Avoid these common performance review mistakes


Nov. 19, 2015

Joan Lloyd

For many managers, the end of the year means performance review time. A performance review discussion can leave the employee feeling motivated and appreciated, but if it is poorly handled, it will do just the opposite, and it will damage the relationship.

Here are some common mistakes and how to avoid them:

Mistake: Only focusing on the last few months or on a specific incident.

Solution: Keep an electronic file (or a three-ring binder) for each employee, and throughout the year add notes and samples of the employee’s work. Some people like to use Post It Notes, because they are easy to insert and less likely to dislodge.

Mistake: Over-emphasize the negatives and skip over the positive performance. 

Solution: In addition to the above suggestion, ask the employee to do a self-assessment. The employee will be sure to include examples of things he or she is proud of.  This will be a welcome reminder as you reflect on the past year. Also, during the discussion, make sure you give ample time and detail to all of the positive contributions the employee made.


Mistake: Using subjective words that judge the person, rather than behavioral descriptions of the person’s performance and actions. 

Solution: You will cause defensiveness and resistance if you guess your employee’s motives or judge him/her as a person. For example, “You were very inconsiderate because you” judges the person. A better example is, “When you didn’t invite me to the meetings on the Baker project, it kept me out of the decision-making process. That caused problems for the project later on, when you needed my help in the eleventh hour.” The trick is to describe behavior specifically (rather than judging it) and tell the person why that hurt them.


Mistake: The words and the written review don’t match.

If you only tell the person they need to improve and then you gloss over it in writing, the employee doesn’t know if it’s really important to fix. On the other hand, if you write it but don’t mention it, the employee feels like they’ve been blindsided.

Solution: Be consistent and only write what you say, with the same kinds of descriptions and examples.


Mistake: Soften or sugar-coat the review because you don’t want to hurt the employee or make the person angry.

Solution: Employees deserve to know the truth, so they have an opportunity to improve. In addition, if an employee has poor performance and applies for another job in the company, and their performance review is glowing, the next supervisor gets stuck with a turkey. That artificially inflated review will make you look weak and ineffective. In addition, it isn’t fair to the good employees, who really earned a good rating.


Mistake: Retrofitting the rating so the person gets a raise.

This often happens when there is a numeric formula for determining ratings and salary.  Instead of rating the person where they belong, the supervisor wants everyone to be happy, so works backwards from the salary number to determine the rating. This isn’t fair to anyone.

Solution: The purpose of the performance review and salary increase are to let people know where they stand and to reward their contribution. And if they don’t meet expectations, they should get a clear message that they need to step it up. If you aren’t comfortable delivering this message, you probably shouldn’t be a manager.


Mistake: Not allowing enough time for the review.

If you rush through the review, simply hand the review to the person and ask them to sign it, or answer the phone during the review, you will be telling the person they really don’t matter very much to you. 

Solution: Allow at least an hour for each person. Turn off your phone and computer and give your employee the undivided attention he or she deserves.

When personality, not performance, is the issue
Nov. 12, 2015

Dear Joan:

I am searching for some information and advice on an employee I have.  I am at a loss for what my next step is.  I can’t fault this employee for anything regarding DOING her job.  She does her duties well and in a timely manner. I can always count on her for that.  The problem I am having is with her personality. 

I noticed almost immediately after her arrival here that she would try and force a friendship with me, to the point that she would drop in unannounced at your house on the weekends (even when you never told her where you live). And she would always call - just to chat.  She started to bring me small gifts and my children small gifts.  It was all very uncomfortable. 

While I am friendly with all my employees, I try and keep my personal life separate from my job. In the past, I have been good friends with fellow employees and it always backfired.  So, I tried to speak with her about it being unnecessary to do such things.  None of it worked.  Finally, out of frustration, I just started withdrawing from the situation.  Since that time, she has “laid off” me and moved on to others.

At that point, her paranoia started to become apparent.  Pretty much on a regular basis she would ask me whether or not I was going to fire her.  I tried to calm her fears on that subject.  None of it worked.  

Then, it started getting back to me that she was talking about me behind my back - and none of it nice.  She would complain about every action I took, whether it regarded her, her job, or her division, or not.  I tried to speak with her about that.  She became very hostile and started shouting that if I wanted her gone to just fire her.  It was a very ugly situation.  At that time, I wrote her up for her behavior. 

Once I was able to speak with her when she was calmed down she expressed to me that she felt like I was trying to get her to quit.  Which is the farthest from the truth - as far as her job goes; she is one of few people I can count on.  I tried to reassure her that was not the case.  But, again - none of it worked.  But, I feel like this all stems back to her trying to be my friend.  I have tried dropping comments about how I feel toward office relationships.  I don’t know how to explain the reasons for not being her friend.  Nor do I think I should have to.

Sadly, I am now convinced that she is suffering from some disorder that affects her thinking and behavior.  I have noticed symptoms of bipolar and paranoia.  I have also had a half a dozen other employees bring certain traits of hers to my attention.  I don’t know what to do.  I do not want to see her go but I want to see her get the help she deserves.  And I need some peace in this office.  Not only for myself but for all concerned. 

I admit I am sure I have not handled the situation to the best of my ability.  I have never had to deal with this situation.  Please help.  What could I have done better?  What can I do?  What can I say?



She needs professional help, so stop kicking yourself for not handling her correctly. On the contrary, I think you handled the situation quite well, given the circumstances.

If you have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), I recommend an immediate referral. They will be able to recommend someone who can diagnose her behavior and direct her to a qualified person to help her. 

If you don’t have an EAP, suggesting that she get some counseling could backfire. Given her paranoia, she is likely to overreact and explode, just as she has in the past. She will probably think that this is a validation of her worst fears. 

Instead, I recommend a straightforward, consistent approach that includes telling her exactly what behavior is problematic and how it is hurting her. Beating around the bush with her hasn’t worked, so clearly explain why you aren’t friends with employees. Tell her that her work is excellent and you would not want to lose her. Explain that her constant need for reassurance is unnecessary and time consuming. Tell her that you will have one-on-one meetings with her each week, to go over her work and give her direct feedback, if she feels it would be helpful. Summarize your conversation and send her a copy.

As an added step, and to be certain that she is on track, you may also want her to summarize your weekly meetings with a brief summary emailed to you. Explain, “Since it seems as if you and I are on different pages - for instance you think I am trying to fire you - I’d like you to summarize our meeting each week, to make sure you and I have a clear understanding of what we discussed and any action plans you have agreed to do. That way, I can verify that we are in agreement and you won’t worry unnecessarily.”

If she continues to have outbursts or other inappropriate behavior, document it and call it to her attention immediately.

If she can’t turn it around and continues to be a serious disruption, I would tell her, “I feel it is only fair to tell you what could happen if this continues. You could lose your job. I hope you won’t force me to do that.” If she doesn’t seek treatment and the behavior continues, all you can do is react to the behavior she displays.

Don’t mistakenly think that you can’t fire her because her work is well-executed. Behavior at work is just as much a part of performance as the technical outcomes. Sadly, she is self-sabotaging and I suspect this is exactly how the story will end. You can only hope that she will get help before her self-fulfilling prophecy plays out.


When, and why, executive coaching makes sense

Oct. 29, 2015

Executives are often expected to run across a battle field, carrying a heavy load of employee and customer problems, dodging competitive bullets, while jumping over political landmines. The job requires a tool bag that includes communication skills, persuasive presentations, political savvy, analytical skills and a rucksack filled with sophisticated techniques and tactics. That’s why I love coaching these folks.

Most executives bring a technical expertise with them as they climb the ranks, but some of the subtler things - people - politics - polish - can be their undoing. The idea of executive coaching has caught on across the country faster than a cold in a kindergarten. And I think the reason is that it makes sense.

Companies turn over coffers of cash to executive search firms and spend company resources grooming, growing and promoting people into their executive suite and when they falter, it’s a misstep that can be felt all the way through the organization because of the impact they have.

Executive coaching, if done well, can pinpoint the specific behavior that needs to get buffed or overhauled. It focuses a laser beam on the area and teaches the executive a new way to perform. While a seminar or a conference can create awareness or educate an executive about new trends or teach some skills, the intense coaching experience goes right to the heart of the matter and creates specific homework designed to get results immediately. And that’s the fun of it for me. I love to craft the transformation.

But make no mistake, changing your “soft skills” is anything but soft. It’s a boot camp with you as the only recruit, so the pressure is on. And the behavior changes can range from purging small, quirky behaviors to exorcising major career killers. Here is a sample of some of the spoken and unspoken rules that can trip up executives:

Stepping on political landmines

Credibility is tough to build and easy to lose. Executives, who think their career’s protective shield is the results they get, are sure to step on an internal mine or two. Sometimes they think the way to challenge an idea is to challenge their peers in front of others, only to discover later that the cultural norm is to challenge privately and build consensus before the meeting.

Executives who are perceived as doing things for themselves rather than the organization are sure to be attacked. If they are seen as arrogant or know-it-all, they will attract snipers from all camps.

Or, others are too technically focused and duck all that “political stuff,” so their ideas are ignored or trampled in the fight for better productivity and profitability.


Inability to manage employees without being either too hands-off or too hands-on

For many executives, their rise to the top came up through one department. Suddenly, they find themselves directing multiple disciplines and working with many new constituencies. Selecting the right management staff and working through them to reach the people in the organization is sophisticated stuff.

