columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I have an employee who is not performing as well as expected after a year in his role. He is on a development plan and has clear objectives to work towards. He receives monthly feedback (positive and developmental) and we discuss ways I can help him to achieve his objectives.

My problem is this: Others in my immediate network and some senior members of my team are praising him publicly for work that he has very little real ownership of and has not contributed to enough on his own merit. He requires a large amount of input, feedback, and suggestions on projects, which then also take several rounds of feedback and meetings with me to get to a "final" version, which he then sends out to others.

My issue is not that I want the credit; it's my job to coach him and develop him. But I do have an issue with him appearing as if he's produced a great piece of work by himself, as I think it sends a message to him that is contradictory to what we are discussing as part of his development plan. I'm also concerned that it could appear that everyone except me is giving him great feedback and recognition. Outwardly, his documents look polished, but nobody but me is aware of just how much of a struggle it is to get to that point. Whilst I am always the first to give credit where it's due, I don't feel with him that it is due, as he's had so much help.

Am I wrong in feeling this way? How do I handle this with those giving him praise which I don't feel is in proportion to his actual contribution? I'm concerned I will come across as stingy with my praise, when in fact I would rather he was praised and credited for things which really were his own work.

Green responds:

I don't think you're wrong to feel that way -- but I also think there might not be a lot you can or should do about it.

There are two potential problems that you need to head off though. The first is your worry that he might think everyone but you loves his work -- which might make him take your feedback less seriously and could make him think you're off-base when you tell him he's not performing well. It might also make him resentful that he's on a development plan, if everyone else appears to think his work is wonderful.

Are you seeing any signs that that's happening? If you're not, I wouldn't necessarily worry about it...but if you are, it's trickier and there's not a great solution. It's unnecessarily harsh to say, "Hey, all that praise you're getting is because of the corrections I've made to your work." But you can try to connect the dots more subtly for him. For example, you could say something like, "We got a really positive reception from people on the X project after making changes A, B, and C -- what lessons from that can you take forward for future projects?" (And that kind of debriefing and lesson-drawing is actually helpful to do anyway, totally aside from this issue.) It's not perfect, but it's probably the closest you can reasonably get.

The other problem is a perception problem. If people hear he's on a performance improvement plan and they've loved everything they've seen from him, that might raise eyebrows about you as a manager. And if you end up having to fire him at the end of that process, it might be tough for people to understand (although experienced managers will know that there's probably more to the story than what they saw first-hand). You shouldn't share his work struggles with people who don't have a need to know, but take this as a reminder to make sure you're transparent with everyone on your team about how you handle performance issues (that you coach and work with people and give them an opportunity to improve rather than just firing someone out of the blue, and that they won't always know if a colleague is struggling because you'll put a premium on protecting their privacy).

Those are the two areas that I'd focus on, because those are the ones that could have real impact. I'd try not to get hung up on the principle of the thing (that he's getting more praise than is warranted) and instead see that as just one of those things that sometimes comes with the territory as a manager. You'll always want to distribute the credit to your team when things go well. In this case, he's getting more than his share, yes, but it really only matters as far as it impacts the two pieces keep your focus there.

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