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Background

I am frequently working with a colleague who is a little bit junior to me (but not particularly "fresh" - he has been in the company for over 10 years in a lead developer/expert role for some other software). He is relatively new in our team, with me as his primary coach, so I, by definition, know much more about our particular project/software, but that's about it - apart from that he's as mature as one could ask for. I never was his disciplinary boss, and am not a formal team-lead or project-lead in that particular project (I am one of the two most senior persons involved, by time and knowledge).

He has, in the past year, really gotten into the project and proven his capabilities more than once; implementing new components in a very self-sufficient-while-team-oriented way, communicating directly with customers, and being overall very commendable. He gets positive feedback from everybody around him, all the time, including the product owner and all relevant stakeholders.

He is very methodical in his approach to everything; he will double-check shell command lines before hitting enter; double-check lines of code before saving/compiling; and he noticably thinks before talking. This is not obnoxiously slow, it is not annoying, it does not come across as being "stupid", but I suspect he thinks it is/does.

He will do his utmost to find information or solve problems on his own, but will call me when he cannot. Our typical conversations (usually by phone, as we are in separate cities) go like this:

Them: I am sorry, I have to annoy you again.

Me: No problem, what can I do for you?

... we work on some issue ...

Them (while typing): Sorry, this will surely annoy you hugely, I am sooo slow.

Me: No problem, it's fine...

Them (while learning something new, which he cannot possibly know): I am so sorry that you have to waste so much time on me...

Me: No problem, I like sharing know-how...

And so on and so forth. At every step, he will complain how slow/annoying he is, and how sorry he is for annoying me, and that he doesn't know things.

Nothing of what he complains about does in fact annoy me. I am very glad that he is here, he has (together with other new colleagues who joined the team at the same time, and whom he has worked together for many years) taken a large part of work away from me that was overwhelming me before. We are all very easy with each other, there is mutual consent about almost everything. I would rather have him call more often than less often.

In the parts of the software which he has inherited from me, he has taken on full responsibility, but he has also gotten complete freedom to do as he like within our coding guidelines; he has constant access to me and other team colleagues for peer reviews, help, information about historic areas of the code and such.

I have, in the past flat out told him that nothing of what he does annoys me, that he is doing great (which he measurably is); I have explicitely voiced that I do not expect him to magically know things about our software or infrastructure that he cannot know, and that I'd rather have him ask me than try to find something in the sparse documentation. It is true that I am typing and coding very fast in comparison with him because I know every nook and cranny of that software environment; but I certainly have not rubbed it in, and concerning the actual results he is not in any way slower than other people. Any typing speed issues are masked by slow Webex/Skype connections anyways. ;)

He has been this way from day 0; it's one of the first things I noticed about him (not only towards me, but also others, including colleagues from his old team).

Question

Recently, he has voiced doubts about being in the right spot because he seems to be so slow. It would be a nightmare for me if he quit the team - he does a lot of good work, everybody is happy with him, etc.

Do you have suggestions how I could behave, what I could say or do to make it easier for him? I would love if he would be confident in his role. Obviously, stating objective facts (like "you used X hours for feature Y; I needed the same time for a comparably difficult feature Z - you are as fast as me") or pointing out the happy customer/colleagues does not do it.

