A seasoned executive was venting to me about her dissatisfaction with the work of a longtime employee. Over time, the employee seems to have succumbed to a combination of habitual carelessness and general lack of focus that may be exacerbated by personal difficulties. The result is an increasing number of errors and frequent episodes in which tasks are left completely undone.
The employee is dedicated, means well, and has been with the organization for a long time. The exec hasn’t wanted to hurt his feelings, so she’s been holding her fire. But over time, his idiosyncrasies have become more pronounced and more numerous and — because she never raised the issue when the problems were minor and less intrusive — they’ve become the equivalent of unmentionables.
Now the exec is truly fed up: Whenever she has to work with this particular employee, she spends enormous amounts of time and psychic energy anticipating what will be messed up. But she doesn’t know how to speak to the employee about it because each detail on its own still seems quite minor, even though the cumulative effect is enormous.
I feel great sympathy for her because I once fell into the same trap with a new employee — the trap of thinking that a small recurring performance problem was “not really a big deal” and that I could “live with it” until the problem became too big a deal to live with.
Playing the Waiting-and-Hoping Game
About 20 years ago, in the early years of my practice, I hired an assistant with appropriate skills and experience. After a few weeks I was disappointed that she didn’t seem to be taking hold better. Nothing was drastically wrong, but she wasn’t showing the kind of focus or drive or initiative that I had hoped for. She just didn’t seem to care all that much — the position was “only a job” to her and she actually would have preferred not to be working.
During the short time we worked together, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was wrong with the relationship, and I felt it wasn’t fair to follow my emotional instinct, which was hollering that there was a problem. It didn’t seem fair to judge, correct, or criticize her or her performance purely because of my discomfort. So instead of giving her direct feedback, I tried to tolerate the situation even as I felt more and more awkward and uneasy — until one day she did something that was just plain wrong and I snapped at her. Loudly.
It’s completely out of character for me to raise my voice unless I’m startled (you can ask my kids), so when I snapped at my assistant I really was startled — into recognizing that we couldn’t go on like this anymore.
The day after I yelled at her, I told her I had to let her go. She was completely shocked and argued forcefully that there wasn’t anything wrong with our relationship. It sounded like she was quite used to raised voices and a general sense of dissatisfaction with her performance.
Because I blamed myself for the situation I gave her a convoluted explanation that translated to “poor fit.” Really, it was a poor hire, but I wish that I’d had the insight and guts to see that we were wrong for each other the very first week.
Planning for the End Game
The moral of both stories, of course, is that everything counts.
When things feel bad between an executive and an employee, they actually are bad. You can call it water on a stone or the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but each “ding” leaves a mark whether it’s been made inadvertently, through lack of fit, or due to bad intent.
When a typical program of corrective action is not the optimal response to performance problems, it makes sense to acknowledge, as early as possible, the inevitability of a downward spiral. At that point, you can plan an appropriate — and preferably not startling — end game, so that things can finish up as smoothly as possible for both parties.
Onward and upward,