What's your Problem?

How do I deal with a struggling - but potentially good - new employee?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I'm a first-time manager and have been in the role for three months now. I've yet to receive any training and, with cutbacks, it's unlikely I will get any in the near future. I'm struggling with a relatively new employee who, at the moment, isn't quite up to the job - although I have a hunch that with the right guidance, he'll be very good. I don't know whether to hang on in there and coach him and give him more chances, or whether I'm just being too soft and nice and should have stern words with him. What's the best thing to do?

A: I didn't get any training, either - and it's scary. I was so soft and so nice that the first time I had to fire someone, I wrapped it up so tactfully that I totally failed to communicate. He left the room thanking me for my reassuring words and I had to start all over again three months later. I suspect it's a common failing among novice managers to be over-sensitive; the desire to be liked can be dangerously pervasive.

In your case, you seem to have constructed slightly false alternatives for yourself. You should certainly follow your hunch that, with the right guidance, this newcomer could be very good. But that doesn't rule out the use of what you call stern words.

Why not tell him quite explicitly that he's not yet up to the job? Then follow up immediately with your belief that, if he puts his mind to it, he has the potential to be excellent - and that you're prepared to give him personal coaching with that belief in mind. But be absolutely clear (in the way that I wasn't) that he's got to repay your faith and support by earning it through his own greatly improved performance.

And don't forget to agree a precise date for a further formal review - say in six months' time. If you don't, it will never seem to be the right moment; and, in any case, it will concentrate both your minds usefully.

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