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    My answer to another recent question might well apply here: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/7539/… teach him to swap out that "sorry" for a "thankyou" – Kate Gregory Dec 6 '17 at 14:33
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    Is he working overtime or missing deadlines? – Acumen Simulator Dec 6 '17 at 17:21
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    No, @AcumenSimulator, nothing of that kind. This is strictly about the communicating/psychology part (hence IPS), the work he delivers itself is perfectly fine in quality and time. – AnoE Dec 6 '17 at 21:25
  • Did you try to really insist that he never missed a deadlines and as such just can't be considered to be slow ? Facts are on his side. Note also that this habits of double checking everything might not only be rigor but also lack of self-confidence. Also since he came from others projects, maybe try to dig if something happened that make him like that. Maybe everyone told him he was fine until he get kicked from being too slow from one of the older projects. And as such, your words aren't different from those in the pasts. – Walfrat Dec 7 '17 at 10:25
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    I was deliberating that, @Anketam, but there is really not much workplace-related involved here (except that it happens at work ;) ). I.e., I do not see any need or purpose in involving hierarchies etc.; it is not about managing someone or something like that. It is primarily what I as a person could do, the actual interpersonal contact between him and myself. The same would apply if we were in a different setting (say, some hobbyist group working on some project in our free time, or whatever). – AnoE Dec 7 '17 at 17:50

12 Answers 12

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You could try this:

Joe, you are not slow, you are meticulous and this is not a race. I much rather prefer someone who does it right the first time. You do good work here and you need to stop second guessing yourself. Let's make a deal. If I'm not happy with your work, I'll tell you before it becomes a problem.

This both addresses his fears and redirects them. This is both being assertive instead of being placating, and negotiating a "deal" with him. You are treating him like an adult and bringing up the level of discourse to one of problem solving.

If he persists, you can put the focus on the real problem:

Joe, it's not your speed, but your lack of confidence and openly denigrating your skills that's the problem. If you are worried about your value to the team, address that issue. I'll let you know if there's any problem with your performance.

Again, this demonstrates assertiveness on your part without aggression, and again negotiating instead of dictating.

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    I have done this almost literally in the past. No noticeable effect. – AnoE Dec 6 '17 at 15:12
  • Right on with this answer- It sounds to me like this coworker is on the 100% correct side of "You can have it right, or you can have it now." – Kendra Dec 6 '17 at 22:07
  • @Kendra that is the main point... "If you want it bad, you get it bad" – Acumen Simulator Dec 7 '17 at 3:58
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I am a 'Joe' and I have met many 'Joe's' over the years.

You are unlikely to be able to convince Joe he is not slow, even when presented with hard evidence he will come up with reasons why that is wrong or does not represent the norm. Joe knows he is slow and you telling him otherwise just means he hides it well.

So don't try to change his mind. Instead, interpret why he is saying it: "I am not confident in myself or my abilities" and/or "I feel I provide minimal or negative value to the team" and address that.

  • Provide constant and consistent reinforcement - Don't expect this to be "Great Job Joe!" and done - you will need to do it over the course of time - expect a year plus - after all, you're trying to change what is possibly a deeply held personal belief.
  • Redefine Joe's perception of value - provide visibility of how his efforts benefit the team or you personally. Don't say "You're not slow" as this implies you value speed but disagree with his assessment. Say "Who cares? So long as you get all your work done and to the good standard you are now you can be a one-finger typist for all I care" - again, don't expect one-and-done.
  • Illustrate his value. Don't just say "Great Job Joe!", say "Great Job Joe! Now I don't have to work unpaid overtime this weekend!" or "Thanks for that report. Now we have a much better chance of the director giving us the budget we need!" -> make it about you/the team/the company/anyone not Joe. If you can get your hands on some kind of tangible employee reward scheme for him this will help. Use it to reinforce the benefits to others again.

As Snark Knight suggested, "If I have any concerns, I'll speak to you long before they become problems." is very important for the reasons outlined

I can't stress enough how much this needs repeating over time. You are trying to change their perception of self worth without any idea what foundation that is built upon. No one should expect to say to a depressive "Hey, cheer up, you'll feel better" and expect to get in return "Hey, you know what, you're right! Goodbye depression!" (or any other mindset/belief) It's a long and arduous process for all involved.

That's what separates good managers from great ones.

  • I'm a Jane, I guess. Best way to help is to help them grow. If he thinks he is so slow, discus this. Come up with a plan for him to become faster and more confident in his work. And then showing him with compliments, frequently, over time. – Summer Dec 8 '17 at 10:26
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Check this.

