updates: the employee missing key details, the needy coworker, and more

Here are three updates from past letter-writers.

1. My employee misses key details in meetings (#2 at the link)

Your advice and that of your commenters really helped. Reading the comments helped me approach the conversation with a better sense of curiosity rather than some more negative assumptions I had been carrying. The commenters proposed a lot of reasons someone who seemed otherwise capable might not be performing that I hadn’t considered. The most helpful comments were about how shadowing can affect a person’s engagement and attention in a meeting, and how a lack of context can impede understanding.

Following your advice, I had a direct conversation with him where I named the pattern and asked for his thoughts on why it might be happening. He was hesitant to respond at first, but I started prompting about possible reasons this could be happening using the examples listed by the comment section. One of them landed, and he actually opened up and revealed that he had been having trouble for months understanding the context of our specific role on projects within the broader context. He’d been getting feedback from his then line manager that he needed to do better but was feeling pretty lost and at sea on how to make those corrections. We work with many different client stakeholders, these stakeholders often have an incorrect understanding of our roles which can create confusion for new starters. He was having trouble separating out items that were in our scope to address from ones that weren’t. We’ve since identified this as a common issue with some other newer members of the team and leadership is in discussions about how to address the requirements of our training and onboarding program to deal with this issue. At the time he was onboarded our training and onboarding program was objectively failing new starters. For him specifically, we ended up solving this together in 3 ways:

1) He and I had a dedicated session to review the timeline and deliverables in projects and our role during each milestone and clear up context confusion that had come in during the less than optimal onboarding
2) I gave him fresh start on a new project with me providing active coaching in the background to build his confidence
3) I stepped back to let him step forward on the new project, in other words I took away the shadowing training wheels

I think the real solve was just having a troubleshooting conversation with him from the perspective of I want to fix this together and giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was making a good faith effort. I’ve recently received a promotion and this person is now my direct report and the time I spent helping him with this issue bought me a lot of trust as I stepped into that role. I’ve since been able to hand off a few of my projects to him as I step into a supervisory role and he’s doing really well with them.

2. How should I deal with an anxious and needy coworker?

I ended up taking Alison’s advice and declining to get involved in any of Patricia’s crises whenever possible. Whenever she would try to rope me into the latest crisis, I would redirect her to her manager. Suddenly, things became less urgent when she would have to go to her boss for them. When it did impact my job, I started documenting issues and sending them to her manager.

I ended up getting a new job and my former coworkers told me Patricia was fired shortly after I left.

3. My coworkers complained I’m not working fast enough (first update here)

I have a really great update to the situation I wrote in about last year. My whole team was eliminated in early January and it really sucked to lose my job, but after a good six months of job searching I landed a really great position. The best part is now I have benefits and I went from a wage of 17$ an hour to 24.50$ an hour. It’s a significant wage increase and I’m really happy that things are looking up, especially with my new role being full time. Thank you again for all the advice on my prior letters!

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. NameRequired*

    I love the update in #1, it’s great to see a compassionate approach to problem solving being effective and helpful to everyone involved

    1. Sloanicota*

      Onboarding is so hard, and at some jobs it’s just … weirdly difficult to get people into the flow of things. I don’t understand it but I’ve witnessed it many times. I’m glad OP built trust in this employee and saw that he just needed more direction.

      1. I'm Just Here For The Cats!!*

        Yes. At my last job there was so many abbreviations and acronyms that my head would spin. And people would just throw them out in meetings and I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. I asked about a document or handbook that would list all of them and was told it was a good idea but nothing happened. I struggled so much in the first 6 months of that job because the onboarding didn’t cover any of that information. Thats why when I started where I am now I was so thankful we have a handbook that list the different words and abbreviation.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        I blame acronyms. Every company I’ve worked at uses different ones, and there are quite a few that are so old no one remembers what they stand for. I need to hear a random set of letters at least ten times before I remember it, too.