It takes a battle plan of one-on-one and cross functional meetings, with an organized system for tracking people, projects and outcomes. Executives need to stay at the 30,000 feet level but have a system that allows them to swoop close to the action when they need to. 


Inability to tailor a presentation to the audience

If there is one thing that smacks new executives in the face, it’s the amount of time and focus that goes into presentations at this level to their own organization, to their peers, to sales, to customers, to outside groups, to the board. The farther they get from the front line, the more important crafting an effective message becomes.

The skill set ranges from being “folksy” and conversational to delivering a compelling, executive summary. And did I mention being able to tango and cha cha, when you are asked those tough questions?


Being either too accommodating, or too resistant

You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. If you take on too much work, in an effort to look like a good soldier to your superiors, you can weigh down your own troops. Or, you can appear to be too rigid and protective of your own organization, so they can meet their goals, but you end up looking like you are not a team player with a sense of urgency. The art of “pushback” reaches critical importance at this level.


Being perceived as insensitive or even a bully

Executives who have risen to their position early, but failed to change with the times, usually see their corporate image fade like a photo in the sun.

Anyone who thinks they can be a bull in a china shop regarding sexual orientation, race, religion or gender hasn’t been paying attention to the rising cost of china.

People expect to be included in decision making, not bullied into predetermined solutions. They expect to be treated with respect and dignity and not screamed at by a drill sergeant. The diversity of the workforce today is unparalleled. In age demographics alone, this is the first time we’ve seen four generations in the workplace. Getting them all to march united across the battle field is no small task.

Respect and fairness are the very core of good management

Oct. 29, 2015

Dear Joan:

I am 32 years old and have worked as a computer programmer for 10 years. Recently, I was hired for a managerial position with another firm. I look forward to the job, but am uneasy about being the manager. I feel confident in my work skills, but not as confident about my managerial skills. (I applied for a job with a new company as a technical worker, and they offered me the management job.)

I will be supervising six people. Would you consider writing about the “essentials of management”? I’m sure you have written about this before, but I never thought it would affect me. I know there are golden rules of management that I am unaware of - and I don’t want one of the people I will be supervising to write a letter to you - about me!



I doubt you will get a letter written about you as long as you continue to be eager and open to learning about how to manage people. I suspect it’s the ones who think they know it all and aren’t introspective about their skills who get letters written about them.

Perhaps the best guide to managing others is to think about how you would like to be managed. I’ll boil it down to my version of the basics. But make no mistake; just because they are the “basics” doesn’t mean that they are easy, and just because they are common sense doesn’t mean that they are very common.


1. People want to know what the goal is and what your expectations are. Too many managers just hire people and put them in a job and then never tell them anything more about the mission of the business or future goals of the organization. No matter what kind of organization I work with, employees at all levels express a keen interest in wanting to know where the organization is going and how they fit in. Talk about the mission and goals during staff meetings, when decisions are made, when praising someone, when people are hired ... in other words, all the time.

2. Treat your employees with the same respect you would show to the CEO. If you deeply believe this key principle, you will listen closely to what they suggest and follow up on your promises to them. You will value their contributions and tell them so. If they disagree with you, you will be open to their point of view.

3. Find out what their career goals are and make every attempt to help them grow and succeed in their jobs. If you challenge them with interesting work and let them try out their ideas, you will see your employees get excited about their jobs and become motivated to get better results. This doesn’t just mean a once-a-year career chat. It means seeing yourself as a full-time mentor to your employees.

4. Communicate with them as adults - honestly and straightforwardly. When you share the good news, the bad news, what you do know and what you don’t know, they will learn that they can rely on you to give it to them straight. This ties right back into having respect for them. This means giving them feedback that is clear and immediate, yet tactful. It also means saying, “I was hoping you could all help me solve this problem because I really don’t know what to do.”

5. Care about your employees as whole people. Find out about their children, discover what their hobbies are, pay attention to their trials and triumphs outside of work. I’m not suggesting that you become their best friend - it can be a mistake to get too chummy - but taking the time to know what makes your employee tick will help you know how to create a bond as a leader that will make people feel like committing to you and to the enterprise.

6. Build their confidence and self-esteem. No matter how old we get, these two things are at the core of who we are as people. One of the best ways to create willingness to try something new or do something extra is to reinforce and recognize the behaviors we want more of. One of the biggest complaints I hear is “I always hear about it when I do the wrong thing, but he never notices when I do something right.” Positive encouragement is a tremendous tool to shape behavior and build confidence.

7. When making decisions, strive for outcomes that have a three-way balance: they are good for the organization/customer, good for the team and good for the individual employee. Managers get themselves into trouble when they get out of balance on one of these. For instance, if they take only the employees’ side and can’t see the organization’s perspective, they will be well-liked but ineffective. If they take only the organization’s perspective and fail to consider the employee’s needs and views, they will lose employee commitment.


I know there are many more “golden rules” but these have always been the ones I have used the most, and have seen work the best.

Reading “tells” is as important in the workplace as in poker 

Oct. 22, 2015

Joanne knew she her boss was nervous, even though he didn’t say a word.

Peter instantly saw that his peer was defensive, even though most people in the room didn’t recognize anything different.

The reason Joanne and Peter were able to read the reactions of their colleagues is because they knew how to read their “tells.”  A tell is a gesture or mannerism that someone uses frequently and predictably. Most of the time, they don’t even know they are doing it but if you know what to watch for, you will have an advantage in any conversation with them.

For example,

* One of my female colleagues picks up a piece of hair and bends it in a specific way, whenever she is tense or uncomfortable.

* Another colleague’s voice goes up to a high pitch when she is pushing her idea.

* A client of mine laces his fingers together and puts them behind his head and spreads his elbows, whenever he feels challenged, or disagrees with something being said.

* A friend of mine flexes her arm and hand in a certain way - almost like a spasm - when she feels judged, or is trying to get others to agree with her.

* A friend taps his toes or fingers when he is bored or restless.

* Another friend’s ears get red when he is embarrassed or irritated.

* A female colleague flushes pink on her neck and chest, and looks down, when she disagrees.

* I pick my cuticles when I am impatient with someone. 

So, what is your tell? If you don’t know, ask the people who know you best. In fact, ask them to describe your other body language habits while you’re at it. For example, many years ago I was in my boss’ office describing something important. He was reserved by nature and somewhat introverted, while I am an unabashed extrovert. I noticed his eyes and head were moving as I spoke. It dawned on me that he was watching my hands gesture wildly as I described the scenario! From then on, I tried to make it a point to hold my hands in my lap - and I assure you it wasn’t easy.

Another example of a body language habit comes from a colleague who tends to talk with his eyes closed when he is thinking about what he is saying. It goes on for prolonged periods and it feels odd to his companions. A different person looks away for long periods and doesn’t make eye contact. Someone else I know coughs (a short fake-sounding cough) whenever he reads something out loud (a holdover, he says, from the embarrassment he suffered as a kid, when he had to read in front of the class).

There are other body language cues that come out when we are nervous or feel under a spotlight. For example, when I coach leaders in presentation skills, I often see defensive body positions. Because public speaking is stressful and makes many people feel exposed and vulnerable, they reflexively protect their most intimate body parts. Men will sometimes use the “fig leaf” pose, with hands in front of their body, while women will glue their elbows down along their sides and gesture in front of their chests. It’s also why so many people prefer standing behind a podium. Of course, they would never do this in a normal conversation and don’t even realize they are doing it in front of a group.

Have I sparked your curiosity? For the next few days, pay attention to not only what is being said but what their body is doing. Watch your boss, your spouse, your children and friends. They are the most important people in your life and they make wonderful subjects to study. Your skills will improve over time and will give you an advantage in your communications with them. It will trigger you to be more empathetic, help you to stop and probe for unspoken disagreement, and make you realize when to back off, all good moves that will help you be a savvier communicator.

Respectful confrontation saves time & trust

Oct. 16, 2015

Trust. It’s at the core of any meaningful relationship. And it’s certainly a key requirement for any organization interested in creating and keeping a motivated, committed workforce.

You can’t automatically create trust - it must be earned, one behavior at a time. It’s almost like each of us has an emotional bank account. If you are treated well by your manager, a “deposit” is made in your account. But when a personal violation occurs, a “withdrawal” is made. If your manager treats you well over a long period of time, trust builds and an occasional withdrawal is no big deal. But when an account is empty - or even has a negative balance - trust has no foundation on which to build.

If a company has many employees with empty accounts and low trust, any attempt to implement any changes and improvements will be met with skepticism and resistance. Cultural change requires a personal commitment from everyone. Building trust must come first.

Saying “Trust me” won’t work. Only day-to-day actions can prove that management is trustworthy.

Here are some behaviors that will help you to invest in your employees’ emotional bank accounts:


Be consistent.

Trust is destroyed when employees are constantly surprised by inconsistent treatment. Surprising them with negative feedback at performance review time; changing priorities without explanation; and changing the rules arbitrarily are the kinds of behaviors that convince employees to be suspicious and on their guard. They see that the top has the power to knock them off balance whenever they want to.

Top management has a big role to play in establishing the values they want to operate from. If the top managers aren’t in alignment, there is little chance that their behaviors will be consistent. Mixed signals destroy trust.

Instead, say what you’ll do and do what you say. Keep the promises you make or don’t make them at all. If you need to change direction, explain why. Treat all employees like the most important customers you have - because they are.


Tell the truth.

