The Most Difficult Management Dilemma

One of the hardest situations a manager can face is giving feedback to a person with a wildly inaccurate perception of their abilities or performance.

It’s often harder to know how to give someone feedback who just doesn’t get it, at all, because it’s not just about being honest in a difficult situation; it’s about helping reshape the way they see themselves in a way that will be valuable for them in the long-run. Over the years, I’ve helped a lot of executives prepare for these conversations, and at least once, had one myself.

A number of years ago my previous firm was in significant hiring mode. One of the people we interviewed was Joe, who was a partner at another impressive firm. Joe had a great list of clients and strong references. Everybody liked Joe.

Joe seemed to want to join our firm, but he was concerned about not coming on directly as a partner. He had grown accustomed to being an owner and the leadership responsibilities that come with being an equity partner.

Joe was also very confident of his ability to help rapidly grow our firm. During our discussions, he described his plan to bring on global clients, or companies with similar spending power, to our firm. He was emphatic that within three months he would bring in three massive clients, each one bigger than anything we had achieved so far. He was even worried we would not have the people necessary to serve his new clients.

This was a very exciting prospect, but we were not willing to relent on his condition that he join as an owner. We had a clearly defined set of requirements for becoming a partner at the firm that typically takes some time to achieve. But because there was a lot of excitement about his candidacy, we made an agreement to consider him for partnership faster than normal if he was as immediately successful as he was so sure he would be.

So Joe joined the firm and after the first three months passed without any new business, I asked Joe about his overall business development efforts. When six months passed, and Joe stopped even talking about generating new business, I asked for specific information about his list of prospective clients. By nine months with no new business developed, it was time to take Joe out for a “calibration breakfast.”

Over coffee, I respectfully let Joe know that if things didn’t change, there wasn’t going to be a place on our team for him. He was a big-ticket item, and he wasn’t performing. As an early stage firm, we simply couldn’t afford that kind of expense. Joe seemed genuinely surprised, and then he gave me an answer that I will never forget. He blurted out, “I thought you asked me breakfast to offer me partnership.”

When I asked him if he didn’t realize it wasn’t going well, he said that he really didn’t. He thought he was on track to partnership. He reminded me we told him we would consider him early. I reminded him of his promise to bring on significant business which had yet to materialize.

Looking back, I recognize that Joe and I were looking at completely different information when we evaluated the situation and his performance. Joe’s identity was that of a partner at a leading consulting firm. He was right that he brought with him tons of knowledge and expertise. He could show up at a lot of meetings within our growing firm, and with clients, and make the team better. At the large firm he came from, these were valuable partner skills.

I had different metrics for success in his role, and although I was repeatedly explicit about them, the message did not sink in. Why? Mostly because people don’t change their identity because someone explains something new to them, even when backed up with facts. Joe knew himself to be a successful leader and partner, and a 9-month business development draught was unlikely to change his self-perception.

Another important aspect of our misalignment was that Joe came from a well-known global firm, and we were a scrappy startup. I expected Joe’s former clients, who were used to engaging a large global firm, to need to do their diligence before hiring a boutique firm that they had never heard of.

Giving direct feedback is hard, so how do you deal with the employees whose view of the world and their role in it is not off by an inch, but off by a mile? You have to start by understanding their way of seeing things. This is valuable in a couple of ways, first, you understand what is behind their point of view. There is usually a point where you can help your colleague see that they have made a big, incorrect leap in their thinking. There is usually an inference made or a mistaken fact that gets in the way of their ability to see things clearly.

Showing interest in their point of view proves to your colleague that you care about understanding their perspective, and this makes it easier for them to understand your perspective when it is time to present it. Giving someone critical feedback is a tricky business and one of the best things you can do is have the kind of relationship where you are allowed to be candid. Most of us are really only willing to be candid with people who are important to us. Listening and caring, even when you disagree, is one of those things that signals to others that you have that kind of relationship.

When it comes to these conversations, facts are helpful, but only if used effectively. Some say facts are the facts, but in practice, that’s only partly true. Facts are always facts, but they can only be helpful when everyone agrees on the facts and that these facts are relevant. That’s not always the case, and that’s where we get into trouble. Also, facts can also be used as a club to beat someone with – a way of saying “I was right, and you were wrong.” Even when this is true, the need to compete for who is smarter does not help your co-worker integrate a new perspective. Remember, tough feedback is best given by someone who cares about us.

To truly help someone see a situation in a new way it is helpful to check for understanding. In some cases, it will be obvious that they get it. Your co-worker will show you that they see the situation in a new way and that they are re-calibrating their understanding of the underlying situation. Or they will explain how they will approach a similar situation in the future.

But more often, it won’t be clear whether the person you are trying to help understands or agrees with you. They may tell you they understand, but won’t show you that they do. Often this will mask the deep defensiveness that is keeping them from accepting a new perspective and addressing the issues that required this feedback in the first place. In these situations, it’s useful to draw them into a conversation that forces them to share what they’ve taken away from the conversation, something that checks whether they understand, then agree and finally, can act on what they’ve learned. This can be as simple as, “What do you think?” or as formal as, “I want to check and be sure we’re on the same page. Tell me what you are taking away from our conversation.”

Giving feedback when someone is so far off can be a challenge because you don’t even know where to start. But now you do, so don’t put it off any longer. It’s fairly common knowledge, and not a workplace myth, that many people leave their jobs because of their management. By implementing this kind of feedback regularly, and making sure you’re on the same page with your team, you can start to close potential gaps between management and employees. Go and help your co-worker be a little better at work.

 

John Philbin

John is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life who, if he wasn't helping people with their careers, would consider himself a ghost researcher. His claim to fame is that he is a champion race walker (he actually came in second place).

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