Who’s Working Harder?

Not long ago I was working with Nell, a nurse leader who was challenged with managing one of her direct reports. Nell is a competent executive whose skill and expertise contribute mightily to her organization’s success. But like all of us, Nell has vulnerabilities. One of them is that she is seriously tested when she must partner with a poorly performing coworker.

In this case, Nell was having trouble with Robert, a team member who needed to upgrade his results in several areas. His work affected everyone in the department, and it impacted Nell’s work in particular. But as his supervisor, she found it difficult to clearly articulate his improvement needs and create a corrective performance plan. Instead of work­ing with him in a direct and objective manner, she hedged when they discussed what she wanted him to do differently. She set unclear objectives and established deadlines that were distant and loose.

Nell felt she had a lot riding on how this situation turned out. She believed that if she couldn’t turn Robert’s work around, she would continue to suffer at the hand of his poor per­formance. She and the rest of her team would keep investing valuable time and energy on a relationship that was demanding too much from all of them.

Nell had access to human resources profes­sionals, personnel procedures, and state of the art performance practices such as objective behavioral feedback. But these assets weren’t enough. Why? Because Nell was unable to manage the consequences of her own unexam­ined feelings.

When Nell reflected, she realized that this struggle with Robert felt old and familiar, even though he was a relatively new hire. She had similar experiences with direct reports whose performance had frustrated her in the past. Because she was the more powerful partner, the direct report usually ended up either losing his job or being transferred. But Nell paid a price, too. She had a bad reputation as a boss, and she knew it.

This story isn’t just about Nell and her situa­tion with Robert. Her circumstances are note­worthy because the cause of her challenge is common. How many times do we carry old cially in legitimately tough circumstances, are we able to engage productively? Can we bring the full measure of our expertise and objectivity to the table?

Unfinished emotional business can create serious blind spots for us at work. In Nell’s story, we see that her awareness of her history and reputation is weighing heavily on her actions and her capacity to think clearly. As a result, she is inadvertently enabling Robert to perform poorly. She is dulling the requirement for him to improve by giving him vague guid­ance. Effectively, she is teaching him that inad­equate performance is good enough.

Notice that Nell described their meetings as effortful for her, and relaxed for Robert. This tells us that she is working much harder than he is, even though he has at least as much at stake. Another indication that she is working harder is her belief that she (alone) must be the one who turns this situation around. Paradoxically, by undermining Robert’s capacity for improve­ment, she too is performing poorly.

So what can we do to avoid the emotional booby-trap that Nell unwittingly created for herself?

  1. First, we can assess whether we have the skills, resources and will to manage a per­plexing situation. Nell had both the skills and the resources, but she couldn’t sum­mon the will. She needed to find out why, so she explored her emotional responses and the limitations they were creating.
  2. We can take on the uncomfortable task of being honest with ourselves when some­thing we are doing is not working. Nell knew her ambiguous approach to correct­ing Robert’s performance was backfiring, and she was courageous enough to admit it.
  3. When we are challenged, we can consider whether our reactions are old, even when the circumstances are new. Like Nell, we can look inside ourselves to determine whether familiar emotional patterns are influencing our approach to today’s new demands.
  4. We can face our own vulnerability—the one that is standing between us and a successful course of action. In this case, Nell was afraid that her reputation would get worse. If she forthrightly addressed Robert’s performance issues, there was a chance he would fail. If that happened, she would have to let him go and her reputation as a “bad boss” could intensify. But when she faced her fear, she saw that poorly supervising Robert was even more damaging to her coworkers’ percep­tions of her.
  5. We can be clear about our roles and the boundaries of those roles. It was not appropriate for Nell to take over Robert’s stake in his own success and deprive him of accountability for the quality of his work. Yet that’s exactly what she did by hedging on telling him what he needed to change.
  6. We can be thoughtful about how we show respect for ourselves and others. By allowing Robert to do his job poorly, Nell was unconsciously dishonoring him and increasing the odds that he would be fired. She was also disrespecting the team and herself because they all had to fill in the gaps created by his subpar efforts.

Whenever we are burdened with potent, unexamined emotional baggage, we bring the effects of that extra weight into our interactions. When Nell chose to face and examine her “baggage,” she set a courageous example for all of us. If she hadn’t done this, she would have continued to engage in an unconscious “devil’s bargain.” She would accept Robert’s substandard perform­ance in exchange for minimizing future damage to her reputation. But she saw that in this “bargain,” everyone was paying too much. So, instead, Nell made the hard but appropriate choice to understand and manage her own feelings and their consequences.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader

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