Why Managers Keep their Eyes Shut so Tightly
By the time George missed the big deadline, his manager, Juliana, had already gone through several months of pretending there was no problem. Her longstanding positive relationship with George prevented her from addressing the decline in the quality of his work, his lateness and withdrawal. Now, faced with a problem to which she couldn’t turn a blind eye, Juliana cringed at the idea of having to take action.
Much like Juliana, many managers avoid dealing with performance problems. Unfortunately, the HR professionals who support them are often slow to diagnose the problem and to provide timely assistance.
When the performance of a long-time employee or one with a solid track record declines, many managers fall right into the Procrastination Trap. Other times, they procrastinate because they know the employee is struggling with difficult personal circumstances. Or because they have a personal relationship with the person. Or because they fear that they’ll endanger the employee’s future. Or they worry about damaging their relationship with him or her. Or they’re paralyzed by the fear of handling the conversation in an unskilled way.
Meanwhile, things on the ground get worse. The performance deteriorates further, other team members begin questioning the manager’s leadership and customer service suffers.
If I’m Good, I Shouldn’t be Bad
Most of us think of ourselves as good, decent human beings, and managers are no exception. The possibility of confronting performance issues triggers a debilitating unconscious conflict. Somewhere deep within, the matter gets translated into: “If I can do this to a fellow human being, it means I’m a bad person”. Once this happens, anxiety and avoidance kick in.
Like Juliana, managers will unconsciously invent a host of excuses that will justify not dealing with the performance problem. These excuses alleviate their discomfort and allow them to maintain their internal sense of decency. They ignore changes in the employee’s performance while telling themselves that ‘it will pass’ or that ‘it isn’t really all that serious’. Or they persuade themselves that they have more pressing priorities.
Let’s face it, dealing with performance issues is right up there on any manager’s list of ‘most despised tasks’. And it can be pretty lonely out in the battlefield. True, most organizations offer clear processes for progressive discipline. But they fall short on providing their leaders with essential strategies for assessing and intervening before things get really bad. Managers are left to figure it our on their own, with scarce tools on which to rely. A good managers’ training program can provide a solid framework, skills and confidence that will help managers stop procrastinating. In addition to training, HR professionals can provide support by offering managers the following guidance:
- Action is more helpful than procrastination. Become present to the paradox inherent in the fact that your procrastination is not helpful to the employee, in fact it is harmful. If you don’t act and things become worse, you might eventually have to take more drastic measures. By intervening early, you are respectfully providing the person with the opportunity to self-correct.
- Record. Take detailed notes pertaining to the problem behaviours. These notes will allow you see reality more clearly and help you determine if, how and when to intervene. Make sure to record observations (things a video camera would capture), not some form of unqualified diagnosis. For example, don’t record “George was defensive”. Instead, record “when Mary inquired about a late report, George yelled at her”. This way, when you raise the issue with the employee, you’re equipped with real data, rather than a ‘diagnoses’ that might induce a defensive response and make you an even worse procrastinator. After all, if you tell George that he had been “aggressive and uncooperative” you can pretty much bet that he will become aggressive and uncooperative before your very eyes.
- Consult. Get another person’s perspective. In addition to HR, people such as your own manager or a seasoned colleague will readily share their experience and help you gain clarity and confidence.
- Acquire skills. Dealing with performance issues is part of one’s developmental journey as a leader. You need to get good at this, no matter how uncomfortable it may seem. Read, role-play with someone, or pursue training – do whatever works for you.
- Have a solid plan for the conversation with the employee. At the very least, your plan should include the following elements:
- Clarity about the desired outcome – usually it should be “arrive at an agreed-upon plan that will get George’s performance back on track”.
- A clear structure that you can rely on when things become tense or you feel you own anxiety rising
- A detailed list of the performance problems, articulated in video-camera terms
- Familiarity with the resources available to assist the person
- A willingness to listen and truly engage in dialogue
Taking action early will prevent things from getting worse and empowers a shift from a position of reactivate management to one of supportive leadership. This will prevent much angst on all fronts and allow for issues to be resolved smoothly and effectively.