If this were easy to do, we’d all be doing a lot more of it. Many managers hoard or hide company information from employees. They think knowledge is power and they want it all for themselves in the hope that it will give them job security. They don’t tell poor performers the truth about their need to improve. They don’t admit when they don’t know the answer or admit that they’ve made a mistake.

Telling the truth is closely related to the first point - being consistent. If you tell the truth consistently, you will build trust. Whether the news is good or bad, employees will learn to rely on you for a straight answer.


Treat people with respect and dignity.

This is not conditional. Even if they screw up or do something nasty to someone else, you need to set a clear example that people can trust. Does this mean you coddle poor performers or “look the other way” when mistakes are made? Not at all.

On the contrary, it means treating them like adults who deserve to know the truth. For example, if they’re failing on the job, they deserve to be told and given a chance to succeed. But if they don’t succeed, they can be “helped out of the organization” in a dignified way. The rest of the employees will be grateful. They will see that you can be trusted to reward the right behavior and that everyone - even the worst performers - will be treated with dignity. But they will also be expected to take responsibility for their own behavior.


Share information.

One of the best ways to demonstrate that you trust your employees is to treat them like colleagues who are as committed to the organization as you are. Give them information about customers; tell them what the vision and goals of the company are and discuss how they fit in; tell them what you know as soon as you know it.


Ask for input and listen to it.

You don’t trust people who do all the talking and don’t listen to your opinions and ideas. Your employees don’t either. Trust is built when employees know you will take time to listen to them and involve them during the decision making process. Telling them after the fact creates BOHICA (Bend Over Here It Comes Again).

Trust isn’t something you can demand from someone else until you’ve taken steps to deserve it.


Respectful confrontation saves time & trust
Oct. 9, 2015

“Just imagine that the audience is naked.” Anyone who has ever taken a workshop on how to make presentations has heard that one. But in a situation where you face a hostile audience or you are asked a challenging question, you’re the one who feels as if you’re standing there in your birthday suit.

If you are expected to make presentations to employee groups, shareholders, industry peers or the public, chances are you’ve been challenged by a member of the group at some point in your speaking life.

Increasingly, my firm is asked to help an executive polish his or her presentation skills. It’s becoming more important as companies realize the value of face-to-face communication in building commitment to changes and forming partnerships with constituencies. For instance, some executives are now expected to hold regular “town hall meetings” with employees at all levels. These meetings provide a great forum for give and take but it’s the “take” portion that causes presenters to sweat.

Presentation skills don’t come naturally for most of us. In fact, it’s number one on the list of things most feared by Americans. It’s daunting enough to just stand up there and talk, let alone be grilled or attacked by the audience. The good news is that group behavior is fairly predictable and predictably fair.

Here are some strategies for you to clip and save. You can pull them out the next time you’re asked to speak:


A member of the audience disagrees with a point you made in your presentation and attacks you in front of the rest of the group.

What not to do:

Do not respond with a condescending remark or attempt to justify your position. I recently heard a speaker say, “Apparently you didn’t listen to my whole speech or you would have known I made that point.” Then he went on to restate a portion of his speech that everyone had already heard. Ouch! The audience instantly turned against the speaker.

What to do:

Never get into a shooting match with a member of the audience. You will lose, even if the person is a flaming fool. Here’s why. The leader is in a position of power and authority, and if he or she appears to “argue down” a dissenter, or get defensive in front of the group, credibility is lost. Each member of the audience recognizes that the audience member who is being embarrassed could be them.

A better approach is to let the arrows pass right through you. For instance, say, “I appreciate your perspective. What do the rest of you think?” Almost without fail, a group will rise to the occasion and moderate the situation for you.

If the person has a personal axe to grind, or is inappropriate in other ways, another approach is to gently cut him or her off by briefly restating the opinion in neutral words and thanking the person before moving on. For example, “So, if I understand you correctly, you feel that managers are power hungry people who climb on the backs of their employees to get what they want and to look good to their superiors. Unfortunately, you must have had some very negative experiences. Thank you for sharing your perspective.”


An audience member who asks a question that is really a thinly veiled challenge.

What not to do:

Don’t take the question at face value and answer it. For example, if the person asks, “Don’t you think there are a lot of people who will disagree with this policy?” don’t respond with, “No, I think the policy is fair.” The audience will know you have tried to dodge the real issue and it will make them uncomfortable. Once there is dissension in the group, they will not be able to settle down until it is resolved. Ignoring it generally causes a flurry of conversation in the hallway and at break time. The audience needs the leader to bring closure to the challenge.

What to do:

Ask for more information. The more you show sincere respect and try to understand the point they are trying to make, the more the audience will settle down and respect the leader. “It sounds as if there is more behind your question. What specifically do you think some of the problems are?” will draw out the real issue and force the person to be straightforward about what they really mean.

An audience member who begins to take a lot of time to tell personal stories, express their views, or asks numerous questions about an issue that only has importance to that individual.

What not to do:

Don’t get caught in the trap of conducting a lengthy one-on-one dialogue in front of a group. The audience will begin to check their watch, shift in their chairs and even leave the room. They expect you to respectfully cut it off. Another mistake is to cut the person off too abruptly. For instance, interrupting the person with, “We’re running behind schedule. We have to move on” will insult the person and may make the person more disruptive.

What to do:

Look for an opening, briefly summarize the person’s point and say, “I’d be happy to discuss this with you after the session or at break.” Then neutralize it with, “I’d be happy to discuss any personal experiences or problems any of you have after the session. I wish we had more time but unfortunately we’re forced to stay on schedule.”

An audience member who expresses a contrary viewpoint that others seem to agree with.

What not to do:

Don’t evade this one or play down its significance

What to do:

Stop, restate what the person said, ask the rest of the group if they agree. Then spend the necessary time to explore the opposing viewpoint. If you don’t listen to the majority opinion, you will shut them down and lose them for the rest of your presentation. Ironically, even if the rest of the group disagrees, they will resent it if you don’t listen to what members of the group have to say.

Public speaking is a tremendous career builder. If you are able to handle tough situations with grace and dignity, your audience will respect you and listen to your ideas. Trust the group to help you succeed.

Respectful confrontation saves time & trust

Sept. 24, 2015

Dear Joan:

I am relatively new to my position (1 year) and I work in a high-tech industry. I have a peer who works with me on a variety of projects (he’s been here two years) and here is where the problem comes in.

He is a scene stealer - always using big, buzz words to “wow” the higher ups and making sure he gets credit for things. The problem is that he doesn’t have very good follow-through on projects and in actuality, is more talk than action. He is very political and this drives me crazy. I end up doing some of his work and when I have to pick up the pieces I become furious. He just goes on his smiling way, kissing up to all the executives.

I hesitate to talk to our manager because I am afraid I’ll look like “sour grapes.” In the meantime, my attitude toward my co-worker is getting very cool. Can I take any action without hurting my standing with my boss and the people in the company I do projects for?



Political animals tend to show their stripes over time and I will bet your co-worker will eventually be found out. You may not even be aware of how much your boss and clients already know. Most people are wary of people who snow them with $25 dollar words when 10 cent ones will do. The irony is that the harder he tries to impress them the phonier he’ll look.

Often, people who are trying this hard are secretly very worried that they’re not measuring up. These impostors either don’t have what it really takes to perform or are operating under the assumption that it is only who you know, not what you know, that counts. They spend more time strategizing than acting and can get very threatened when they feel someone has discovered their game. Your co-worker may even stoop to dirty politics if he feels it could help him advance. In other words, be careful.

By the same token, don’t let him dump all over you and then steal the credit. The trick will be to remain objective and cool about how to get the credit that is due you.

One way to do this is continue to perform exceptionally well for your clients. If you are doing things for them that they aren’t even aware of, make sure you mention what you are doing or keep them updated by memo, with a copy to your boss. Don’t be shy about passing on compliments you receive to your boss.

If you find that you are picking up the pieces your co-worker doesn’t complete, you are helping to cause the problem. You are making it easier for him to slack off. Smoke him out by being “too busy” with your own half of the project to bail him out.

Make sure you’re protected by being crystal clear about who is supposed to do what before beginning a project. It wouldn’t hurt to summarize this in a memo to your client, upfront. This will force him to complete his share or be discovered.

Writing memos about what you both have agreed to do and updates about your progress may seem like an unnecessary nuisance. But it will not only give you credit in a subtle way - it will make you feel that you are taking constructive action to protect yourself. It will also give you a positive way to manage your resentment.

If this problem persists, you may also want to ask your boss some “naive” questions. Questions such as, “I’m not clear about who is supposed to be doing this part of the project. I thought I was only supposed to do the research, not write the report. Did I get that mixed up?” This will give your manager an opportunity to intervene and you won’t look like a “tattle-tale.”

It may be difficult for you to be a team player with your co-worker. Keep in mind that there may be times when you should help him out. The flip side is that you shouldn’t hesitate to ask him for help if you should need it.

Don’t bad mouth him to your boss and be careful who you complain to about him. Above all, don’t try to find ways to make him look bad to your clients. Clients don’t want to know about any personal problems you’re having. They only care about results. You will look unprofessional and petty if you try to get them involved and the credibility of your entire unit will suffer.

In the end, excellent performance, assertive management of your projects and professionalism will speak the truth for you.


Respectful confrontation saves time & trust

Sept. 17, 2015

If people only talked to each other, most of the conflict in the workplace would disappear. Instead, it seems when we are wounded by someone or disagree with something they’ve done we end up talking to everyone except the person who’s directly involved.

