Poor Performance Puzzle

Dear Coach,

Our company’s growth made the owner too busy to supervise our department so we were happy when we got a new boss. She listens and learned about us before she started changing things. Then she brought in someone she’d worked with before.

Our owner trusts her, so when she presented this new worker, Lulu, as an experienced professional worth 25% more than the highest paid among us, he bought it. Lulu, it turns out, has either fooled our new boss, has lost whatever brilliance our new boss thought she had , or is fooling herself about what she knows and how well she can do her job here.

She’s not fooling us.

Our group is responsible for accounts receivable and accounts payable. But we don’t just crunch numbers, send bills and process payments – we negotiate with our vendors to keep costs down and we work directly with customers who need payment plans or qualify for discounts. Whether the company maintains good relationships with our customers and vendors - and gets the money owed it – depends directly on how well we do our job.

Lulu fails. She is cold, rigid and abrupt with callers and either answers questions incorrectly or refers people to us once she’s offended them. After nearly three months, she still cannot correctly quote discounts or design payment plans. None of our vendors will speak with her. If she answers the phone, they ask for one of us.

Recently this came to the attention of our new boss and she called several vendors and asked why. They told her that Lulu was unpleasant and did not know her job. (I know this because most of them called me to confide the gist of the conversation, I guess in an effort to let me know whose “corner” they were in…)

After conducting her little vendor survey, our boss called a meeting and announced that she suspects Lulu is too hard a name to remember and that we need to ensure that our vendors get to know Lulu better. She asked that we remind vendors who call that Lulu might have also answered their question and hand calls off to Lulu whenever possible.

Worse – she asked that when we give a call to Lulu, we “stay in the loop” until the conversation is complete, helping Lulu handle it correctly.

We do, but we resent it. We resent Lulu for making 25% more money. We resent having to do her work for her and clean up her messes. And we are beginning to resent our new boss because it seems she’s protecting Lulu from life in the real world.

Coach Sylvia, please help us - must we participate in

-Guarding Lulu?

Dear Guarding,

Wow! What a difference between what you understood the vendors said and what the boss said she understood. Particularly since you seem to have some confidence in her, the disparity makes me wonder if there is something else going on that your boss either is not comfortable discussing or not at liberty to share.

But to Lulu – rigidity can be a fall-back position if someone does not feel confident applying their own judgement. And – a chilly façade can serve as a first defense against others asking questions one feels inadequately prepared to answer.

I’ve worked other cases where faulty assumptions were made about a new hire’s competencies and I’m curious if Lulu’s “experienced” billing was a set up for the current state of affairs.

If none of you original team members trained Lulu but your boss did, I’d wonder if what looks like protective measures are in fact your manager’s effort to recover from prior errors.

Along the same lines, even if your boss was clear about what your vendors said and shared the feedback honestly with Lulu, she may be trying to maintain a level of professional decorum by not broadcasting the bad reviews to the rest of you . (Who knew the vendors would tell you what was said?)

Asking you to help Lulu establish better relationships with people who call the department on business may be your manager’s back-handed way of asking you to please help Lulu learn your company’s rules of conduct. It may even represent a request for your help training Lulu on the policies and procedures you say she is missing.

You might consider approaching your boss in the spirit of clarifying that she’s asked the team to complete Lulu’s training. 

Clearly defining what needs to be learned, in what order and by what deadline would lend structure to Lulu’s progress, building her confidence and providing the team with the credit you deserve for your help. You might outline those details and – in a productive way – let both Lulu and your boss know that this team prefers open communication and allows learning from one’s mistakes.

Just remember - whether you respond in good faith or bearing ill will can not only affect the extent to which Lulu becomes a competent co-worker but the team’s long term state of mind.

I expect that you’ll prefer the former and, if I’ve read the tone of your emails correctly, foresee that you will soon be able to listen proudly as Lulu joins the rest of you, expertly guarding the company’s cash flow....

All my Best,
- Sylvia