BLUF: my direct takes instructions literally, then get defensive and cites what I told her when I ask her to think with judgement about the goals of the task

Not so BLUF: Her previous job was for a manager that was alternatively micro-managing and absent. She had a huge daily tasks list that got done everyday. I hired her for a similar TITLE here, but did not realize that she seems incapable of thinking through problems and learning new systems. She is great when she has a million things to do and all of them are checkbox lists with clear instructions. Unfortunately we really don't work that way here, and I'm so introverted I couldn't manage any more hands-on than I am already.

We are not a super-structured place. People have to dive in and learn our internal management software, and get a handle for what we do through curiosity and experimenting within reason. I didn't realize she would have a very hard time with this.

My main problem is definitely behavioral - if I give her an instruction verbally or in email, she will follow it to the letter without any deviation, creativity, or thinking about what is actually supposed to be accomplished. Small example (not exact): "Here is a list of product names that are duplicated in the database. They actually are different items, so they need to have different names. Having duplicate names creates database issues, so I need duplicates edited to remove the occurence of duplication to 0."

The result? A list of product names with extra random characters added to the end just to pass the benchmark of "no duplicates allowed".

So when I ask how she might have done it differently to make the products friendly to customers, she will shrug her shoulders and say that she did what I asked. Yes, she did.

Now that I'm thinking about all of this..... don't worry if you don't have advice for me. Just writing these posts out just helps in ways that is pretty useful, regardless. She needs late stage coaching and either a demotion or a bye-bye. I hate to do it because I hired her to be groomed into a high-level position (and gave her an optimistic salary to go with it) so it is MY failure to identify the weaknesses early.

If anyone has personal experience to share (rather than what I need to do), that would be awesome, as well. Being an MT veteran I pretty much know what needs doing, but sometimes it has to be typed out "in public", you know? :-)

mmcconkie's picture

I am just an individual contributor, so take what I say with a grain of salt. I don't think that this person should terminated. I don't think that this person sounds close to termination. I'm going to go against your request, and tell you what I think you should do (or really, given my inexperience in management, what I would like to have happen to me if I were in the position of your employee). 

My main concern is where you say, "I'm so introverted I couldn't manage any more hands-on than I am already." That, to me, sounds like you are only concerned with your own DISC profile, rather than what anyone else's profile includes. Don't forget that communication is what the listener does. There is a communication breakdown between you and your direct. It is your job as a manager to correct that. 

Now, as I said, I will give you my recommendation. Learn what the DISC profile is of this direct (if your company has budget, even go through the official profile test rather than just figuring it out on your own). Once you have that, listen to the DISC casts (specifically, the Effective Relationship casts for your profile and your directs' profile). Manage your direct AS SHE UNDERSTANDS not as you feel comfortable. The company doesn't pay you to feel comfortable. The company pays you for results and retention. 

Now part of that management according to DISC profile may include you being more hands-on. I might recommend giving smaller deliverables and checking on them. To use your example, I might say, "We have duplicat names for products that are actually distinct. I'd like you to give each distinct product a distinct name. Let's start with 5 products. Bring me the updated names for 5 products by tomorrow at noon and I'd like to review them with you. Once we review those products, you can continue on that path for the remaining products."

You can then verify that she understood as you intended or make corrections as you see fit. 

Good luck.


pucciot's picture
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I've read your post several times.

I'd resist the urge to try to get them removed just yet -- they may be the kind of person that will sue for wrongful termination.  They can say that they always did exactly what you asked. 

I don't think this person is close to leaving if you work with them.

As the previous person said there is a big DISC communication thing you will need to address.  There are a few podcasts that can help.

Right now I'd suggest the one about

Assume Positive Intent  :

This employee is showing signs of a High C and/or a High S.  As you stated they may be still smarting from a previous manager.

They are exhibiting some kind of fear.  Fear of being wrong.  Fear of being berated for getting things wrong.

You don't really need to try to get into their head to know that for whatever reason they are doing what they think makes sense to them at the time.  To achieve a reward - or avoid suffering.

What to do ?

The suggestion above about small deliverables will be difficult for you - but, it is the right way to go.  It will build trust between you.  

I am usually very specific when I do training and my directs are used to coming to me several times during the day for help and direction.

Eventually, I tell them (I give them warning) that I will start expecting them to take ownership of their position and the tasks and the results.

I tell them that I am allowing them to fail.  That I would rather them try something new, now that they are trained, and mess it up.  Then try to fix it.  Then come to me for help. 

