and Bob isn’t going to react well. I can sympathize with his frustration – he really wants this, he’s trying hard, he’s watching other people succeed in similar endeavors, but he’s failing. Unfortunately, he’s so emotionally invested in this that I don’t think he’s able to back down from it himself, so you’re going to have to pull him off.

      Reply
    4. Observer

      Well, it’s a good thing that his last conversation was disciplinary in nature, because that gives you a bit of a platform.

      Basically, you need to tell him that you’ve come to the conclusion that he simply does not have requisite skills, especially the management side skills, to succeed at the new position and that you cannot invest any more resources into this.

      Reply
  25. Thankful for AAM

    LW, is Bob more interested in a new role, in managing, or in more money as he sees his peers rise?

    This thread makes me want to know if most of you have a path to higher pay without moving into managing?

    I work for a city and the pay when you start is always at the bottom of the range for that role whether you are a recent grad or experienced. You move up in pay by cost of living increases only, no merit raises, so longevity is the main path to more salary. You can apply for a higher role, of course, but those are usually management roles and you might not want to manage.

    Are there other pathways to more income for Bob if that is what he wants?

    Reply
    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      The higher you get in an organization, you may not directly manage people but yeah, you manage projects, which involve people or you manage accounts, which involve people.

      The idea of no merit raises and just “stay around if you want more money, here are some COL scraps for you” sounds absolutely awful. But I’m a business person by nature, so if I’m not getting cash incentives to do my best work, you’ll get some awful return on that money because why? I only got good grades in school because my dad paid me for them, otherwise I would have just phoned it in with C’s.

      Reply
      1. Thankful for AAM

        There are no paths to project management in my city (my specialized dept of my city). Or, over time was do get to manage more projects but there is no title or salary bump with that.

        I do more for the same pay as the new grads/hires.

        Reply
    2. katherine

      No. The way it works in my field, and the vast majority of fields in my experience, is that within the first 2 years or so, either you get promoted (within the same company or somewhere else) or you get fired/laid off. Actually, even if you get promoted there’s a good chance you’ll be fired or laid off anyway, but at least you’ll have more leverage to find another job.

      Reply
  26. StaceyIzMe

    I wish you had a time machine, as well, so that you could go back to the first inkling of trouble with necessary skills and objectively evaluate his intransigence and make a determination to step back from investing so much time, effort and resources in this project. It sounds to me like you and the team have worked harder at helping him by far than he has at picking up on the things you’ve tried to teach. Whether that’s an innate trait that isn’t/ won’t ever be responsive to efforts at improvement (doubtful, in my view) or that’s a trait founded on some very poor assumptions about how professional life works and how entitled he is to work in this role (likely, in my view)- it’s irrelevant. In your shoes, I’d worry much less about managing his feelings (an existential energy suck that isn’t in your control and almost certainly not in your purview or that of anyone else but him) and cut directly to the situation as it is. Whatever reasonably straightforward, brief and truthful version of the facts that you put out, that coherent and central message is what you want to stick to. It seems like you’ve used up an exhaustive amount of time in a useless attempt to help someone who can’t or won’t “get it” and your energy would honestly be better spent helping your strong performers to recover from the frustration of having to deal with him. If he leaves? Good. Seriously, that would be completely ideal, based on the situation you’ve described and would prevent you from having to manage the recalibration of his unrealistic perception of how things are going or how they should be done.

    Reply
  27. Alex

    This sounds eerily like something that is going on on my team–are you my manager?! Lol.

    If your situation is anything like mine, Bob’s behavior is probably taking a huge toll on the team’s overall morale. It’s really demoralizing to see a colleague that you know is awful (and colleagues who work alongside Bob probably realized his incompetence early on) given a lot of opportunities and responsibilities just because he happened to be the most senior or whatever. You mentioned that other team members have easily picked up on stuff Bob has been trying at, and that a) what is happening on my team and b) really frustrating for those team members.

    In addition, in my case, there are projects that, if our “Bob” were capable, would be assigned to Bob, but now my boss has to take them on herself. Even though she has other perfectly capable direct reports, it would be bad optics to give “Bob” a fancy title, but then give all the most sophisticated and important projects to the more junior and lower paid employees. This is bad for everyone–it is bad for my boss, who can’t offload any of her work and has too much on her plate, and it is bad for Bob, who isn’t learning and growing into a sustainably advanced role. It is also bad for the rest of the team, who could really take on a lot more advanced work, but needs to be held back so as not to surpass Bob’s abilities.

    It is SO frustrating and I’m job searching over it.

    Reply
  28. Bad Hare Day

    I manage a “Bob.” About a year ago I took a chance and hired a young person, without much experience but a lot of enthusiasm for teapots. There were some small red flags in the interview but I chalked it up to nerves/inexperience. 3 (!) references were good. Well, it turned out that this person has pretty serious executive functioning challenges, terrible judgment (catfishing coworkers!), and they have been a very poor performer in their role. They were put on a PIP earlier this year (with twice weekly check-ins, coaching, extended training, and accommodations) and have improved so that in a good month, they make 75% of their goals (before it was closer to 33-50%). However, recently they have backslid (direct insubordination among other things) and were on the verge of being terminated (write-up was drafted) when they gave notice.