We wander down the hall and talk to a co-worker ... mention it to our lunch buddies ... complain about it to our spouse. We spread the negative poison around the organization, drag unwitting co-workers into the fray, sully reputations and, in the end, erode the trust that comes from open, honest, face-to-face communication.

Where did we ever get the idea that confronting someone face-to-face had to be such a horrible encounter? Are we all so worried about being “nice” that we’ve opted for being spineless? And when did we get confused about the perils of telling people the truth? What about the perils of not telling them the truth? Our organizations are paying a big price for this “smile to your face/behind your back” communication style. It’s costing millions in wasted time and lost productivity in addition to a human price in broken trust and lost respect.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating brutal honesty and confrontation that strips away self-esteem and dignity. I’m talking about the respectful, caring communication that says, “I care about our relationship. Something’s bothering me and I thought it was important to talk to you about it directly so we could reach an understanding.”

I think most people are afraid. They’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. They’re afraid of sounding “negative” or “making waves.” They’re afraid of the backlash that can come from a conflict that escalates into a fight. They’re afraid of de-motivating their employees. They’re afraid of not being liked. They’re afraid of collecting political baggage. They’re afraid of not getting ahead or losing their job.

If you’re guilty of side-talk instead of straight-talk, here are some behaviors that can help:

Use the “best intentions” approach.

Most people don’t intentionally wake up in the morning and think to themselves, “I’m going to really hurt her feelings today!” Most people have the very best intentions. But it’s those good intentions that keep getting us into trouble because other’s don’t know our intentions - they only judge our actions.

When approaching another person about a conflict say, “I’m sure you had good intentions when you ... but let me tell you how it looked from my perspective...” Rather than waving the finger of blame in someone else’s face, just talk about the affect it had on you.

Use the “I’m just getting your advice” approach sparingly.

A lot of damage can be done by going to person after person “seeking advice” about how to handle a conflict situation. It can become a way to see how many people are on your side. It can also be a sneaky way of poisoning the well for the other person; everyone’s heard your “side” and so the other person suffers political blows no matter what the outcome.

Start by looking for things for which you should take responsibility.

The beauty of opening any conflict resolution session with self-disclosure is that you bring the other person’s defenses down immediately and problem solving can occur.

Be as open and honest as you can, while preserving their self-respect and dignity.

This is the very heart and soul of building trust. Sugar-coating your message or smoothing over the seriousness only destroys trust. If you respect the other person and want to remove barriers that are getting in the way, the only way to build trust is to be open, honest and straightforward. But in order to preserve the relationship you must let people maintain their dignity and save face. 

Does this sound pretty basic? You bet. It also is just plain good common sense. But common sense isn’t so common - we all have to work at it.

Fear is a great motivator

Sept. 10, 2015

Fear is a great motivator. I highly recommend it for leaders interested in short term, instantaneous results. It causes employees to jump through hoops to please you and it will just about guarantee that you will rarely hear much bad news. In fact, you will feel safe and secure knowing you are in complete control.

Of course, ruling by fear does have a few nasty side effects ...but nothing that a few more threats and insults can’t cure. Here are some tried and true techniques that are sure to inspire just the right amount of “motivation” in your employees:

1. Yell at them in front of peers and customers. This is sure to make them feel mortified and humiliated. There’s nothing like showing them whose boss to get their attention. It’s sure to make them dig in and apply themselves to solving the stupid mistake they made and they will have renewed incentive to try to please you.

2. Assume they aren’t trying to do the job the best they can. Don’t let their thin excuses about trying something new or helping the customer deter you from their real intentions. If you assume they are trying to slack off or sabotage the work they won’t be so quick to pull the wool over your eyes next time.

3. Threaten your employees by telling them they are going to lose their jobs. This is particularly effective if you want them to work extra hard on a special project. Another tip is to tell them that only the very best workers will be spared. This added motivation makes them work harder than ever before.

4. Keep them off balance by changing the work rules to suit your needs at the moment. This way, everyone will have to be nice to you to get any favors. Think of how powerful you’ll be! Don’t let charges of “inconsistency” and “unfairness” bother you. After all, you made the rules and you can bend them. You’re the boss, aren’t you?

5. Don’t tell your employees what you expect of them. This will give them too much information. It always leads to chaos. How can you control their every move and keep close tabs on them if they’re off on their own doing god knows what? Besides, if you don’t tell them what you want upfront, you can change it as often as you like.

6. Don’t give too much feedback. This is exactly what they want so don’t fall for it. If you don’t tell them anything - or just tell them when they make a mistake - you’ll be able to keep them confused and cowed. Only give negative feedback so they are always inspired by how smart you are. Only really smart people are able to spot the flaw in everything. If they ask too many questions about their performance, see number 3.

7. Change priorities suddenly and often. This is a great way to keep their attention focused on you. If you are good at this people will have to check with you all the time about what to do next and you won’t ever have to leave your office. It will also make you look very informed and important because you will react to top management’s wishes ... and you know how demanding they can be.

8. Don’t show them the strategic plan or the company or department’s goals. They aren’t as sophisticated as you are so they wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway. (See number 7)

9. Threaten them by saying top management is watching their every move. This is very useful if they stop jumping every time you issue an order or they are reluctant to take on more responsibility. If you scare them about some far away, distant, menacing rulers, they are sure to do whatever you tell them.

10. Only tell your employees the bare minimum. Operate by the “need to know” philosophy. Those people who preach “two-way communication” are out of their minds. Don’t they see how employees can use this information against you? And for heaven sakes, when you do talk to them, don’t allow any room for questions. That’s why emails are much better than meetings.

11. Don’t let employees out of your sight. You won’t be able to check on everything they do. It’s particularly effective if you peer over their shoulders while they’re working so they know you are on to them and alert to any mistakes they are about to make. The more you do this, the more mistakes you will catch them making.

12. Reward employees who squeal on each other. This will make all of them loyal to you and you alone.

If you don’t follow these steps you could start to build trust and honesty in the workplace and if that ever gets started, there’s no telling what could happen.

Overcontrolling managers breed failure in their employees and in their own careers

Sept. 3, 2015

“All of us were thrilled when Ed was promoted as our manager. We all respect his technical skill and knowledge of the field. What we didn’t expect was Ed’s unwillingness to let go. It’s really creating some serious morale problems around here."

Maybe you’ve worked for someone like Ed. Worse still, maybe you are someone like Ed.

The problem is a common one: a highly competent technical performer is recognized with a promotion to a managerial post. As a manager, the individual can’t keep his fingers out of the day-to-day work of his employees.

Overcontrol kills. It’s as simple as that. It kills your career as a manger and the careers of your subordinates. As a manager who won’t let go you find yourself working harder and longer than anyone else in the unit. You are constantly “rolling up your sleeves,” “staying close to the work,” “just checking” and “making sure it’s done right.”

As the subordinate under such a manager, you can feel distrusted, underutilized, stressed and resentful. “Why bother” is often heard around the coffee machine. After a while, the good performers leave and the mediocre ones will slip to new lows.

Overcontrol can be caused by many things. Some of these managers believe no one can do the job as well as they can. Others may be fearful of their own boss. Some simply don’t want to stop doing the technical work that has given them strokes and satisfaction.

Whatever the motivation, overcontrol will hurt your career as a manager: It gets you from both ends and traps you in the middle. Without a groomed replacement, you can’t move up. And if you don’t delegate authority to season and develop your replacement, you’ll never be free to tackle new responsibilities yourself.

To determine if you’re over-supervising, ask yourself:

* Do I often tell my employees how to do the details of their work?

* Do I take assignments back, after delegating them, because my employee runs into a problem?

* Do I do work that could be done by my employees?

* After delegating an assignment, do I frequently check with my employee to “see how it’s going?”

* When my employee runs into a problem, do I rarely ask, “What do you think you should do?”

* Do I put off or ignore managerial responsibilities like performance appraisals and career-development discussions?

If you answered “yes” to some of these questions, you may be too close for comfort.

If you are overcontrolling, face it and fix it.

Start by setting some goals for yourself. For example, “During the next month, I will not check on any project until the due date.”

When delegating an assignment, resist the temptation to elaborate on the “how to.” Instead, only discuss the end result you desire. Provide resources if the person is inexperienced or the work is new to the employee.

Dive into the task of learning your real job - managing others. If you give it half a chance, you may find it’s twice as rewarding as you ever dreamed it could be.


It takes more than attending meetings together to be a team

Aug. 20, 2015

Dear Joan:

My company has recently begun the “team approach.” Basically what this means is people from several areas of the company are being asked to work together on a variety of projects. This is great in theory but the practical matter is that these teams are losing steam.

There is fighting between members, some people just stop showing up, and some supervisors don’t seem to be very supportive. They don’t adjust these employees’ schedules so they can attend meetings or do the work that is necessary between meetings. People are getting discouraged and fed up. What do you think is the problem?


The theory sounds so simple: take people from different areas of the company, give them a problem to work on and empower them to solve it. The “T” word is shouted from the tops of most corporate pyramids these days but few understand the special dynamics required to create Teams that work. Like individual ingredients in a recipe, they don’t make a cake unless you put them together right.

There are three basic ingredients needed to make teams work - a Common Goal, Permission and Information.

COMMON GOAL: Most individuals have been programmed to go after their department’s goal. Turf is built up over many years and it doesn’t go away because an executive says, “work together.” Rivalries flare unless the group spends time defining and agreeing to a common goal. Top management needs to help shape the goal and agree to give it the priority it deserves.

