Ask The Grindstone: How Do I Manage People Who Aren’t Turning in Good Work?

by Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern

Hello, I am loving The Grindstone on The Billfold!

I’d love some advice about giving feedback on bad work. I’ve recently been promoted over some people who are older than me and some people who are my friends. Both are types of people that are hard to criticize! Yet, not to toot my own horn but I do extremely good, careful work, and now that I am responsible for approving other people’s work, I’ve learned that not everybody cares so much about the quality of their assignments! And worse than general laziness is when I think people are actually… just not that smart? They’re trying hard and coming up short of what I’d call client-ready work.

I like to be managed in a very hands-off way, where my boss lets me use whatever process I want to get the work done. I’m trying to treat these people the same way, but it’s not working. I think I need to get in there more and fix their course before they go too far off-path. But it’s SO HARD! Any advice?


This is a great question. First of all, congratulations on doing hard, great work and earning yourself a promotion. That is awesome!

It’s really hard to manage people who aren’t producing great work, and few people who are promoted to management positions are given adequate guidance or training on how to cope with that situation. I agree that you’ll want to get in there and make sure you have a plan for improving their work in place before things go too much further off-course. It sounds like the people you’re supervising are going to need a different approach that what works for you, and it may vary between each of them.

If we understand your situation, we think there are two parts to unpack:

1) How to manage people who work differently and/or aren’t performing;
2) How to effectively give constructive feedback

Leda actually recently took a fantastic management training class that tackled both of these topics, so much of this answer will be informed by what she learned there.

We’d start by organizing ourselves and outlining the areas where we thought each person need to be coached and helped to succeed — something to use as a roadmap. Then we’d work with them individually to try to understand the reason behind the less-than-client-ready work. Is this a situation where their previous manager didn’t set clear expectations? Do they lack some of the required experience to produce the work they’re being asked to do? Are they disorganized and so they have trouble planning ahead and turning in polished work in a timely manner?

Understanding the reason for the poor performance is the first step in figuring out how to address it. For example, we’ve found regular check-ins with people we manage (or are managed by!) are incredibly helpful tools for keeping projects on track. But what is “regular”? For some people this means every day, for others once a week, and still others once or twice a month. The key is to find out what works for individuals and adjust your approach accordingly.

The second part of your question builds on the first: how to tell people when their work is not measuring up. And this is so tough. It’s super uncomfortable. We hear a lot of people promote the “compliment sandwich” approach to constructive feedback (lead with good thing, then share criticism, end with good thing), but according to the management training, this is confusing to people. Instead, they recommend the following:

1. State the problem (“This article had several typos and wasn’t client-ready”)
2. Explain the consequence/context/meaning (“which was a problem because it made us look unprepared/cost us new business/meant I had to scramble to finish it”)
3. Express confidence in their ability to do it right the next time (“I know you understand how important it is to submit polished work. How can we prevent this from happening next time?”)

Obviously this is just an example. But it’s a useful framework, it puts you on their team in terms of working together to solve a problem, and was probably one of my biggest takeaways from the training.

The training itself, which was run by CompassPoint, was called “Helping People Succeed,” not “Becoming a Better Manager,” and I’m sure that was on purpose. Their whole perspective is that good managers work hard to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and psychologies of their supervisees — and find ways to harness those to create good work products and effective teams. If this fails, the next step would be to create a formal work improvement plan, but I don’t think you’re there quite yet.

It’s super challenging, and we are still very much working on all this stuff myself. We hope this helps somewhat. Let me know how it goes!

The Grindstone — Steph & Leda

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).

Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at

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