I work with someone who is not a direct report, but junior to me. This person is somewhat competent and perfectly nice but consistently makes the same mistakes, mostly around failing to meet obligations towards peers: lack of preparation before meetings, bad prioritization / responsiveness, etc.

I've mentioned these things a few times in private conversations but see no improvement after about 6 months. Basically I don't feel like this person is paying attention to what I'm telling them and I'm pretty convinced that continuing on the current course will eventually land them in trouble either with me or their manager or whoever they work with next.

What's a good way to get this person to start listening, given that I can't really "evaluate" the person like a manager would?

EDIT: I could technically escalate to their manager. Unfortunately that manager is spread thin, and not involved in day to day. If I complain to the manager and they intervene, the manager would likely only have my word as context. I'm interested in ways that I can do this more directly.

  • Have you spoken to their direct manager about the colleague's behaviour? Chances are it's not just you that is noticing this.
    – user8671
    Jun 6, 2018 at 12:02
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    If you´d asked this on workplace I´d advised you on techniques how to cope with that behavior as far as it affects you or else escalate to their manager. Since you asked this on IPS I presume you want to pursue a direct interpersonal solution. (That can create a mess in that you are interfering with their managers job.) Am I correct in interpreting your motives?
    – user6109
    Jun 6, 2018 at 13:55
  • @Kozaky yes, however the manager is spread very thin and I spend way more time with the individual than their manager
    – qoba
    Jun 6, 2018 at 14:57
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    Probably will get better quality answers in "Workplace.stackexchange"
    – jkf
    Jun 6, 2018 at 16:50
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    Basically you want to take over manageing this person - and their stressed out manager may well be glade to hand over that responsibility, if approached the right way. I come to think this "inofficial" ips aproach is a recipe for desaster on multiple levles. Biggest one you are trying to solve symtoms without getting to the root of the problem here. I'd second @jkf's opinion and encourage you to see what professional solutions are offered on workplace.
    – user6109
    Jun 6, 2018 at 18:07

2 Answers 2


Managing projects, training people, and several other improvement and control activities involve a cycle. At one point, you observe something like "this person came unprepared to the meeting." You may or may not attempt to "move the needle" when you make this observation. Later, you have another observation like "we didn't get the contract" or "the meeting wasn't able to settle the items that were scheduled". You see the connection between these two. The junior may not.

If you go to the person and only tell them your first observation, especially before the "bad thing" has happened, and suggest changing their ways, they may or may not act on it. It is far more powerful to go to them with the second observation, and help them to connect it back to the first.

That means when something has gone wrong, you need them to see why and decide for themselves what behaviour to change. Sure, to you it's obvious when you see the "junior" behaviour happening, you know what it will lead to, but they do not and your word alone won't make that connection. You've tried a word or two in private conversation "don't do X again" but without success.

Assuming this really is a role you're supposed to take on, and that neither the junior nor their manager will be upset that you do it, you might try introducing them to the idea of 5 whys.

Sidenote on 5 whys:

It was pioneered at Toyota and used in assorted "quality" programs around the world. Working out why a project was late (or failed), a client was lost, or an accident happened is a very difficult thing, and 5 whys is a profoundly useful technique for solving these things.

It is not about condescending or treating them like a child or forcing them to admit their mistakes. It is about working together to discover the reasons something happened. You may go into this believing you know why (and you may be right) but going through the process together is important.

end sidenote

It might go like this:

Hey, I wanted to take a few minutes to talk to you about the slip on the Smith project. That was a pretty big deal.

Have you heard of a technique called 5 whys? You basically ask why something happened, and then whatever the reason, ask why on that, and so on. Let's try it. Why did we have to take that big slip?

[junior says "because the X wasn't ready" or "because we found too many whatevers" or "because the client wouldn't agree at the acceptance meeting". If they shrug and don't know, or say "Because Steve is a moron" then you lead them to the very simplest literal first reason why the bad thing happened. Because whatever wasn't ready.]

So why was that?

[we weren't given enough time, the spec was incomplete, Steve is a moron, whatever. Again lead them a little if you need to. For example if they say "nobody did x in advance" you might need to say "I believe it was you who was supposed to x. So perhaps the issue is that nobody told you that you needed to. Why didn't you do it? Did you know it needed to be done? Did you wonder who was doing it?" The idea is questions questions questions, "why" to everything instead of stopping at "nobody told me to do that" or "they were just angry" and pushing through to root causes. Ideally the person learns that what they do matters.]


And why wasn't the P finished before the R was started? Because you chose to get started on the R without waiting for approval.


And why wasn't the client satisfied? Because you didn't bring the right things to the meeting to show them.

At this moment they see the connection between the behaviour (not preparing properly for the meeting, or not taking the meeting seriously) and the result (schedule slip, client lost, whatever.) Sit in that for a few seconds. And then, this is incredibly important do not stop there at the "oh crap I screwed up a big project the slip is all my fault" sensation finally reaching your junior. It's important they feel this, but you must not stop here.