Anyway. You seem to have given him lots of positive feedback, but this does not seem to work. I would suggest a different angle from the other answers here:

  • Investigate if he receives negative feedback from other colleagues. If he thinks he's slow, perhaps it is because someone else told him. Maybe it was just a taunt or a joke that got misinterpreted.
  • Perhaps ask for other colleagues to encourage him. If you are in a higher hierarchical position than him, encouraging him may sound like you are simply doing your "nice boss" job. Positive feedback from peers on his level would sound more sincere.

Also I should mention that being smarter does not necessarily make someone faster at programming and IT. Someone who is "slow" would spend, say 10 minutes writing a bit of code. Someone who is "fast" would spend a few minutes figuring out the best way to do it (not necessarily the most obvious), write the same code in 2 minutes, then spend the rest of the time double-checking and removing all the bugs that the first guy missed. The "speed" of someone can't be evaluated until you factor in all the unintended consequences of a quick (read: botched) job...

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    Your comment about "being smarter" is spot on. When you look at the "wall clock" of his work (duration from start to finish, instead of typing speed), he is not taking longer than anybody else. – AnoE Dec 6 '17 at 15:14
  • Fiddling can sometimes be a sign of quality, too :) E.g., consider someone fiddling some would-be-code which shows her/him how someone else might use her/his API or library (kind of top down approach when creating a new lib/API). Sometimes, one codes and codes and codes, 'till the perfect architecture is done, only to discover that foo->createYankeeFoo(frobnicateMetaFactoryProvider->hookityHoop()) on the client side is not the best compromise, whereas larksToTextFile() may yield imperfect code, but makes the client use it right and non-tediously. – phresnel Dec 7 '17 at 16:47
  • I mean, fiddling can be a nice way of personal brainstorming sometimes :) – phresnel Dec 7 '17 at 16:52
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There could potentially be two issues going on here. First, he feels he is annoying you on relatively small tasks and second, he believes his slow-paced methodology is affecting the quality of his job function (note that timeliness is often a part of quality).

The first issue does not seem serious, and he most likely knows this. He could very well just be "apologizing for silence" which could be his way of relieving the uncomfortable nature of downtime during the conversation when he is double-checking and nothing actionable is happening. I am introverted and I find myself doing the same thing; it is not serious, just helps me fill the silence. Or more likely he is looking for self actualization. He knows that his methodology is slow and subconsciously he actually WANTS you to realize and reaffirm this belief he has in himself.

This leads into the second issue; it is only a problem if he believes this methodology somehow hampers his ability to perform his job function. I believe that trying to convince him he is fast is not a good solution because he needs to assure himself that he understands himself, but he just needs to know it does not affect his performance.

Saying this, I believe the best course of action would not be to try to convince him he is fast, but highlight how his methodology is on par if not superior to others who use a different methodology.

There is a saying in project management: "You can have it either good, fast, or cheap... but you can only pick two." If he is meeting deadlines and not overworking himself, then you could leverage that his work is of high quality and within budget because of his methodology while reassuring him that meeting deadlines means his speed is satisfactory.

Some examples would be-

Him: "I'm sorry, I am so slow at this."

You: "It's fine, better to do it right the first time."

Him: "I am so much slower than the other leads."

You: "Atleast I know when I assign you a project that it will be done correctly. As long as you meet your deadlines (which you have been) we know the customer is getting a quality product."

As you can see, the focus is objectively on his performance rather than trying to convince him of something he does not believe.

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David's answer seems the best to me so far and I'm talking from another "Joe's" point of view - I am one myself. While I do, in all modesty, a great job at my academic work - I graduated with full honours, being one out of two students to ever achieve maximum grades for Master's in the entire history of my institution - I still need constant reassurance about the work I'm doing there.