PERMISSION: The notion of cross-functional teams is outside of the traditional, hierarchical mold. It’s naive to presume that the old structure won’t get in the way. Many supervisors have come up through the ranks and are good soldiers. They know how to give orders and delegate duties. Some of them can learn new behaviors - listening, facilitating and giving the team more control. Some can’t. Their old role was to gather information to make decisions. Now their role  must shift to helping the team gather information to make their own decisions. This new role is just as important and even more complex.

So who coordinates a cross-functional team? If a multi-department team is formed to work on a task, have an advisor; someone at a higher level who will resolve political turf issues and who can act as a sponsor for their work. If a team is formed to work together on a more regular basis, it may make sense for them to report to the same person. Dotted line reporting relationships can also be used when a department (functional) person is on a cross-functional team. For example, the person reports (solid line) to his or her department head and “dotted” to the project leader. This dual accountability is designed to create the right alignment.

The top managers grant the most important permission. If resources aren’t provided, if the project isn’t a priority, if they give no clear charter, it will stall.

INFORMATION: In the past, information was the privilege of rank. Information was power. The top held all the cards and only showed one when they needed something done. Now employees are asking them to show their whole hand, so they can understand the big picture. Employees want to know what management knows so they can make smart decisions. Often, employees don’t know what they don’t know. It’s management’s job to tell them, educate them, and help them. Management also needs to outline boundaries and taboos so the team will have a clear idea of what is expected and what is off-limits.

Most people have spent their entire professional careers learning a technical specialty. Then they are thrown into a team environment and expected to understand group dynamics, shared accountability, and organizational politics. Most can’t run a meeting, they don’t know how to deal with peers who don’t cooperate, and they don’t know how to manage the process of a shared project. Training is part of the answer. Some comes from guidance provided by managers or outside help. And the rest comes from a shift in culture that creates the right environment for learning to occur.


The number 1 mistake leaders make
Aug. 13, 2015

Dear Joan:

Recently, I’ve had a performance evaluation which was very unsatisfactory. I’ve been employed at this hospital for over 10 years. Now suddenly, my work “needs improvement” and I have three months to do it in, otherwise, “be written up.”

There are 22 areas on this evaluation that you need to meet requirements with 30 pages of documentation to prove they have been met. There is an additional document, a peer review from two-three persons with 27 areas that are rated. This peer review carries a lot of weight and is confidential. This peer review has a lot of negatives according to my supervisor, such as “non-professional behavior.”

My questions are: Is this legal? Can a peer go around saying and writing anything about a co-worker without proof or evidence? Where can one obtain names of attorneys that are experts in employee rights in case of firing? How much severance for 10 years’ employment is customary? (Incidentally, the boss has hired two new persons at $6.00 an hour less than my hourly rate with no open positions.)

I have only two years left to go before I can collect Social Security, so I am not particularly anxious to look for a new job.



I have advice for both you and your boss. First, you would be wise to listen to his feedback and take steps to improve your performance. Second, your boss must be very specific about what it is that you need to change ...”non-professional behavior” is too vague to be acceptable criticism.

Although I think peer reviews provide valuable input in a team environment, they should not be used as a club to beat the co-worker. The manager must take the responsibility to observe each employee, firsthand, so he can support and pinpoint the peers’ feedback and then work with the individual to help him or her improve.

The key word in your letter is “suddenly.” After 10 years, you “suddenly” need to improve. Either your boss has been telling you (or hinting?) for a while and you haven’t been listening, or your boss has been putting off telling you and things have been building up and he is fed up. Perhaps the peer input has forced the issue.

Another possibility that can’t be discounted is that he is trying to replace you with cheaper labor. Although it is tempting to believe that, the fact that your peers have given you a negative rating suggests that your performance is the real problem.

You are right to feel indignant about the general nature of the feedback. I suggest that you go back to your manager and ask for more specifics. However, I would wait until you can do it calmly and with an open mind. Explain that you are frustrated and upset about the feedback because you don’t know why they said it and you can’t correct it if you don’t know what it means.

Then listen carefully to his response. If he doesn’t have specifics tell him that it is impossible for you to improve during the next three months. If he does have specific details, don’t get defensive. Listen and force yourself to write them down. This will keep you from getting into an argument and provide a record for you to refer to later.

Then think about what he said and decide what you can do to improve. Schedule another meeting with your manager and discuss what you want to do to improve and get his advice. Although you are feeling hurt and angry, you only have two years left before you can leave on your terms, so why not make it as pleasant as possible?

Lawyers who specialize in employees’ rights can be found online. Frankly, you will be far better off (whether you ever file a suit or not) to take proactive steps now, such as asking for details and trying to improve. If you are fired, the company doesn’t have to give you any severance, but if they do, a rule of thumb is one or two weeks severance pay for each year worked.

Surprise feedback is not an easy thing to hear and it’s even tougher to listen to. It’s in your best interest to do both.


The number 1 mistake leaders make
Aug. 6, 2015

Dear Joan:

I was recently demoted at my current company with no substantial reason except reorganization. I always got A+ reviews and good raises. I was never told to work on any weaknesses or develop areas I needed work in. In other words, I thought I was doing a good job. If I wasn’t, the company never told me and, thus, never gave me the opportunity to improve.

Now I feel just terrible - humiliated, a failure, hurt at not getting a raise that I really depend on, etc. What do you think is going on? Is this company trying to get rid of me? What do you think of this tactic? Do I have any legal recourse here? I worked very hard - was conscientious - put off extended vacations and dragged myself to work when sick. What happened?

Now someone else is being hired for my previous position. Is this the “politics” that goes on in companies now? Is it who you kiss up to or how hard you work that gets you places nowadays?



I hope your letter is read by every manager who would rather remain silent than tell employees what they need to improve on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard derailed employees say, “If I had only known what to improve, I would have gladly worked on it but I thought everything was OK.”

The workplace would be a more effective - and happy - place if managers would remember the golden rule of bad news: “If I had that problem, would I want MY boss to tell ME?” If the employee’s behaviors are hurting his or her career, it’s the manager’s responsibility to provide feedback and coaching.

If you do a post-mortem on this situation you may learn some things that could help you in the future. Bear in mind, however, that you may never know the whole truth.

First, let’s consider the fact that someone was hired for your previous position. Your boss is probably not being open with you. For example, if your position had been eliminated in a reorganization, it would be easier to see how this demotion could occur, given your high ratings in the past.

If your replacement has exactly the same job you held, the “reorganization” was your boss’s way of dealing with a performance issue he or she was unwilling to confront. Even if the job has been expanded, you need to ask yourself, “Why didn’t my boss tell me about the required changes and help me develop the necessary skills?” “If the job has gotten bigger, were the qualifications beyond my abilities?”

Consider the bigger picture. Does your manager have a new boss? Could this decision have been made by someone other than your supervisor? Perhaps your manager was happy with your work but someone else above him or her wasn’t satisfied.

As you examine the last few years of your performance, think about how easy it is to confuse “hard work” with “smart work.” By that I mean dragging yourself in to work when you’re sick and putting off vacations is laudable but you’ll notice there is no category called “DEDICATED” on your performance appraisal. These things deserve a pat on the back but don’t necessarily qualify you for more money by themselves - it’s how effective you are that keeps you in the winner’s circle. Does your definition of “effectiveness” and your boss’s definition match?

Another question for you to investigate is, “How valid was my A+ rating all these years?” Although it will be difficult for you, I’d suggest that you ask your boss for some feedback. However, since you haven’t heard about any weaknesses before, your manager may have a problem telling you now.

Before asking your boss to give you constructive feedback, you’ll need to manage the anger and bitterness you surely must feel. You don’t want this meeting to be explosive. Your manager may have avoided honesty in the past because he or she was afraid of hurting your feelings or making you angry. In order to get the truth, you will need to manage your emotions. It may help to say, “I’m confused by the mixed signals I’m getting. I need to know what areas I need to improve on if there is some problem with my performance.” Listen carefully to the answer and don’t argue with it. Instead, ask for more specifics and examples until you feel satisfied that you understand what your manager is telling you.

Your company is probably not trying to get rid of you. If they were, they would have used this “reorganization” to eliminate your job and fire you. Perhaps they value your many technical skills but feel you were over-extended in your former job. Without feedback from your boss, it’s impossible to know exactly what the real reasons were.

Once you have more information, you have some decisions to make. For instance: Is your new job a good fit for you and worth keeping? Are you too embarrassed to stay under any circumstances? If you get some negative feedback, can you work on it in your new job? Does this demotion mean that you are dead-ended in your present company? If I pursue legal action what will that buy me?

Whether you decide to leave or stay, be more assertive about soliciting performance feedback in the future. Ask your boss for advice and coaching on your work long before the performance appraisal, so that weaknesses are addressed before they can become problems. Stay in tune with shifting organizational priorities so that you can anticipate changes. Most important, make sure you have a clear understanding of your boss’s priorities and expectations. You were blind-sided on this one. I’m sure you will never let this happen to you again.

Cure poor work habits with feedback

July 31, 2015

Dear Joan:

I am a manager in a small manufacturing firm. I would like to know your thoughts on how to address under-performing employees who have not been dealt with and have been tolerated for years.



