my intern is way too passive — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I am currently supervising an intern, Lauren, who is completing a postgrad professional degree in my field. The placement with my organization is a mandatory part of her course, and she is here to learn high-level skills with an emphasis on critical thinking and creativity. My field is one that most people enter out of a passion for the work (there’s not much money in it!).

Lauren has been with us for a few months now and she is still just … completely passive. She will complete concrete tasks (to a pretty uninspiring standard — sometimes seeming to give up if her first attempt doesn’t work) if I assign them to her, and she watches me do my work, and that’s about it. When I ask about her learning goals or interests, she has none or seems to make up a generic answer on the spot. When I ask her to keep me updated on her workload and let me know when she wants a new project, she says nothing (which makes me wonder if she’s just slacking off; we’re working mostly remotely so I don’t have a lot of oversight). When I ask her to choose which of a few projects she’d like to be involved in, she just says she’ll do whatever I need her to do. I’ve tried explaining to her that she’s here to learn and not to be my assistant (frankly, she’s not very helpful anyway) to no avail. I’ve explained the importance of being proactive, creativity, critical thinking, etc. I’ve done everything I can think of to allow her to feel safe asking questions and expressing opinions. If things don’t change soon, I can’t give her a passing grade (I haven’t said this to her yet, but I plan to this week).

What would you do? I’ve never been in this situation before — all of my previous students have been thrilled to be here and constantly asking questions — so I’m stuck!

I think it will help to think of it this way: the internship is supposed to be a learning experience for Lauren and you have an opportunity to teach her things that could really help her professionally … just not in the way you’re used to. Your previous interns might have needed to learn field-specific skills; what Lauren needs to learn is how to communicate in an office, how to take initiative (and that she needs to, and what that looks like), and how to engage with the people guiding her work.

If she doesn’t learn those things now, it’s likely to cause her real problems in future jobs. You have an opportunity to help teach them to her!

There’s no guarantee that your efforts will work, of course. She might not be in a place where she’s receptive to what you’re trying to teach. But you should give it a shot.

Since she needs to make significant changes in order to get a passing grade, that gives you a really easy framework to use. You can sit down with her and say something like this, “I want to talk about some concerns I have with your work. Right now, as things stand, I would not be able to give you a passing grade for your internship. But there is time for us to change that, and I think you can succeed here if you’re open to making these changes. What I need to see is…”

And then be really specific — more specific than you probably think you need to be. For example, don’t just say “be proactive” because she probably doesn’t know what that should look like. Explain the broad principle you want (which could be “be proactive”) but then give multiple concrete examples of what that should look like (“for example, when we meet about the taco campaign on Friday, I want you to bring three ideas for social media promotion — here are some social media ideas interns generated in the past, so you can see the format and nature of what I’m looking for”).

Also, be explicit about the things you have asked her to do that she’s not doing — “I have asked you to keep me updated on your workload but haven’t heard anything after that. I’d like you to send me an email every Monday morning listing your priorities for the week, things you completed the previous week, and any questions or things you’re getting stuck on. We’ll plan to meet every Monday at 2, so I’d like the email no later than noon.” (Or whatever.) I’m guessing this is a lot more prescriptive than you had to be with previous interns — and you might not want to be this prescriptive — but it sounds like Lauren doesn’t know what it means when you ask her to keep you updated, and you’ll be doing her a favor if you paint a clear picture of what it looks like to do it successfully. (Then do the same for all the other most important things you want to see her do.)

And then say this: “Without you making these changes, I can’t give you a passing grade. But I’m confident you can do this, and the support I can offer to help is ___.” (Fill in some ideas there, because I would bet significant amounts of money that she doesn’t know what she could ask for.)

From there, it’s up to her. But you’ll have set her up for success as much as you could, by spelling out really clearly what she needs to pass, and offering her help to get there. If she doesn’t meet the bar you laid out, then you’ll have made the consequences clear. But if it does help her learn how to navigate work, it might have even more of an impact on her future than what your previous interns learned.

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