Note: Inc.'s Ask a 20-Something series offers sage advice for navigating all manner of workplace issues, from the perspective of a young employee.


Q: My newest employee grasps the broad strokes of his responsibilities exceedingly well, but keeps messing up the little things. His emails are too blunt. He doesn't properly fill out Google spreadsheets. How can I fix it without coming across as micromanaging?

A: Growing up, I had an annoying insistence on specifics. If the time was 12:28 and someone said it was 12:30, I'd correct them. If someone misused the word "literally," I'd pop up to inject, "Metaphorically!"

My mom started asking me, "Does this make a tangible difference to the conversation?" It took me a while, but I eventually got the message.

It might sound funny, but you ought to ask yourself the same question: Do these "little things" tangibly impact your employee's job performance in noticeable ways? If his overall productivity is unaffected, you and he may just have different styles. He doesn't have to do his job the way you'd do his job to be successful.

If blunt emails are turning off clients or customers, however, the answer might be yes--and the best way to address it is with a little gentle guidance and a lot of patience. My favorite bosses have always been the ones who give me a directive and a deadline, and then leave me to find my own ideal solution. If I can't figure it out, I deserve the scrutiny I'll receive on the next project.

So: Weigh in once. In-person is better than email, because you can speak directly and constructively. In fact, it's 34 times more likely to be successful than an email, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Give specific examples of how you'd like him to achieve the task. Explain your reasoning, and make sure he understands it. Avoid the word "but" (as in, "You're doing a great job, but..."), because it'll immediately negate anything positive you say about his performance.

Then, wait a few days--or even a few weeks--to see if he adjusts. If the problem persists, weigh in again and try to frame your solution differently. If your feedback didn't work the first time, the exact same feedback is unlikely to work the second time.

The line between helpful feedback and micromanaging always comes down to trust--which, of course, has to be earned. As a new employee, this guy may not have secured it from you quite yet. But that's a two-way street: You need to recognize his efforts to earn your trust, and each time he succeeds, give him more latitude to do his job without you looking over his shoulder. Remember: You wouldn't have hired him in the first place if you didn't think he could do the job.

To submit a question for Ask a 20-Something, email calbertdeitch@inc.com. Your query could be featured in a future installment.

Published on: Sep 24, 2019