And why were you left to make a decision that could ruin the whole project? [Or, and why were you not aware that preparation for that meeting was so important?, or and why were you not aware of what Steve needed from you and when? etc]

Because I didn't give you the advice (or because nobody gave you the advice) I am here to give you today. These meetings matter. You need to be ready for them. If we blow the meeting, the whole project can end up slipping. I guess you've sort of learned that one the hard way. Let's not have to learn it again, ok?

You look sympathetic. You look "this is not all on you" while not letting go of "some of this is on you". You draw a clear and obvious path from one choice of theirs (bad priorities, missing a communication, not preparing for something) to a bad outcome that has clearly and unequivocally happened. You reassure them that part of the responsibility is on the company or department for not teaching them this connection before, but emphasize that they are now aware of and responsible for this connection. Now they know. It can't happen again. And then you smile and conclude the meeting.

  • Thanks. I think what you suggest works if you assume that things go really bad (never let a good crisis go to waste) and if you assume that the individual has the level of self awareness to realize the role they were supposed to play and failed to play... More likely they do not perceive that anything wrong happened in the first place and the whys take them to other things...
    – qoba
    Jun 6, 2018 at 15:14
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    When 4 year-olds say "why" to everything, that can be really annoying for the answerer, but very edifying for the asker. Simply limiting it to 5 "whys", is sheer brilliance.
    – Glurth
    Jun 6, 2018 at 17:05
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    This is good but take care not to sound belittling or condescending
    – ESR
    Jun 7, 2018 at 5:54
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    It is not a technique for middle school students. It was pioneered at Toyota and used in assorted "quality" programs around the world. Working out why a project was late (or failed), a client was lost, or an accident happened is a very difficult thing, and 5 whys is a profoundly useful technique for solving these things. It is entirely possible that the process will highlight only one or two behaviours of the junior that are actually causing problems, rather than the many the OP listed as being issues. Whatever they discover this way it will be useful. Jun 7, 2018 at 10:41
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    reference for the "5 whys" methodology: adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/27641/… It seems like anything other then "middle school student material". More some form of project management technique. @DonFusili
    – Magisch
    Jun 7, 2018 at 12:43

I´m gonna concentrate in my answer assuming you want to take up something like a mentoring role, while leaving the official setup as it is.

Other "professional" solutions such as leaving the problem to their manager and just dealing with the incidences that affect you, or escalating up the ladder till you reach someone responsible are off the table in this IPS context, as per clarification in the comments. That said, tread lightly! As you are not going the official route it is easy to get in trouble and unlikely you´ll get any thanks from anyone even if you succeed!

The first thing to achieve for is to get the buy-in of your colleague. Currently he optimizes for his manager´s lead, who does not seem to require him to improve over the points you have mentioned. If he neither wants to improve nor is forced to improve, there is really nothing you can do. Keep in mind that intrinsic motivation is magnitudes stronger than external motivation. (1)

Right now I could think of four ways to get this, you´ll have to judge for yourself which is best applicable in your situation:

  1. Make it official. Have a problem-solving meeting with the colleague and their manager. Stay constructive and forward-thinking, don´t blame anyone. Offer to take over the mentorship. This has the advantage that you don´t get in trouble for operating outside of your responsibilities. The disadvantage is that if you get a no, you wont be able to take any of the other routes. It can also lead to your colleague feeling forced into it and backfire.

  2. Offer to help, unofficially. As you seem to have a good relationship to this person, maybe you can just offer to help them develop directly?

  3. Create pressure. Don´t accept those incidents where they affect you. Meeting not prepared? - Cancel the meeting. Work not to schedule, demand overtime until completion. If you increase the pain, you increase the motivation for change. But again, this may blow up in your face.

That said, I would probably try to go with:

  1. Lead them by example. This takes time and patience, but it´s perhaps the most effective technique in the long run. Actually it´s a bunch of techniques. The idea is not to tell them how to do things, but let them figure out for themselves by influencing and giving pointers. For this you have to get out of the he is junior to me mindset and actually treat them as equal. Have regular conversations with them about work related problems. listen, but do not lecture. If they do show some positive development, praise that - but do not criticize them for failure. Be a good example, but only teach directly when requested to.

I´ve had some success with this approach and it creates less friction than any other I know of, but it is sometimes painfully slow and you have to stay consistent. You also have to accept that you never control any specific point but only influence in a general sense. Caution, you might also end up learning something yourself!

If you want to go that route, I suggest you take up some reading as this is overall to much to fit in one post. Find some starting-points in the references below (2)

This answer is mainly based on personal experience. Having had two apprentices and several colleagues I had to mentor sideways over the course of my ~20 years of professional work experience.

External references:

(1) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink


How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

  • Thanks. The default for me is to operate by leading by example and not treat people differently based on seniority. I've also had a lot of success with this approach but I'm looking for something when it doesn't work because the person doesn't see what's wrong with their performance / thinks they're doing well / doesn't take even very specific advice very well
    – qoba
    Jun 16, 2018 at 18:41

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