Here is a simple scenario: You are a supervisor. You walked in the office one morning and found one of your staff reading a newspaper, though it’s clearly during office hours. How would you respond?
This actual scene took place in the early career of a C.E.O. who now heads a non-profit group. In an interview article in New York Times’ “Corner Office,” this C.E.O. used this example to illustrate how she had learned to deal with someone who’s not quite self-motivated. When she encountered this staff member in the above scenario, her immediate reaction was, “I wanted to say, ‘that’s a ridiculous thing to be doing right now.’” Instead, she mulled over and rehearsed what she wanted to say, which was “well, maybe there’s a way you can use that story to engage your students.” What she did eventually was hinting around, and the staff member did get the message. With more years of experience, her take-away lesson she offers now is: Be direct and honest in your feedback.
In principle, that is true. In practice, one needs to be direct without biting, and honest without being brutal. Or, better, yet, it depends on the time, place, and the personality you are dealing with. As usual, it’s easier said than done.
Granted, this example she gave was about a “repeated offender,” so her conclusion that the staff member was not a highly motivated person was probably justified. But even there, an experienced and more emotionally intelligent manager would want to start by asking him/herself, “What can be done about this working environment to help motivate this person?” It is much easier to go to the negative route by berating someone. Similarly, if this staff member wasn’t a repeat offender, and was spotted reading the newspaper, what should the response be? An immediate reprimand? Even the response of “there’s a way you can use that story to engage your students” feels waspish. Behind every action and behavior, there can be multiple possible explanations. For instance, he might have had a rough morning, and was using a little time to read something to gather himself before beginning the tutoring where he had to interact with someone. He might have been up early and working since 6AM, and now was taking a breather before plunging back in for the rest of the day. He might have had an accident on the way to work and therefore needed a little time to decompress. It does take time to understand whereas it takes no time and effort to render a quick snap judgment.
It is a manager’s responsibility to understand each and every one of her staff so as to better design the work environment and motivate people with as much individual tailoring as possible. Everyone can see and recognize superficialities. But behind every success/failure, there are deep layers of reasons; a wise manager would dig and understand all the layers. Remember my mantra? It’s easy to emulate the superficiality but much, much harder to create your own brand of success.
Later on in this short interview piece, the C.E.O. described her learning curve, and said, “early on, I realized that I’m really good with the people who are high performers. I am not so good with the people who are not very good performers.” I just wanted to scream, “No s–t Sherlock!” But she did relate that by bypassing what she perceived to be low performers, and relying on high performers, she misused the resources and hurt the organization as a result. This realization requires a degree of self-awareness that often seems missing in many managers. I would like to know more about how she learned that lesson.
Indeed, it is typical of a mediocre manager to follow his desire to eliminate, by any means, such as transferring or downright termination, these “low” performers. Of course, it is within the manager’s right to go nuclear, but he does so at the peril of future staff pool; most when hired would regard his organization as a stepping stone rather than devoting their talents for his sake. In the long run, this manager would increase its operation cost because of the high turnover rate.
By definition, at least half the employees are average. The key isn’t about hiring the most talented (I have pointed out the fallacy of such argument in earlier post), the key is making sure there is a good fit between the employee and her job. And in order to find that fit, it would take time for a thoughtful manager to understand the real talents of the employee, what makes her tick, and what kind of pressure she can withstand, etc. And some trial and error. Indeed, it’s always about nature and nurture. And there are no shortcuts.
Back to the interview article, I do applaud the C.E.O.’s honesty and respect her capability to learn and grow over the years. Her take-away lessons to offer are: 1. “Don’t sugarcoat your feedback.” And I might add, with thoughtfulness. 2. One should ask during interviewing process, “when were you at your absolute best?” and “what would your critics tell me about you?” The former is very much in the frame of Appreciative Inquiry (link). The later is a fairly skillful approach to tease out some honest self-assessment of the respondent; it is also a way to assess someone’s level of self-awareness.
In terms of the overall quality of the article, I wish the reporter would dig a little deeper, and like a good manager, forgo the superficial platitudes and offer some in-depth stories of the C.E.O.’s learning journey.
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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