An employee whose poor performance has been tolerated for years is a festering sore in a work group. The infection is likely to spread to the rest of the area. Stopping the spread of the disease means you must treat everyone who shows symptoms the same way. Your challenge is this: If you have allowed the employees’ work standards to slip without consequences before, you have lowered the standard of what you will accept. If you attempt to change things, the poor employees will cry, “Foul!” and the good employees will cheer.

This can be a very difficult thing to do and requires a fresh strategy, a strong backbone and a solid plan to get the employee back on track.

Before you begin, imagine the worst thing that could result from confronting the problem and ask yourself, “Am I willing to go all the way to resolve this problem?” Then talk to your boss and Human Resources and ask, “How much support and back-up can I count on from you?” If you don’t hear encouraging words, you may want to execute a more conservative strategy. For example, if the person is close to retirement, you will probably have a different plan than if the person had 15 years to go.

The biggest problem to overcome is the fact that you are suddenly expecting a performance level you haven’t required before. One way to establish a new baseline is to move the employee to new job tasks. I hesitate to suggest this because “passing the turkey” is probably what caused this problem in the first place. It's likely that past managers didn't confront the problem and passed it on to the next manager. So, rather than moving him or her to a new boss (who would surely add your name to his political hit list), reorganize the tasks within your work group or within the individual's job. This will allow you to wipe the slate clean so you can impose a new standard.

Next, sit the employee down and spell out what the new expectations are, how they will be measured and what the consequences are for poor performance. Once the new baseline is drawn, you must follow up to make sure the standards are being met. A word of warning here: This is not a trap. It is tempting to think, “There! Now I can finally fire this guy if I can catch him messing up!” This isn’t fair play and wouldn’t help your case if the employee sued.

Give the employee a reasonable amount of coaching and training and, above all, constant feedback on his or her performance. If he or she is doing well, be quick with a pat on the back. Sometimes poor performers have never felt appreciated and have turned sour because of it. If, however, the employee’s old habits and behaviors don't change, start with a verbal admonishment and move to written memos and finally a final written warning of possible termination.

The most difficult part of disciplining an employee is the pacing. If you are too quick to issue ultimatums and don’t give the employee a chance to improve, you will look as if you are trying to set him up to fail. On the other hand, if you don’t step in early and monitor the situation through ongoing performance discussions, you will allow your own standards to slip by implied consent.

If, in the end, the employee is fired, he should be fully aware of why it happened, what he could have done to prevent it (but chose not to do) and how straightforward and supportive you were. In effect, he chose to fire himself.

If you can't move an employee or change the job tasks, you have a tougher challenge. In this case, analyze the standards you have set for all the other employees in the work group to see how uneven they are. If you are going to clamp down on one, you must hold all the rest to the same expectations.

Tell all the employees that starting “now” it will be necessary to meet the standard and why. Employees deserve to know why a certain level of performance is required...and that it’s not just an arbitrary number chosen at the whim of management. If they are out of touch with their “customers” (internal or external), find a way for them to get direct feedback on how important their “product” is and how it is used. Letting employees find out what the customer requirements are for the work they produce is more powerful than an eloquent lecture from you. If their “customer” is the guy on the next machine, get them together with everyone else who contributes to the final product and discuss how their quality affects everyone else’s.

Confronting a long standing problem is never easy. Managers who do deserve to be rewarded because they help the problem employee get back on track, help the morale of the work group and improve the bottom line.


Micro-manager produces negative macro effect
July 23, 2015

Listen in on what it’s like when a micro-manager is the boss:

Manager: I like to make sure things are done right in my department. I’m accountable for the results and I want to make sure my employees are working up to par. After all, I have to answer to my boss about mistakes. My employees just don’t have the experience I have ... and if I don’t check it I can’t be confident it’s the caliber of work I want representing me and my department.

Employee: My boss is always looking over my shoulder. He’s always telling me how to do every little detail even though I’ve been doing my job for several years. It’s as if he doesn’t trust me or he thinks I’m incompetent. If I’m doing something wrong or if I need to improve something why doesn’t he tell me ... I want to grow and develop on my job. Sometimes I just want to say, “Here! Why don’t you do it? You’re going to pick it apart and redo it yourself anyway!” I’m not making a contribution ... maybe I should just leave.


Manager: My employees just don’t have a good idea of the big picture ... the politics of the situation. And they don’t need to know what’s going on, especially about political and strategic issues. They don’t need to know that to do their jobs. I keep them out of trouble by guiding them through their projects.

Employee: My manager doesn’t tell me anything. He doesn’t share information about the company’s direction or about political sensitivities I should be aware of. He’s forever checking on my work and then changing my priorities - but he doesn’t tell me why. It’s very frustrating because I’m operating in the dark half the time. If he trusted me with more information, I’d be able to use my own judgment and I’d be able to anticipate problems before they happen.


Manager: The downsizing going on is targeting people like me. I’ve watched my peers get laid off and I’m worried about becoming one of them. The way I’m protecting myself is by making myself indispensable and visible. I need to look good so I don’t find myself on the hit list. I don’t want my peers or employees to look better than I do. I also have to fight for resources to make my department look better than other managers’ departments. These are dog-eat-dog times.

Employee: My boss used to let me attend meetings outside of the department occasionally but not anymore; now he attends them all. He went to a convention about the latest technical developments instead of letting me go. He uses my ideas and reports as his own and never seems to mention that they came from me. I’m glad he thinks they’re good ideas but I’m not getting any of the credit. I think he’s threatened by me ... why else would he be trying so hard to keep me locked up and invisible to people above me?


Manager: I get input and involvement from my employees. I meet with them to give them a chance to discuss new policies or procedures. I always have an “open door” policy.

Employee: My manager only meets with us one-on-one. Only rarely do we have a department or unit meeting. When we do get together, he does most of the talking about some new rule or there is a company-wide announcement. When he does ask for input, he argues with us about our point of view or acts like we don’t have all the information and only his ideas could work. Why does he go through the motions of asking us for our ideas if he’s only going to implement his own ideas?

Micro-managers suffocate their employees’ initiative. They are so narrowly focused on themselves and the work that they don’t take a broader look at the people who do the work. Micro-managers are classic examples of the Peter Principle - good performers who were promoted once too often. They should have been left where they were to do the work they do best.

Micro-managers are often a product of their organization’s culture. If the top manager shows the behavior, it often cascades down throughout the organization. Because when the top boss expects managers to be personally involved in all the details, other levels of managers are likely to be expected to do the same. They don’t want to look out of touch.

Organizations that don’t identify the leadership characteristics they want for managerial jobs often promote the best technical performer and hope for the best. Unfortunately, those technical performers are often ill-equipped to perform successfully in their new role.

Why not take the time to train and coach the leaders in your organization? And before you hire or promote the next manager, define the leadership behaviors you’re looking for. Everyone will be glad you did.

And if one of your direct reports is a micro-manager, the best thing you can do for him or her is to give honest feedback through a direct conversation - citing clear examples. Or, by bringing in an outside coach who can gather the employee feedback this manager needs to hear and guiding him or her to make a course correction. Most micro-managers don’t realize that their justifications are misguided. Rather than helping their credibility and their career, micro-managing is a career derailer.


Sherlock Holmes can solve corporate culture mystery
July 16, 2015

Dear Joan:

We have been experiencing a critical personnel problem within our firm during the past few years. Many of our employees have been with the company for at least 10 years. Due to changes that occur over such an extensive period of time, these employees have developed an “anti-corporate” attitude. New ideas are flatly rejected and each employee clamors for the credit and recognition for any successful idea.

This situation is causing severe morale problems among newer employees and they are leaving as fast as they join the firm. The older employees can’t be terminated because of the knowledge and skills they possess.

How do we deal with this situation and maintain the old with the new?



The clue to solving this case may be in the last sentence of the first paragraph. A group of people will always adjust to their environment in order to cope, so a good place to begin looking for answers is in the way they respond to the workplace. As a corporate Sherlock Holmes, your job is to identify the rewards and punishments that have created this situation and find ways to solve the mystery.

If this group is quick to reject new ideas and eager to take credit for any idea that works, what caused this? My hunch is an unskilled boss or an authoritative corporate culture has something to do with it.

Here are a few clues to investigate: If a new idea was tried and failed, were they criticized? Did their boss cultivate “pets” who had good ideas that were rubbed in the faces of the rest? Does your company expect its employees to check their brains at the door? Were new ideas shoved down their throats before they were tested? Did new ideas always seem to result in demands for higher productivity? Did new ideas add work that was never rewarded? Was individual competition rewarded over team play?

An “anti-corporate” attitude grows from a feeling of being used by the system. Anti-corporate feelings can only grow when employees don’t feel a part of the company. Unfortunately, once negativism sets in, so does skepticism and sarcasm. This gruesome threesome is tough to drive out.

The first place to consider making a change is in the leadership of the group. Even if the manager is reasonably good, the old order of things needs to be shaken. This group needs a people-smart manager, who has a clearly demonstrated understanding of human motivation. If this new boss is a well-respected, well-liked manager in your firm, all the better.

The next thing to do is find a way to train backups. It worries me (and should worry your management) that “you can’t terminate” these older workers because they are the only ones who know the job. These employees are holding you hostage!

Change your reward system to favor cross training and cooperation. Giving a “training bonus” to employees who train others can do this. If your company can’t give money, give significant non-monetary perks, such as flexible hours or Friday afternoon off. Don’t be conservative. This is a time to ring the bell of change and you don’t want anyone to miss it.

