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Sunday, May 13, 2012
Giving hope to hopeless employees
"Some people are hopeless cases."
That's what a reader wrote me after recounting his
efforts to provide assistance to a young employee.
The reader was the boss of a "rather brash"
young employee who fancied himself a good writer. Part of the young man's job
was to write quite a few memos for my reader. But each time he wrote one, his
boss found himself having to do a rewrite.
After months of the young man not showing any
improvement, his boss spent a good deal of his personal time wrestling with how
he might help him improve.
"Without making any specific edits, I wrote down
general suggestions about a memo he wrote," my reader says. "I gave
him a list of things to consider - his tone, the position of the intended
recipient, the need to avoid repetition of superfluous information and run-on
sentences, and so on." It was, the reader recalls, a pretty long list.
The morning after giving him the list, the reader called
the young man into his office. He asked him to take another look at the memo he
had written in light of the list his boss had given him.
"He was back in my office in maybe two minutes,
handed me the memo back, looked me in the eye, and said, 'I wouldn't change a
word of it.'"
At this point, my reader arrived at his conclusion that
"some people are hopeless cases."
One question raised by the incident is whether it's OK to
make such broad assumptions and give up on someone as being untrainable. But a
larger question is if it is fair to expect that the young man should have
understood his boss's intentions if the boss didn't take the time to be more
specific about his concerns.
The boss did go out of his way to try to guide his
employee, but assuming that the young man could deduce from the extrapolated
list what he should do with his own writing may not have been a particularly
effective method. It assumes that the young man will be able to see that what
the boss outlines on his list reflects problems with his own writing. The hope
is that the young man would have caught on and transformed his writing.
But hope is not a particularly reliable teaching or
training method. Different approaches work for different people.
Perhaps if the boss had been more direct with the
employee and gone over the specifics of what was not working on the memos he
wrote, the message would have sunken in more clearly. Perhaps it was those
"specific edits" that my reader decided not to include that would
have been precisely the technique that worked. After all, the young man was
writing memos for his boss, so it was more than reasonable that the boss should
have those memos reflect a style he preferred.
The right thing then is not to immediately cast off as
hopeless that which doesn't change instantly based on our instruction. Instead,
explore different methods to see which one works the best. If, after several
attempts, the performance fails to improve then it's reasonable to decide that
the employee is not the right fit for the job and to perhaps do a more thorough
job screening for his replacement.