I would not yell at them. Or jump down their throat.  "You are allowed to be wrong.  You are allowed to fail here. We all make mistakes. - Me, too.  What matters is how we clean it up. "

So -  after I give them a little talk like that, when they come to me with a question,  I try to start asking them..." So what do you think ?  How do you think you should proceed ?  What makes sense to you ? ---- OK, then go with that and see how it works. "

Unless you are in health care or a high safety environment -- I suspect your organization can stand a few mistakes.

Even if you see the mistake coming, let it happen.  Then you can ask them -  "How did that go ?  Was that an effective solution ?  Or - I don't think it was effective.  How could it have been better ? "  

If they give you the shoulder shrug --- don't let it go.  They have to try it again.  They have to take ownership.  You expect it.  Give it back to them.

OK - then give them an assignment --- "Please think about this and how it could have been better and tell me about that tomorrow."  Then go through the whole thing again tomorrow.

Be calm.  Be neutral.  Assure them that your purpose is _not_ to play "gotcha".  That you want them to be creative and take ownership.  That they are allowed to have little failures.   Smile - be good humored about it.

That if their failures start to look bad on performance appraisal -- That you will let them know.  

That there will be "no surprises !"  Especially at the annual reviews.

That little failures when they attempt to be creative actually look better to you -  than these ineffective results at literal compliance.

--- YES -- Tell him that -- Ineffective literal compliance is worse performance than little creative failures.

Start Small - build confidence - build trust...


Good Luck --  


mjpeterson's picture

I think this would be beneficial.  In the origianl post you are giving her a task to do, but without the underlying goals - keeping it easy for the customer.  She appears to be someone who is tyring to work at being very efficient, but not necessarily effective.  As noted above, this may be due to her previous work experience.  Giving her the larger picture guidance allows you to follow up and give feedback when she does not make those considerations.  Depending upon how large the task or responsability is, you can ask her to outline her approach before she starts.

misstenacity's picture

Thanks, everyone. YES, communication is what the listener does. I know that and am trying to live it despite my high C.

A little followup - yes I am doing a lot more tiny deadlines with her, and things are improving. She's still getting good and negative feedback. The latter's latest example was after letting me know (rather than asking) that she signed up for a college class and needed to change her working hours immediately (within the bounds of when we are open). I was caught like a deer in headlights. How can you say no to someone going to school? Argh. But many of the non-work issues I have with her are related to her not having things in her life in order. (Larger musing - does it seem to any of you that people who don't have their general life in order tend to also be not as focused at work tasks?)

Really, thanks for everything, I am still smarting from having her be "not very good" for several months (at an optimistic salary) when the hope was she would dive in from the get-go and try to figure out my job and take it from me (seriously, that's not a bad thing). 


JohnG's picture

<blockquote>Argh. But many of the non-work issues I have with her are related to her not having things in her life in order. (Larger musing - does it seem to any of you that people who don't have their general life in order tend to also be not as focused at work tasks?)</blockquote>

In your first post you highlighted that this employee was extremely good at tracking and completing tasks; now you're saying she isn't focused on work tasks? I wish the people I've worked with who weren't focused got everything done!

The issue with any summary on a forum is that you'll never be able to communicate the picture in a way that would give someone enough information to make an accurate judgement on where the issue sits. Your database example could be anything from entirely your error to entirely there error depending on context (I'm genuinely not passing judgement exactly because I have no idea of context).

I think it's pretty widely accepted that issues outside of work impact on employees at work to some extent. In fact that's one of the reason why MT's focus on relationships is so important; if you don't have a great relationship with staff you could be entirely oblivious about non-work things that are incredibly important to the employee, which if you did know you can accomodate or help with. 

misstenacity's picture

Yes, thank you. What I didn't convey well is that in her previous position she had a daily checklist of about 10 sheets of tasks that was always done at the end of the day. Hundreds of things like, "turn on heater", "check rat traps", "verify bathroom cleaning was done", et cetera. I had misconstrued her previous job as having a lot more "figure out the BEST way" than it actually did. 

Personally, I'm great at doing organized things: assembling IKEA furniture. But give me a random pile of stuff and ask me to figure out the plan and then execute it..... crickets. So, I try to surround myself with the folks that can do the latter more easily than I can, and this woman unfortunately turned out to be more like me.

Since everyone likes closure, here's what happened: she quit for a completely different position less than a month later. She offered to do hourly project work for us to help fill the gap, but then was terrible at responding to emails when I simply asked her things like, "can you work today?". So that ended without any work being done. I back-filled what she was doing without much trouble. She hated the other job within a month and wanted to come back but that was not in the cards. 

Right now I'm still getting better at delegating to my 2nd, and getting extra help from other teams when logical.