“Thanks, your work was almost adequate”

What should leaders say and do when someone’s work is disappointing?

The comedian Henning Wehn performs a joke about a German baby that doesn’t speak at all until it’s five years old – and only then to complain that things are no longer satisfactory.

Here he is delivering the punchline to Alan Davies’ setup on BBC’s QI:

This joke actually tells us a lot about the causes of a problem that leaders sometimes share with me – what should you actually say when someone delivers a rather disappointing piece of work and then expects some praise or thanks from you?

My challenge to those leaders when they raise this issue is this – have you been a bit like that German baby and been too silent until now?

By which I mean the following:

  • Have you previously set out clear enough expectations of what a great solution to this work would look like?
  • Have you previously given this person enough positive feedback so that they know what their strengths are and how much you value them?
  • Have you previously spent enough time coaching and developing this person, so that they’re definitely capable of delivering what’s required?

If you can’t honestly put your hand on your heart and say “Yes, I have previously done enough of that”, then you’ve been too much like that German baby and have spent too long being silent because things were tolerable before.


Your choices now that the disappointing work has been delivered are much narrower than before. And – and this is really important – the blame probably lays at your feet, because it means you’ve likely missed one of the factors I’ve described above.

I’ve spent lots of years not quite living up to my own standards as a leader and have coached loads of others through similar situations, so I have some experience. Here’s how I would chart my way through a ‘disappointing output’ situation:

  1. Say a proper thank you, like you mean it;
  2. Own up in a neutral and non-complaining way: “This is different from my expectations, can we talk through that?”
  3. Be specific: “I was expecting ‘A’ and this looks like ‘X’.”
  4. Ask for what you now need. If you can live with the output as it is, but want it to be better next time, skip this stage and the next. If not, you need to say something like: “I do need this to meet the following criteria (and list them), so I will need you to re-work it please.”
  5. Ask them to describe their version of that output ‘X’, by saying something like: “Tell me how you’ll know that you’ve done a great job on this, before it gets to me?”
  6. Ask for what they need from you: “What support, resources or information might you need from me, so that you can do a great job with work like this?”

Leading is a tough job. And even when you have done everything I’ve suggested above, people will still deliver disappointing outputs to you, for a whole load of reasons. Don’t be too tough on yourself though, despite my accusing you of being like that German baby!

My point is, it isn’t necessarily your fault, but it is your responsibility. If you want to be a great leader, and you’re not getting the results you want – try a different way. And if that doesn’t work, try another.

And don’t be afraid to seek that support that you need, so you can be as resourceful and flexible in your approach as you need to be.

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. Tell me how you normally tackle this situation, and how that usually works out for you?


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