Providing Second Hand Negative Feedback
June 17, 2015 12:28 PM   Subscribe

I'm the mentor/"manager" for a guy early in his career in my company. I've gotten routine feedback that his attitude/demeanor isn't really a culture fit, but other than that, he's a pretty good employee. We'd like to see him "shaped" into someone who is better fit. How do we proceed? Is this in the realm of possibility?

I'm not his direct manager (we're on clients so it always changes), but we help mentor employees and manage their performance reviews. In dealing him, he's very confident, not super humble, but he's 'ok' and can speak very well to what he's doing on the client. He keeps me INFORMED.

He's great with the client and other colleagues who are kind of like minded. He's gotten great reviews in that sense (especially from the client). But others think he thinks his shit don't stink, he's smug, he's cocky, takes credit for other people's work, basically--he's a douchebag. I'm pretty confident if I were on his project I would think the same thing.

He's not a problem because he's still bringing in money to the company, alot of people like him (though alot of people don't, especially his peers).

Everytime I bring something like this up I feel the need to bring up exact incidents of his behavior-- but I rather not as that will impact how he views the folks he works with. So it's an awkward conversation.

He's gotten feedback routinely that he comes out this way but continues to sort of behave that way. I don't really think he can change, that he's probably a better fit with go-getting folks (another company), but I'm here to ask if you have any advice on how to deal with providing effective feedback. Thanks!
posted by sandmanwv to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You could start by picking some random milestone as an excuse to offer a 'let's sit down and talk about how you're doing' conversation. Invite him to talk about his experiences with clients. What has he learned? What works, doesn't work? What can he do to improve?

Segue to his relationships with co-workers. What has he learned? What works, doesn't work? What can he do to improve?

If he engages with you authentically about this, he is probably self-aware enough to be coachable and (as you put it) "shaped". If he declines to engage and prefers to shift blame, there may not be a lot here to work with.

As always, document.
posted by John Borrowman at 1:05 PM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Is this casual feedback or something n the context of a performance review? Are you actually his manager or not?

I don't think this is as much of a conflict as you're presenting it as. I don't think you need to be terribly specific, but can be shared as a compliment sandwich. As in: compliment, "I have gotten feedback from your peers about a smug attitude.", compliment.

In my experience, attitude complaints from peers are not a huge matter of importance. Attitude complaints from higher ups are. Depending on your personal feelings about this person, you can upgrade or downgrade the level of concern. The ability to take criticism, in my opinion, is important.
posted by vunder at 1:07 PM on June 17, 2015

Everytime I bring something like this up I feel the need to bring up exact incidents of his behavior-- but I rather not as that will impact how he views the folks he works with.

But you kind of need to. "You're a jerk, can you not be?" isn't really actionable and isn't going to lead anywhere good. There may be a way to phrase it that "you noticed" a certain incident, so he doesn't realize his co-worker ratted him out. But then It's really not such a bad thing for him to realize people told on him- maybe he's the type who genuinely doesn't realize his actions are an issue for anyone. And if he goes back, guns blazing, "WHY DID YOU TELL ON ME YOU ASSHOLES," then you kind of have your answer of whether to retain him or not.

Oh and btw, I'd try to steer clear of the term "culture fit" if possible. There's a lot of baggage around it, particular in Silicon Valley type places, where it means "We only hire young white males who went to Stanford and wear hoodies."
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:21 PM on June 17, 2015 [11 favorites]

Why is this your problem? Because it affects you, because it bothers you, or because you are responsible for him?

If A. Then talk to your own manager about how to deal with him. Or, try to drop a few hints with him when it happens, and make him feel guilty for being a jerk. Both could back fire.
If B. then just leave it alone. Being cocky is actually an asset in some fields. Unless it's truly hurting your work try to deal with it--believe me it's better than a nice guy who screws everything up. If C. you have to have a serious heart to heart with him somewhere neutral and not a work. Go grab coffee with him, or a beer, or just talk a walk. Tell him he's making it difficult for other people to do their jobs (not you, you love him, but...). He's striking people the wrong way. No you're not going to name names. If he wants to be a long lasting member of the company, he has to specifically try to seem more humble. Sure, it's a pose, because he's awesome, but he needs to be politically smarter if he's going to get ahead. He just has to chill out a lot, and you know he will because he's doing so well at actual job duties AB and C. Hopefully that will play into his ego to the point where he'll give it a shot.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:50 PM on June 17, 2015

Best answer: I don't think you can do much other than try to find a way to incentivize pro-social behaviour, if you have the power to do that, so he thinks it's somehow in his interests to give credit where it's due.