    They have accepted a new job at another large organization that is a significant promotion (think teapot production assistant to manager of teapot production). I know through the office gossip grapevine that they significantly misrepresented their accomplishments in this role (which were virtually nil) during the interview process. Apparently, they claimed in their interview that they increased teapot production by 60% over baseline. I don’t believe anyone in my current org would have provided them with a positive reference; they have alienated their coworkers through well-intentioned but misguided attempts to “help” that end up creating more work for everyone.

    Now they are bragging about their role in a big project at my org on social media. Not only did they not work on this project, every attempt to join the project team was turned down, and it got to the point that we wrote them up for continuing to try to “contribute” to the project despite repeated warnings that it was not their role. This ended in protests that the project was “important to my professional development” and then tears and promises to never mention the project again.

    I do not believe that this person has the ability to be successful in this kind of role and I have no doubt that they will crash and burn at their new org. However, they can present a competent facade for a short while and they also do a lot of networking, and have even been invited to sit on boards/committees, present at conferences, etc. Unfortunately I think part of the problem is that they do not have any awareness of their lack of capability. I’ve given direct feedback to this person, set clear goals and directives, and it just doesn’t seem to phase them. They have a passion for teapots and will not be stopped!

    I’m at a total loss how this person who has struggled so much just doesn’t seem to get it, and how they could have convinced new org (which is big and prestigious in our community) to hire them. In fact, they got lots of interviews at many places. I’ve totally lost any lingering faith in the hiring process over this.

    Reply
    1. Bluesboy

      I just left a job where I had a similar colleague, and essentially the issue was pretty close to your ‘they can present a competent facade for a short while’.

      Our version has a good generic knowledge of the industry and interviews well. They also have a CV with some impressive past employers on it. But the impressive names are all fairly short term…

      Unfortunately, where I live it’s almost impossible to ask for references because of privacy laws, so it isn’t easy to root out these people. And that means that you can’t really know how much they contributed to ‘x’ project or ‘y’ operation.

      Anyway…are you going to ask your version to stop claiming to have worked on your big project? I don’t think I would want their name attached to it, although I can see it might be a bit awkward.

      Reply
  29. Renee

    Sadly, this is the reality for a lot of people who have a “dream job”. A lot of the time their dream job does not match up with their skill set. I know so many people who want to go to medical school or PA school, but they don’t have the grades, mental fortitude, or super impressive resume to get accepted into something so competitive. So they spend years (some over a DECADE) applying over and over again, and getting rejected because nothing has changed. But they keep telling themself that they will get in. Eventually you have to realize your limitations and that some people are just bad/average at certain things no matter how much they practice or want it. And their is nothing wrong with that, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. But if you don’t admit that to yourself, you get into this endless loop of insanity-doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

    Reply
  30. Ohlawd

    Oh dear. I’ve had a Bob on a team I managed a few years ago. The folks above me were so convinced Bob was the only person worth developing that it was staggering. So many good people left and now the .org Has serious issues. They’re the fault of everyone who left, though. Not bob or his enablers. Sorry, Op.

    Reply
  31. Anon Librarian

    I wouldn’t frame this as, “He’s just not cut out for this.” I would frame it as, “We can’t move him into this role because of these issues.” Tell him what the problems are and what needs to change. Tell him that it’s significant, that your company doesn’t have more coaching resources to allocate to him, and that because of that, you can’t promote him right now.

    He might never change and he might not be cut out for it, but the truth is that you’re observing specific things in a specific setting, not his whole life and potential. So have an open conversation with him about it and let him know that those issues are currently holding him back.

    Reply
    1. AMT

      That’s a good way to phrase it. It turns it from “you’re not good enough” to “you’re not performing well enough.”

      Reply
  32. The Supreme Troll

    As I’m sure a lot of commenters have mentioned, Bob is highly successful in a role that is very rigidly structured. He appears to be doing best where to reach the goal that is expected of him, he specifically has been told what to do and specifically told what not to do.

    In management or leadership roles, you have a lot more freedom to get to the goals that are expected of you. But those goals are at a higher level to get to. And you have to use a whole lot more critical thinking, educated guessing, and the best possible judgement to reach those goals (and there is much less specific “do this/don’t do that”).

    Bob doesn’t seem to understand that this a large stair step that he’ll need to climb in order to be able to transition from a successful team member to a successful team leader.

    Reply
  33. Vanilla Nice

    Even if it’s painful, it will ultimately be to everyone’s benefit (Bob included) to be upfront with him about his limitations.

    Years ago, I was “Bob” at a dysfunctional workplace. I desperately wanted to move into another position, and it just wasn’t working out. A lot of it was due to my own weaknesses, but it also reflected on the poor quality of the organization’s training program. Unfortunately, my supervisors desperately wanted it to work out too, partly because it was unclear that they were going to find anyone better and partly because they felt that it would reflect poorly on them if I failed. This created a vicious cycle: with each new responsibility they gave me, my performance got worse, and management got more and more annoyed that I wasn’t performing at the expected level — and yet wouldn’t fire or demote me. (Like I said, this was a very dysfunctional organization).

    I eventually left the job voluntarily and found success in a similar industry (instead of being a Boutique Teapot Designer, I became a Coffeepot Design Evaluator for after-market coffee makers ) . I’m much happier in this role, and I don’t have any hard feelings toward Teapot Inc. But Teapot Inc. didn’t do itself any favors by overlooking my poor performance.

    Reply

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