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The Secret to Managing Employees When They Blow It

The Secret to Managing Employees When They Blow It

At the sparklingly naive age of 28, I became the general manager of a radio station. Before the ink was dry on the press release, I became Exhibit A for every boneheaded mistake a young manager could make. A book should’ve been written. One may have been.

Looking back, I think most of the mistakes I made came from fear of confrontation. I feared the actual process of confronting an employee but also — and perhaps more so — the potential results from it. I was afraid he’d quit. Or worse, he’d stay and lead a mutiny.

So, I avoided confrontation altogether, hoping each terrible situation would miraculously fix itself.

It didn’t.

I told you. Boneheaded.

I’m quite a bit older now and a little bit wiser. I’ve learned that — in most cases — correcting an employee’s poor performance need not be confrontational at all. It certainly doesn’t have to be demoralizing. In fact, if done well, it can actually strengthen your relationship with the person as it improves his performance.

For our conversation here, I’m going to assume you don’t want to get rid of the worker altogether. That’s a subject for a future post. Instead, let’s talk about the person who is not cutting the muster in one way or another. He’s the right person for the job, but he needs to improve in a few areas.

Where do you start?

Laying the Groundwork for Leading People

The first step is to create an environment that is conducive to helping people succeed.

Praise people often. You’ve heard it said that the best leaders try to “catch people doing something right.” It’s great advice. If you create a positive and encouraging work atmosphere then criticism is more readily accepted.

Give feedback regularly. Every person I know desperately wants feedback from his boss…both good and bad, positive and negative. It breeds security and job satisfaction. Don’t let your staff guess whether they’re doing things well. Worse, don’t wait for them to ask. Give feedback often.

Correct employees quickly. When you see a mistake, address it immediately and privately. There are at least three advantages to this. First, you correct a problem before it becomes a habit. Secondly, you don’t allow it to become a bigger issue in your mind than it really is, which will likely cause you to handle it poorly later. And finally, the longer the time-span between the offense and your correction, the more unsettling it is for the employee. Say your boss called you into his office and said, “I need to speak to you about something that happened a couple of months ago.” What goes through your mind? You probably think, “He’s been stewing on this for months?! He must be livid. Are there any other issues he’s sitting on? Is my resume up to date?” Save yourself and your employees undue anxiety and deal with problems quickly.

The Secret to Giving Criticism that Doesn’t Destroy Morale

In my experience, the best way to address performance issues without creating an adversarial relationship with an employee is two-fold:

Clearly Communicate What Excellent Performance Looks Like

It all begins here. Each employee must know beyond a shadow of a doubt what success looks like in your eyes. It’s the best gift you can give them.

Have you ever had a job where you weren’t sure how your boss was evaluating you? You probably experienced an ongoing low-grade panic. You worked hard because you really wanted to be successful. But you never knew for sure if you were doing an adequate job. A dreadful feeling.

Good leaders create clear, written standards of performance. And then gains agreement on them from the employee. The standards outline specific day-to-day responsibilities and deadlines. They describe the tools available to her and the people she’ll work with and the attitude she must display when performing them. A great resource for putting together simple standards together is Blanchard and Johnson’s classic little book, The One Minute Manager.

Make the Standard the Bad Guy, Not You

Constructive criticism becomes destructive when a manager makes it “me versus you.” Some managers like that approach. They thrive on intimidation, using their positional power to force change. Their tactics might bring about short-term results, but they rarely work long-term.

I prefer a different approach. I try not to make personal attacks…ever. Rather, I appeal to the standards of performance that were previously agreed upon. The standard is rigid and unforgiving. My job is to help the employee live up to the standard.

The next time you need to address an employee issue, try something like this:

“I noticed that you didn’t get the project done by the deadline we agreed on. Missing that deadline means our salespeople don’t have the materials they need for their presentations. We can’t let this happen again. Those deadlines are rock solid. How can I help you prioritize your work so that we can be sure we hit each deadline?”

It’s completely different conversation. You’ve walked to her side of the desk. The two of you are working together now. You’re discussing solutions rather than dwelling on the problems.

One Final Thought

On occasion, you may run across an employee who wants to take advantage of this style of leadership. Perhaps they mistake respect for weakness. If so, a more direct and flinty approach is required. But those cases are rare.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously said, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never worked for a hammer manager. My mentors have taught me to keep the hammer in my belt, though, and swing it only when absolutely necessary. It’s a better way to lead. It requires more discipline. And more patience. But it is also far more rewarding.

And effective.

Think about the best boss you’ve worked for. How did he or she evaluate your performance without killing morale? Share your story below.


  1. Dennis Upah

    In line with your advice, I catch you doing something right in every one of these blogs, Greg! You continue to make even the most seasoned (aka old) workers re-think their management muscle memory. I am increasingly finding Blue Handle Channels to be a must read, and appreciate your insights!

    • Greg Lhamon

      Thanks Dennis! That’s super encouraging.


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