Recognizing the Signs

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Any of the following behaviors may indicate that your direct reports are

not receiving the feedback and coaching they need to improve or maintain

desired performance levels:

You realize that the last time you gave feedback to one of your direct

reports was months ago during their last performance appraisal.

You have not spent at least one hour in the last three months giving

performance feedback to each of your direct reports.

You only give feedback when an employee requests it.

You find yourself procrastinating on giving feedback to an employee

until days or weeks after you first intended to give it.

Your direct reports have tried to schedule meetings with you for

feedback and coaching, and you have had to cancel or postpone them

on several occasions.

After you give feedback, things fail to improve or seem to get even

worse.

When giving feedback, you hold back for fear of hurting the employee’s

feelings.

You feel uncomfortable with the whole idea of coaching and giving

feedback because you have never been trained in how to do it well.

More Than an Event: It’s About the Relationship

Giving good feedback and coaching is about more than having a series of

meetings—it’s about manager and employee building an open and trusting

relationship. Most managers have built comfortable and satisfactory relationships

with some employees, but have also experienced the opposite as

well—relationships with other employees that never got off on the right

footing, or went from bad to worse. Perhaps it is because we simply like

some employees better than others, or we favor those who are most similar

to us, but it is a common phenomenon to place a halo on the heads of

some employees, and see horns growing on others.

Unknowingly, a manager may actually be contributing to the failure of

an employee. As described in a classic article, ‘‘The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome,’’

there is usually a triggering event that causes the manager to lose

faith in an employee—losing a client, undershooting a target, or missing a

deadline.9 The syndrome is set in motion when the supervisor starts to

worry about an employee’s performance so much that she starts putting

him on a ‘‘short leash’’—constantly checking up on him, requiring approval

for all decisions, and generally micro-managing him. The employee

interprets this reining-in behavior as a loss of trust and confidence and, in

the worst-case scenario, starts living down to the supervisor’s low expectations.

He begins to withdraw emotionally, may be paralyzed into inaction,

and consumes so much of the supervisor’s time that he is eventually fired

or quits.

This is exactly the kind of downward-spiral disengagement process referred

to in Chapter Two. It can be interrupted and reversed by a manager

who is aware that it is happening and who is motivated to change the

relationship. The prescription: a mixture of coaching, training, job redesign,

and a clearing of the air. All this takes courage, an ability to be selfreflective,

and more frequent contact and emotional involvement with the

employee. But too many managers are not motivated to perform such

transformations.

While listening to employees describe how they came to leave their

past employers, I have heard many variations of the set-up-to-fail story.

One very creative and talented employee I’ll call Pam described a turning

point with a manager, who was pushing her to tell a prospective client they

could deliver a service that Pam knew they were not prepared to deliver.

Pam saw this promise to the client as bordering on unethical, while her

boss perceived Pam’s reluctance as a lack of confidence. After that, the

manager began withholding assignments from Pam and giving them to her

peers instead. Eventually, the emotional chasm in their relationship became

too great, and Pam was let go. With time to reflect, she realized she was

quite relieved to be gone.

Could this employee have been salvaged with a different approach to

coaching and feedback? Perhaps the disagreement about ethics would have

been too great to overcome. But I sincerely believe that at least a third of

all terminations could be prevented with better coaching and feedback,

or by reassigning employees to managers with more compatible coaching

styles.

The vast majority of bosses favor some subordinates, treating them as

part of an in-group, while consigning others to an out-group. The manager

may either totally ignore those in the out-group or over-supervise them to

such an extent that they stop giving their best, stop taking the initiative,

and become automatons, sending the clear message back to their managers,

 ‘‘Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.’’ This is the very definition of

disengagement.

The effects on those in the in-group may also be highly negative. If

the manager loses faith in a performer he perceives as weak, he may start

overloading those he considers stronger performers, creating resentment on

their part and eventually burning them out.

The dynamics of manager-employee relationships are complex, but in

the best-case scenarios, with a good faith effort and the right approach to

coaching, employees can be re-engaged.