Find ways to listen to these experienced workers. One idea is to get them together in a weekly meeting to brainstorm solutions to problems. Don’t tease them with fake meetings, however. If you aren’t prepared to let them try their own ideas and reward them for their effort, don’t yank their chain. This won’t work unless their manager is a skilled meeting leader and believes in employee involvement and empowerment.

Start with problems that are relatively easy to fix, so they see quick results and know you mean business. If they need training in how to participate in problem-solving meetings, bring someone in to teach them (and their boss) the skills. Praise all ideas and reward team successes with theatre tickets, pizza at lunch or - better yet - let them split a percentage of the money their new ideas save the company.

Try to find ways to break up old cliques. A few hard-core leaders may need to be moved or their jobs changed to create a new power balance. If some employees sabotage your attempts to create a new atmosphere, deal with them quickly. Talk to them privately about what you see them doing and ask for their cooperation. If repeated conversations fail to get the desired result, begin to document their lack of cooperation and warn them that they could lose their jobs. As much as you would hate to lose an experienced worker, you can’t afford to let them scare off new talent that is the future lifeblood of your company.

If you can crack this case, you will create the kind of healthy corporate culture that will encourage the old and new employees to work together to help your company grow.

Open door policy is the key success for manager

July 2, 2015

Dear Joan:

I was recently promoted to a supervisory position over my unit. There really isn’t much of a supervisory training program at my company so I’ve been teaching myself through books and the like.

One thing that I know is very important is to keep an “open door” policy. The problem I have with this idea is that every manager I have had in the past has said he had it but no one ever used it. People were hesitant to approach the boss with problems or just to talk because of some of the problems it caused.

I have a good relationship with my unit after having worked with them for seven years as their peer and then the backup supervisor. They seemed to feel good about coming to me then but I’m concerned that the open communication will soon end as I take over as their boss. Do you have any suggestions?


I can see why you were promoted. You care about the right things! One of the most important jobs of a supervisor is to stay close to his or her employees. Managers who lose touch lose out - in low productivity, morale problems and lack of commitment among workers.

Employees don’t listen to what their manager says, they watch what their manager does. An “Open Door Policy” is only as good as the manager behind the door.

You have a good history with your work unit but that doesn’t mean they aren’t watching you like a hawk for any changes in your leadership style. They know you have always been under someone else’s wing and now your own personal style will finally emerge.


Here are some ideas to consider:

* When an employee comes to you with a complaint, spend more time listening than talking. Ask the employee many questions about why he or she is concerned and how this is negatively affecting them. Ask what they have done to try to resolve the issue. Then ask “How can I help you?” If you feel that your intervention is important and essential, discuss how you might help.

Be careful, however, that you aren’t jumping in where you shouldn’t. Often, employees will test a new boss to see where the new line is drawn. Don’t take their problems on your shoulders if they haven’t done all they can to try to solve the problem on their own first. For example, don’t get trapped into playing dad or mom when employees complain to you about some work issue involving their co-workers. Encourage them to discuss conflicts with each other individually or in team meetings.

* When an employee comes to you with a personal problem, stay objective. There is a fine line between being empathetic and being sympathetic. If, for example, an employee is going through a divorce and she is telling you messy details, don’t commiserate or offer advice. Instead, listen empathetically and respond with comments such as, “That must have been really tough for you.” Avoid making judgments such as, “He really is a rat. I couldn’t stand being married to someone like that. If I were you ...” You never know how your words will be repeated and to whom.

You open yourself to other problems when you get too deeply involved in someone else’s personal life. For example, the employee who is going through a divorce may expect you to “understand” when she starts having an attendance problem.

* Keep confidences. Nothing will slam that “open door” faster than betraying a promise. For example, if an employee has a problem with another manager in a different department and he comes to you for confidential advice, don’t jump the gun by calling that manager and explaining the whole situation. Stay out of it and coach your employee to take some action on his own first.

However, if an employee reveals something to you that you know you must act on, be honest about what you must do and why.

* If you find out that an employee has made a serious mistake, don’t explode. Chances are, the employee feels as horrible as you do and doesn’t need a finger wagged in his face. Instead, call the employee in and ask him what happened and why. Ask him what he is going to do about solving the problem. Resist the urge to solve it yourself. If you snatch the project away from your employee, you’ll demoralize him and punish him instead of treating him as he should be treated - like an adult who needs to solve his own problems.

Crisis situations are where you’ll show your true style. Employees will study and remember how you react in these situations and will forget everything else. If you blow someone’s head off, don’t be surprised if they treat you as if you always have a loaded gun ... behind a closed door.

All of these ideas have a common theme. Treat your employees as independent adults who may need coaching and a friendly ear but not a parent or a psychologist. If you do, your door will never be a barrier to open, honest communication.


Meetings present a maze of problems
June 25, 2015

If you want to get the most out of the meetings you lead, you must know how to manage different situations as they come up. Any group of people working together will bring a wide range of needs and abilities that you can direct, much like a traffic cop at a busy intersection.

Before we look at some problem situations, let’s consider the important leadership characteristics that establish a healthy, participative atmosphere. Without these, your meeting may never get off the ground.


Don’t be a road hog.  Let them do at least 76 percent of the talking, or more.

Don’t use your meetings to get on your pulpit or podium. Be positive and encouraging by looking for the merit in people’s comments and by encouraging incomplete, unusual or hesitant ideas.


Protect members from personal attack

Nothing will choke off participation faster than immediate evaluation or put-downs. This protection includes allowing everyone to get in their “two cents worth.” Be honest and good humored about admitting your mistakes and not having all the answers. Don’t be afraid to tell the group when you’re upset, tired, distracted or in doubt. Being human can build trust and credibility. If you do, the group will stay on your side.


Paraphrase and clarify

Even when all else fails, these two techniques will probably save you. They are key, meeting-leading skills.

Now let’s look at some familiar problems and how to handle them, as discussed in the book, “How to Make Meetings Work,” by Michael Doyle and David Straus.


The great silence

Avoid the temptation to fill the void. Wait for a while. If nothing happens, ask the group what the problem is. People may be confused, bored, lost or deep in thought. Don’t be a mind-reader, and never assume.

Ask for suggestions on what to do next. If nothing is offered, make a suggestion yourself and check out their acceptance. Or, ask each individual for his or her thoughts at the moment.

It may be a good time to summarize what has happened up to this point. You might even suggest a short stretch or break, or ask them if it’s time to move on to the next point. The important thing is to stay on their wavelength.


The traffic jam

When everyone talks at once, good ideas are lost and nothing is accomplished. Say, “Hold it, everybody.  We will accomplish much more if one person speaks at a time.”


The interrupter

Sometimes people are impatient and excited, or afraid an idea will be lost if it isn’t blurted out. Deal with the interrupter immediately. People will be watching to see if you protect their right to speak.

Don’t play favorites, either, even if the interrupter is a VIP. You could say, “Please hold on to your idea a moment, Frank. Let’s let Mary finish what she was saying.”


The rambler

Ramblers love meetings. They can smell a meeting from a department away. They often use this forum to voice complaints or share their years of experience.

They may have a lot of good ideas to offer, but lose them on a restless audience. Force yourself to listen for a useful idea. Then, wait for a natural pause or break, confirm your understanding of the point in the story and ask someone else for an opinion.


The attacker

It’s important to hear conflicting viewpoints, but when someone’s idea or personality is attacked, it’s time to blow the whistle.

Paraphrase the attacker’s idea, but leave out the personal references. Attack: “Where did you get an idea like that? You obviously haven’t had any experience dealing with that department.”

Your paraphrased response: “Let’s make sure we are capturing your criticisms. You feel that this suggestion is unrealistic and unworkable?”



Sometimes people are hesitant to state an objection. Whispering to someone nearby can destroy the concentration and trust in your meeting.

Look directly at the conversers. If that doesn’t work, say, “It looks like you have some ideas on this. Would you like to share them with the group?” Don’t embarrass them, or the group may protect them and turn against you.


The Dropout

If someone is silent, doodling or reading, don’t play “gotcha" by saying, “What do you think about that, Claudia?” She may be thinking about the problem at hand or preoccupied. Perhaps she shouldn’t even be there if she has no interest in the discussion.

You could try to bring her into the discussion by saying, “Claudia, I’d like to hear your ideas on this. I’ll give you a moment to think. How about you, Jerry?”

Ego and leadership - do you know any OE types? 

June 18, 2015

“It’s all about Charlie,” my colleague muttered, as we waited for him once again for a meeting. “He never thinks about anyone else’s schedule; his is always more important - and he’ll let you know it.”

Fifteen minutes later, with a few quick jokes and a dazzling smile, he swept into the room. Before long he was on his email, and then stepped out to take a call. What’s going on here?

Ego strength is a necessary character trait for leadership, but it can be a career derailer if it’s not in balance with other behaviors such as empathy and collaboration. Over time, Charlie’s self-absorbed behavior will erode the support of his colleagues, no matter how well he performs his job.

How do you recognize an over-developed ego? It feels like arrogance, if you’re on the receiving end. The over-developed ego - I’ll call it the OE type - will typically jump in and out of meetings, disrupting the agenda. He or she will take calls during a one-on-one conversation. The OE will steer meetings to outcomes they want, blowing past other’s ideas. Often, the OE will have a larger than life personality, and sometimes that manifests in charm and charisma, other times the OE type acts like a bully. Either way, they aim to win.

