my employee makes up words and is impossible to understand — Ask a Manager


A reader writes:

I have an employee in a technical role (my small team is all technical, including me) who seems to make up words and concepts when he’s talking about things. The results of this are an echo of the issues in the first letter in this previous post but in that case you, correctly I think, suggested leaving it to the manager — and in this case, I am the manager and I’m not sure what to do. This is exclusive to the way this person speaks in meetings (not in his writing) but given we’re all remote, we spend a lot of time in virtual meetings.

Compounding this is that when he goes down this path of using incorrect concepts and words to explain something, he is long-winded. Exact echoes of all the issues in this letter. I really, really like your advice there and will be trying to put some of it into action.

What stops me from going all-in on your advice there, though, is that it’s not the case that everything this long-winded employee says is accurate, correct, or even valuable so I’m not sure about putting in the effort to help this employee succeed, grow, and advance in our organization because I’m not sure he has the skills. I feel like I have to fix the first problem (made-up words and concepts) before I focus on the second problem of long-windedness.

I don’t know how to approach the first thing, because I struggle to understand what’s being said. It takes extreme amounts of effort to determine what he’s actually trying to say so that I can actually answer questions or assess situations. I’ve had to be direct and simply say, “I don’t understand what you just said because those words don’t make sense to me — can you try again?” I’m not sure what to do — this isn’t a second language issue (he’s a native English speaker) and I’m concerned not only that he doesn’t understand his job, but that he may literally lack the capacity to understand it, even with coaching. The employee is not new — he was just very junior when he started and I’ve been ramping him up, but I’m now concerned we’ve gotten to a point of technical complexity where there’s suddenly a limit.

The final issue is that the made-up words can often be quite fantastical, and so certain less technical people who encounter him in meetings perceive him as very smart and technical because they have no idea what he’s trying to say and he’s simply just a tall, straight, white man saying words loudly with authority.

Can I do something to address this?

Yes!

First, though: how’s the rest of his work? If his work isn’t good aside from the made-up words and the long-windedness, it might be simpler to just focus on the other issues. You don’t have to spend the time and energy trying to solve these two things if he’s not going to be right for the position regardless.

But if that’s not the situation, then my advice is: focus on the outcome you want. The outcome you want here is that he communicates clearly and people understand him, so approach it from that angle. For example: “When you talk about technical topics like X and Y, I and others are struggling to understand what you’re saying. You’re using words that don’t convey the concepts you intend. For example, last week in our meeting with Joe (insert specific example) and this morning in your meeting with me (insert specific example). We end up spending a lot of effort trying to understand, and I’m concerned it’s pointing to larger issues with your grasp of the material.”

Then see what his perspective is, and go from there.

At some point in that conversation you should likely say, “To perform well in this job, you need to communicate in ways that others can understand. If people aren’t grasping your point, it’s a sign that you need to explain differently — even if it’s clear to you. If you’re struggling to find a way to do that, let’s dig deeper into what’s going on.”

Also, because you’re concerned that he fundamentally doesn’t understand his job, have a longer conversation with him to probe for that. Talk about the concepts he needs to understand, and try to assess how much he grasps and how correctly. You’ll probably need to actively test for this (“if I assigned you X, how would you approach that?” … “what’s your understanding of Y?” … “walk me through how you think about Z” … etc.). In doing that, if you realize that he doesn’t have the foundational knowledge and understanding to do the work, you should switch your focus from how he’s communicating to whether he’s equipped to do the job at all. It sounds like you’ll need to be open to the possibility that the’s not. At that point you could look at whether some short, intensive training could get him to where you need him to be — or whether it’s simply a mismatch.



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