Defining expectations clearly, part II

In my last post, we heard the story of an employee who had rubbed the board president and a few board members the wrong way with her overconfidence and perceived dismissiveness. The board president had given the employee’s manager instructions to solve the problem—only to immediately say that perhaps she had misjudged the employee, and maybe there wasn’t a problem after all. What was the manager, who was caught between a fickle board president and an abrasive yet talented yet employee, to do?

Let’s look at the actions of each character in this play and see what each could have done differently along the way.

3635127709_10b7406d26_oThe board president. The board president was right to bring the problem of the overconfident and dismissive employee to the manager’s attention when the president first noticed a problem. However, she put the manager in a difficult spot when she declined to offer specifics on the employee’s behavior. Employees bring talents and skills to their organizations. Without specific information on how they can improve or feedback on what their strengths and weaknesses are, they’re likely to take their own path toward employee development, rather than one developed by their manager. Even worse, they may simply stagnate and waste their potential. Because the board president did not provide specific examples of the employee’s behavior, the manager really had nothing to guide the employee or offer suggestions on ways to correct the behavior. And later, when the president told the manager that perhaps the problem wasn’t as bad as she feared, she showed a lack of leadership and poor decision-making. She lost credibility with the manager, who was left shaking his head in disbelief.

The manager. Managers have one job above all else—to get results. Everything they do, from training, coaching, mentoring, supervising to process improvement, reprimands and firing problem employees is geared toward making the company better at a certain function. Without good information on the performance of their employees, managers can’t do any of the above. When the board president first said she saw a problem with the employee, the manager should have insisted on specific details about the employee’s actions. If none were still forthcoming, the manager should have explained that without specifics, he couldn’t address the issue with the employee and help her to grow. If the board president were still reluctant, perhaps one option would have been to involve the company’s HR department. Even if HR couldn’t convince the board president to be forthcoming, the manager would have at least gone on record as having inadequate information to act on the board president’s concerns.

The employee. The employee in this scenario is probably the least guilty of all, even though it was her actions that are at the crux of the problem. Young employees make mistakes. It’s one of life’s cruel ironies that good decision-making comes from experience, and experience comes from making mistakes. Often these lessons can take months or years to learn, and there is no substitute, no degree, and no amount of employee training that can replace time in the job. Young employees also often assume they “know it all.” Fresh from a college environment in which they’ve earned high marks and been praised for their intelligence, they fail to realize the gap between academics and the complexities of the real-world workplace.

So what happened? Ultimately, the manager, armed with specifics on the employee’s behavior, spoke to her about her actions. To the employee’s credit, she took the manager’s coaching to heart, unaware that her actions had been viewed negatively. The manager mentored her in techniques to convey new ideas and alternative solutions to the corporate suite without being dismissive of their years of experience—and when to understand that the “older generation” just might be right, more often than not. The manager thanked the board president for sharing the details of the problem, and explained the whole affair could have been resolved sooner if the board president had been more forthcoming from the start. And the board president, remembering her days in middle management, made a commitment to provide her managers with the information they need promptly, even if it makes things awkward in a meeting, sitting across from an employee whose behaviors she had just revealed to the employee’s manager as unacceptable.

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