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You’re Not My Favorite Employee

Early on in my career I had an employee tell me they felt I favored certain employees over them. I stood there thinking to myself, “I didn’t birth you. I didn’t hire you. You aren’t really showing much desire to be on this team, so why wouldn’t I favor others over you?”. The truth is, I didn’t know how to find their passion, to help them figure out where they wanted to go. Part of me was scared that if we did embark on this path of discovery we would find that the answer would lead the employee right out the door and into another company - an uncomfortable conversation I didn’t want to have. 

I wasn’t scared to admit to them I had a favorite employee. It’s easy to have a favorite. Heck, I’m pretty sure even my mother has a favorite child and she birthed five of us. In the workplace, my favorite is usually someone who shows a lot of potential in their field, is proactive, fits well into the team, is passionate and eager to learn more. What I failed to realize was that everyone has a different set of needs and shows their passion in different ways. In order to understand that potential and help an employee hone in on their skill sets, we need to get to know them better. This means we have to figure out where their passions lie, what makes them excited about work, and then work together with them to help them grow. So the question is: How can we best manage these types of employees? Let’s take a look…

1. The 1:1 

If you’re not doing it already, you should be having a formal (ideally weekly/bi-weekly) 1:1 meeting with your employees. It doesn’t have to be long and drawn out (30 min should suffice), but you should setup a recurring meeting with them to ensure that you take time out of your busy schedules to meet. They need to know that someone is taking the time to care for them. An easy agenda is: 

- Discuss what you are currently working
- Highlight successes on your project 
- Reveal and discuss current project struggles and solutions
- Goals (Not a topic to necessarily discuss every week, but when you are setting goals with employees it’s helpful to work on them throughout the year and not just discuss once and hope they succeed)
- Walk-in items

I always add the last bullet point to let them know we don’t have to talk specifically about their project. When we end early (and we usually do!), I like to ask them something about their personal life, even if it is as simple as, “What are you doing this weekend?”. This helps me get to know them better on a personal level and (hopefully) opens up the door to them trusting me if they truly ever do have an issue. In addition, when discussing someone’s personal life you tend to find out things about them that can help you guide them on their professional path. 

2. Understanding your employee 

If someone is working for you, I would argue that you should know their special skill sets. Do they speak other languages? Do they have a dual degree or even an advanced degree? Are they an engineer with a previous background in sales? Do they have a weird desire to constantly write crazy formulas in excel? Some of these things you can gather from their resume, but some you actually need to have a conversation with the person to find out. This is another reason why 1:1s are so important.

You can’t know where they are capable of going if you don’t know where they have been, so work to understand more about your employee than just how they are benefitting you today. 

3. Help find the passion

If you are working with many junior employees, especially ones coming straight out of college, you will find that many are lost in a sea of confusion. They need guidance. Some think they should already be the CEO of a multinational corporation, others are very knowledgeable in their field but lack confidence, many have gained good experiences but are not certain what they should be doing and where they are headed. We will focus on this last group.

Did you know that an engineer designs Barbie? Or that a psychologist helps car companies determine the type of annoying sound your car makes when you don’t buckle your seatbelt? Or even that a chemist is developing the formula for the jam you put on your toast in the morning? The point here is that so many of us have degrees but have no clue the types of industries we can work in or positions we can apply for. Many senior professionals don’t know the full potential of their experiences and degrees, so how should a junior professional know that right out of college? This is where a mentor or manager can help show them the possibilities their degree offers (even if that “possibility” is outside of the organization). When I find that I am struggling to help an employee find their passion, I engage them in the process (you should never be doing all of the work). Here are a few ways you as a Manager can help:

Meet your colleagues: I typically pull together a list of colleagues I know who have a similar educational background (but different career paths) and tell the employee to reach out to them to discuss their career paths. How did a background in XYZ help them get to where they are today? What has helped them become so successful? How did they gain the skill sets to complete XYZ project? The conversation does not have to be limited to these questions, it’s simply a starting point to get the wheels turning. This is especially good for introverted employees because it helps them meet more colleagues and they don’t have to agonize over which topics to discuss.