        It can also be very confusing. I worked at one company that developed artificial intelligence, and every single meeting ended with a discussion of who should do the AI, even when the tasks were simple and didn’t need AI. It took me over a month to realize they were talking about “Action Items” (what they called tasks), not artificial intelligence.

        1. Skytext*

          LOL, I come from a background of horse breeding farms, so to me AI means Artificial Insemination

    2. Emikyu*

      Yes! This sounds like a really difficult problem to solve – when you’ve worked somewhere for a while, it’s easy to forget that some things are immediately obvious. And when you’re new, you often don’t know what you don’t know.

      Kudos to OP#1 for handling the situation so well, and from the sound of it solving a bigger problem than they knew existed at first.

    3. Connecting the dots*

      Someone once pointed out that such problems, which we often attribute to malice or incompetence, are most likely caused by a lack of knowledge. Framing the issue in this way has made me a better colleague because I now put extra effort into ensuring context is being shared properly, so people fully understand what’s being asked of them and why.

      1. Queen Ruby*

        Providing context is so so important IMO. I can do whatever assignment is given to me, and most of the time, it’ll be good work. But if I know the “why” behind it, my work is going to be so much better and I can dig in more and maybe find other areas for improvement or potential related issues that no one has thought of yet. The key is the context!

    4. Falling Diphthong*

      I think one of the most valuable things in the comment section is that the person described will be doing something that seems mystifying, and eventually someone suggests “That sounds like a phishing scam from someone pretending to be your employee” or a similar completely new context for the behavior, and it’s like a kaleidoscope shift to “Oh. Oh yeah, this would make sense if it’s that.”

    5. pally*

      Oh yes!
      It’s so, so easy to just blame the worker.

      I’m impressed with how the OP ‘dug in’, worked with the employee and discovered the issue. Then they solved the issue. Kudos all around!

      1. Dek*

        Right? The way it went from just “bit of a problem with a worker” to “actually, we kind of found an error in the system we had for new workers, and working together we really improved it for everyone!” just perfectly heartwarming!

      2. Trillian*

        And the collaboration and transparency sets an example and teaches a strategy for when that employee comes to manage his own direct reports.

    6. Nea*

      Yes! “We aren’t here to solve a problem called *you.* We are here so you and I can solve a problem.” Makes such a world of difference!

    7. Sara without an H*

      Yes, this is an example of good management in action.

      I once worked for a department head who warned me, on starting, that one of my direct reports, Julia, was useless. Julia turned out to be a pleasant and reliable worker, but the director had never actually trained her to do critical parts of her job. (He assumed that anybody with brains would just figure it out.)

      Once I actually trained her, Julia turned out to be both accurate and productive. Go figure.

    8. Momma Bear*

      I agree, and I kind of love that once it was figured out and determined that it wasn’t just a him problem but a training problem, he was given the training and able to succeed.

    9. goddessoftransitory*

      It warmed my heart! Not only was the immediate problem dealt with, a bigger one came out and also got resolved. Hooray!

    10. Distracted Librarian*

      Same. In my experience, what looks like errors or poor performance are actually caused by some kind of “system” problem: lack of training, unreasonable workload, poor handoff, etc. OP did exactly the right thing by asking questions till she found the root cause of the issue.

    11. fine tipped pen aficionado*

      I know!! I thought this was the Friday Good News post for a second. If LW is here, thank you so much for the update!

  2. Weaponized Pumpkin*

    I really enjoyed reading this update from LW1! Their employee’s experience resonates with me so much right now. I was transferred recently (not my choice) — unfamiliar context, little support/structure/direction, unclear roles, minimal onboarding — and everything is so ambiguous it’s all just swirling around me and I can’t see anything clearly. Being able to zero in on the most important pieces of info has always been my superpower, and without that I feel lost. I will reread this a couple of times and see if there’s anything actionable I can take to my boss.

    1. ZugTheMegasaurus*

      Yeah, I’ve found that a lot of shadowing is totally useless if there’s not a clear goal for the shadower to focus on. I frequently get asked to have people shadow me on a particular line of business; it’s the most complex, high-visibility, and fast-paced LOB at the company, and generally takes 18 months or longer to really learn it in depth. Most commonly I’m asked to have these people sit quietly on my calls with the wider team (think project management sort of meetings).