Or, maybe throw down a gauntlet. You could try telling him it's not a zero sum game - his role is clearly defined (is it? if not, maybe reminding him of the spec would be an idea) and his talent is already appreciated - he's in the good books, that way.

What you want to know now is whether he can actually work with his coworkers, who were hired and trusted for their own experience and value, and have their own clearly defined roles. You could say, he's got some great potential for leadership, but a real leader knows how to make the best use of talent, and how to let other people shine. You want to see more of that.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:45 PM on June 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

It's hard to approach this too specifically given some of the vagueness of your question.

He's gotten feedback routinely that he comes out this way but continues to sort of behave that way.

I've gotten feedback that I don't start projects as quickly as other engineers do. I continue to behave that way, though, and nobody minds. They'd clearly prefer if I started faster, but the end result is always good, so it gets chalked up to that just being how I work most effectively.

Has this "feedback" you're talking about been unmistakably clear that the behavior is unreservedly negative and needs to change if he wants to continue to be employed?

If you haven't made both of those things clear, you're doing this person a disservice. If you aren't his manager, this feedback needs to come either from or with the authority of someone who is in a position to change his employment status.

Document it, use specific examples if you can, and find concrete things to change. In truth, nobody cares about his "attitude", they care how he treats them. Focus on how that treatment is sub-par and how it needs to change. If the feedback you're getting from his peers is focusing on his attitude, get them to rephrase it in terms of behavior so that you can speak to him about something he can actually act on.
posted by toomuchpete at 4:47 PM on June 17, 2015

I just saw a great talk by Carla Harris where she talks about "performance currency" (the rewards we get for a job well done) and "relationship currency" (the rewards we get for having a strong network of relationships). Her theory is that the value of performance currency diminishes over time --- what was an excellent job today will be expected of you tomorrow. You might advice him that performance currency will work in the short term, but relationship currency is where it's really at. This talk is aimed at women, but is generally applicable:
posted by CMcG at 5:45 PM on June 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

My first question would be: are you the correct person to work with him on this? Will he take you seriously? Do you have the necessary style and gravitas necessary to get him to pay attention to what you tell him?

No offense intended. But this situation is not unlike the plot of the movie Bull Durham (minus Susan Sarandon). I think you need to start by finding a Kevin Costner that can work with this kid's Tim Robbins.
posted by doctor tough love at 5:51 PM on June 17, 2015

How old is this person? Early 20s?

I was someone like him in my early 20s. Fast learning. Smart. Excellent at my job. My coworkers hated me. Many were in the position as the pinnacle of their careers while it was only the starting block of mine. We obviously clashed. I'd think up new processes or find better ways to do things or inevitably find coworkers' mistakes and eagerly pass on the information to the team. Not to be a dick, but to be helpful. Or so I thought. Talk about a culture clash.

Does he really act like his shit doesn't stink or is he an up-and-comer with ambition and a strong sense of pride in his own work? Does he not have the humility yet of valuing his coworkers' experience and pace and not offering unsolicited advice? Does he still need to learn to take a moment and not steamroll over other less-zealous coworkers? Does he still need to learn how to write "soft" emails with greetings and closings? (I certainly still need to work on all of these items!)

For me, I ended up leaving after things came to a head and was blocked from advancing. The same people are still doing the same things there. Not improving or innovating but also not doing poorly either.

For me, I would have needed a closed door heart to heart chat with specific examples of interactions that went wrong, how I was perceived, and how I could specifically handle them better. Generalizing wouldn't have been helpful at all. If he's a genuine person, he'll probably feel like shit afterwards. Because it is really sucky when you realize you've been hurting people unintentionally when you were really trying to help. And, if you really want to help him, let him know you are there for him if there are any social situations that come up that he's not sure how to navigate. Maybe have a follow up meeting a few weeks later.

