update: my employee wants more praise but he’s not doing a good job

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose employee wanted more praise but wasn’t doing a good job? Here’s the update.

First, thank you and the commenters for your advice. I have been reading your column since 2008 and still learn something new every day and you have the best commentariat.

Your reply had me really reflecting on my approach to managing this employee and his fit for the job. I realized that some of my negativity may have been coming from some personality conflict so I began by making sure I made a conscious effort to remove that bias. Then, I took a really hard look at whether I really thought he could be successful in the role. Unfortunately, it looked more and more like it wasn’t a good fit (for us or for him) and we started documentation to possibly move toward transitioning him out of the role. Ideally, we were hoping to find another role for him within the organization since this really was about the role being a fit for his skill set and strengths and we didn’t want to lose a good employee.

While that was going on though, I worked to identify and give him regular positive feedback in addition to setting clear expectations for areas that needed improvement. And he did improve. He started taking more initiative and while things didn’t seem to come easily to him, he worked very hard to learn the areas that were new to him and increase his capacity for the things required by the role. Unfortunately, some external factors required that we change the nature of the role and he no longer met the new requirements. We weren’t able to find a different position for him so it looked like we were going to have to eliminate the position as it was and let him go. But, as I suspected through the whole process, he clearly felt it wasn’t working out and he found a new position before any of that happened.

I am glad for that outcome and grateful for the things I learned from the experience and your advice. It prompted me to think much more critically about my management style and I genuinely regret that I probably contributed to making work a more stressful place for him. I hope (and believe) he is happy in his new role and that I’ve improved as a manager.

{ 6 comments… read them below }

  1. Observer*

    This is a good update. And I think that you’re on the way to becoming a really good manager.

    The fact that you really took things on board and have figured out how to apply what people were telling you more broadly is impressive. Kudos.

  2. Artemesia*

    One thing good parents learn early and so do good managers is that you can shape positive behavior with lots of positive feedback as you found when this guy improved when he got specific feedback and then positive reinforcement.

  3. Emily*

    This is good! It takes some real self-awareness to distinguish between someone who isn’t a good employee vs. isn’t a good fit for the role. And when you give someone feedback instead of trying to sugarcoat it, you give them the information they need to make the right choices for themselves — in this case, finding a new job.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      Yes! I had a bad-fit employee once who I was about to put on a PIP in preparation for letting her go (she had already had all of the feedback we were giving through the formal PIP, so I really didn’t think she would get there). Anyway, she left on her own, and I ran into her a couple of years later, and she had a great job doing the work she was actually good at, and seemed really happy.

  4. Busy Middle Manager*

    This one and the past few updates are the type of real world management things I want updates on! Letters like this hit close to home (same with the “my employee wants praise but isn’t good” one).

    I see a lot of stuff online about management being easy, yeah, it’s easy for those three seconds when things run well, but it’s an emotional and logistical quagmire when you’re dealing with situations and people where things aren’t running well for 100 different reasons, such as here.

    Good luck to both of you

  5. Not today Satan!*

    It’s always so impressive when someone takes a difficult answer and uses it to improve themselves instead of just pushing back on it. It seems to be such a defining characteristic of a good employee/manager and is something I hope to do as well. What a great update LW!

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