You Didn’t Pick Things Up Quickly Enough

May 21, 2008
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

My friend was released after just 20 days on the job.

She was given work assignments to complete that had never been discussed in the interview. At her exit interview, her manager admitted he had overestimated her technical skills in the interview. She had not professed extensive technical skills in the interview. She was given no notice that she was to be terminated, just asked to come to the conference room at 3 pm on what turned out to be her last day.

Reflecting back, she realized that there had been virtually no communication with her manager over her last three days leading up to her termination. What’s ironic is that she was actually getting a lot of work done then. She felt that she was finally just starting to get the hang of things.

This was during the time when her manager was probably meeting with HR to work out and finalize her termination. At the exit interview, she was told that she “didn’t pick things up quickly enough.”

My friend had asked lots of questions of her manager while employed there, particularly when given work that was beyond what had been discussed in the interview. But whenever she asked her boss about her assignments, he talked about other things and never really answered her questions.

When a manager says something like “you didn’t pick things up quickly enough,” this can also be seen to mean, “I didn’t take the time to manage you well.”

Especially with new hires, managers have to invest a lot of time in integrating the new employee. When a new piece of equipment is obtained for the office, there is often instruction in how to use that piece of equipment, at least for the person who is responsible for using it. We may even send the person to training in how to use the machine.

Sink or Swim?

We don’t seem to do that consistently with people. We throw them into situations and expect them to “sink or swim.” We cannot afford to have too many new hires sink. It just costs too much money.

It costs a manager something more than money to admit that he may not have managed the person in the way that they needed to be managed. He didn’t take the time to figure out how to motivate the person. He didn’t figure out how the new person learns best, through careful instruction or trial and error.

The cost is that the manager has to admit that he made a mistake. That he was wrong. It’s much easier to blame the now-terminated new hire:

  • “You didn’t pick things up fast enough.”
  • “You weren’t communicating enough.”
  • “You didn’t understand the culture here.”
  • “You were a bad fit.”

In all these cases, the common denominator may have been that the manager didn’t do a good enough job in interviewing the person or integrating the new hire into the workforce in the first weeks or months. In every case, the manager blamed the employee for what may have been the manager’s shortcoming.

Managing is hard work. It’s not intuitive. No one is born a manager. Some people are born leaders, but managing requires training and it takes time.

Good managers can be developed, but only if they are given the time to learn, also the same way new hires need time to develop.

Managers need to master a broad skill set to be effective in all phases of the role:

  • Understanding how the department operates so that the right mix of jobs is created.
  • Interviewing (which is so much more than just talking to people) to effectively determine whether candidates have the correct skill-match for the position.
  • Orienting the new hire to the workplace and to the job and his or her colleagues. Integrating a new hire takes weeks, not hours. Too frequently, managers leave orientation up to HR. No offense to HR, but new hires are too valuable to be trusted only to HR. The HR team has a critical role to play in integrating new employees, but the new hire is going to listen far more to what their new manager tells them than anything HR has to say.
  • Setting performance objectives so that the new hire clearly understands what is expected of him or her.
  • Giving feedback on an ongoing basis, not just at the end of the year in an anxiety-ridden performance evaluation.
  • Recognizing and rewarding people for their effort as well as for their accomplishments.

When you look at all the expectations that we have of managers, it’s easy to understand why we invest so much in management development and training. It takes time to become an effective manager. Anyone promoted to management generally figures this out in the first few days on the job.

The piece that too often gets overlooked is training our managers in people management. How to interview candidates, how to select the right ones who can be most productive in their environment, and how to continue to get the most out of them on the job. Managers need to learn how to engage their staff so they give their best effort on the job as opposed to just doing enough not to get fired.

The good news is we usually give new managers the time to figure out how to do their new job, in part because of all the time and money invested in developing this person to the point of promotion.

No doubt, this new manager would certainly be annoyed if after a few weeks in the new position, their manager called them into a conference room and started in with, “You’re not picking things up quickly enough.”

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.