I am a manager at a fairly new and fast growing software-as-a-service company. I have been managing people forever and nothing like this has ever happened to me.
I recently gave some feedback to a new employee I’ll call LK. Despite having received step-by-step directions on a certain task, she had done it completely wrong. The feedback was standard and simple—specifics on how to do the task: “Do it this way, not that way, for these reasons.” She seemed to take it fine.
The next day I received a call from HR saying LK had complained that I am micromanaging and mean. It was like she had been part of a completely different conversation. I am a big user of SLII®, so after she was hired I let her know I would be giving her lots of specific direction and re-direction over the first few months until she got the hang of the job. Also, I made it clear if she ever has an issue she should come to me right away.
I am just blown away that instead of coming to me to talk about it, she went straight to HR. Is this a generational thing? I have always received good feedback from my people and have never had a complaint. I feel like she must be nuts, or maybe she has some kind of vendetta against me. What should I do now? If I try to talk to her, who knows what she might do? This has left me shaken.
Thrown for a Loop
(Note: For the uninitiated, SLII® is my company’s flagship management model that helps managers figure out what combination of direction and support an employee needs to competently achieve a specific goal or task.)
Dear Thrown for a Loop,
Wow. I can see how this would be upsetting. I am not going to give you a primer on giving feedback—it sounds like you know what you are doing. But somehow, things have gone sideways.
It is always my job to ask what part you might have played in creating this situation. It is easy to think someone might be “nuts” when they experience a shared event differently from the way we do. And I guess that is possible—there are, in fact, people with mental health problems who wreak havoc in the workplace. I have had a front row seat to some spectacular wreckage myself. But that isn’t going to be helpful as a starting place for you. Assumptions can be such a trap. You might assume that you look and sound like LK’s Mean Aunt Mabel and she got triggered. Or maybe she’s having issues at home, wasn’t sleeping well, and the conversation was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Or maybe she was just having a spectacularly bad day. It happens. Is it possible that you missed some signs? Did you, in fact, ask “Hey LK, is now a good time to go over the process for …”? I know sometimes I get so task focused that I blow right by the signs that now is not the moment to offer a re-direction.
It is also true that some people simply have a really hard time receiving feedback. People who are perfectionists and expect themselves to do everything perfectly right out of the gate can really suffer when getting feedback. Younger people who are entering the workplace and are used to getting straight As in school may experience any feedback as a personal attack. Be sure when you do re-direct, the critique is of the actions, not the person; for example, “This way of doing it can cause inaccuracies” vs. “You are causing inaccuracies.”
Before you do anything, you probably need to loop back with HR to find out exactly what LK’s complaint was and what they think you should do about it. But, in the long run, if you are going to salvage the working relationship, you are going to have to have the hard conversation. I am a fan of our Conversational Capacity program, and you can also check out this book by Craig Weber. The whole idea is that you have to balance candor with curiosity. And remember, the person who has the power (you) has to create the safe environment.
Prepare for the conversation by parking your defensiveness and assumptions. Make sure you have privacy and enough time for the conversation. Get grounded however you can: take a walk, do some deep breathing, pray. Prepare to listen—and by listen, I mean NO TALKING. You can say your initial piece to set up the conversation, ask a few questions, and then just listen.
Start with candor:
My job is to do everything possible to help you be terrific at your new job. That’s what is important here.
- I am sorry you were so upset.
- I am sorry you didn’t feel comfortable coming to me to tell me you were upset.
- I really care about you and your success.
And then move to curiosity:
- Help me understand what I did that made you so upset.
- Please tell me what would make it easier for you to accept necessary direction from me in the future.
- What can I do to make it easier for you to trust me?
Make sure to share what you hear LK saying—not only so that she knows you are really listening, but also to make sure you are getting it right. Hopefully, you can both commit to some shared practices moving forward.
If you don’t feel safe, if she doesn’t feel safe, or if you believe there may be some underlying issue, you can certainly ask someone from HR to sit in on the meeting. You will need to take the high road at every possible choice point. If she truly is unbalanced and emotionally unable to function at work, it will reveal itself. Or—best case scenario—if it is all a big misunderstanding, you and LK could end up with a great working relationship and laugh about this someday.
Don’t you just love being a manager? Just when you think you know what you are doing—BAM, it turns out there are new adventures to learn from.
About the Author
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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