OE types with talent often rise to the top of their field. They brush off rejection and failure - in fact, they barely notice it - as they single-mindedly plow ahead toward their goals. That works to a point and it’s particularly useful in an individual contributor role, like sales. But when they find themselves in a position of leadership, it can begin to unravel.

Here’s why:

* Rather than listen to other’s views about why something won’t work, he or she will push it through anyway. Resistance from the troops - both active and passive - will stall implementation.

* Rather than share the credit with those who deserve it, he or she will wear the team’s results like a personal badge. Team resentment builds and initiative and ownership flags.

* Peers, who have grown tired of disrespectful behavior toward themselves and their teams, will tend to passively watch the OE make a mistake, rather than jump in with corrective, honest feedback. They have learned it isn’t heard or heeded anyway, so why try to bail him or her out?

* Senior management, who is wowed with the OE’s star quality, will eventually have to face up to the OE’s “dark side.” If the OE’s bad behavior results in losing high potential employees, peer complaints, or lack of support for the OE’s upward promotability, the senior leaders will have to deal with that fallout. Ultimately, the OE’s career will stall or derail.

* The OE tends to hold many jobs in his or her career. Usually, they interview well and make a big splash early. But over time, they get themselves into trouble with comments and actions the culture rejects.

Sometimes the OE will have a life-changing event that will force him or her to look in the mirror. Sometimes they will benefit from an external coach, who is tough enough to call them on their behavior and teach them new approaches. If they are lucky, they will get a good manager who will call out the inappropriate behavior and mentor them to the greatness they are capable of if they can just get out of their own way.

Ten questions that will encourage open, positive performance discussions
June 11, 2015

Dear Joan:

I was recently promoted to a senior executive position in my company. I have worked with most of my direct subordinates for many years as their peer and now I find myself in the role of their boss.

Fortunately, my relationship with them is very good. My concern is that I must evaluate them at the end of the year and complete their performance review. Please be assured that I am not hesitant to give them honest feedback on a regular basis. What bothers me is that I prefer not to do a formal evaluation; I want to use the opportunity to build our new relationship and establish myself as more of a coach.

These people are all experienced, senior managers and are good performers. They would resent close scrutiny of their work and a “performance review,” yet, I want to set a good example and encourage them to hold coaching sessions with their employees. I find that evaluations tend to cause defensiveness and hard feelings, with an over-emphasis on the negative. What would you suggest?



You sound as if you know the difference between managing and leading; it’s no wonder you have a good relationship with your team.

You are not alone in doubting the value of an annual performance review. There is new thinking about the purpose of a review and whether or not it is really a helpful exercise, particularly if it is the only feedback an employee receives each year. It is much more motivating for employees to have built-in measurements (and coaching) in their jobs, which allows them to know how they are doing at all times in relation to the goal.

Leaders like you know that coaching and feedback should occur all year long. The performance review should be nothing more than a summary of the year’s growth and experiences and an opportunity to set expectations and new goals for the coming year.

I recommend that you hold a two-way discussion with each of them. It will give you a chance to build your new relationship. They will be wondering what kind of leader you will be and they may be anxious to see if you will change your stripes in your new job.

To set the tone, give them some questions like the following. These questions are designed to create a positive discussion that will stay focused on the right things.


1. What did you do that you are most proud of this past year?

2. What was your biggest challenge?

3. What was your biggest disappointment?

4. If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?

5. What did you find to be the most stimulating and caused you to grow the most?

6. What was the most fun?

7. What are you looking forward to doing in the new year?

8. What worries you the most about the coming year?

9. What would you like to say about your performance one year from now?

10. How can I help you? (What would you like me to do more of, less of, the same?)

Is your inability to delegate holding your employees and you back?

June 5, 2015

Mary is a star in her new job. In fact, she’s so good, her boss has promoted her to a managerial position just one year after she took over as marketing director of a small company.

“I really love my job,” she said during our recent lunch, “but I realize I have a lot to learn about managing,” she confessed. “My employees are asking me for more responsibility and yet I hesitate to delegate the grunt work and I end up doing it all myself ... besides, it takes longer to explain it than to do it. My boss is thrilled with my results and I don’t want to do anything to mess that up with him.”

Mary has always been a sole performer who has had total control over her own work. The shift to delegating part of her work feels uncomfortable because she feels accountable for the results and she wants it done right. Like most new managers, she thinks that “letting go” means being irresponsible.

Her employees are lucky; Mary is smart enough to recognize her need to learn new skills. Managers, who don’t learn to delegate effectively, end up with employees who feel unchallenged and resentful. These managers tend to plateau at the first level of supervision and wonder why their To Do Lists are a mile long and their employees keep leaving.


Here’s what I told Mary: Your need to be in ultimate control could be your undoing. Your boss won’t think you are a star for long if you can’t “off load” your routine work to make room for new, more challenging assignments.

Managers who are reluctant to delegate for fear of “dumping” on their employees are missing the point. Employees who are worth their salt want to help their boss. In fact, bosses who treat their employees as partners in their projects are not seen as "dumpers" they are seen as “developers.”

Perfectionists like Mary have a hard time delegating. Part of the challenge of supervising others is knowing how to back off and let your employees complete tasks in their own way. They may even discover a better way to do the job.

A good place to start is to take a look at your To Do List each week and check the tasks that are routine or fairly straightforward. Even though it takes time to explain WHAT, WHY AND WHEN, it is a long-term investment because next time there will be no need for an explanation.

Be careful about the HOW. It’s fine to describe how you’ve done the task in the past but make sure your employees know they are expected to find new and better approaches whenever they can. Peering over their shoulders or re-doing their work will discourage and anger them (“If she wanted it done her way, why didn’t she just do it in the first place?”).

This is tricky. Spell out the results up front and set up interim meetings to coach and advise. Otherwise, keep your hands off. Ask yourself, “Does their result do the job?” instead of “Is it exactly as I would have done it?”

If a task requires a lot of judgment or decision-making or a senior manager has asked you to personally complete an assignment, don’t delegate it. The same is true of a project that has high visibility with an element of risk; don’t toss the hot potato to your employee unless they are well prepared for the job and the visibility could do them some good.

Make it very clear how much authority they have in the given task, so your employees don’t have to ask you for your approval at each step. If you let your employees have some decision-making authority, they will take more responsibility for their work because the end result will be their own.

If you only delegate the junk and keep the good stuff for yourself, your employees will become bored, and what’s worse, they will feel that you don’t trust them to do the “important” work. And if your employees can’t do at least some of the "important" work, you are to blame. A manager’s responsibility is to expose employees to more and more complex assignments so they learn to handle them.

You are ultimately responsible for tasks you delegate so don’t blame them when things go wrong. Find out why and look for ways to avoid making the same mistake again. And don’t delegate with an apologetic tone. They aren’t doing you a favor; you are giving them to chance to find challenge in their work and growth in their careers.

New teams need coaching

May 28, 2015

Many companies are implementing a “team” approach. They are experimenting with natural teams, management teams, self-directed teams, cross-functional teams, cells, process teams and matrix teams. These approaches can cause some exciting “wins” but they can also create a lot of confusion and frustration, especially for companies new at working this way.

For instance, self-directed teams aren’t appropriate for every company. And many companies are pursuing them as the goal instead of identifying the goal that is best for the customer and working backwards to figure out the best structure to get it.

Another problem is that companies jump into self-directed work teams too quickly, the workforce usually isn’t prepared for it. And neither is management. Too many companies simply deem a work group “self-directed” send them to a few training classes and then wonder why they aren’t taking responsibility. If you were suddenly thrust into “taking more responsibility” would you make a decision with little information in a culture that traditionally blames the person if it doesn’t work? If the culture isn’t modified to support the teams, they will fail.


Here are some tips for guiding groups who are new at team behavior and responsibilities:

1. Don’t just turn them loose. This is irresponsible and will set them up to fail. Provide them with a seasoned coach and mentor. Ideally, this person will be at a high enough level to be their connection to the top of the organization. This guardian angel can steer them clear of political sinkholes and teach them how to gather data, work across boundaries and sell a new idea. This coach can also act as their liaison for setting up training to build skills and for getting information they need to make decisions.

2. When the team works on a project, give them a clear picture of what you want and what the boundaries are. Too often, well-meaning management decides to let an inexperienced group solve a problem without giving them any guidance and structure. Then the group process breaks down or the solution is unrealistic or solves the wrong problem. For inexperienced groups always provide a process facilitator.

3. Clarify what the authority limits are. Sometimes managers in their haste to “empower” people send them charging off to work on a problem only to find that the solution isn’t acceptable. Now the managers feel that they are held hostage and must accept the group’s decision or risk looking non-supportive of empowerment.

By and large, employees are adults who will work within the limits you set. It’s irresponsible to presume that employees who are inexperienced in working in teams will hit home runs in their first game. Start out with limited authority and work up to more freedom as they gain experience. And don’t forget: You don’t ever have to say yes. Just be honest and tell them the truth.

And remember, the reason their solution is unrealistic may be because they don’t know all the facts. It’s management’s job to provide them what they need to make the best decision. That’s why pairing up inexperienced teams with experienced people can work well.

4. Don’t do it for them. One of the most difficult things traditional managers need to learn in this new environment is to let the employees do it. If they ask questions guide them to find out the answers for themselves. If they stumble don’t grab the work and do it yourself so it’s done “right.” Use it as a teaching opportunity and let them fix it. If they need information from another department, let them go get it. It’s the only way they can learn good judgment and feel a sense of ownership.










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