      The first few times I did this, the shadower was so overwhelmed by the unfamiliar concepts/language/people that they just kind of stopped processing, like their brain just went, “that’s it, we’re confused, I’m out,” haha. I started prepping them by saying they could expect to be lost and that was totally fine, and tell them to just follow along as best they can and jot down a list of everything that they didn’t understand but seemed important. Then after the call, we go through that whole list so I can explain what things mean, why they matter, how it was handled on the call and why it was done that way, which stakeholders prioritized which things, etc.

      Since I started doing it that way, I’ve noticed a huge difference in the shadowers’ reactions. Rather than being discouraged and feeling overwhelmed, they tend to be really positive and excited instead. They have way better questions and pick up on a LOT more detail when they’ve been told it’s okay to be confused and lost.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        That’s exactly how I train new people on the phones. “This is a lot to learn, do not try to keep up with me. Just watch and we’ll go over the order together when I hang up.” Once they quit panicking about falling behind they can pick things up so much faster.

      2. Weaponized Pumpkin*

        Exactly what happened to me on a couple of initial “shadowing” calls. Everything from the lingo to the context was so far out of my knowledge zone it was all just Charlie Brown’s teacher saying wah wah wah. And then my brain glazed over.

    2. Let me librarian that for you*

      That’s so hard! You don’t know what you don’t know (you just know there IS something you don’t know) so it makes it hard to frame the question. I’m in the same boat and I feel like I’m doing a lot of over explaining: “Here’s what I’m picking up but I know I’m missing something …?”

  3. Turanga Leela*

    #1 is really inspiring. Great job, OP. Taking a problem-solving approach helped you catch and fix a broader issue in your organization. This is such a great outcome.

  4. Observer*

    #1 is a great update. And it’s really nice to see that it lead to a broader problem being addressed. A win all around.

  5. Observer*

    #2 – I kind of have to laugh at hos simple the solution turns out to have been.

    I’m glad that it worked out. People like this can be really exasperating, and it’s good that you were allowed to just not make her problems yours.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      I’m relearning that lesson every day, at my job and in my personal life. All I can control is my own behavior (and even that has limits). For example, there’s an issue that impacts my work that needs to be handled at the level of my manager’s manager, and I just need to accept that there is nothing I can do to solve it.

  6. Sara without an H*

    LW#1: Yay! It’s great to see an example of good management here, for a change.

    LW#2: I went back and read your original post. You’re right — the only way to solve this issue is not to play at all and make Patricia go back to her manager for everything. I’m sorry she got fired, but I’m surprised that it took as long as it did.

    LW#3: Yeah, it sucks to be laid off, but it sounds as though you’ve landed on your feet. Best of luck for the future!

  7. Story&Clark*

    Love it #1.

    I’m hoping your report recognizes (either now or later) your invaluable management style and coaching!

  8. saskia*

    #1, I have been thrown into a far-reaching role with very little wider company context and nonexistent onboarding. Some days, it feels like I’m starting from scratch every meeting. Your approach sounds wonderful and so helpful to a person in my position. It must be a huge relief to your report that they can now actually perform to the best of their abilities because the roadblocks have been cleared, and it sounds like you’ve learned a valuable lesson that will serve you throughout your career. Awesome :)

  9. A Datum*

    helped me approach the conversation with a better sense of curiosity rather than some more negative assumptions I had been carrying

    Resetting your mindset is so important! I’m glad you were able to let go of the stories you were telling yourself to make room for any possibility.

  10. Journey of Man*

    Kudos to giving her employee the larger context. I had a friend who graduated university with high marks in accounting. But when working in-house for a major corporation, was at sea because she didn’t have the bigger picture of how the corporation made money and what divisions needed to depreciate assets for tax purposes. Your team needs to tell you that Widget corporation functions in a certain way and doesn’t just make widgets.

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