Your Career Q&A: Taking Responsibility for Sub-Par Performance

By Martin Yate March 13, 2018

​Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.    

I work in HR in an academic setting. I get along great with my boss—same sense of humor, same interests outside of work, etc. We also work well together; whenever he asks me to complete a task, I do it and he's satisfied, and he's complimented me many times on my demeanor and customer skills.

Two other ma
nagers I have to work with in benefits and talent management are a different story. I can never seem to do tasks to their satisfaction, I "lack the ability to anticipate needs and follow-through," and I constantly feel like I'm on their list of people who disappoint them. They rarely bring these concerns directly to me, however. Rather, they complain to my boss over and over, and he has to tell me.

Apparently one of them has even set up an action plan for improvement with HR because he feels I'm beyond help—something that took me entirely by surprise. My manager keeps defending me to them, but I can tell he's getting frustrated as well.

I like this job and am happy to keep doing it for as long as I can, but lately I've been submitting applications for other jobs because I can't stand continuing to disappoint and fail. What can I do to improve, short of learning how to read minds? 



In HR, we deal with such performance and personality conflicts from other departments on a weekly basis. But your thorny problem exists within your own department, and it feels different when it is so close to home. If you can create a little distance between yourself and this difficult situation (looking at it with your HR hat on), you will understand and deal with it more effectively. 

Before you can address performance criticisms, you must understand your role in the problems and their root cause and you invariably must accept some responsibility for unwelcome events. 

We all learn more from our mistakes than from our successes, so while it is difficult to look objectively at the comments of your detractors, you should review the critical things that have been said about your work. "Lacks the ability to anticipate needs and follow-through." Ask yourself, is there any truth to this statement? My guess is that if two directors have issues with your deliverables, you might find some areas for improvement. 

Then make appointments to sit down privately with each director. Whatever is said, however unfair it might seem in the moment, do not attempt to justify your actions or be defensive in any way as that will only make things worse. 

At each meeting, ask questions about the specific problems that director is experiencing with your execution and how he or she would like you to handle similar situations in the future. Then restate your understanding of the ways that director would like things done differently. End the meeting by thanking the director for his or her time and honesty, and promise to do everything you can to deliver on that director's stated needs. Then live up to your word. 

Anticipate the Unimaginable

Common sense should tell you to anticipate the possibility of a layoff and to do what you can to avoid having to look for a job when you don't have one. It's harder to find a job when you're unemployed, and even more difficult if you've been fired. 

You'll need to build a new resume focused on a specific target job. Simultaneously, you'll want to get your job search skills up to speed and start a very confidential job search. 

Columns like this one are good to alert you to issues and broad approaches, but a column or a blog will never be able to show you how to execute an effective confidential job search, turn interviews into job offers or manage a career in today's workplace. The issues simply cannot be addressed in 500 words, and your livelihood is too important. I'd recommend the just published 32nd edition of Knock 'em Dead: The Ultimate Job Search Guide (Adams Media, 2016) to address all of these issues. 

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.

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