It is since but a few weeks that I start to realise the true problem. While I do a good job at my job, I do not do so at home. Important things, to me, my family and friends, are left undone for weeks or even months. People keep asking for it, I forget them, I'm too lazy or I'm afraid to confront people who are doing wrong while I should. Being reassured at work compensates for this obvious issues.

Could Joe have a similar problem? Could it be that he is great at his job - but severly lacks the skills in other important aspects of his life? It might be helpful to talk this through. I'm pretty certain that somewhere in his life there is a huge black hole of constant failure. And instead of fixing it, he prefers the easy way: Get reassured about what he already knows he'll do well.

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    Mmh. Interesting. I don't know yet whether I'm prepared to talk that in-depth with "Joe", but I do see where you are coming from. – AnoE Dec 7 '17 at 20:31
  • @AnoE : I don't know the exact details but I think as a co-worker or even as his boss you cannot do this talk with him - only help him to get the right one for it. But approaching him and ask if there's anything troubling him as you have the "feeling" or because he "looks troubled" may (or may not) help him to open up or at least to start thinking about it. – Patric Hartmann Dec 7 '17 at 21:05
  • @patric-hartmann Its a good thought but aside from not wanting to talk about it, Joe might not even be aware of this - and if made aware may not react as positively as you. Broaching would have to be handled with the utmost delicacy and even then it could still be argued as unprofessional and inappropriate for the workplace, unless it directly interferes with his work in a more significant way than currently. Still, +1 – David Dec 8 '17 at 8:58
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You could tell him about the Dunning-Kruger effect, and tell him it seems like he doesn't understand how smart he is. This will accomplish and address several things.

An intro from Wikipedia:

In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority derives from the metacognitive inability of low-ability persons to recognize their own ineptitude; without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.1

Conversely, highly competent individuals may erroneously presume that tasks easy for them to perform are also easy for other people to perform, or that other people will have a similar understanding of subjects that they themselves are well-versed in.2

As described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority results from an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external misperception in people of high ability; that is, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."1

It seems that your coworker has some kind of issue assessing his own worth. It may or may not be a harmless issue, but based on how you described his personality, he will investigate the Dunning-Kruger effect. It may take a while, but he may start to be more aware of those around him and how his skills and work affect his coworkers. From what you say, it sounds like he's a star member of the team, even though he doesn't realize it.

However, if this coworker is from another ethnicity or culture than the west, he may simply be trying to show humility, submission, or something else. This answer addresses this phenomenon as well.

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As per your first comment to this answer, what you think about him and how you asses him is not relevant to him.

He keeps on using his own "unit of measurement" to asses himself, and he is so consistent in this that he wouldn't bulge. Besides, he might have goals/aims/personally-conceived-level-of-service higher than what you have for him: his performance is good in your eyes, it's not good in his ones, and you both make good points.

So it all boils down to "different but equally-valuable personal opinions", and there's no reason for him to value your opinion over his own.

Therefore, I'm really afraid to say that, I think, you already did your best. You've already told him several times, but yet he disagrees and you can't force your opinion into others' mind when they refuse it.

I understand that you dread him leaving the workplace, but it's all on him now.

P.S.: I work in software development and I'm exacly as self-confidence-lacking as your colleague. So I do understand him entirely and I can confirm that, should he decide to quit, attempting to praise his skills against his opinion will not work at all.

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What you see appears to be a pretty strong manifestation of the corollary of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I'd first suggest making him aware of that.

There's probably also a low self-image going on there as well, just to make matters more interesting.

I'd suggest sitting him down and dealing with the elephant in the room. He feels it's not a right fit - why is it not a right fit? Is it because he feels like he's not keeping up? why?

A large part of productivity in IT is how much GOOD (with a strong emphasis on good) work you do. Sure, I could personally write hundreds of lines of code in an hour. If, however, I don't constantly check my code and make sure that it makes sense, I've really done nothing more than mugged my employer. That is the difference between a junior developer and a senior - juniors need to be told to check and test everything; seniors just do that.

