The other day a friend told me about an organization in which those who are considered star performers are explicitly nurtured, those who are considered average are recognized as doing good work, and those who are not doing so well receive no feedback at all. This is a planned, official strategy, thought-out and based on lists of employees that managers are asked to secretly prepare. The poor performers are just supposed to notice that they are not receiving feedback — as a kind of negative feedback, of course — and then choose to improve or to leave. It’s a really interesting system, isn’t it? It certainly makes feedback an easier proposition for managers and avoids all those clumsy, tense sessions in which everybody gets defensive.
The main thing is that it kills the spirit via no contact, via ambiguity, via shunning, essentially throwing people back on themselves through an official kind of isolation. It’s hard to imagine a more destructive, hurtful process or an easier out based on negative beliefs about human beings. And, frankly, I really wonder if it accomplishes the goal of fostering improvement or separation. The goal seems to spur human change through demoralization, as if an enterprise’s best interests are served by discarding people considered to be a form of trash.
And this is precisely the opposite of helping people by telling them the truth, including setting real boundaries and goals for conduct or performance, in a firm but respectful environment of listening and encouragement. No one ever said that was easy work. Sometimes it is painfully frustrating and time consuming. Sometimes HR functions are of little real help, and the rules seem overwhelming and unfair. And sometimes whatever communication and coaching process is used, it just doesn’t work, in which case the manager or the associate, or the two together, must decide that time’s up on the employment contract. And I am speaking here not just about first line supervisors or managers, but also senior executives who are just as likely to not know what to do when high level conduct or performance issues show up.
I will not in this post try to outline an entire process for intervening, but I will say this, that people are not likely to improve without some sense of hope for the future, a hope that any leader can provide by helping another see how the present moment, however difficult, represents an opportunity, not just a point of failure.
A personal example
Many years ago, when I still worked in a Personnel Department (yup, the name signifies just how long ago that was), I made a mistake in my communications with a senior leader — I’ll call him Bill. I had advised him that some of his employees, five levels down in the hierarchy, were wondering if they had to hire a neighbor of Bill’s who he had encouraged to apply for a summer job in his department. I was a bit nervous about the message, but I felt it better he know about the concern on the street so he could reassure people that they should hire whoever they felt to be best qualified.
Somehow, however, when we met, Bill heard me say he actually was influencing (or might try to influence) the process and he immediately felt his integrity had been attacked. Although he did not say anything about that during the meeting with me, within a few minutes he was standing outside the open-concept Personnel Department having a shouting meltdown about my “allegations,” (I was not there at the time) and by the next day he’d gone to every unit in his department to tell them what a cad I was, how I couldn’t be trusted, and how I had maligned him. He was a big enough fish that my reputation was in great danger, so much so that I thought I might have to quit or that I might be fired for this mistake — even though I’d had no intention whatsoever of questioning his integrity. I certainly did not think he would intentionally have manipulated the process. To make matters worse, the Assistant Director of the Personnel Department was a big fan of Bill’s and she immediately sided with him — I must have attacked him!
What a mess! I went home angry as hell. And I wanted my boss, the Personnel Director, Howard, to fix the situation. After all, he was more Bill’s peer, and I had done nothing wrong — except try to protect Bill’s reputation from gossip. The truth was, I didn’t know what to do and the situation scared the heck out of me. In part, the fear came from Bill, himself. He was a short, stocky, potentially intimidating military guy, holding a high rank in the reserves — exuding command and control all the way.
Howard called me to his office to discuss the situation.
“What are you going to do to fix this, Dan?” he asked.
“What am I going to do?” I asked. “Howard, I have no idea what to do. I don’t think I can do anything, and I didn’t do anything wrong! I was just trying to help, Bill! Can’t you do something, talk to him?” I rambled on for several minutes, frustrated, disappointed, victimized.
Howard was quiet, listening. Finally, when I got done venting, he said, “Well, if you think an apology would help, you might start there.”
Then I really blew up. How could I apologize if I’d never done anything wrong?! This was so colossally unfair. After brooding myself into dark oblivion the previous night, putting up with the Assistant Director’s assumptions, and now being placed in the humiliating situation of apologizing for doing something that supposed to have been helpful, I couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t remember exactly what I said shouting or for how long, but it took awhile for me to cool down. Howard was still there, still listening. After a pause he calmly reached out to me.
“Dan, you know there are a lot of Bills in the world. This might be an opportunity for you to figure out how to work with them just a little better.”
His words were challenging — and firm — but his tone was actually reassuring. He was trusting me to figure it out while not letting me off the hook. He was expressing confidence in me, and saw more in me at that moment that I had seen in myself. I still wasn’t exactly sure what to do, but I had to acknowledge that this was an opportunity as much as it was a crisis.
That night I had some serious conversation with myself. I tried harder to put myself in Bill’s shoes. I tried harder to think about my assumptions about him, my fear of him, and what I could do now. In the end I decided to meet with him to explore what had happened, how this thing could have gone so far awry. When we met, the first thing I did was offer an apology. Not for doing something wrong, but communicating in a way that created misunderstanding. And then, as we talked through it, we were able to clear the air. I left Bill’s office proud of my role in repairing the situation.
The hero of the story is Howard, of course, because he didn’t fire me — and he didn’t let me fire myself, either. What he offered was hope. What he did was what everyday leaders can do, which is find a way to turn something dark into a chance once more to find light. It’s clear to me now, looking back after more than twenty years, that Howard, too, could have been at risk in the situation. Bill, in fact, had more power than he did, and could have damaged his reputation as well as mine. But Howard took the more courageous route of trusting me to find a new capability in myself, even when I was so very unsure that it was there.
It was a gift, and many times since then when I have wondered where hope might come from, I have remembered the lesson, “you can do more than you think you can,” which he never had to say, but was right there, always, in the middle of his office, the one with pictures of his friends behind him, people he’d met while serving in the Peace Corps in Africa, chiefs and others he had become close to. They were pictures of people smiling and dancing.