High Standards, Difficult Feedback, and Letting People Go

High Standards, Difficult Feedback, and Letting People Go

I'm way behind on my Instapaper queue, so on this week's flight I finally made it to an article from April about Donald Trump that spurred some interesting thoughts on how managers do and do not provide feedback.

"Democracies end when they are too democratic", New York Magazine (May 1, 2016) is a good article, especially if you're not on the Donald Trump side of the equation, but this isn't really a political blog post.

Two key sentences:

Each week, for 14 seasons of The Apprentice, he (Trump) would look someone in the eye and tell them, “You’re fired!” The conversation most humane bosses fear to have with an employee was something Trump clearly relished, and the cruelty became entertainment.

Most managers do fear firing people. It's a weird badge of honor to have actually fired someone. Giving negative feedback shouldn't be fun. Firing someone is near universally a negative experience for the employee and the manager.

Managers hate this so much in general that they have devised several tactics:

  1. Have a subordinate fire the person for you
  2. Have HR fire the person for you
  3. Convince the employee to resign on their own
  4. Hire an outsider to do it

This last one is George Clooney's character's job in 2009's Up in the Air, not a traveling salesman as I just overheard someone try to recall in the hotel lobby.1

I think most managers don't like to fire people because it's an uncomfortable situation, coupled with pulling apart a large part of a modern American's identity—their workplace identity. More to the point, though, most managers avoid any negative feedback at all, except when required at year end reviews.

Not providing feedback is easy, but wrong and mean-spirited at its core. People justify that providing negative feedback itself is mean or drags people down frequently, but I believe that is far more disingenuous to mislead people on how they are doing.

It's true, having high standards and providing difficult feedback is hard. It causes many of its own issues, such as rockier employee morale and a higher chance that people will be unsatisfied in the short term.

Long term job success and happiness is tied to a great match between an employee, a manager, a role, and a company. When feedback can be provided constructively, it can lead people to stay in the right job, or move on to a new one. Zero turnover is laudable, but may actually be masking other problems.

People tend to admire the people who do the things we can't do ourselves. In a weird way, Trump's ability to fire people without respect for them seems to make people admire him.

What we should all strive for instead is to do the truly challenging thing, which is to help people to improve. The provide feedback with empathy and compassion. I'm not claiming that I'm an expert in this, but I think it's something important for which to strive.

We should all be so lucky as to have managers who have high standards, challenge us to be our best selves at work, and provide us that hard feedback that will enable us to get there.

If that feedback teaches us that we're not right for what we're doing, we should be grateful for the insight and the opportunity to let go and find a better match.

1) It is funny to be reminded of this while traveling, right? Two to three times a month is a lot, but no Up in the Air level travel.