Now, with the constant apologies: turn that on its head. Tell him that you EXPECT him to take his time and check everything. Advise him that it's a requirement at your level to ensure that command lines are entered correctly. Ensure he knows that errors at his level are catastrophic and you want him to ensure that he does the right thing as much as possible. then, rather than his being deliberate, he's following corporate standards. Then, when he apologizes, remind him of that standard and tell him to not apologize for following standards.

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It sounds like your colleague has some sort of complex when it comes to positive feedback from others. It's hard to tell why he might have this issue, but it sounds like he just doesn't hear or believe the good things that others are saying about and to him.

It's definitely a good idea to be completely sure that none of his other colleagues are giving him any trouble over the way he does his work, though.

I hate to say that you may have to be a little negative (and I'm not sure that that's the best way to describe this) but when you are telling him that he is doing a great job and is a highly valued part of your team, maybe you could be more explicit about how it would be a bad thing for you, personally, as well as the others who work with him if he were to change his approach to work or, even worse, leave the team. When you praise him for something, tell him why that thing is a good thing. Because the alternative would be to not have that thing.

Use details, like the one about how he has been a part of lessening what used to be an overwhelming workload for you and while telling him how great his work is, also stress the fact that it would cause a lot of stress for yourself and others if he were to sacrifice the quality of his work in pursuit of speed.

If he says something like "I know this is taking me so long, I'm so sorry to have to waste your time like this" maybe you could respond with something like "that's perfectly fine, I love to answer this type of question! It's such a relief to know I can count on you to be meticulous and thorough because it would be stressful to work with someone who is trying to rush through a problem too fast."

Maybe, if he is filtering out the good things that people say to him it would help for him to hear that not only is he a valuable contributor, but that the inverse of that also applies and that it would be a real, measurable loss for everyone else to not have his contributions.

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I cannot believe that anyone would put up with your colleague's behavior without getting frustrated and annoyed. Such remark made form time to time are probably fine; made consistently may just mean that the person is not at the adequate position regardless of technical skills. I would say stop providing encouragement and praise in the way you used to. Start demanding more proper and adult behavior. Express your concerns and discomfort strictly without sugar-coating it. Everyone is probably tired of him by now.

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Some people have suggested to tell him the existence of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I have been and sometimes still are Joe, and what worked nicely for me is to change the "I am slow" thoughts for the "i feel slow" ones. This way you create some distance between yourself and your perception, which is a first step to stop believeing one is slow/lazy/stupid/etc.

If you are close enough to him, you can suggest he makes this change.

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The following solution could work for you, but only because (a) you seem to have a deep, mutually respectful relationship with him, and (b) you have known each other for quite some time.

Also, do not use this unless you think he can tolerate some teasing. It also helps that you are not his disciplinary boss.

He: "Sorry to be slow..."

You: "Joe, it's fine. You know, it just uses more bandwidth and makes it slower if you apologize, which you have absolutely no need to do. Tell you what, I promise that if I ever find you too slow, I will instantly tell you. Scouts' honor. But your part of the bargain is that, if you ever again apologize for being slow, I will send someone to cut off your left testicle." To give him a chance to process this, add another sentence, perhaps something like "I have some cousins in your city who used to work on a cattle farm, and they know exactly how to do it. It won't hurt much, but there will be bleeding."

I'm sure this answer will be downvoted for its crudity, but before you do, recognize that, if the right relationship exists, this could be effective. Humor is always a great tool, and hyperbole really helps memory. He's going to remember this conversation 400 times as long as he remembers the Dunning-Kruger effect from an earlier answer. And every time he's about to apologize he's going think about the image you left with him... and stop.

(And if he does slip out an apology, you can say you're going to send him some cheap towels for his cubicle... to clean up the blood if he does it again. Everybody laughs, but the message gets through.)

It goes without saying that if he has some disease or problem with his testicles, pick a different body part!

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