Personal Consulting and Coaching

Ask Shaun: How Does a Supervisor Handle a “Mystery Man?”

Shaun –

I run crews on multiple sites. I’ve got one guy who works for me who’s turned into a mystery man.  At first he was a real go-getter who definitely wanted to show me something, and he seemed totally OK with the extra stuff I gave him to do that I was sure he could handle.  I thought I had a solid, reliable guy I could develop – maybe put on the promotion track.

But a couple of weeks ago I had a situation where I got called away on short notice, and I asked this guy to plug-in for me, see that things were followed up, closed down properly, etc.  He’d done each task before – nothing new was put on him.

When I got back there were a lot of problems – to say the least. Some stuff didn’t get done, and a lot of what did was half-assed. I may have had a little edginess in my voice when I asked what the heck had happened, but I didn’t yell, I didn’t accuse, I didn’t say out loud he’d screwed up.

What I got back from him was a “cold fish” stare, short answers and shrugs – which surprised me and frankly pissed me off – so I asked directly if he was having a problem with me.  He shook his head no.

Ever since then he runs hot and cold. Some days he’s OK, almost like he was, but other days he’s just putting in the time, doing what he’s told, head down. 

What’s your take?


The important thing is to not overreact.  Unless he decides to tell you what happened that day, you’ll never know – and the sad thing is it’s possible he doesn’t really know himself.

I could go to town on this one, start psychologizing all over the place, and turn this episode into the complex and subtle human drama it might actually be.

Maybe he got stuck on one particular task he’d forgotten how to handle, wasn’t sure what to do next, panicked, become laden with anxiety, and said “EFF-it, I don’t want to be doing this.”  His personal insecurities got away from him.

Or that could be completely wrong. He may have a substance abuse problem, snuck a beer, got buzzed, spaced out, got confused, felt lost.

He may be clinically depressed, have very low self-esteem, have a fear of success, etc.

But here’s the thing, Ron, he’s actually simplified things for you – he’s not supervisor material. You were right to think he might be someone to develop, but he’s shown you he wasn’t up to it – at least for now.

You need to do your job and let go of what you don’t know and can’t do anything about. 

If he continues to perform adequately at his job, fine.  Good for him, good for you.  No reprisals – (obviously) – but also don’t convey anger or resentment that he’s let you down.    

Remember, sometimes personal problems affect an employee’s job performance.  If your company has an Employee Assistance Program, that’s what it’s there for. 

It’s always more of a blow than we realize when our goodwill and positive efforts are apparently rejected. Unfortunately, it happens a lot these days, and it’s (mostly) not personal.  The goal is to develop the right kind of “thick skin” for your supervisor role, while also not letting it extend into your personal and family life – where awareness and sensitivity are useful, necessary assets.

Let me know if this helps, Ron.


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