Also think genuinely about the people who are saying these things about him. Is he disrupting their comfortable life by being ambitious and successful and innovative? Maybe they need help, too.

And in the end, maybe he isn't a good fit for you. Maybe you aren't a good fit for him.
posted by jillithd at 6:10 PM on June 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I disagree with a lot of the advice you're getting here -- to praise the guy, to tell him he's awesome.

Is he awesome? Because you said "pretty good" and "ok." Don't tell him he's amazing and has leadership potential if it's not true: it'll make him more of an egocentric jerk, which is not what you want.

I'd be direct and tell him the truth, but stick to work stuff not personality stuff. Like, "look, you are doing fine at most things. But you're developing a bit of a reputation for not being a team player. People say you don't share credit, you're overly confident and don't realise you still have a lot to learn. (Or whatever's true.) You're at the beginning of your career so you may not know yet, but getting along with your team and having your peers think well of you is actually an important part of doing a good job. I think you should make an effort to learn to be a better team player by doing X, Y and Z." Try to say specific things about what's required: sharing credit is good, or seeking advice when necessary, or being more open to feedback from others -- whatever is true.

If he asks who is saying stuff about him just say "it's pretty widespread" or "it's not one or two people, it's quite a few people."

If this is formally part of your job, you need to do it. It's a disservice to him not to, because being a jerk may indeed limit him in his career. And it's good for the world. There are a lot of cocky jerks in senior positions, and we'd all be better off if they'd gotten early feedback that being a jerk is not okay.
posted by Susan PG at 7:50 PM on June 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

I think you should do your best to find him another manager or mentor (because you are busy etc). If people are unhappy with him but can't come up with concrete actionable examples then he is either really devious or has some sort of personality disorder. Either way, if you confront him then there is no way it will go well. You don't sound more devious than him, and dealing with someone with a complex personality disorder is a nightmare. He will most likely deny it all, ask for names and clear examples you can't give, possibly explain events away easily, and become your enemy and start messing with you and your reputation. I would do everything I could to get away from this situation, and if you really cannot then you need to go into serious CYA mode. In fact, I'd rather be seen as an aloof manager who didn't have much time for him than confront him. You could also manage by recommending books and courses that you say have helped you, try send him to conferences etc - just anything rather than confronting him. Trust me on this. It seems like someone should confront him, but that person's career will take a massive hit and they might even lose their job. HR will be no use btw. Eventually he might screw up massively on his own or just leave, but any action from you could only delay these and hurt and stress you a lot.
posted by meepmeow at 8:30 PM on June 17, 2015

.If people are unhappy with him but can't come up with concrete actionable examples then he is either ....

I think this is based in a misreading of the post. They have actionable examples but do not want to mention them because each example involves another person who 'told on him'.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:48 PM on June 17, 2015

If this really is your responsibility, one approach would be to observe him yourself until you have a couple of concrete examples. Then you can bring those up without tattling. This method has an added benefit: if you don't see anything, it tells you the problem might be with the complainers.
posted by rpfields at 3:28 AM on June 18, 2015

I agree completely with jillithd.

I was someone like him in my early 20s. .... I'd think up new processes or find better ways to do things or inevitably find coworkers' mistakes and eagerly pass on the information to the team. Not to be a dick, but to be helpful. Or so I thought.

This was me too, right out of college. The menial work was done by a mix of junior staff getting a bit of experience before grad school and older support staff. I basically came across as "Gee, that's a stupid waste of time. It's much simpler to do it this way." My kind supervisor, who I believe understood that I was not trying to be a jerk, but was definitely succeeding in being one, gently explained the problem. I think I adjusted pretty well, going along with the old way when it didn't make a big difference and being gentler about suggesting alternatives when I thought it would make a difference.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:09 AM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it's probably worth pointing out to him that there is tremendous utilitarian value in treating his peers well and with professional regard as he is at the beginning of a long career and some of these people will one day be his bosses, his references or his hires.

In other words, appeal to his self-interest.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:58 AM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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