Get them to open up:  Are they working for an automotive manufacturer designing the oil pan when their passion lies in vehicle body design? Is it the product itself that isn’t exciting enough for this employee? Did you put them in a role that is excruciating for an introvert? You need to ask the right questions to get the right answers, so I guarantee this won’t happen overnight. This can be a struggle, especially if the employee has never truly tried to determine the root cause of their complacency or discontent for their current role. But the answer is there, I promise! 

I have found that many employees feel they will be punished for not loving their current project or even certain aspects of it if they were to speak up. Work with them to understand what is important to them in a position, what might be missing from their current role. Remind them that it’s ok to want other things from a project and in order for you, as a manager, to help them achieve that, they need to concretely define what they are looking for. There is no harm in wanting more.

Include them in the team: It’s hard to be excited about work when you feel like an outsider. When newbies join my team I send out an email to the colleagues asking them to give him/her a warm welcome and to take 15-30 min out of their week to introduce themselves, grab a coffee/lunch, and get to know the person. When new employees know what other individuals on the team are working on they can have a better understanding of how they fit in the bigger project picture. Not only that, but they won’t have to agonize over who to run to when they need help, because they will know the area of responsibility of each individual. Imagine how much more comfortable you would feel as a new person on a team when core team members are immediately making an effort to get to know you. 

People often forget what it’s like to be the new person, how alienating it can feel. Don’t let that be the reason a team member is struggling to be successful on a project.

Get them outside of their comfort zone: I have a friend who told me her company will not let you stay in any internal position for longer than two to three years (depending on the level). When she first told me that I laughed thinking they were bananas. But… Have you ever worked with someone who has been working on the same types of tasks for years and just goes through the daily motions to get their job done? I’m not saying they do a bad job, in fact, in most cases they do their work well. The thing that is often missing from that equation is the passion. When you offer them tasks or projects that get them to think differently and work with different colleagues, you could potentially open up a new door for them. 

I was asked to take on a more sales type role, something that made me cringe. I detested it in the beginning, mainly because I thought I was horrible at it. Once I defined what success meant for that role and worked with others to help me achieve it, it didn’t seem so daunting. I have seen so many employees scream and shout and pout because they were asked to take on something new that they “didn’t want” to do. Once they were provided the right resources for success their outlook typically changed. They gained new skill sets, met new people, and changed up their day-to-day - things look a lot brighter when you are entrusted with new tasks and are given the right toolsets to succeed.

4. Help them transition

I asked it before and I’ll ask it again, “What if you embark on this path of discovery and find that the answer is for your employee to join a different department, industry, or company?”.  Here’s my answer: That’s ok! When you are unsuccessful in helping an employee find passion in something they are not passionate about, it’s ok to ask the question if they are unhappy in the team or company. Do they feel this organization is the right fit for them?

Many people would curse me for even touching on this topic but I would ask them, “Do you really want someone working for you who doesn’t want to be here? Don’t you want people who are passionate about your product, people who want to take this company to the next level?”. We are often so quick to dismiss uncomfortable topics that we forget how much more comfortable we would be having an employee who truly wants to show up to work every day, as opposed to someone who is too lazy to apply or just enjoys the convenient paycheck. 

I’m not telling you to fire these employees for lack of passion, I’m telling you to be blunt and ask them the question, “Do you believe this is company is the right fit for you? If not, let me help you figure out where it is you should go.”. These ideas are simply a guide for you to follow. Of course there are other ways to engage the employee throughout the process. Use this as a starting point and feel free to reach out if none of these have worked. I’m always happy to help. Oh, and…

To the employee who called me out: It wasn’t that I didn’t like you, you were simply a much bigger challenge than I knew how to handle at the time. I knew how to work together with people who were passionate and had direction, but I didn’t know how to help someone who was struggling to find their way. I was still figuring out my way. You were a challenge I didn’t know how to tackle and I am sorry for not taking the time to better help you. Now I know how to help others and I’m hoping you were able to find a manager that could guide you. I hope you found your passion.

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