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How to Uplift a Competent Employee Troubled by Interpersonal Problems

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Coaching / Training / Mentorship

17 June, 2021

Rohan Kulkarni
Rohan Kulkarni

Director of Engineering at Expedia

Rohan Kulkarni, Engineering Manager at Expedia, took a vested interest in the interpersonal challenges that an otherwise stellar employee seemed to be having in relation to the needs of his role within the company.

Problem

I had a senior engineer on my team who was very competent from a technical standpoint, but they lacked good interpersonal skills. Communication, leadership, and influence were not their strong points.

I was tasked to manage this team and, as a part of this team, I started managing this senior engineer directly. I found that a couple of pieces of feedback were brought up continually by peers and reports alike. The problems were on my radar, but I wanted to take a closer look in order to be sure that I was seeing the full picture.

I sought to experience the problems for myself. I spent the month that followed observing this person to see how they performed in these particular areas. I agreed that the points made by others were, in fact, valid.

Actions taken

From then on, I started having one-on-ones with this person. I was very upfront about these particular issues concerning the interpersonal side of the job. I made an effort to keep them on the same page as me in terms of making improvements interpersonally. Wherever we found alignment in these areas, I wanted to do what I could to help them succeed where they were struggling.

I began by introducing them to an internal toastmasters club within the company. Through this organization, they were able to go in and to improve those skills of communication openly and with others. The feedback loop was immediate and came from people that they did not necessarily work with on a day-to-day basis. It was a safe environment within which they were able to receive constructive feedback on speech delivery.

We did not have any formal internal training programs on technical leadership within the company aside from this, so I inquired with HR about including some external training into our budget. I got their approval and enrolled them in a class.

I also invited this person to shadow me during my meetings with those who I led. I allowed them to lead a few of these sessions themselves and was able to observe how they were doing. I was able to provide feedback instantly, as soon as the meetings were over — where they did well, and where they had room to improve.

The final tactic was to find another technical leader to mentor this person. Through these four implementations, I was able to help this person work through these areas of difficulty, and they continue to improve to this day. While they are not where I would like for them to be in an ultimate sense, the trend is upward and consistent.

Lessons learned

  • If you can rely on a person’s knowledge and their ability to deliver, you should make an effort to not lose them due to a lack of interpersonal skills. All of those skills can be developed. If the problem was a technical issue, it probably would have been a different story. But everybody develops differently in terms of their interpersonal skill set. Even I struggle sometimes. Everybody is able to improve in these areas.
  • If you find yourself confronted with this type of situation, as a manager, you should always make sure to do your homework in order to confirm that the problems that others are bringing up are valid, especially if you are new to managing this person. You should not rely on feedback from others alone. You have to see evidence of these claims first-hand before starting these conversations.
  • Poor performance can come as a result of multiple things. It could be because of the environment, or because of expectations that are not being made clear, for example. Before jumping to those conclusions, you need to do whatever you can in order to get to the heart of what the real issue is. Then, you can begin to design an actionable plan to help them work through whatever they happen to be struggling with. As a manager, this is your primary responsibility to the people who report to you.

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