TechRepublic member Anthony Clark writes to ask:

Question: How do I deal with a staff member who claims to have good time-management abilities but who is consistently late in accomplishing tasks and requires reminders to do tasks allocated to him? He also has poor prioritizing skills; however he can’t see that, either. Unfortunately, upper management seems to be “bluffed” by his explanations and is happy with his performance.


Answer: I’ll give you some tactical advice on managing your team member’s time-management shortcomings in a bit, but first I have to say that it sounds like you have a serious (and even more annoying) problem with your upper management team. The fact that an employee can circumvent your evaluation of his performance and “bluff” managers who are higher up on the food chain is, in itself, a major management challenge.

Before I go any further, let me be perfectly clear that I believe everybody in a company—particularly a small or medium-size company—should feel empowered to send the CEO an e-mail with questions or comments about the company’s goals and culture. But that kind of open-door policy doesn’t extend to matters of employee performance. The first and best source for that feedback is you, as the employee’s manager. If an employee wants to question your judgment or assessment, that’s why the company has an HR department.

I’ve occasionally run into problems like the one you describe here when upper management, either through necessity or whim, decided to get tactically involved in a project on which I was lead. In all fairness, there’s no way an upper manager can have the full picture of how a project actually breaks down (at least, not if she’s doing her own job). The catch is that many upper managers don’t appreciate that fact, and assume their impressions and surface-level observations are a lot more substantial than they actually are. It’s human nature, but when you’re trying to manage a difficult employee, it’s a major pain in the neck.

To mitigate this risk, I’d have a quick conversation with any senior managers who you feel are being “bluffed” by this employee and lay out your concerns in plain terms. In particular, I’d ask that conversation and comments the employee may make about his specific contributions to the project be redirected to you, so that you can evaluate or correct them, as necessary.

My last piece of advice on wrangling upper management is also the best tactic I can think of for working with an employee who “can’t see” that he has prioritization problems—quantify everything. Make sure you’ve got this employee’s deliverables mapped out on a timeline, and send the clear signal that you won’t be satisfied with just a rationalization of why he missed a deadline. Require updates and risk reports on the progress of his assigned initiatives, and map those updates to actual throughput.

As a business stakeholder on several development projects, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by developers who say a project is shaping up nicely for Friday delivery, then turn around on Friday and announce they need two more weeks to hammer out a core functional detail. The essence of prioritization is identifying where things can go wrong and preparing for a few bumps; planning only for the best is a sure way to be late. In all fairness, I believe poor planning skills like this aren’t evidence of any ill intentions on an employee’s part; it’s just something they don’t teach in MSCE class. So don’t be a jerk about the timelining exercise—I certainly would keep it a private matter for starters, not to be discussed in open status meetings—but do view it as an opportunity to teach the employee a valuable skill.

And later, if you need to defend any further action to HR or meddling senior managers, you’ll have a nice documentation trail close at hand.

Baiting the hook
Another member writes to ask:

Question: I am sure as a manager everyone must run into this situation at some point in time. It has to do with motivation. I have a highly skilled employee who is motivated by “the things he likes” and is unmotivated to address the ones he does not. This becomes a problem because he has the skills to tackle and fix items that are barriers or productivity killers to the process—and he knows it—but he will not step up to the plate to fix them because “they are not really things I am interested in.” I guess this begs the question of “How do you find the silver lining in every cloud?”

Answer: That’s a tough one. For openers, let me say that I prefer to think of such quandaries in terms of “baiting a hook” instead of “finding a silver lining,” since I don’t like to position work assignments as clouds. I imagine you’ve already tried this, but try to design a project or assignment that requires this team member to evaluate a productivity issue with the ultimate payoff that he’ll get to work with a hot or intriguing new technology. Or put him in a brainstorming situation where the team can reap the benefits of his problem-solving insights without demanding that he take a formal leadership role.

I’m going to challenge your perspective as a manager and say that, ultimately, the answer here may be that you simply need to adjust your expectations of what this employee will bring to your team. I know a lot of members will want to disagree with what I’m about to say—that’s why we have discussions on the site, after all—but I’m absolutely dogmatic in my belief that you simply can’t make your employees want to do something just because you know they’d be good at it.

In HR-sponsored management seminars, this little gem of wisdom is often expressed as “employees own their own motivation.” I like to say that you’re just a manager: you’re not a super-hero or (thank goodness) the employee’s parent. Employees’ ambitions are the net results of a million factors ranging from educational background to current family circumstances, and the best you can hope to do is understand them, not change them. If you try to push an employee to “step up to the plate” when she simply has no interest in doing so, all you’re going to accomplish is frustrating yourself and alienating that team member. Even worse, you may overlook another motivated team member who may not seem as promising but who is eager to impress and to learn.

Of course, as a manager it’s your job to make sure your employees are doing their jobs, so if someone is shirking duties that are actually part of his job description—or just playing prima donna and ditching on team grunt work—then forget about the carrot; it’s time for the stick. But be careful not to come down on someone just because he’s comfortable doing the job he’s in.

If you haven’t already, I’d talk to this sharp employee and try to get a clear picture of his goals for the next five years. If you can map those desires to projects that will get the additional output you want from him, great. If not, move on to another staff development project for now.